The Photographic Object, 1970 @Hauser & Wirth

JTF (just the facts): This mostly faithful recreation of MoMA’s 1970 exhibition, Photography into Sculpture, features 62 pieces by 19 American and Canadian artists (primarily from the West Coast) who combined photography and other art and/or manufacturing processes to create “fully dimensional” objects. Work is displayed on two floors of the gallery—on the wall, free-standing on the floor, or on white-painted wooden pedestals, with or without vitrines.

The following artists are included in the exhibition: Ellen Brooks, Robert Brown/James Pennuto, Carl Cheng, Darryl Curran, Jack Dale, Michael de Courcy, Andre Haluska, Robert Heinecken, Richard Jackson, Jerry McMillan, Bea Nettles, Douglas Prince, Dale Quarterman, Charles Roitz, Michael Stone, Ted Victoria, Robert Watts, and Lynton Wells.

Methods used to make the work include photo-sensitized canvas stuffed and molded to fit within contoured sheets of Astro Turf (Brooks); photoserigraphs vacuum formed with acetate (Brown/Pennuto); photographs combined with Styrofoam, foam core, or wood (Quarterman); translucent film applied to plastic figures and sandwiched between sheets of Plexiglas (Cheng); hand-colored photographs packaged inside vacuum-formed vinyl and mounted on Masonite and aluminum stands (Stone); gelatin-silver prints on wood (Heinecken); gum bichromate on buckram stretched on wood, with embroidery, acrylic, and pencil (Nettles); and lens, acetate screen, Wilkinson razor blade, timing motor, mirror, halogen light bulb (Victoria.)

As much as possible, the curators have tried to find the same works shown at MoMA in 1970. When that was not feasible, works from the period (roughly the late 1960s) by the same artists have been added. (There are 62 objects here whereas MoMA had only 53.) Three pieces are not vintage: Richard Jackson’s Negative Numbers (1970/2011); Andre Haluska’s Self-Portrait with Images (1969-2011); and Robert Watts’s Girl with Mole that Lights Up (1965-1983). Another departure is that a handful of artists from the 1970 installation—Karl Folsom, Ed O’Connell, Joe Pirone, Leslie Snyder, and Harvey Stromberg—are not represented here.

Comments/Context: The difference between an influential exhibition and a prescient one can be vast. This attempt to recreate MoMA’s Photography into Sculpture wants to bridge that gap. The 1970 exhibition was not quite the “landmark” that the gallery press release claims, unless the word is redefined to mean brave for its time but not particularly effectual. MoMA sent the show to eight venues where it was well-attended and written about and then forgotten. This recreation therefore serves as both a treasure map of a path not taken by most photographers or art institutions (at MoMA and elsewhere) during the 1970s and as a harbinger of practices that would not become generally accepted until after the millennium.

Organized 44 years ago by curator Peter C. Bunnell, it has been restaged here by Olivier Reynaud-Clement. He in turn has relied heavily on the first reiteration by Philip Martin and Mary Leigh Cherry at their L.A. gallery in 2011 for Pacific Standard Time, the series of historical shows about West Coast art sponsored by the Getty.

As this group show gave recognition to young California and Vancouver artists with a decided experimental ethos, it stood out within MoMA’s exhibition program during the 1960s and ‘70s when the department’s director, John Szarkowski, was thought to favor one-person shows and the documentary style.

Critical reaction at the time was divided, with Hilton Kramer in the New York Times deriding the attempt to “violate the integrity of the photographic process” and A.D. Coleman (also in the Times) mustering a defense of the show that suggested photography was hardly an inviolate medium.

Bunnell wrote that the artists he chose had “concerns beyond those of the traditional print, or what may be termed ‘flat’ work, and in so doing” sought “to engender a heightened realization that art in photography has to do with interpretation and craftsmanship rather than mere record making.”

What’s more, they were “seeking a new intricacy of meaning analogous to the complexity of our senses. They are moving from internal meaning or iconography—of sex, the environment, war—to a visual duality in which materials are also incorporated as content and at the same time are used as a way of conceiving actual space.”

What was not so apparent to Bunnell, at least not in his wall text, was the degree to which these artists were commenting on other photographers or art movements.

Michael de Courcy’s untitled (1970-2011), for example, is composed of stark black-and-whites images of birds in flight, rippling waves, and clouds photo silk-screened on columns of stacked cardboard boxes. It’s both Minimalist, like a tower by LeWitt, and Pop, the images as flat as a Brillo logo on a Warhol.

(Artists in Europe associated with arte povera were playing around with similar ideas. Emilio Prini’s Un Piccolo Film (1968), exhibited in Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph 1964-1977 at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011, grouped flat black-and-white images of fashionable people on large slabs of white cardboard in inscrutable tableaus, as though an outtake from Antonioni had become an installation.)

