Richard Misrach, At the still point of the turning world, 2002-2022 @Pace

JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 large scale color photographs, framed in light wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space (partially divided), a smaller side room, and the entry area.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 22 pigment prints mounted to Dibond, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2020, 2021, sized roughly 44×58, 47×89, 47×116, 55×75, 57×77, 57×114, 58×105, 59×78, 59×79, 59×97, 59×103, 59×104, 59×113, 60×79 inches, in editions of 5+1AP
  • 4 pigment prints mounted to aluminum, 2012, 2013, sized roughly 88×117 inches, in editions of 3+1AP
  • Alexander Calder (in vitrine): 1 wire and wood sculpture, c1927, sized roughly 35x9x12

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Passing time is often measured in unexpected increments. I’m guessing that if you asked Richard Misrach in 2002 whether he’d still be making downward angled beach views from hotel balconies some twenty years later, he’d have been hard pressed to guess that he’d still be artistically interested in what they had to offer. And yet, in between other projects (like his 2017 Border Cantos with Guillermo Galindo, reviewed here), Misrach has returned again and again to the beach and sea, and each revisiting of the subject seems to have captured different undulations of personal (and national) mood. Misrach had a show of the second iteration of his beach views in 2013 (reviewed here), and this new show skims across the entire scope of the now twenty year project, adding in a handful of newer images made since the 2013 outing.

It’s often the case that the superwide panorama that we all try to take from a seaside balcony never quite captures the scope of the grandeur that we see before us (unless we are Massimo Vitali), and Misrach has carefully avoided this trap by deliberately closing his compositions down to tightly cropped views of people on the beach, people in the water, and the waves themselves. All three of these subtypes are on view in this show, and over the years, Misrach has developed each into its own distinct aesthetic category.

When a single person (or a couple) is in the water by themselves, Misrach has tended to capture them alone, as surrounded by empty expanses of water. This isolates the figures, and so we look more closely at whether they are standing, swimming, floating, or frolicking. When seen as single images here, Misrach has shown us three couples – a man and a woman kissing, two men embracing and looking at the sunset, and a couple swimming together underwater – and the resulting mood mixes our voyeurism and their private vacation moments. And in another pairing of photographs, he has taken a more spiritual angle, with one man on his knees in the water and several groups of people simultaneously performing baptisms.

In four other works, Misrach has aggregated his single images into grids of nine (printed together), giving them a more Becher-like typological feel. In three of these grids, Misrach has gathered together single people floating (mostly face up) in the water – and depending on your perspective, these might feel forlorn and lonely (in the “man overboard” scenario) or pleasingly calm and meditative; the differing colors of the water also give the grids an almost pixelated look from afar. In the last grid (shown in the side room), Misrach came upon a couple doing acrobatics in the water (they turned out to be tandem surfers), and so documented a playful grid’s worth of handstands, splits, and contortions. This work has been smartly paired with a similarly exuberant wire sculpture of circus performers by Alexander Calder, creating an unexpected but resonant aesthetic link across time.

Misrach’s downward views of the beach similarly isolate the available figures on the sand. The older works here find two guys dug into the sand as they catch some sun, a couple taking a selfie (with the image they took of themselves as an inset), and another diptych of a couple sunbathing in the same spot on two different days, with their side by side positions reversed in the two moments. More recent efforts document a man with a book over his face (he’s reading Ta-Nehisi Coates) and a woman walking on the beach in between the long cast shadows of palm trees; this last one is the one of two pandemic-era images in the entire show, and so its isolated figure and encroaching shadows take on a decidedly locked-down tone; if we want to read its August 2021 date with a bit more accumulated optimism, maybe it’s her first wary trip outside in roughly two years.

Many strong images from this beach series are near abstractions of the water, where Misrach has narrowed down to a horizonless view of the waves. In one older work, orange highlights from a sunset or sunrise dapple the surface of a dark green sea, while squiggled forms merge into a textured canvas of intermingled blue and green like marbled Italian papers in an image from 2016.

But after Trump gets elected, Misrach’s images of the sea take a noticeable turn toward darkness and despair. In a 2018 image, the sea is entirely black, with only pinprick spots of brightness interrupting the undulating void. Two other works from the same year bring the horizon back into the frame, one with a lonely surfer seeming to fight the endless grey waves, and another with grim dark clouds hovering over a shining sea. Misrach’s pessimism seems to reach its bottom in a work from February of 2020 (titled “State of the Union”), where a lonely listing sailboat seems ready to topple over; as metaphorically seen in this picture, we may have survived the storm, but just barely, and there will now be plenty of work to be done to right the battered ship we’ve been left with.

Misrach hits a more optimistic note on a set of images from February of 2021. It’s a time series image of a single disappearing pink cloud, that incrementally dissolves until it’s entirely gone in the last frame. The artist was perhaps a little ahead of himself if he was using the dispersing cloud as a COVID metaphor, given that the Delta variant arrived just a month afterward, and we’re only now seemingly coming out of worst of the subsequent waves. But regardless of the specific timing, as a broader symbol of the slow disappearance of the pandemic, it still works; who knew that an entirely empty sky (i.e. an absence of lingering threat) would come to feel so welcome?

While the sampler style of this show, going all the way back to the beginning of the project, does provide some context for the road Misrach has traveled with this project, much of what is on view here feels redundant – however successful the older pictures are, we didn’t need to see them again right now. A fuller dive in to works made since 2013 would have been preferable, as this approach would have created the sense of a third distinctive chapter in the project, instead of some loosely associated bolt-ons. From the recent examples included here, it’s clear that Misrach saw his beach pictures through the changing lenses/moods of the Obama and Trump presidencies and the arrival of the pandemic, and so this show could have shown us those evolutions of atmosphere and perspective with more clarity. As hung, the show feels decidedly in-between, as if its organizers weren’t willing to step away from the familiar safety of the past to show us a more comprehensive slice of what Misrach has really been thinking.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $50000 and $125000, based on size. Misrach’s work is routinely available in the secondary markets, with prices ranging from roughly $2000 to $125000, with his newer, much larger prints at the top end of that scale.

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