Studio to Stage: Music Photography from the Fifties to the Present @Pace

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of work by 17 artists/photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in a series of interconnected gallery spaces on the ground floor, and then again on the 7th floor. The show was organized by Mark Beasley.

The following works are included in the show:

Ground floor

  • Janette Beckman: 8 archival pigment prints, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1989, 2003, 2007; vitrine of archival materials, n.d.
  • Robert Frank: 6 gelatin silver prints, 1952, 1957, 1972
  • Irving Penn: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1967, 1986
  • Richard Avedon: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1965, 1969
  • Ming Smith: 2 archival pigment prints, 1978
  • Hiro: 1 pigment print mounted to Dibond, 1976
  • Peter Hujar: 5 gelatin silver prints, 1969, 1971, 1973
  • Kevin Cummins: 1 chromogenic print, 1997; 4 gelatin silver prints, 1977, 1979, 1983, 1988
  • Rankin: 1 c-print mounted to Dibond, 1997; 3 Lambda prints mounted to Dibond, 1998, 1995, 1999
  • Jem Cohen: 2 sets of 3 gelatin silver prints with postcards, 1995-1996; 2 inkjet prints mounted to board, 1996, 2017; 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, 1997-1999; 1 photocollage on board with 3 gelatin silver prints, 1999; 1 set of 5 gelatin silver prints, 2005; 2 postcards, n.d.; 3 prints from Polaroid originals, 1993, 1996, 2007
  • Adam Cohen: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1983, 1988
  • Ari Marcopolous: 1 gelatin silver print with 1 poster, 2019; 1 multimedia installation wall, 2022; 1 vitrine of archival materials, n.d.
  • Rahim Fortune: 7 gelatin silver prints mounted to board and Dibond, 2021
  • Nick Waplington: 4 c-prints mounted to Dibond, 1989-1993
  • Paul Graham: 2 archival pigment prints mounted to Dibond, 1997
  • Itzel Alejandra Martinez: 3 archival giclee prints, 2016

Seventh floor

  • Gordon Parks: 1 gelatin silver print mounted to Dibond, 1998
  • Nick Waplington: 2 c-prints mounted to Dibond, 1990s; 13 prints, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1995, 1997, 2009; 1 painting, n.d., 1 rock sculpture, 2007; 1 vitrine of archival materials, n.d.
  • Jem Cohen: 2 inkjet prints from Polaroid originals, 2006; selection of videos, 2000-2017
  • Ari Marcopolous: 1 video, 2022
  • Selection of album covers

(Installation shots below.)

Comments Context: The summer group show is a genre of exhibition that prides itself on its easy going accessibility. Often such a show is a something-for-everyone mishmash of works from the gallery’s stable of artists, or a thematic presentation that doesn’t try too hard to be thought provoking. It seems that in the heat of the summer, what galleries think we want is to be lightly entertained with a minimum of effort or fuss.

Summer group shows tend not to merit in-depth reviews, as they generally don’t deliver much in the way of durable import – we tend to casually browse them, picking out notable photographs here and there, without investing too much effort in parsing the curatorial frameworks, to the extent there are any. Pace’s summer offering “Studio to Stage: Music Photography from the Fifties to the Present” doesn’t deliver anything approaching a comprehensive study of music photography, nor does it teach us much about how artists have variously approached rock stars, their fans, and the spectacle of club shows and stadium events. But “Studio to Stage” is a big show, with lots of engaging work to see, and so it feels something like a best of breed example – it’s a summer group show alright, but with a little more oomph than normal.

After welcoming shots of LL Cool J and Sade (both from the 1980s, by Janette Beckman) that begin the show, we step back into a quick parade of master photographers who along the way intersected with various famous musicians. Contact sheets from Robert Frank’s film Cocksucker Blues (about the Rolling Stones’ 1972 concert tour, at the time of their album Exile on Main St.) are followed by more formal portraits (largely from the 1960s and 1970s) by Irving Penn (of Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead), Richard Avedon (of Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan), and Peter Hujar (of Iggy Pop, Isaac Hayes, and Stevie Wonder, among others.)

This portraiture “tradition”, if we can call it that, is then picked up and enlivened by photographers in the 1980s and beyond. Janette Beckman returns with a brash set of portraits, from her now classic ’80s images of Run-DMC and Salt-N-Pepa (which were among the first to capture the emerging stars of the nascent hip hop scene), to more recent portraits of Andre 3000 and M.I.A.. Gordon Parks enters the mix with his historically important documentary image of the grand gathering of hip hop artists on a front stoop in Harlem in 1998, and then Rahim Fortune brings us up to the present, with his portrait of the ever funky Erykah Badu. A transcontinental jump to the UK adds in portraits by Kevin Cummins (of David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, and the Smiths) and Rankin (most notably of the Spice Girls, with the band turned away from the camera.)

This parade of relatively straightforward portraiture is followed by more impressionistic and atmospheric approaches, which try to capture more of the magic and mystery of the musical experience. Jem Cohen builds up multi-image collages of artists like Patti Smith, mixing blurred imagery of musicians in motion with allusive postcards and other visual references. Ming Smith gets similarly shimmery in her mystical portraits of Sun Ra. And then Paul Graham turns away from the stars to the adolescent fans, making oversized head shots steeped in thick color that capture sweaty engagement and softer introspection.

These works provide a handy bridge to a cluster of pictures that capture the rawness of the concert experience. Andy Cohen gets in the middle of the overstimulated energy of fights and unruly crowds at various punk and hardcore shows in the 1980s, while Nick Waplington documents some of strutting and eccentricity of the looks at the Sound Factory at roughly the same time. And then Itzel Alejandra Martinez reconnects us to the present, in the form of mosh pit tussling and fan exuberance at recent music festivals.

While “Studio to Stage” loses steam and coherence as it moves up to the seventh floor, that doesn’t diminish its value as a wandering summertime art outing. Photographs of celebrities (of all kinds) always carry the tension of whether our interest in the picture comes from the famous subject or the artist’s vision, and this gathering of works doesn’t hide from that inherent friction. In the end, the show successfully skips across a handful of musical themes and ideas, giving us just enough visual energy to fill a lazy air-conditioned afternoon.

Collector’s POV: While the works in this show are generally for sale, given the large number of photographers/artists included in the exhibit, we will forego our usual discussion of individual prices and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Ari Marcopoulos, Gordon Parks, Hiro (Yasuhiro Wakabayashi), Irving Penn, Itzel Alejandra Martinez, Janette Beckman, Jem Cohen, Kevin Cummins, Ming Smith, Nick Waplington, Paul Graham, Peter Hujar, Rahim Fortune, Rankin (John Rankin Waddell), Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Pace Gallery

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