In the Studio: Photographs @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing 148 works by 57 photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung against white and yellow walls in gallery spaces on the fourth and fifth floors. The show was curated by Peter Galassi and is part of a paired exhibit with In the Studio: Paintings, on view at Gagosian’s West 21st Street space (here). A two-volume catalog accompanies the two shows, and is available from the gallery for $150 (here).

This exhibit is divided into three titled sections. For each section below, the included photographers have been listed, with image details and dates as background:

I. Pose and Persona (fourth floor)

  • Richard Avedon: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1956/1981, 1969/1975, 1963
  • Walker Evans: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1934, 1936
  • André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri: 2 albumen silver prints, 1857-1858, 1862
  • Andy Warhol: 1 gelatin silver photo-booth print, c1965
  • Unidentified photographers: 1 gelatin silver print, c1920s, 1 tintype, c1870, 1 tintype with applied color, c1870, 1 aristotype, c1900, 1 albumen print, c1870, 1 salt print, c1856-1860
  • Claude Cahun: 1 gelatin silver print, c1928
  • Diane Arbus: 1 gelatin silver print, 1966
  • Edward Steichen: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1927, 1929
  • Stephen Shore: 1 gelatin silver print, 1965-1967/2007
  • August Sander: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929/1974
  • Peter Hujar: 1 gelatin silver print, 1976
  • Samuel Fosso: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1976, 1977
  • Irving Penn: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1948, 1970, 1 platinum/palladium print, 1950/1980
  • Lucas Samaras: 2 Polaroid prints, 1979, 1980, 1 set of gelatin silver transfer prints with drawing, 1971
  • James Stack Lauder: 1 woodburytype, 1887
  • Hannah Wilke: 1 set of gelatin silver prints with chewing gum sculptures, 1974-1982
  • Florence Henri: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Lynda Benglis: 1 offset lithograph, 1974
  • Robert Mapplethorpe: 1 gelatin silver print, 1978
  • Alphonse Mucha: 1 gelatin silver print, c1902
  • Helmut Newton: 1 gelatin silver print, 1981
  • Brassaï: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1939, 1944, 1953
  • Lee Friedlander: 1 gelatin silver print, 1975/2014
  • Cindy Sherman: 1 gelatin silver print, 1977
  • Weegee: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1955, c1960
  • Eadweard Muybridge: 1 collotype, c1887
  • E. Lecadare: 1 aristotype, c1900
  • Charles Ray: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1973
  • Harry Callahan: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1949
  • William Wegman: 1 set of 7 gelatin silver prints, 1972, 2 gelatin silver prints, 1971
  • Elliott Erwitt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1990
  • Edward Weston: 1 gelatin silver print, 1942
  • Ralph Steiner: 1 gelatin silver print, c1935
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: 1 gelatin silver print, 1989
  • Henry Peach Robinson: 1 albumen silver print, c1858
  • Edmond Lebel: 1 albumen print, 1872
  • Eugene Durieu: 1 coated salt print, c1850s
  • Pierre Petit: 1 gelatin albumen print, c1865
  • Franc Chauvassaignes: 1 albumen print, c1856
  • André Kertész: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Thomas Eakins: 2 platinum prints, 1880s, c1889
  • Peter Stackpole: 1 gelatin silver print, 1944
  • Jeff Wall: 1 silver dye bleach transparency, 1979
  • Josef Sudek: 1 pigment print, 1953
  • George Platt Lynes: 1 gelatin silver print, c1935

II. Four Studios (fifth floor)

  • André Kertész: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1926
  • Constantin Brancusi: 12 gelatin silver prints, c1920, c1922, 1923, 1924, c1929
  • Lucas Samaras: 7 Polaroid prints, 1978, 1979, 1978-1980
  • Josef Sudek: 7 gelatin silver prints, 1940-1954, c1950s, 1960, 1963-1972

