What is a Photograph? @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing the work of 21 photographers/artists, variously framed, matted, and displayed, and hung against white walls in a series of interconnected gallery spaces on the lower level of the museum. There are 72 works on view, made between 1964 and 2013. The exhibit was curated by Carol Squiers. A catalog of the exhibit was recently published by Delmonico/Prestel (here). (Installation shots below. ©International Center of Photography, 2014. Photographs by John Berens.)

The following photographers/artists have been included in the exhibit, with the number of works, their details and dates provided as background:

  • Matthew Brandt: 1 chromogenic print soaked in Gray’s Lake water, 2013
  • Marco Breuer: 1 chromogenic paper, embossed and scraped, 2008, 3 gelatin silver papers, burned, 1996, 1998, 2000, 1 chromogenic paper, burned, 2012, 1 gelatin silver paper, brushed, 1998
  • Liz Deschenes: 1 set of 13 gelatin silver photograms, 2013
  • Adam Fuss: 2 gelatin silver photograms, 1988, 1 cibachrome photogram, 2001
  • Owen Kydd: 2 videos, 2011, 2012
  • Floris Neusüss: 1 gelatin silver photogram, 1991, 1 gelatin silver photogram and broom, 1983
  • Marlo Pascual: 1 chromogenic print with wood stool, 2013, 1 chromogenic print with fluorescent light, 2010
  • Sigmar Polke: 1 collage of gelatin silver prints, 1977, 2 gelatin silver prints with applied color, early 1970s, 1 gelatin silver print, 1964-68
  • Eileen Quinlan: 1 chromogenic print, 2011, 2 gelatin silver prints, 2008, 2011-2013
  • Jon Rafman: 2 mixed media prints, 2013, 1 photopolymer resin and acrylic paint, 2013
  • Gerhard Richter: 4 color photographs with enamel/oil, 1998, 2003, 2008, 1 gelatin silver print with oil, 1986
  • Mariah Robertson: 1 unique color print on metallic paper, 2010
  • Alison Rossiter: 12 works on various expired photographic papers, 2007-2013
  • Lucas Samaras: 1 Polacolor instant print with hand applied ink, 1969, 6 manipulated Polaroid SX70 prints, 1973-1976
  • Travess Smalley: 3 pigment prints, 2011
  • David Benjamin Sherry: 2 chromogenic prints, 2012, 2013, 1 chromogenic print with adhesive and sand, 2012
  • Kate Steciw: 1 chromogenic print with custom frame and mixed media, 2012, 1 chromogenic print diptych with custom frame and mixed media, 2013
  • Artie Vierkant: 1 UV print on sintra, 2012, 1 UV print on Dibond, 2013
  • James Welling: 3 inkjet prints, 2006/2008, 3 inkjet prints, 2001
  • Christopher Williams: 1 set of 45 offset prints and tape on paper, 2013
  • Letha Wilson: 1 gelatin silver photogram/chromogenic print, 2012, 1 chromogenic print, concrete, and wood frame, 2012, 1 chromogenic print and concrete, 2012

Comments/Context: In the past decade, digital photography has been morphing and extending itself with such speed and voraciousness that it has found itself encroaching on other artistic mediums with increasing regularity. This active mixing has led to some definitional murkiness on the edges of what we have traditionally called “photography” and some surprisingly vehement infighting among those with opposing broad and narrow views of our current state of affairs. So a new show with the provocative title What is a Photograph? gave me hope that the ICP might be taking a calculated risk and stepping into the fray with its own opinion on the subject – after all, this is what leaders do when there is confusion in the ranks. Alas, this exhibit is not the defining, take charge statement I had hoped it might be, and is instead a ‘tweener of such neither here nor there safety that I can only assume that it started out with one mission and somehow got derailed along the way.

Part of the problem is that the question “what is a photograph” has been dogging the medium since its very invention. It is entirely possible (and appropriate I might add) to go back to 1840 and ask this very same question, when the daguerreotype was the mainstream technology and the salted paper print (or the cyanotype) arrived on the scene; we can also go back nearly that far to begin the camera versus cameraless debate. And at every technological junction since that point, there have been those supporting the existing technology and those embracing the new one, with both sides bickering over the primary definition of a “photograph”. So to start this show at the seemingly arbitrary point of the 1970s and give us a few token examples seems to fundamentally misunderstand how the medium has continually challenged its own boundaries. The theme of this exhibit is a great one – let’s look at those artists and photographers who were consciously coloring outside the lines and understand more fully how those testing the limits of the photography of their particular space and time were approaching the task. The problem is that to do such an idea justice, the exhibit would need to fill the entire museum and would require some smart back and forth comparisons of what was considered mainstream and what was rejected at different points on the artistic timeline. This show is not anywhere near that mythical show (neither in size or scope), and the older/vintage material included here (from Richter and Welling to Polke and Fuss) seems like last minute historical ballast added to ensure broader acceptance of the new work hanging nearby.

