The Shape of Things: Photographs from Robert B. Menschel @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A broad group show containing 99 photographic works from 48 different artists/photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung against white/dark blue walls in a series of three gallery spaces. All of the works come from the collection of Robert B. Menschel, either as previous donations or promised gifts to the museum.

The following photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works on view, their processes, and dates as background:

  • Berenice Abbott: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1936, 1937
  • Bernd and Hilla Becher: 1 gelatin silver print diptych, 1973, 2 gelatin silver prints, 1973, 1999
  • Hans Bellmer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Louis-Auguste Bisson: 2 albumen prints from glass negatives, c1853, c1855
  • Margaret Bourke-White: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1935
  • Brassaï: 1 gelatin silver print, c1931
  • Harry Callahan: 2 dye transfer prints, 1951, c1952, 10 gelatin silver prints, 1945, c1949, 1953, 1957, 1960s, 1963, 1968,1973-1974, 1974
  • John Coplans: 1 gelatin silver print, 1984
  • Robert Cumming: 1 set of 2 gelatin silver prints, 1973
  • Francis Edmund Currey: 1 albumen print from a glass negative, 1863
  • Eugene Cuvelier: 1 albumen silver print, 1860s
  • Hugh W. Diamond: 1 albumen silver print from a glass negative, c1852-1855
  • Roger Fenton: 1 salted paper print from a wet-collodion negative, c1857
  • Joan Fontcuberta: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1982, 1983, 1984
  • Robert Frank: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1951, 1957
  • Lee Friedlander: 5 gelatin silver prints, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1985
  • G. B. Gething: 1 albumen silver print from a glass negative, 1850s
  • John Gossage: 1 gelatin silver print, 1982
  • Jan Groover: 1 gelatin silver print, 183
  • Jules Janssen: 1 album with 30 woodburytypes, 1894
  • Charles Jones: 2 gelatin silver printing out paper prints, c1900
  • André Kertész: 1 gelatin silver print, 1969
  • Georg Koppmann: 1 albumen silver print, 1884
  • Germaine Krull: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1927, 1930
  • Clarence John Laughlin: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1945, 1962
  • An-My Lê: 2 gelatin silver prints, 2003-2004
  • Henri Le Secq: 1 salted paper print from a paper negative, 1852
  • David Levinthal: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1975, 1 Polaroid color instant print, 1990
  • Dora Maar: 1 gelatin silver print, c1935
  • Charles Marville: 3 albumen silver prints, c1865, c1866, 1870s
  • Marvin E. Newman: 1 gelatin silver print, 1951
  • W. H. Pigou: 1 albumen silver print from a paper negative, 1857-1858
  • Aaron Siskind: 10 gelatin silver prints, 1944, 1949, 1951, 1973, 1975
  • Frederick Sommer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1947
  • Michael Spano: 1 gelatin silver print, 1983
  • Alfred Stieglitz: 1 photogravure mounted to board, 1893
  • Thomas Struth: 1 gelatin silver print, 1990
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto: 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, 1990
  • William Henry Fox Talbot: 1 salted paper print, 1843
  • Val Telberg: 1 gelatin silver print, c1948
  • John Vachon: 1 gelatin silver print, 1939
  • JoAnn Verburg: 1 chromogenic color print, 1991
  • Margaret Watkins: 1 gelatin silver print, 1919
  • Weegee: 1 gelatin silver print, c1939
  • Carrie Mae Weems: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1993
  • William Wegman: 2 dye transfer prints, 1982, 8 gelatin silver prints, 1973-1981, 1974, 1976, 1979, 1981, 1982
  • Neil Winokur: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1990

A catalog of the exhibit has been published by the museum (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The collection celebration show at a major museum is a special genre of art exhibition. While seemingly innocuous, it’s an exhibit type that is undeniably fraught with conflicts of interest, and as a result, one that often generates an outcome that leaves nearly all the stakeholders a bit on edge.

On the surface, a show gathering together the recent donations by a wealthy and supportive donor should seem like cause for clinking glasses of champagne and smiles all around. Of course, the receiving museum is happy to have the new works in the permanent collection (especially if they are rare and valuable) and the collector is certainly proud to be publicly rewarded/appreciated for his/her generosity with an opening party, an exhibition, a monograph, and other trappings of gratitude, especially when they come from a respectable institution known to all and whose long term success is important to the donor. The exhibit is simultaneously a genuine thank you and a bookend to a long term relationship.

