Wanted: Curators of Conviction, Part II

Lest readers think that Part I of this essay was unduly harsh about the timid or equivocal response from museums to the challenges of the digital revolution in photography, I want to underline my high regard for those who have chosen the stewardship of art and artists as a career. Curators, as well as being notoriously underpaid and subject to the mandates of directors and boards, must learn to negotiate/compete with art dealers, a select few of whom have become global powers in themselves. On top of that are the pressures felt across the art world of crushing real estate prices. Most of the largest art institutions in New York City, for example, will be in flux for the rest of this decade because of rising rents and territorial expansion.

ICP’s situation is the most dire: it faces eviction by the end of the year from its headquarters on Sixth Avenue. The Whitney Museum is moving to a megalith downtown in 2015 while the Met’s contemporary departments (including photography) will be moving into Whitney’s vacated Breuer building on Madison Ave. MoMA’s success in marketing itself as a tourist destination (on any given day it must be one of the most crowded buildings in Midtown) means that it can’t stop growing any time soon. Despite increasing its exhibition space in 1983 and then again in 1997, it has already run out of room. Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s design will redo the museum again, a plan scheduled that won’t be finished until 2018-19.

Only the Brooklyn Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and the New Museum are havens of stability. (When was the last time New Yorkers remember that being the case?)

Despite these economic uncertainties, photography curators over the last 30 years–in the U.S. and around the world—are to be commended for identifying so many outstanding artists of our time and honoring them with comprehensive shows.

During the last week I’ve compiled a tentative list of living photographers who have received at least one retrospective at a major institution, either here or in Europe or Asia:

Robert Adams, Eleanor Antin, Nobuyoshi Araki, John Baldessari, Roger Ballen, Lewis Baltz, Olivo Barbieri, Thomas Barrow, Richard Billingham, Christian Boltanski, Victor Burgin, Jean-Marc Bustamante, Sophie Calle, Jo Ann Callis, Peter Campus, Paul Caponigro, Chang Chao-Tang, Carl Chiarenza, William Christenberry, Larry Clark, William Clift, Chuck Close, Lynne Cohen, Linda Connor, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Mark Cohen, Eileen Cowin, Mario Cresci, Paul D’Amato, Tacita Dean, Thomas Demand, Jan Dibbets, John Divola, Rineke Dijkstra, Stan Douglas, Jeanne Dunning, William Eggleston, Elliott Erwitt, Elger Esser, Terry Evans, Patrick Faigenbaum, Robert Fichter, Joan Fontcuberta, Samuel Fosso, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Ralph Gibson, Gilbert and George, Frank Gohlke, David Goldblatt, Nan Goldin, Emmet Gowin, Paul Graham, Rodney Graham, Andreas Gursky, Charles Harbutt, David Hockney, Candida Höfer, Roni Horn, Eikoh Hosoe, Axel Hütte, Ken Josephson, Seydou Keïta, Chris Killip, William Klein, Les Krims, Barbara Kruger, David LaChapelle, Les Levine, Sherrie Levine, Annie Leibovitz, David Levinthal, Li Zhensheng, Danny Lyon, Nathan Lyons, Sally Mann, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, Annette Messager, Ray Metzker, Boris Mikhailov, Tracey Moffatt, Daido Moriyama, Abelardo Morrell, James Nachtwey, Takuma Nakahira, Walter Niedermayr, Nicholas Nixon, Martin Parr, John Pfahl, Pierre et Gilles, Robert Polidori, Richard Prince, Susan Rankaitis, Allen Ruppersberg, Marc Riboud, Eugene Richards, Sophie Ristelhueber, Eric Rondepierre, Thomas Ruff, Sebastião Salgado, Lucas Samaras, Jörg Sasse, Jan Saudek, Michael Schmidt, Gary Schneider, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, Toshio Shibata, Stephen Shore, Malick Sidibé, Laurie Simmons, Sandy Skoglund, Michael Snow, Rosalind Solomon, Eve Sonneman, Alec Soth, Hannah Starkey, Thomas Struth, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Joel Sternfeld, Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, George Tice, Wolfgang Tillmans, Shomei Tomatsu, Arthur Tress, Jerry Uelsmann, JoAnn Verburg, Massimo Vitali, Jeff Wall, Gillian Wearing, Carrie Mae Weems, William Wegman, James Welling, Henry Wessel, Jr., Joel-Peter Witkin, John Wood, Tom Wood.

