Robert Cumming, Red Carpet @Janet Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 color photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls (two with horizontal red stripes) in the divided gallery space. All of the works are modern pigment prints, made from negatives taken between 1973 and 1978. The prints are each sized 11×17, in editions of 5; 10 image portfolios (in custom red cloth boxes) are also available. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the early 1970s, Robert Cumming was busy experimenting with all kinds of visual ironies and witty absurdities: a piece of bread cut into a watermelon, a cooler in the desert, balls falling off the roof of a house, a knife in an electric socket, the illusionistic striped angles of stairs and screens. Each image/series was an exploration of visual logic, a quirky disruption that forced the viewer to think about how a photograph functions. In set up after set up, he was showing us the often puzzling difference between actual objects and their photographic reality.

So glamorous paparazzi photos of red carpet celebrities aren’t the kind of pictures we might normally expect from a conceptual photographer like Cumming. On the surface, they give us all the flash we associate with Hollywood: Cher in an Indian princess costume at the premiere of Last Tango in Paris, Jack Nicholson with dark glasses, a cigarette and plenty of swagger, Farrah Fawcett in fabulous gold lame, a young tuxedoed John Travolta with shiny hair. The images harken back to a time that was less styled and managed, when the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes were more freewheeling and less packaged.

What’s fascinating about Cumming’s paparazzi shots is that they slowly reveal his interest in the surreal qualities of Hollywood and the behind the scenes fictions of the whole environment. Mary Tyler Moore beams with improbable wattage, while Kirk Douglas smirks over his shoulder. Sylvester Stallone mimes holding an invisible statue (Rocky won Best Picture but he didn’t get an award), Mae West holds court, and Faye Dunaway looks spaced out. Unlikely details start to stand out: Liz Renay’s blue eye makeup, Altovise Davis’ striped chinchilla, the bulletproof helmet of sprayed hair of a guest behind Cheryl Ladd, the glorious neon reflection on the window of Barbra Streisand’s limo.

Cumming’s images find a sophisticated balance between amazement and absurdity, seeing both the real charisma of some of these stars as well as the gaps in their constructed identities. Sure, these photographs are a fun time capsule, opened some forty years later, but they also fit into Cumming’s larger artistic career with more conceptual coherence than we might have expected.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $4000 each, while the 10 print portfolios are $25000. Cumming’s work has not been consistently available in the secondary market in recent years; the few lots that have come up for auction have ranged between $1000 and $8000.

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JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2019 (here). Softcover with thread-sewn binding, 176 pages, with 121 monochrome and color photographs (seventeen provided by the “Historical Museum Prof. Alexander Fol”; sixteen ... Read on.

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