Richard Jackson’s Negative Numbers (1970-2011), in which two backlighted negatives from a large-format camera are mounted on a wooden table, illustrates Bunnell’s observation about “internal meaning.” The dark numbers in the foreground refer to Jackson’s social security and draft numbers. On closer inspection, they are imprinted over a ghostly body, Jackson’s own. (One of the surprises of the show is how few pieces refer to the Vietnam War—Jackson’s is an exception—and how many revel in nudity.)

Carl Cheng’s Road Trip (1969-72) was not in the 1970 show but should have been. It consists of a translucent piece of film—an image of a stretch of bare road, reminiscent of icons by Dorothea Lange or Robert Frank—that is embedded in a small block of plastic and Plexiglas. The endless vistas of America are packaged here as a tourist memento—a handsome paperweight. Car Wreck Sculpture-Red (1969-72), another film and plastic combination by Cheng, is just as sarcastic, only this time the target seems to be John Chamberlain and his metal machismo.

Photography into Sculpture featured more works by Heinecken (seven) than by any other artist, marking the highest acclaim he ever had from MoMA until the present retrospective. He and some of his students (Ellen Brooks) were at the center of Bunnell’s vision of a possible future for photography. Her nude couple lying in a landscape of Astro-Turf occupies an entire back room here and during my visit was hands-down the crowd favorite.

Unfortunately, the Heineckens selected by Bunnell (photographs of nudes mounted on wood, one of them carved into a puzzle) are among his most trivial; and the Brooks has the overcompensating aggression of a gimmick that once was popular but didn’t catch on, like Astro-Turf itself.

Other than Heinecken, the artist who received the highest praise from critics and collectors at the time was Douglas Prince. Often compared to Joseph Cornell, he continues to make three-dimensional works notable for their wintry moods and delicate craftsmanship. Kitchen Window (1972)—a Plexiglas rectangle embedded with a slice of black-and-white film showing a darkened interior that frames a lone bare tree—is typical. But perhaps too many of his photo sculptures were easy to like and therefore easy to dismiss. Whatever the reason, he never achieved the wider renown in the art world that this show and others at the Witkin Gallery promised.

“The printed photograph generates its own standards of purity and truth,” thundered Kramer in his review. One doesn’t have to endorse his absolutist views to wonder if his severe verdict of this show wasn’t correct. As inventive as some of this work was—and is—it didn’t inspire many others to follow. Individual achievement isn’t easy to assess in group settings like this, but Heinecken is the only artist here whose career stands out in the eyes of other curators. Much of the show’s contents were so lightweight (Michael Stone’s vinyl-wrapped “news” events hung on counter-top carousels; Jerry McMillan’s photographs on, of, or inside paper bags) that history blew them away.

Although Photography into Sculpture has never achieved true landmark status of exhibitions—its impact can’t be compared to, say, Primary Structures, the ground-breaking 1966 survey of Minimalist art at the Jewish Museum—the reputation of the MoMA show should increase with the publication later this year of a University of California catalog of essays devoted to its legacy.

One reason some of these works look smarter now is that many younger artists are now as impatient with the “flat” photograph as these ‘60s pioneers. Letha Wilson, Marlo Pascual, Kate Steciw, David Benjamin Sherry, and Sara VanDerBeek may not have heard of Bunnell’s show, but they’ve been exposed to the work of Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg, Martin Kippenberger, Franz West, Rachel Harrison, and Isa Genzken, and share their disregard for essentialist notions of art.

If present trends are any indication of where the art world is going, and formal impurity remains a virtue, the road charted by MoMA in 1970 should become more traveled—and perhaps even landmarked—as the years pass.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows, by photographer/artist:

  • Ellen Brooks: $140000-150000
  • Robert Brown / James Pennuto: $14000
  • Carl Cheng: $45000-55000
  • Daryl Curran: $15000
  • Jack Dale: $45000
  • Michael de Courcy: $20000
  • Andre Haluska: $14000
  • Robert Heinecken: $185000
  • Richard Jackson: $180000
  • Jerry McMillan: $60000-120000
  • Bea Nettles: $14000
  • Douglas Prince: $8000
  • Dale Quarterman: $12000-25000
  • Charles Roitz: $15000
  • Michael Stone: $10000-15000
  • Ted Victoria: $25000
  • Robert Watts: $25000-45000
  • Lynton Wells: $30000

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Read more about: Andre Haluska, Bea Nettles, Carl Cheng, Charles Roitz, Dale Quarterman, Darryl Curran, Douglas Prince, Ellen Brooks, Jack Dale, James Pennuto, Jerry McMillan, Lynton Wells, Michael de Courcy, Michael Stone, Richard Jackson, Robert Brown, Robert Heinecken, Robert Watts, Ted Victoria, Hauser & Wirth

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