The good news is that the as far as the fresh contemporary work goes, the ICP has generally done an admirable job of bringing together what is happening at this moment; most of the artists and photographers who are pushing definitional limits in meaningful ways have been included here (with some notable exceptions which I’ll get to in a moment). But I couldn’t help feeling like they had this show all teed up to be a forward looking survey of contemporary practice and then chickened out at the last minute, throwing in the Breuer, Williams, Samaras et al to soften the blow and widen the appeal. What I wish they had done was to draw a brash curatorial line in the sand and say, “this is what we see happening now”. To my knowledge, aside from the MoMA’s annual forays into New Photography, no museum in the country has done this with any kind of breadth, confidence or authority, and this show had the makings of being that kind of powerful statement. Strip out all the vintage work and add in Jessica Eaton, Lucas Blalock, Sam Falls, Curtis Mann, Brendan Fowler, and a few others tinkering with software/net art in more radical ways, and you’d have the show of this moment in limit testing photography. This is not to say that any or all of this work will ultimately be durable or important; to step forward with those conclusions this early in the game seems outside the bounds of what we can expect from even our most exciting and curatorially sharp museums. But the show would then be a plausibly comprehensive time capsule that we can look at the in future to say, this was what we were thinking about then, even if some of these artists turn out to be one hit wonders that simply had the “sound” of the age calibrated just right.

While I fundamentally wanted to like this exhibit, part of its failing lies in some of its truly mystifying pairings and inclusions. While there are clearly constraints of physical size and balance in this small set of rooms, clusters of like approaches (cameraless, sculptural explorations, software heavy invention etc.) would have helped to bring forth the major lines of contemporary thinking. A back room brings together Alison Rossiter, Travess Smalley, and Owen Kydd (all good choices by the way), with Lucas Samaras thrown in for context – but what’s the connection here? I’m stumped, or perhaps it’s simply a grab bag and I’m grasping at invisible straws. The trio of Gerhard Richter, Kate Steciw, and David Benjamin Sherry in the first room is perhaps connected by surface decoration/obstruction, but this has to be thinnest premise one could possibly come up with, as the surface activity is conceptually different in each case. James Welling’s tinted glass house images (however much we might like them) are a head scratching inclusion in this show; how are they not photographs? And while I was certainly pleased to see solid works by Artie Vierkant, Letha Wilson, and Mariah Robertson on view, I think each might have benefitted from some more thoughtful neighbors who were investigating common questions.

So unfortunately, this exhibit is neither a comprehensive study of changing photographic definitions nor a tight selection of contemporary highlights, and is instead an ungainly hybrid that likely muddies the water more than it clarifies it; this is particularly discouraging as either extreme would have been highly satisfying and potentially important. It is of course unfair to review the show I wanted to see rather than the one that exists, and overall, there are many talented photographers worth getting to know here. But my frustration with this exhibit lies in that it had so much potential to address questions that really do need thoughtful discussion, but that it somehow missed the mark, in the process potentially confusing folks about the nature of the new work being created today and spinning us off on useless tangents. I am entirely enthused by the fact that the ICP seems to be taking more steps to help guide the dialogue around contemporary practice, I just hope that the next time they step into the ring they can bite the bullet and be bolder.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Gallery representation for the included photographers/artists (in New York when possible) is as follows:

  • Matthew Brandt: Yossi Milo Gallery (here)
  • Marco Breuer: Yossi Milo Gallery (here)
  • Liz Deschenes: Miguel Abreu Gallery (here)
  • Adam Fuss: Cheim & Read (here)
  • Owen Kydd: Nicelle Beauchene Gallery (here)
  • Floris Neusüss: Von Lintel Gallery (here)
  • Marlo Pascual: Casey Kaplan (here)
  • Sigmar Polke: Koenig and Clinton (here)
  • Eileen Quinlan: Miguel Abreu Gallery (here)
  • Jon Rafman: Zach Feuer (here)
  • Gerhard Richter: Marian Goodman Gallery (here)
  • Mariah Robertson: American Contemporary (here)
  • Alison Rossiter: Yossi Milo Gallery (here)
  • Lucas Samaras: Pace Gallery (here)
  • Travess Smalley: Higher Pictures (here)
  • David Benjamin Sherry: Salon 94 (here)
  • Kate Steciw: (unknown, was Toomer Labzda now closed)
  • Artie Vierkant: Higher Pictures (here)
  • James Welling: David Zwirner (here)
  • Christopher Williams: David Zwirner (here)
  • Letha Wilson: Higher Pictures (here)

In general, most of the more established artists have verifiable secondary market histories, while the newer artists have little or no record at auction.

Adam Fuss, Alison Rossiter, Artie Vierkant, Christopher Williams, David Benjamin Sherry, Eileen Quinlan, Floris Neusüss, Gerhard Richter, James Welling, Jon Rafman, Kate Steciw, Letha Wilson, Liz Deschenes, Lucas Samaras, Marco Breuer, Mariah Robertson, Marlo Pascual, Matthew Brandt, Owen Kydd, Sigmar Polke, Travess Smalley, International Center of Photography (ICP Museum), Prestel Publishing

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