III. An Embarrassment of Images (fifth floor)

  • Lee Friedlander: 10 gelatin silver prints, 1983/2008, 1989/2001, 1990/2008, 1990/2010, 1997/2010, 1998, 2001, 2006/2008
  • Weegee: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1939, c1941
  • Saul Leiter: 1 gelatin silver print, 1970/later
  • Robert Rauschenberg: 1 gelatin silver print, c1953/later
  • Brassaï: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1932-1933, 1946
  • Edmond Bénard: 16 albumen prints, 1884-1894
  • Alphonse Le Blondel: 1 salted paper print, c1855
  • Rudy Burckhardt: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1954/1993
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: 1 gelatin silver print, 1944/late 1950s
  • August Sander: 1 gelatin silver print, c1938/1980
  • André Kertész: 1 gelatin silver print, 1933
  • John O’Reilly: 12 collages of gelatin silver prints (Polaroid), 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987

(For the installation shots below: Installation views, In the Studio: Photographs, Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Avenue, ©Gagosian Gallery. Photos by Robert McKeever. Artworks ©Estate of André Kertész/Higher Pictures, ©2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris, ©John O’Reilly. More installation shots can be found here.)

Comments/Context: Given the long term scheduling that occurs in the art world (with shows often put together years in advance), it’s hard to attribute much connection or intent to coincidences of exhibition timing. But for those conspiracy theorists out there, the arrival of In The Studio: Photographs at Gagosian offers some head scratching synchronicities.

Let’s review the backstory – long time head curator of photography Peter Galassi retires from his post at MoMA, and Quentin Bajac is hired from the Centre Pompidou as his replacement. Bajac’s first curated exhibit at the museum is an exhaustive and well received survey of the importance of the studio across the history of the medium (reviewed here), as seen via holdings in the permanent collection. And then for Galassi’s first major exhibit out from under the auspices of an institutional context, he puts together a scholarly non-selling show at Gagosian examining the studio in photography. While I’d like to assume that this parallel tracking is pure chance, the timing inevitably sets up a direct comparison/dialogue between the two approaches, or perhaps even the hint of a apparent rebuttal by Galassi for those looking for controversy. Puzzling stuff indeed, for those of us paying attention to photography.

When I first heard about this second show, I thought to myself that Bajac had been hemmed in a bit by the holdings of MoMA when he did his show (having to tailor his argument/analysis to the examples he had at hand), but now that Galassi was in a sense more “free”, he had the ability to take some more risks and really push on the idea and implications of the studio in photography more aggressively; it’s an increasingly relevant topic to contemporary practice, and with a broader palette of options, perhaps Galassi could take the baton from Bajac and run even further. (Parts of the studio story were recently covered during Galassi’s tenure at MoMA with the Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960 (here) and The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today (here) shows.)

And yet, if there is one word that can accurately describe the tenor of In the Studio: Photographs, it is conservative. As an exhibit, it is undeniably meticulously crafted, well chosen (with plenty of on-the-wall echoes and resonances), and thoughtfully executed, attributes which are to be celebrated to be sure, but ultimately it’s a show that looks back, not forward, and does so without energizing us with much in the way of new lines of thinking. It’s best described as a narrower, more literal elaboration on parts of the studio story (leaving out the darkroom, the tabletop still life etc.) rather than a radical rethinking of the essential and lasting implications of what working in the studio (as opposed to out in the world) might be.

Galassi’s show is ostensibly divided into three unequally sized sections, but given the separation of the works onto two floors, the show ends up feeling more like two halves rather than three parts. The first section is human body-centric, weaving studio portraiture, performance, fashion, and nudes (both male and female) into a rhythmic visual melody. As its subtitle implies, “Pose and Persona” chronicles the creation of identity within the controlled environment of the studio and acknowledges the deliberate intention behind the staging of these bodies. Nearly every picture in this group is a reaction to a contrived setting or prop, from Truman Capote scrunched into a narrow corner (Penn) to Fred Astaire dancing with his cast shadow (Steichen). Harry Callahan’s wife Eleanor poses nude against a radiator (with a clever interchange of hair up/down and leg up/down) while Charles Ray hangs like a rag doll (in opposing directions) from a rough plank. Objects become critical personal identifiers, from a dildo (Benglis), a bullwhip (Mapplethorpe), and a gas mask (Weston) to a huge white bow (Unidentified), a disco ball (Shore), and a pair of flared pants (Fosso). Academic-style nudes posing in the studio under the watchful eyes of artists are shown in many shapes and sizes, with Helmut Newton’s space defying mirrored composition testing our powers of perception with the most intensity. Weegee and Cindy Sherman experiment with the glare of lights, while curtains (Eakins), chairs (Hujar), bamboo scaffolding (Platt Lynes), settees (Cartier-Bresson and Kertész), and mannequins (Steiner) offer additional options for reinventing ordinary poses. As a whole, this part of the show feels tight and precise, with each picture transitioning to the next with careful image-by-image sequencing and pacing.