Where this train usually derails is that when the museum organizes the celebratory exhibit (whether voluntarily or under duress as part of the donation deal), it is particularly aware of the less than positive optics of “fluffing” the collector, and so want to ensure that its own curators rethink the collection and put their own scholarly context on top of the works of art included. Putting too much emphasis on the names of the collectors is a problem – once the collection is inside the museum, it’s the artworks that are important, not who previously gathered or owned them, and the museum needs to clarify this right away or be open to real criticisms of thinly veiled, quid pro quo ego stroking. This conflict gets thornier (and of more consequence) when the collector still has valuable artworks that the museum wants or when the publicity around the collector’s name inflates the value of works still held in the collection to be sold later.

The problem is that nearly all collections, including many of the best ones, are works of intense, often decades long passion, where the choices and personalities of the collectors are part of what give it its life. So in some cases, the best possible collection show is one that revels in the quirks of the collectors, showing off the eccentricities and joys of the artworks they gathered and protected. For these collections, we want to see the artworks just as they had them hung in their home, and we want to hear the stories of pictures that made them laugh, or cry, or stand thinking for years on end. We want to see their favorites, their hung together connections, their moments of a-ha, and their unexpected discoveries, because that’s what makes many collections interesting and human. So herein lines the challenge. For a collection to truly sing, it often needs to show off its unabashed individuality, but once firmly placed inside an institutional context (and its sober blank white walls), it must do the exact opposite, stripping away all its vestiges of personal charm and resonance in favor of arms length art historical objectivity.

The Shape of Things is an exhibit that directly wrestles with these prickly issues, and unfortunately, falls into the inevitable trap of depersonalized safety. Drawn from a larger selection of some 500 photographic works donated or promised by longtime museum trustee and Photography Committee member Robert B. Menschel, the show takes a subset of images and shoehorns it into a three stage historical framework (Truthful Representations – 1840-1930, Personal Experiences – 1940-1960, and Directorial Modes – 1970s and Beyond), with a few anachronistic exceptions that are hung by theme rather than date. To my mind, what is truly maddening about this approach is that it forces the collection to attempt to be historically comprehensive, when that was likely never its goal. This is a wholly unreachable achievement for all but perhaps a handful of private collections anywhere on Earth, so to hold the Menschel collection to this lofty standard seems singularly misguided. The result is an uneven historical photography survey that falls noticeably short (with huge gaps in key photographers and genres), even when there are plenty of real gems on view to be savored. Sadly, it is a perfect example of what can happen when we deliberately lose track of the impulses and priorities of the collector.

So now I’m going to do something I’ve never done before in a review. I’m going to consider the organizing structure imposed by the curators as largely unhelpful in this case and instead try to give you a feeling for where I see the passions of the collector coming through, based solely on the examples on the walls (and no other prior non-public knowledge of the collector or the collection). From one collector to another, it’s a humble and hopefully considerate attempt to discern motivations and interests, rather than to apply a grade to the collection based on a deeply unfair measure.

To begin, there is clearly a deep understanding and appreciation for the work of both Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind in these selections, and my gut tells me this is where the sparks of photo collecting fire may have first ignited for Menschel. For Callahan, this means the early (1940s and 1950s) works of building facades, pedestrians, and his wife Eleanor, but also lesser known works from later in his career, like a jittering multiple exposure image through a tunnel in Aix-en-Provence and planar sidewalk shots from Providence in the 1960s and 1970s. And for Siskind, the collection spans the artist’s earliest 1940s experiments with abstraction on the docks in Gloucester and his 1970s visual odes to Franz Kline, where isolations of aggressive painted lines from Rome to Lima resolve into bold expressionistic gestures. In both cases, Menschel went beyond the obvious to the more overlooked, finding underappreciated images that have durable strength and interest. That kind of looking takes sustained commitment and curiosity.

