Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of 77 photographic works (some made from multiple prints) and photobooks, made between 1916 and 2018. (Installation shots below.) The works are the promised gift of Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee, on the occasion of the Met’s 150th anniversary.

The following photographers have been included in the show, with image details/dates as background, organized by room:

Exterior walls:

  • Cindy Sherman: 1 set of 9 gelatin silver prints with applied color, 1976
  • Daisuke Yokota: 1 inkjet print, 2015
  • Gregory Crewdson: 1 chromogenic print, 2005

Room 1:

  • Walker Evans: 1 set of 4 gelatin silver prints, 1927
  • Robert Gober: 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, 1988
  • Brassaï: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Edward Weston: 1 gelatin silver print, 1925
  • Paul Strand: 1 platinum print, 1916
  • Robert Mapplethorpe: 1 platinum print, 1983
  • Pierre Dubreuil: 1 bromoil print, 1928
  • Zanele Muholi: 1 gelatin silver print, 2014
  • Robert Frank: 1 gelatin silver print, 1958
  • Jeff Wall: 1 silver dye bleach transparency in light box, 1998
  • Rachael Whiteread: 1 screenprint with acrylic resin, 1998
  • Diane Arbus: 1 gelatin silver print, 1966
  • Garry Winogrand: 1 gelatin silver print, 1955
  • John Baldessari: 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, 1973
  • Peter Fischli and David Weiss: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1998
  • Mickalene Thomas: 1 gelatin silver print, 2006
  • Richard Avedon: 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, 1969
  • Bunny Yeager: 1 gelatin silver print, 1963
  • Arnold Odermatt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1956
  • Sigmar Polke: 5 gelatin silver prints, 1968, 1971, 1972, 195
  • Umbo: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935

Room 2:

  • Matt Saunders: 1 chromogenic print, 2017-2018
  • Carlo Mollino: 1 gelatin silver print, 1956-1962, 3 Polaroid prints, 1962-1973
  • Lyle Ashton Harris: 1 gelatin silver print, 1987-1988
  • Nan Goldin: 1 gelatin silver print, 1973
  • Catherine Opie: 1 chromogenic print, 2007
  • Florence Henri: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Ed Ruscha: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1962, 1967
  • Herbert Bayer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1937
  • László Moholy-Nagy: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927-1929
  • Ilse Bing: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Edward Weston: 1 palladium print, 1926
  • Cindy Sherman: 1 gelatin silver print, 1979
  • Andreas Gursky: 1 chromogenic print, 1996
  • Laurie Simmons: 1 gelatin silver print, 1976
  • Lee Friedlander: 1 gelatin silver print, 1961
  • Richard Prince: 1 chromogenic print, 1986
  • Robert Frank: 1 gelatin silver print, 1955
  • William Eggleston: 1 dye transfer print, 1970
  • Diane Arbus: 1 gelatin silver print, 1966

Room 2 vitrine:

  • Joseph Cornell: 1 construction with photomechanical reproduction, mirror, rhinestones, tinted glass in artist’s frame, 1941
  • Elliott Erwitt: 1 artist’s book (36 gelatin silver prints in spiral bound notebook), 1950-1955
  • Larry Clark: 1 book maquette (Tulsa), 1971; 1 book maquette (Teenage Lust), 1983
  • Sturtevant: 1 chromogenic print, 2002

Room 3:

  • Helen Levitt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1940
  • Jack Pierson: 1 chromogenic print, 1995
  • Robert Heinecken: 1 gelatin silver print, 1964
  • Vik Muniz: 1 gelatin silver print, 1995
  • André Kertész: 1 gelatin silver print, 1917
  • Walker Evans: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Robert Adams: 1 gelatin silver print, 1968
  • Miroslav Tichý: 1 gelatin silver print, 1970s
  • Garry Winogrand: 1 gelatin silver print, 1968
  • Alfred Stieglitz: 1 platinum print, 1918
  • Bill Brandt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Eugène Atget: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Dorothea Lange: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto: 1 gelatin silver print, 1995
  • Christopher Bucklow: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1996
  • Ralph Eugene Meatyard: 1 gelatin silver print, 1960
  • Richard Avedon: 1 gelatin silver print, 1947
  • Edward Weston: 1 gelatin silver print, 1934
  • Dora Maar: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932-1934
  • Laurie Simmons: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1980
  • Gerard Petrus Fieret: 1 gelatin silver print, 1965-1975
  • Paul Outerbridge: 1 platinum print, 1922
  • Karl Blossfeldt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Man Ray: 1 gelatin silver print, c1930
  • Andy Warhol: 1 gelatin silver photobooth strip (4 images), 1963-1964

A catalog of the exhibition has been published by the museum (here).

Comments/Context: Putting on a museum exhibition of recent acquisitions from a single private collection is an inherently conflicted exercise. On one hand, the museum wants to display its new treasures, particularly those that strengthen its collections in specific areas of prior weakness. And of course, the museum wants to celebrate the donation, so that the donors feel appropriately appreciated for their generosity.

