Wanted: Curators of Conviction, Part I

What a scary, exhilarating time it’s been, the years since the digital revolution in photography. Who knew that from an ordinary sack of beans, encoded with 0s and 1s, so many unruly, hybrid forms would sprout into the sky?

Uncertainty is the new normal. Walls of orthodoxy that once split artists into factions—digital v. analog, straight v. staged, still v. moving, paper v. electronic, wall v. book, full-frame v. cropped, wallet-sized v. supersized, Minimalist v. Pop—have crumbled. Silicon Valley nerds and venture capitalists have stormed those walls and their flag of perpetual disruption now flies over the castle. Eclecticism rules.

A tolerance for any kind of image has taken hold and liberated everyone. Fifteen years ago collectors wouldn’t touch anything doctored on a computer. Now, prints of almost any sort are accepted as legitimate currency in courts of law and the art market.

Museums in New York have struggled to channel the flood of images coursing inside and outside their hallways. MoMA’s “New Photography” series, the ICP’s “Triennials,” the Whitney Museum’s “Biennials,” and the Met’s “Recent Acquisitions” have tried at regular intervals to reflect in piecemeal fashion the giddy spirit of experimentation happening in schools and galleries and across social media. The take-away from these ensemble shows is that we are in the midst of a period when anything goes, as long it’s justified by a societal critique, and/or by a commentary on photography itself, preferably both.

What’s frustrating is that as beliefs about what a photograph is have expanded, and artistic practice is no longer governed by faith in any one creed, no major American institution has been willing to make some hard choices—or educated guesses—about the lasting importance of what we’ve lived through.

Twenty-five years after the digital revolution established some basic apps—Adobe’s Photoshop was introduced in 1990–isn’t it time that one or a few of these young, talented, tech-savvy, hyper-active, photo-based artists was given privileged, highly discriminating treatment? Group shows are fine for sampling activity. But unless audiences can examine more than half-a-dozen pieces by any individual only a partial, flawed view of success and failure is possible.

Galleries have held up their end of the bargain, at least from evidence I’ve seen in New York City and Los Angeles and London. What’s more, every time dealers mount a show, they are risking their own money. It is museum curators who have been noticeably shy about placing a stack of chips on one or a few artists as the best bet among the new breed.

Curators outside photography have been more willing to stake their reputations on artists not fully accredited by the market or other institutions. Scott Rothkopf at the Whitney Museum of Art has organized retrospectives on Glenn Ligon and Wade Guyton when the former was 51 and the latter was 40. However one judges the ultimate value of either artist, enough works were on display in both shows to give audiences a fair chance to assess careers that are far from over. The floor-wide installation exposed strengths and repetitions almost impossible to see in the confined or diffused surroundings of a gallery or group show.

Of course, in the overheated global climate for contemporary art, the reluctance of curators to declare any young artist the next-best-thing may be prudent, maybe even wise. In the 1980s, the Whitney took a lot of grief from critics for promoting artists too early and too well. Cindy Sherman had a mini-retrospective there when she was only 33. Eric Fischl had his when he was 38; Julian Schnabel was 36. Last year’s retrospective for Christopher Wool at the Guggenheim Museum of Art in New York probably contributed to the ludicrous jump in prices his word paintings can now command at auction.

Most young photographers and photo-based artists, however, have yet to be, and perhaps won’t ever be, material for speculators. The Zoe Strauss show, surveying 10 years of her work, appeared at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and ICP without a noticeable tick upward in the value of her prints.

Timidity and confusion and hedging rather than wariness of market forces perhaps better explain why so few major institutions during the last 15 years have scheduled so few solo shows by artists born after 1960.

Who can tell if Yto Barrada, Walead Beshty, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Anne Collier, Gregory Crewdson, Moyra Davey, Liz Deschenes, Mark Dion, Roe Ethridge, Sam Falls, Katy Grannan, Idris Khan, An-My Lê, Richard Learoyd, Zoe Leonard, Liu Zheng, Ryan McGinley, Simon Norfolk, Lisa Oppenheim, Trevor Paglen, Barbara Probst, Mariah Robertson, Collier Schorr, Fazal Sheikh, Taryn Simon, Simon Starling, Kim Stringfellow, and other critical favorites can withstand the closer scrutiny that accompanies a substantial exhibition?

