Larry Sultan, Pictures from Home @Yancey Richardson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 1984 and 1991. Physical sizes are either roughly 40×50 inches (with variations of an inch or two) or 30×40 (with similar small variations), with edition sizes of 6 for the larger size and 10 for the smaller. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Galleries often decide to host shows of work to coincide with the opening of major museum exhibitions, the publication of monographs, or other notable events, in an effort to amplify (and capitalize on) the renewed interest that is often generated. In this particular case, this show of prints from Larry Sultan’s landmark 1980s series “Pictures from Home” is synched up with a creative reimagining of the work as a Broadway play, starring Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein, and Zoë Wanamaker (here).

“Pictures from Home” has been deservedly celebrated since its introduction for its synthesis of documentary and performative image making that sensitively chronicled the daily lives of the artist’s parents. The work was included in the 1989 MoMA group show “California Photography: Remaking Make-Believe” (which included collaboratively staged prints like the ones in this show as well as appropriated home movie stills), and then took shape as a now-legendary photobook in 1992 (which was reissued in an expanded edition by MACK in 2021, here). In the years since Sultan’s death in 2009, the series has also been prominently featured in a traveling retrospective of his work, with stops at LACMA (in 2015, here) and SFMOMA (in 2017, here).

Part of what made “Pictures from Home” in book form so memorable was its innovative mix of picture making styles and its inclusions of narrative texts and interviews that added nuance to the visual stories being told. This show strips away some of that complexity and subtlety, by simply narrowing down to a selection of 10 image highlights, several of which are among the most well known in the larger project. In this way, the show doesn’t tell us anything particularly new about Sultan, his parents, or these photographs, but instead offers a tightly edited summary or refrain for those that might have had their interest rekindled by the play.

The setting of Sultan’s project was his parents’ modest single story home on a golf course in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California, and the everyday rhythms of their American retirement lifestyle are its central subject. As seen in Sultan’s photographs (made over half a dozen years or so, mostly in the late 1980s), the colors, fashions, furnishings, and overlooked moments of their lives feel archetypal, with the son seeing his parents with compassionate attention and insight, even when the intimacies (and resulting allegories) are more overtly composed or arranged.

Many of the selections in this edit feature Sultan’s father Irving, who after a corporate career at Schick has somewhat awkwardly settled into the routines of retirement. Sultan shows him reading the business section of the newspaper at breakfast (with the sun streaming through the pages that obscure him) and watches as he sits on his bed dressed in his formal business suit, like a man ready to head out to work, like he had done almost every other day of his adult life – the slight slump in his posture (or maybe just the sag of the bed) gives him an air of resignation, uncertainty, or of aspirational dreams not quite fulfilled.

Irving seems to fill his time with a range of ordinary retirement activities, none of which seems to entirely engage him. He tunes his golf swing inside on the green shag carpet, while watching the news on TV. He sets up a ladder to do the chore of pruning the pink bougainvillea, and later looks out the lit window nearby at the unfinished job. He gets ready for a swim in the pool, surrounded by the patio furniture and armed with his towel, an inflatable mat, and a dull blank stare. And on another day, he examines the empty pool with a flat mood of regret, with the sunny skies, the palm trees, and the twisting sprinklers of the golf course as an almost ironically idyllic backdrop.

The rest of the images on view document the dynamics of the two parents together. They read their separate magazines and newsletters in bed; bicker (or perhaps help each other) over the functioning of the vacuum; and face an ominously red sunset together from the patio. One of the signature images from the series is a portrait of Sultan’s mother Jean posing against a lime green wall, while Irving sits nearby and watches the LA Dodgers on TV. The white furnishings and patterned shirts give the scene some flair, but it’s the physical separation and layered direction of attention (not to mention the implication of gendered behaviors) that gives the picture its durable bite.

Having seen these images many times over the years, I felt a slightly deeper sense of melancholy in them this time than in previous viewings – perhaps as the miles on my own odometer pile up, such scenes of empty (and even anxious) retirement, however staged or performed, feel somewhat more despairing. Irving practicing his golf swing in his living room isn’t so much a joke or an eccentricity any more as something slightly more bored and lonely, a narrowing and constraining of opportunities rather than a badge of irreverent freedom.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $18000 and $40000 for the smaller size and between $25000 and $67000 for the larger size, with one of the large APs marked POR. Sultan’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with recent prices ranging between roughly $5000 and $35000.

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Read more about: Larry Sultan, Yancey Richardson Gallery, MACK Books

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