On the other, what makes a collection unique and personal (and interesting as a gathering of objects) is the eye of the collector(s) and the choices they make, so it’s important to see some of the more unexpected or offbeat selections, and the themes or groupings of works that the collector(s) thought resonated well together – otherwise a collection is just a shopping list. But often the museum wants to subtly de-emphasize the role of the collector – it is the artworks that matter, not who bought them or why – and reframe the works that have been acquired in a more institutional and scholarly manner. With so many competing agendas, it’s not surprising that most collection shows end up feeling oddly awkward.

The Met wanders through this minefield with its current show of works from the collection of Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee. Tenenbaum and Lee have been long time supporters of the Met’s photography department and the prints on view are a portion of a larger gift given in honor of the Met’s 150th anniversary. And while several distinct themes run through the collection as shown here, the works have been broadly mixed together and installed in ways that dilute our ability to fully see the richness and thoughtfulness of those connections.

What initially sticks out about the Tenenbaum/Lee collection is just how many iconic masterworks are included. A pass through the galleries is filled with a parade of easily recognizable 20th century classics, the kind of photographs that provide the sturdy tent poles of a major collection. Early century highlights include key works and gorgeous rare prints by Stieglitz, Strand, Outerbridge, Blossfeldt, Kertész, Weston, Evans, and Moholy-Nagy among others. Mid century linchpins include noted works by Frank, Arbus, Polke, and Eggleston, which are then followed by Sherman, Prince, Sugimoto, and ultimately Gursky. Every single one of these images is an impressive, verified standout.

But greatest hits, even superlative ones like these, don’t always feel entirely fresh, given their renown, and the collection gets much more intriguing as it strays a bit from these powerhouses. One theme that comes through is a consistent interest in the “before they were famous” works of master photographers. These are early and early-ish works, where artistic ideas are still in formation, experiments are in progress, and styles are still being refined. Walker Evans plays with his shadow, Cindy Sherman fakes an orgasm, Laurie Simmons tries making portraits of female dolls, Nan Goldin mixes glamour and loneliness, and other images from a range of photographers like Avedon, Brandt, Cornell, Friedlander, Heinecken, and more recently Harris, Muniz, and Thomas offer initial visual breadcrumbs we can follow to the more mature interests and aesthetics that came later. It’s a smart way to collect, as it tries to find the essence of an artist’s thinking before those ideas were fully organized and synthesized into what we now recognize as a signature approach.

A similar kind of risk taking can be seen in the way Tenenbaum and Lee have approached the nude (and the near nude). Classic forms by Stieglitz, Weston, Moholy-Nagy (in photogram form), Man Ray, and Kertész provide the initial structure of the subject matter genre, but the collection isn’t simply a study of clean Modernist lines and avant-garde intentions. They step out beyond the obvious with images by Fieret, Tichý, a ghostly Heinecken, Avedon’s image of Warhol’s factory, rare photobook maquettes by Larry Clark, and more recent works by Bucklow, Mollino, Crewdson, and Muholi. With the works spread across the rooms, it’s sadly hard to follow how the nude evolves through the years (which it most certainly does) – tighter groupings might have made the insights, echoes, and departures that Tenenbaum and Lee have taken care to see more prominent.

Many of the other works on view might be called unusual choices, in the best sense of that phrase, where high quality eclecticism leads to some welcome unpredictability. There’s a 1926 Edward Weston cloud study from Mexico tucked into a corner that astonished me with its serene minimalism. Florence Henri and Umbo engage in some sophisticated optical trickery with mirrors and a 180 degree lens. Large scale floral studies in color by Fischli & Weiss and Jack Pierson feel wholly unexpected, but melt into loveliness. An early 1970s John Baldessari conceptual triptych playfully unpacks the apparent touch of a face and a palm frond. An Arnold Odermatt car crash makes an appearance, as does a moodily romantic early Bill Brandt hotel scene and a Robert Mapplethorpe unbalanced aircraft carrier study. And a wall-filling Daisuke Yokota chemical abstraction is proof that the collectors’ eyes haven’t ossified – fresh contemporary perspectives and new voices are still being considered.

As impressive as this collection is, its true personality feels a bit underplayed by the installation. Any long term collector will tell you that each and every piece in a well-loved collection has a story, and this show doesn’t really tell us many of those tales. While there are hints of the whys to be discerned from the choices, the collection is shrugging off its history and taking a new form as it transitions into the Met, becoming less a discrete personally-selected labor of love and more a list of piece parts that fill curatorial gaps. This exhibition (and its catalog) straddles that fence, giving us one last glimpse of what Tenenbaum and Lee have admirably collected, before that passion gets swallowed up by the beast and reduced to credit lines on wall labels.

Collector’s POV: Given the breadth of this group show, tracking individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories becomes impractical. What is clear is that this show is filled with very valuable photography, and had these prints come to market at auction, many would certainly have reached high into the six figure range or beyond.

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