JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 black-and-white and color photographs, either unframed and pinned on the gallery walls or in clip frames and displayed on a mantelpiece. The photographs were taken between the early 1970s and 2018, and have been newly printed as archival pigment prints. Nine of the photographs have been printed in editions of four, two in editions of twelve, and the rest are artist’s proofs with no edition information provided. The prints range in size from 6 7/8 x 5 1/4 inches to 24 x 31 1/2 inches. (Installation views below.)
Comments/Context: Even if not familiar with Judy Linn’s name, many people have seen at least one of her photographs—the portrait of punk icon Patti Smith that graces the cover of Smith’s second studio album Radio Ethiopia. Linn’s pictures of Smith and Smith’s then-romantic partner Robert Mapplethorpe, taken between 1969 and 1976 when the three were friends and just starting out in New York as artists, have been the focus of a monograph and several related exhibitions in the past decade. But her subsequent work, though its fans include a who’s who of artists, writers, and curators, remains underknown.
Selected by photographer and former gallerist Janice Guy, a small group of Linn’s photographs is currently on view at MBnb in Harlem. Though it spans 45 years, the show is remarkably consistent; with the exception of the Patti Smith pictures, Linn’s photographs are invariably of ordinary things made unfamiliar.
In a 1992 photograph, for example, an extravagantly feathered hat appears as an alien intruder in a display case filled with more ordinary headgear. Equally strange and wonderful is the puddle of frozen piss, shaped like an elephant, in an undated picture beneath it.
Elsewhere, photography’s flattening effects create slippages and occlusions. In one image, a fallen tree’s ball of roots becomes a void at the center of the picture, as does the single white panel in a swagged window curtain. Conversely, both a square patch of wall left unpainted to reveal the wallpaper beneath and an abandoned foam mattress on the street seem to float, unmoored, toward the picture plane.
While purposeful, Linn’s photographs refuse to be useful. Taking their cue, perhaps, from the punk scene with which Linn was peripherally involved—one that honored dandyish figures such as Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, and artists like the Situationist Guy Debord, whose famous dictum was “never work,” they can often be described in terms of what functions they do not perform.
They are not photojournalism, although Linn did for a time work as a for a small Detroit newspaper between 1972 and ’73. While Linn is heir to the legacy of Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander, her photographs—often shot in such non-spaces as museums and shopping malls—describe nothing more than the moment at hand: a white stockinged leg, ending in a furry white shoe, emerging from a slit in a black curtain; an easel in an empty classroom holding a crude copy of Courbet’s Origin of the World.
Neither are they photo-based art, like the works of some of Linn’s contemporaries. Linn is of the same age as the Pictures generation of artists, and like them grew up on television, advertising images, and films. But while her photographs are often of other images, including magazine clippings and movie stills—here, an image of a James Cain movie playing on a television is nicely paired with a photograph of a photograph of James Joyce taped to a window—Linn’s work is only peripherally related to theirs.
For a show at Feature Inc gallery in 2007, Linn wrote: “I want to be extremely obvious; obfuscation is bad grammar. Hopefully, the two-dimensional arrangements of shapes on the paper will be as lively and interesting as the three-dimensional world trapped inside the photograph. There should also be something there you haven’t seen before. Something should happen in the act of looking.’”
In this, Linn’s singular photographs regularly succeed. And, like Zen koans, they destabilize our comfortable understanding of reality, instilling in us the uneasy feeling that the world of things is as illusory as a photograph. They need to be much more widely known.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $3000 and $5000. Linn’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.