JTF (just the facts): A total of 83 color photographs by Walker Evans, framed in white and matted, and hung in the large single room main gallery. All of the works are SX-70 Polaroids made in 1973 or 1974, sized roughly 4×3. The exhibit also includes 4 photographic diptychs by Roni Horn. These works are iris-printed photographs on Somerset Satin paper, each panel sized 22×22. The images were made in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2007, and are available in editions of 15+3AP. Additional supporting photographs include an 1887 Eadweard Muybridge collotype from Animal Locomotion (sized 19×24), and a Eugene Atget albumen storefront from 1900 (sized 9×7); these two photographs are displayed in the entrance area. The installation also includes a selection of oak furniture by Gustav Stickley, an 19th century architectural model of a cooper’s workshop, and a 19th century English birdhouse. This exhibit was curated by Ydessa Hendeles; a spiral bound catalog of the show is available for free at the reception desk (and is worth taking). (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: One of the unforeseen consequences of a proliferation of art on the Internet is that we have inadvertently (and permanently) diluted the meaning of the word “curator”. We’re all choosers, selectors, organizers, editors and like-ers now, whether we are celebrities, gallery owners, scholars/academics, collectors, or idle watchers. At one level, this is mighty freeing and empowering, breaking down old restrictive barriers and letting in some much needed fresh air. But at another, we seem to be losing sight of the nuances of old school curating craftsmanship and excellence that go miles beyond just gathering a bunch of pictures under a clever theme for a group show.
While this show takes place at the Andrea Rosen Gallery and selling is ostensibly going on, a retail experience seems wholly beyond the point of this exhibition. The art objects on view transcend being works by Walker Evans or Roni Horn or whoever, and become elements of an elaborate theatrical set piece. Taken together, the individual items have been meticulously arranged and sequenced to highlight internal relationships and connections that have very little to do with their inherent Walker Evans-ness or Roni Horn-ness. The hand of the curator is so evident here that it trumps the underlying works themselves; we’ve entered the carefully controlled world of Ydessa Hendeles, and it is the sum of the parts that matters.
This kind of mixed media, open ended, metaphorical curation is rarely seen in Chelsea these days; it’s such an unusual animal that we’ve almost forgotten how to react to such a complex presentation. My first reaction upon entering the main gallery space was to notice its clean geometries and the manipulation of scale going on: tiny Polaroids interrupted by larger prints, surrounding small church pews leading to a grand central object, in this case, an ornate, domed birdcage made of intricate polished wood. As I circled the gallery, the Evans Polaroids drew me into an intimate dialogue, vicariously wandering and circling the vernacular architecture just like Evans himself, moving in and out, around and across, seeing silhouettes and then details in succession. The Horn images of birds forced me to physically move back, to take them in as objects related to the central bird cage, and then to move back in to see their delicate layers of feathers in an architectural manner. The overall result is a sense of fluidity and motion that isn’t linear but more swirling and rhythmic, the movement through space not strict and rigid, but more loose and serendipitous than it appears on the surface.
While there are a number of individual standouts mixed in among the works on display, many of the Evans Polaroids aren’t hugely memorable, and are of more interest as a process flow, like contact sheets where we can see the photographer moving from frame to frame with deliberate action. There is a palpable sense of Evans testing the limits of the camera, figuring out how his eye could control the output of the device in ways that he wanted. Some work and some don’t, but seen together, there is the real feeling of being along for the ride with a master.
What I like best about this installation is that there is some curatorial risk taking going on here. Hendeles didn’t just give us a static ring of Evans Polaroids, but an immersive environment that draws from those Polaroids, one that offers additional less obvious pathways to explore; there are multiple “ways in” to this exhibit, leading to different contextual conclusions. I also appreciate the clear move to take photography out of its own separate artistic silo and to mix it together with other decorative arts that can provide alternate resonances. Her setting provides a richer experience of Evans’ late work, offering us ways to look and see that are beyond the simple or straightforward.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The Walker Evans Polaroids are priced at $7000 each, and the Roni Horn diptychs are either $85000, $120000, or NFS (she is represented by Hauser & Wirth here). Evans’ late Polaroids do come up for sale at auction from time to time; prices in recent years have ranged between $1000 and $5000.