With these works as a foundation, the show then adds on a wide selection of imagery rooted in the elemental photographic beauty of line and form. Some of this work is Modernist in the traditional between-the-wars sense. The serrated lines and angled shadows of Margaret Watkins’s 1919 still life are echoed by Berenice Abbott’s 1936 upward view of the George Washington bridge. Gleaming machined curves offer the romance of industry in both Margaret Bourke-White’s 1935 speaker array and Germaine Krull’s 1930 engine. And the nuances of lines and surfaces come through in John Vachon’s 1939 grain elevator with criss crossed tar patches, Frederick Sommer’s 1947 intricate cut paper collage, and Hans Bellmer’s 1935 bulbous doll body. In each of these images, the purity of form shimmers with enduring, often optimistic precision.

Well chosen examples from other time periods also betray a long standing collecting affinity for the crisp compositional clarity of a certain kind of photographic vision. Both John Gossage and Jan Groover explore the back and forth of positive and negative space, one using the girders of a bridge to create an emphatic X, the other relying on shiny metallic objects and burnished surfaces to create geometric resonances. A similar formal impulse underlies Joan Fontcuberta’s brilliantly fake Blossfeldt-like flowers, John Coplans’ aging body nude, and Lee Friedlander’s isolated words and letters. And the clean lines of built structures underlie the early cooling tower diptych from Bernd and Hilla Becher, the boxy South Chicago apartment buildings from Thomas Struth, and the sinuous male/female curves of the African mud buildings from Carrie Mae Weems.

As Menschel looked back to 19th century photography, he seems to have applied a similar set of formal criteria, with the addition of a particular focus on the tactile richness of great print examples, where enveloping chocolate browns and deep blacks draw the viewer in. Henri Le Secq’s 1852 Notre Dame portal is the best example of this collecting approach, but Eugene Cuvelier’s majestic oak tree, Francis Edmund Currey’s still life heron against plank boards, and W.H. Pigou’s temple inscriptions all turn on the lushness of their color and the simplicity of their composition. The same can be said for Charles Jones’ turn of the century vegetable still lifes, where onions and peapods shine with elegant tonal nuance.

And finally, every collector working at a scale like Menschel takes risks once in a while, purposefully selecting images that don’t fit the usual categories or “system” – these are the outliers, the pictures that were bought with full knowledge that they might not fit with other images already on the walls, but that still moved the collector with enough force to make an exception. William Wegman’s dogs stand the tallest among this group, but there are plenty of others that give the collection some surprises. David Levinthal’s staged doll images of war and desire, a clever Robert Cumming conceptual diptych, a layered photogram by Michael Spano, a surreal superimposed nude by Val Telberg, and a JoAnn Verburg table top study pairing famous painted faces with serial killers all push beyond the typical boundaries of this collection, making us stretch to see the connections. This proves that Menschel was an active, open minded searcher, willing to consider photographs that hit like lighting strikes for whatever reason, even when they didn’t fit inside the usual parameters.

In the end, the collection monograph (complete with short meditative essays on each picture like the ones in the classic Looking at Photographs) will likely be more enduring than the exhibit, and some of the thoughtful roundness of the collection may come out better in that presentation. But I left the galleries frustrated by an exhibit that forced this powerful collection to masquerade as something it’s not, and that felt remarkably unjust. Collectors like Robert B. Menschel who put a lifetime of time, energy, and money into their collections should be given more respect for the intelligence and individuality of their choices. When the human touch of a collection like this one is neutered, we miss out on learning from the unquenched passion that made it possible in the first place.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibit, there are of course no posted prices. Given the breadth of the work on display, we will forego our usual discussion of gallery representation and secondary market prices/histories.

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Read more about: Aaron Siskind, Alfred Stieglitz, An-My Lê, André Kertész, Berenice Abbott, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Brassaï (Gyula Halász), Carrie Mae Weems, Charles Jones, Charles Marville, Clarence John Laughlin, David Levinthal, Dora Maar, Eugene Cuvelier, Frederick Sommer, Germaine Krull, Hans Bellmer, Harry Callahan, Henri Le Secq, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jan Groover, Joan Fontcuberta, JoAnn Verburg, John Coplans, John Gossage, Lee Friedlander, Margaret Bourke-White, Margaret Watkins, Marvin Newman, Michael Spano, Neil Winokur, Robert Cumming, Robert Frank, Roger Fenton, Thomas Struth, Val Telberg, Weegee (Arthur Felig), William Henry Fox Talbot, William Wegman, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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