In addition to this group, a number of other artists are either scheduled to have retrospectives this year or soon: Louise Lawler at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne; Duane Michals at the Carnegie Museum of Art; Joel Meyerowitz at the NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft in Düsseldorf; John Gossage and Uta Barth at the Art Institute of Chicago; Anthony Hernandez at SFMoMA.

Missing from this impressive cast, nonetheless, is another sizeable group who have proven themselves but not yet had their careers revisited by a distinguished art institution.

In assessing who might qualify for more concentrated recognition, I used three criteria. The artist 1) must be around 60 or over: 2) have published at least three books; and 3) already had a solo exhibition at a major museum. Here is my back-of-the-envelope list of nominees:

Mac Adams, Tina Barney, Joseph Bartscherer, Adam Bartos, Virginia Beahan, Peter Beard, Zeke Berman, Ellen Brooks, Bill Burke, Andrew Bush, Ellen Carey, James Casebere, Bruce Charlesworth, Lois Conner, Marie Cosindas, Robert Cumming, Bruce Davidson, Lynn Davis, Luc Delahaye, Jim Dow, Mitch Epstein, Larry Fink, Jim Goldberg, Sandra Haber, Henry Horenstein, Kenro Izu, Joseph D. Jachna, Geoffrey James, Larry Johnson, Barbara Kasten, Sylvia Kolbowski, Max Kozloff, Mike Mandel, Laura McPhee, Stephen Meisel, Allan McCollum, Tony Mendoza, Roger Mertin, Richard Misrach, Andrew Moore, Joyce Neimanas, Simone Nieweg, Bill Owens, Tod Papageorge, Richard Pare, Gilles Peress, Jorge Ribalta, Leo Rubinfien, Thomas Roma, Judith Joy Ross, Stephen Scheer, Victor Schrager, Michael Spano, Jan Staller, Mark Steinmetz, Louis Stettner, Lew Thomas, Penelope Umbrico, Bruce Weber, Nick Waplington, Todd Watts, Geoff Winningham, Neil Winokur, Brian Wood, Petra Wunderlich.

Why the first group has already received their due, and the second has no, is hard to determine. There isn’t a pattern within the lacunae. Individual taste of curators, financial backing by collectors or friends of a museum, as well as the holdings within it, seem to dictate why, say, Gohlke has been retrospected and Davidson has not.

Almost everyone in the over-60 crowd made the transition into color, and some, like Cosindas and Epstein, even led the way. The transition to digital, at least for anyone born before 1980, has presented a steeper learning curve. The choices have been starker than they were in the 1970s when black-and-white had honorable defenders. Now there are no choices. Like Shane, analog is never coming back.

Some of these omissions (Barney, Casebere, Davidson, Delahaye, Epstein, Misrach, Peress, Weber) are sure to be corrected in the next decade. Names on this list that would likely offer the brightest surprises are Carey (her Polaroid “pulls” are gorgeous and relevant to the latest abstract painting/photography dialogue) and Cumming (a highly productive and unpredictable artist whatever media he happens to be fancying in a given year.)

It’s unfair to hope that curators could respond with equal alacrity to living artists, whether they be flashy commodities or graying veterans of the scene. Most big cities have divided the task of legitimizing artistic talent among institutions of varying magnitude and gravitas. In New York, the Met is expected to be finicky about bestowing solo shows on anyone still above ground, while the Whitney and the New Museum would be failing in their missions if they didn’t spot fresh, crude, burgeoning, outlaw talent to celebrate.