The show switches gears and gains momentum on the fifth floor, mostly because the pictures start to come in bunches and clusters. The second section “Four Studios” is the show’s thinnest, and in many ways, the least persuasive as a theme. It explores the idea of artist’s own studio becoming the artist’s subject, with groups of images by Constantin Brancusi, Lucas Samaras, and Josef Sudek (the Kertész images here of Mondrian’s studio don’t quite fit logically – Mondrian would have to have made them of his own studio for the parallel to match). For Brancusi, photographing his own sculptures in his studio offered the possibility for reinterpretation, using light, shadow, and the compositional proximity to other works in the confines of the space to rethink the surfaces, textures, and volumes that inhabit the original artworks. For Samaras, his studio “portraits” pile up visual complexity even more than many of his photographs – paint brushes, papers, necklaces, rainbows of light, and tables bursting with assorted junk create a chaotic, explosive feeling, often with a glimpse of the artist captured in the reflection of a mirror or poking out from underneath a curtain. And for Sudek, his studio pictures capture the pensive interior mood of his artistic space, from the quietly elegant seasonal views of his garden seen through mists of condensation to his windowsill used as a stage for delicate still life arrangements. While these three are all excellent and relevant choices, this is a section that needed a few more examples to fill out the curatorial argument more broadly.

The final section of the show (“An Embarrassment of Images”) brings together views of various artist’s studios, with particular attention paid to the inspirational clutter hanging on the walls and gathered in the corners. A wide selection of images by Edmond Bénard provide a flavor of the 19th century studio experience, where formal spaces covered in floor-to-ceiling salon style arrangements of paintings were the norm. These pictures take us back to a time largely before the invention of the gallery system, where an artist’s studio was also a display/selling space, and where his/her working materials, a nude model on a platform, and a seating area for patrons all had to coexist. Busts, carpets, high ceilings, wood paneling, and other décor give these spaces an imposing if stylized grandeur. More recent photographs find the studio transformed into a tighter, rougher space, where postcards and clippings of favorite paintings and sculptures are loosely tacked up in mix and match bunches, books are piled high, and carefully selected objects become sources of insight and stimulation. A pair of views of Rudy Burckhardt’s studio play with this idea of constantly changing inspiration, as a slight movement of the viewing angle entirely transforms the city panorama out the window. A group of photocollages by John O’Reilly push this energetic reworking theme further, with shards of art historical references visually sewn together with fragments from his studio and self portraits, creating finished pieces that turn the environment into a melting pot of constantly morphing ideas.

With very few works in color and the vast majority of photographs included made before 1990 (thus almost no digitally influenced work), this show misses out on an investigation of what’s been happening in the studio more recently; I wonder about whether this same curatorial framework could be thoughtfully applied to photographic works made entirely since 1990 and what that (different) exhibit might teach us about how things have been changing in the studio. I left the galleries both genuinely impressed with most of Galassi’s smart choices and sequences and with a gnawing sense of the show inadvertently operating in a hermetically sealed time capsule a little too distanced from the current world. This is absolutely a solidly built exhibit with plenty of inarguable treasures, but I had secretly hoped for more crazy unknown finds and risky inspired stretches that would push our understanding of the studio somewhere new.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are not for sale, and given the broad diversity of the selections on view, we will forego the usual gallery representations and secondary market history normally found here.

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Read more about: Charles Ray, Constantin Brancusi, Edmond Bénard, Harry Callahan, John O'Reilly, Josef Sudek, Lucas Samaras, Rudy Burckhardt, Gagosian Gallery, Gagosian Gallery

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