It’s as if the last 25 years is still too inchoate for anyone to risk being wrong about the solidity of these artists’ achievements or the potential of their sometimes untraditional approaches to photography. Are there no leaders in this pack who, in the opinion of a strong-minded advocate, are forcing us to rethink basic assumptions about what a photographic image can be?

Catherine Evans at the Columbus Museum of Art (now chief curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art) is one of the few curators to have stepped up and made a statement about a member of this younger generation. Her Matthew Brandt (b. 1982) exhibition, “Sticky/Dusty/Wet,” consisting of 18 large-scale pieces, travels in the fall to the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art. Christopher Phillips at ICP is also risking some capital by placing a bet on Caio Reisewitz (b. 1967). Opening in mid-May, the summary of work from the last 15 years will be the first major exhibition by the Brazilian artist in the U.S. Less chancy, because he’s far more established here and in Europe, is the Christopher Williams (b. 1956) retrospective. Jointly organized by Matthew Witkovsky, Roxana Marcocci, and Mark Godfrey, it is now at the Art Institute of Chicago, moves in the summer to MoMA, and concludes at the Tate Modern.

Museums have been kinder to photographic artists of Williams’s age and reputation. Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky, Michael Schmidt, Thomas Struth, Rineke Dijkstra, Thomas Demand, Carrie Mae Weems, and John Divola have benefited from major shows in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco institutions during the last 20 years. Which doesn’t excuse the failure to identify the most promising under-50 figures or ignoring many other over-60 artists deserving of retrospectives (a topic for another time.)

I write not as someone with a horse in this race but as a critic wishing that someone would help to clarify my scattered impressions. From group and gallery shows, I have hazily observed that several of the artists from the list above have been enriching or revising photographic tradition in the digital era. Do museums not have strong convictions about any of them? Or are they waiting to let contemporary art collectors pick the winners? If that happens, curators may regret lagging behind. Unless they start to winnow the field and, with financial commitments and persuasive rhetoric, give us a deeper understanding who the defining artists of our time have been, or are likely to be, the market will decide for them.

4 comments

  1. Joe /

    “as long it’s justified by a societal critique, and/or by a commentary on photography itself, preferably both.”

    Art focusing on the nature of art itself predates this trend by a good 45 years. Or have we all forgotten?

    Agreed on the curators not taking risks bit, though the people on your list seem to be doing just fine.

  2. Jonah Rosenberg /

    Perhaps this state of affairs indicates a greater shift than curators merely growing more timid. Might it signal a new uneasiness with the idea of the individual author and the preeminence of singular perspectives? While seeing the breadth and development of a career’s worth of work from a single artist can be interesting and instructive, does it necessarily bolster wider conversations?

  3. Richard B. Woodward /

    I don’t see any uneasiness from galleries about “the idea of the individual author.” That’s the basis of their business. As I wrote,
    curators of contemporary paintings and sculpture seem to be
    willing to step forward and declare, say, Wade Guyton or Mark Bradford or Kara Walker to be artists of high merit and worthy
    of one-person shows in museums. But I don’t see the same sort of conviction from photography curators over the last 10 years. Peter Galassi at MoMA gave one-person shows to Gursky in 2001 and Demand in 2005. Their prices then shot up, which may be one reason curators are being shy: They don’t want to fuel an already overheated market. A number of artists are starting to feel the same way. Eventually, however, someone is going to decide who are the most talented and influential photographers of the post-1960s fully digitized generation, so it might as well be museum curators.

  4. Jonah Rosenberg /

    Richard, thank you for taking the time to reply! It is exchanges like this that make me excited and hopeful about the internet.

    I see your point.
    However, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that photography is different from the other mediums you reference and has been fundamentally changed by the digital in ways they have not. Nobody ever declared that “the digital has made everyone a sculptor.”

    I share your desire for a more coherent and strong-minded message to emerge. But reaching this message simply by holding up singular figures as the most talented or the most influential seems antiquated to me. It seems incongruous to on the one hand acknowledge that photography has been forever changed (and in some cases to exhibit work that deals primarily with this idea) and on the other hand to expect or hope that the curation, criticism, and market of photography will go on in the same manner they always have.

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