A pair of current retrospectives in New York, Irving Penn’s Centennial at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Louise Lawler’s Why Pictures Now at MoMA, coincidentally offer an unusual chance to assess two governing but antithetical attitudes toward photography in the contemporary era. I don’t know when we’ve been able before to view in the same month such a stark set of contrasting examples. The distinction in practice and intent between fine-art photographers and artists who use photography—a polarity that Marvin Heiferman formulated in the 1980s—could not be clearer than in the presentation of these two shows.
Penn represents, of course, fine-art photography elevated to rarefied heights. The quality of the prints in Centennial, spanning 7 decades, is one reason to plan on return visits. Has a one-person show ever featured so many sublime photographs in black-and-white and color? Fewer than a dozen other artists—Paul Outerbridge, László Moholy-Nagy, Harry Callahan, Helen Levitt, Jan Groover, Thomas Struth—have produced masterworks in both. Penn’s dye transfers from the 1980s of still-lifes from late 1940s negatives, such as Theatre Accident and After Dinner Games, are as suave in their odd perspectives and wealth of detail as his more acclaimed flowers from the 1960s.
He never violated the strict rules of “straight photography,” but he continually bent them. His disciplined but improvisational approach to printing can be studied in every gallery, whether in his bleached nudes from the late ‘40s or his sappy pointillist landscapes in color from the ‘50s. The platinum-palladium prints, a process he taught himself and was instrumental in reviving during the 1960s, render objects and people in a palette of soft and dusty grays that hadn’t been regularly seen since the death of Frederick Evans. His gelatin-silver prints from the 1990s moved in the opposite direction, the ink in the blacks almost liquid in their depths. In examples such as Three-Tiered Vessel (2007), he made gelatin silver prints that had the grainy, palpable texture of platinum.
Lawler, on the other hand, is a Conceptual artist. Thirty years younger than Penn, she came of age in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when the ideal of the exquisite photographic print, as practiced by Ansel Adams and Penn, was considered risibly passé by the most adventurous younger artists—in art schools around the U.S. and Canada as well as among the avant-garde in Japan and Europe.
The ethos of street photography, as articulated by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Garry Winogrand, seemed just as outmoded and stupidly restrictive. It’s hard to imagine Lawler, then or now, training herself in a darkroom or on a computer in order to bring out subtleties of shade or color in her photographs. The quality of the silver dye bleach prints and adhesive vinyl wall murals in Why Pictures Now is beside the point, an attitude reinforced by the catalog, which offers no technical information about how anything was made.
Douglas Crimp did not include Lawler in his landmark 1977 show Picture at Artist’s Space, but she maintained ties with many of the artists through what became one of their networks, Metro Pictures. Being a photographer in this loosely organized affinity group meant taking pictures of anything, in whatever style or combination of other media you wished, including rephotographing photographs by others.
The camera is a tool of inquiry in her hands. She carefully and discreetly aims it at other works of art, asking us to think about their spatial and socio-economic relationships. (Less remarked upon is that her photographs document her own privileged intrusion into the space of the art museum and auction houses and homes of the well-to-do, where her reputation has given her unusual access into vaults and bedrooms.) The installations of paintings and photographs and sculptures by others that result from her re-framing are presented as a series of wry observations about art as a symbol of status, power, money, and Modernist taste. The enigmatic titles of many works—such as the identical images from the walls of an auction house in 1988, Does Andy Warhol Make You Cry? and Does Marilyn Monroe Make You Cry?—are like inside jokes for friends. Her making of the work is a highly self-conscious process, a shifting imbalance of words and images, and our viewing it can be equally destabilizing.
The divergent premises of the two artists extends to the style of writing in the catalogs. Penn’s is a hefty volume, packed with new biographical information about every phase of his life and career. There are 11 essays on his development, from the apprenticeship years in Philadelphia in 1939-47 to his fashion work and celebrity portraits in the 1990s-2000s. Separate essays cover his advertising photographs and printing processes. A birth-to-death chronology and an index round out the story.
Lawler’s catalog, edited by Roxana Marcoci, has no biography of the artist other than an exhibition checklist. This emphasis on the work at the expense of the personal is clearly at the directive of Lawler. There are no photographs of her and nowhere do we learn her birth date, place of birth, education or employment history. Anecdotes from her youth are kept to a minimum. Marcoci’s essay mentions that Lawler collaborated on several occasions with Sherrie Levine. An incident in 1971, when Lawler and a friend shared a frustration with curator Willoughly Sharp and the male-dominated art world of the time, resulted in the sound piece Willoughly! Willoughly! (1971/1981). (Consisting of bird calls scrambled with the names of male artists, it is installed in MoMA’s garden.)
None of the essays examine her pictures as photographic objects that reflect a time or place; and none bother to ask questions of any sort about her evolving choices of cameras, papers, printing techniques—and how those choices might effect the meaning of the pictures. Nor are the photographs analyzed as aesthetic objects. Lawler’s color can be as deliberate as her framing. Life After 1945 (Hats) and Life After 1945 (Faces), both dated 2006/2007, use the white walls, black wainscotting, and purplish brown reflective floors as background binders for a series of silkscreen paintings by Warhol and a blurry history painting by Richter. Instead of telling us anything about Lawler’s attitude toward painting or photography, the authors leap immediately into theory and focus on their ideas about her ideas about art. The essays are highly abstruse, with titles designed to match the slippery semantics of the work. (Mieke Bal’s is titled Deceptions: “yes, but,” “re-“, “huh?”, “post-“, “oh yeah.”)