Not every generation makes work immediately understood as a challenge to accepted practices. It may be that no young artist today is as fully mature as Cindy Sherman was at 33, when she had her first retrospective at the Whitney; or is as ruthless an editor of his own work as Robert Frank, only 34 when Robert Delpire published the French edition of The Americans; or is as disruptive of conventional taste as William Eggleston, whose color photographs were exhibited at MoMA when he was 32.

But millions of photographers have now grown up with digital tools, and without a wider sample of one-person shows by this generation of artists, it’s impossible to tell if some of them have what it takes to impress us with their maturity and to pull the work of their peers in a particular direction. It’s not just curators who seem reluctant to place bets on one or a few names. Critics, too, have been shy to trust their own instincts and broadcast their hunches, as if waiting for someone else to handicap the race. The upside to the Age of Eclecticism is that no one believes anymore in immutable laws of style or a single photographic tradition or the teleology of progress; the downside is that one artist’s experiments with Photoshop can seem as good as another’s. If everything is interesting, nothing has to be important.

8 comments

  1. dougan pot /

    Very well put.

  2. George Slade /

    How are you defining “major museum”? I believe there are numerous omissions from your first list, living photographic artists who have had substantive solo shows at what I would consider to be major museums (albeit outside of “here” which I presume to be metro NYC, or Europe, or Asia) and meet your other criteria as well. Did you read through exhibition histories at museums in Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas? I know there are a lot of venues out in flyover territory, but this kind of survey runs the risk of elitism.

  3. George Slade /

    Just a couple of typographic/editorial corrections:

    Pertaining to your paragraph beginning “Not every generation…”, Alec Soth was 33 when he appeared in the Whitney Biennial. And Ryan McGinley? See below.

    Alec, Linda Connor, JoAnn Verburg, and Carrie Mae Weems typically use alternate spellings of their names.

    Roger Mertin died in 2001, so he ought not to be considered as a living artist, though it is sadly true that his work has never been properly “retrospected.” He does not have three monographs to his credit, though, so he may not have merited inclusion in the first place.

    And one more question–How much history did you intend to capture in your compilation? Ryan McGinley’s solo Whitney exhibition was in 2003. He was 25.

  4. Loring Knoblauch /

    Thanks very much George for pointing out those should have been obvious typos. I’ve corrected the errors.

  5. Loring Knoblauch /

    One more idea to add here. While I can’t speak for the author, it’s my view that these lists (the haves and have nots of retrospectives) are only useful if they are as comprehensive as possible, so potential omissions from Detroit, Amsterdam, Osaka, Dubai, and Cape Town are equally detrimental. I think that we can use these lists as a promising starting point, and build them out as a community to provide reference for curators everywhere. So I’d say comment freely for the benefit of all on what needs adding or fixing.

    And by the way, I heard the terrific news today during my rounds at Frieze that Barbara Kasten will be having a well deserved survey at the ICA Philadelphia in 2015, so she can be moved to the pending list.

  6. Richard B. Woodward /

    These lists are designed to be a beginning, not comprehensive.
    So build on and out, by all means, and let’s start some arguments.

  7. George Slade /

    Loring, your point is dead on, as far as being comprehensive, and you are much more constructive in expressing it than I was.

    What do we have, though, once we tally the one-person surveys exhibitions of photographic artists in the second half of life at every venue around the world? A big list of names, even allowing for the well-considered limits suggested above. And a testament to the plethora of gallery walls ready to show photography.

    But I have a nagging sensation that the information gathering will become an end in itself, and obscure the point Richard is trying to make.

    If we keep identifying additional venues, we will structure a kind of Zeno’s dichotomy paradox for ourselves; we will never arrive at completion. Yet, the structure of the argument demands that we reach that vertical asymptote of museums granting retrospectives–an impossible task. Unless, that is, we set a limit on what constitutes a “major” museum. Who’s first into this pool?

  8. Alex Novak /

    Another thought-provoking two-part series. I only wish there were a large group of curators reading these and commenting.

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