Lawler is “framed” in the show and the essays—disingenuously, in my opinion—as a critic of “late capitalism,” that world of superficial traffic in images and money flowing invisibly around the world’s financial capitals. The wall labels here list some of her collectors, perhaps as a kind of mea culpa. The confession would seem more sincere if she weren’t as such a beneficiary and product of 21st century avant-garde culture, with prices and a presence in art fairs that indicate her seamless integration into the cultural system.
The installations reflect the differences found in the catalogs. Penn’s life’s work progresses through a series of small print galleries. Each series is marked with a wall label except for the last room, which mixes genres, eras, and media. The closeness of the space reflects Penn’s own hermetic, controlled working environment. He seldom photographed outside the studio. He brought pieces of the world into a space he could control. What existed beyond is recognized only through the light that he sometimes allowed in from above.
Lawler’s show is contained in two airy enormous galleries connected by a corridor. Like Penn, she is mainly a photographer of interiors. In her case, these are mainly rooms or galleries where collected art is displayed or housed. The world outside this realm is glimpsed only through windows. Arranged by Donald Marron, Susan Brundage, Cheryl Bishop at Paine Webber, Inc. NYC 1982/2016, for example, is a photograph where the Manhattan skyline, as seen through an office window an office at Paine Webber, is also reflected in the glass of a Robert Longo drawing from Men in Cities hanging on the right wall.
Except for an introductory panel at the entrance, there is no text other than object labels. Viewers are free to make of her work what they will, and Lawler certainly must realize the risks that many will be mystified. We are told by Marcoci that Lawler’s sentiments are fiercely pro-feminist and anti-war. For a Conceptual artist of her aloof and allusive persuasion, however, uttering unadulterated cries of anger must not be easy. Even so, is a set of glasses etched with the words “No Drones,” or a wall on which is projected phrase “War is Terror,” the highest register of emotional protest she can muster? Guernica and Mercenaries these are not.
A more viewer-friendly atmosphere prevails in the last room, where the vitrines offer helpful background on screwball self-referential works, such as The Presentation of a Photograph of Louise Lawler Presenting a Work by Lawrence Weiner Presented by Documenta 7 Based on a Photograph Used by October Magazine to Illustrate an Article by Benjamin B.H. Buchloh to Participate in an Exhibition of Franklin Furnace Curated by Robert Barry and Viewed by a Public, 1983. (The photograph portrays exactly what the title indicates: a banded copy of the Documenta catalog.) These cases contain Lawler’s earliest work, the reverse order from typical retrospectives.
And yet, despite my sense that Penn’s exhibition attests to his standing as a superior and durable artist, I can’t deny that Lawler is the more emulated. Conceptual art is the law of the land, and not just because it often requires less skill and labor to build a work of art around a clever idea than to craft an image according to the standards Penn demanded for himself. It’s doubtful he would have permitted any photograph of his to reveal the grain that are a feature of her washy “subject to fit” murals.
Then again, it wouldn’t have occurred to him to use photography in this inventive manner. Artists since Warhol, Rauschenberg, Polke, and Jonas have ignored class distinctions between media. For students in art school, the camera is simply another picture-making instrument in their tool-box, one of many they can reach for when trying to formulate their ideas, some of which may be unresolved or outside the 19th century categories of art and better categorized as performance and dance.
Making things as a Conceptual artist also requires a different, often less capitalized infrastructure than traditional photography. Penn fulfilled his ambitions through the largesse of magazine empires and ad agencies. Lawler has built up her reputation via the network of galleries, art expos, art magazines, and art schools—many of them European—that favor her cerebral brand.
Penn’s approach can be stifling. To photograph a thing or person—an empty plate, Truman Capote, a woman in a feathered hat, a filthy glove, a cigar butt, a poppy bloom, Miles Davis’s hand, a glass of water and a toothbrush—and to let the meaning of that photograph be determined by the precision or grace of your rendering does not allow much room for error or for narrative threads to connect that thing or person to larger concerns. Lawler’s investigative eye, and her reliance on the feints of language to lead us in one direction and then another, is less determined by the choice of objects and more open-ended in the places she might lead you.
Penn has been dead less than a decade but already feels like the last of his kind. Will we see another show by a photographer alive in the 21st century who did not make digital prints? He is the photographer as darkroom alchemist, an artisan looking back with pride on the craftsmanship once required of his profession. As Vasilios Zatse writes in his catalog essay: “Unlike a print made with modern photographic materials, a platinum print is a completely handmade object.”
The Met and MoMA perhaps should have swapped retrospectives. Penn is a safe choice for any art institution and his presence here reinforces the stereotype of one that upholds traditional values and resists anything too daring. Marcoci’s shows have indicated a desire to impress academia above all. She seems to care deeply about the history of Conceptual art and not so much about photography unless it can somehow be connected to Duchamp.
For all of their dissimilarities, Penn and Lawler have this in common: the absence of a public persona.
He expressed zero interest in being a man about town, or in promulgating theories about his own work. He granted few interviews and was seldom, if ever, quoted in the press about anything. There is no documentary film about his life and career.
She has conducted herself with similar self-effacement. Other figures from the Pictures Generation (Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Laurie Simmons, David Salle, Eric Fischl) have become familiar faces on the party pages of magazines. Lawler is more reclusive, surely by choice. The catalog presents her as a forceful intellectual but, unlike Jeff Wall and Salle, she has published no theoretical essays or books about looking at art that I know of. Often MoMA will have a panel discussion where their featured artist will field questions from a curious public. No such event is planned for Lawler.
It may be that neither Penn nor Lawler felt comfortable in a crowd, even of worshipers and well-wishers, and that both preferred to let their photographs do the talking. And perhaps this stubbornly, quaintly old-fashioned attitude unites them more than either could have guessed. As pre-Photoshop and pre-social media artists, to the millennials they’re both obsolete.