Lucas Blalock in Frieze

Published in Frieze 170 (April 2015).

Lucas Blalock belongs to a generation of artists, mostly in their 30s and from North America, which is exploring the component parts of photography in a time of dramatic technological change. The results of their investigations vary in form and genre: some work in an abstract vein; others tease apart representation through analogue and digital collage techniques; others exhibit objects that, to a conservative viewer, might only tenuously be described as ‘photographic’. Depending on how widely you wish to cast your net, artists as diverse as Walead Beshty, Talia Chetrit, Sara Cwynar, Jessica Eaton, Shannon Ebner, Sam Falls, Daniel Gordon, John Houck, Artie Vierkant and Hannah Whitaker can be brought together under this rubric of photographic experimentation. And they often are, by museums and galleries newly interested in an artistic medium no longer ghettoized by historical biases against it.

Cover of Frieze 170 (April 2015), featuring a photograph by Lucas Blalock.
Cover of Frieze 170 (April 2015), featuring a photograph by Lucas Blalock.

Blalock’s signal contribution to this dialogue-through-art is his explicit foregrounding of the role computers and digital processing play in the creation of photographs today. The word explicit is key. The labour that underpins many other photographs, especially those created for commercial or editorial use, is effaced in the final product; the goal is for viewers not to notice the airbrushing, the colour correction or the masking. In the photographs that first brought him widespread attention, such as those in his 2011 solo exhibition at New York’s Ramiken Crucible, Blalock reversed that priority, crafting ungainly digital alterations and exposing them to public scrutiny. It’s a simple premise that yielded profound results. In the last five years, Blalock has exhibited and published a large body of strange, and strangely compelling, photographs – still lifes, mostly, but also portraits and semi-abstract compositions – that encourage viewers simultaneously to decode what is being depicted and to ruminate on how that depiction is constructed.

This counters the transparent accessibility of most photographs today, which is augmented by their presence on screens and the ease with which we can modify them. In early interviews, Blalock referenced Bertolt Brecht and spoke of the ‘theatrical’ nature of his studio work, of how he liked to disclose his working process in order to complicate seamless viewing. In recently published conversations, however, Blalock has begun elucidating a broadened set of intellectual concerns that might best be understood through the term ‘friction’.

To read the rest, click here

Means to an End: Steichen for Stehli

My essay on the photographs Edward Steichen made for the Stehli Silks Corporation appears in Osmos 5 (Winter 2015). An excerpt:

Edward Steichen, Sugar Cubes (for Stehli Silks)
Edward Steichen, “Fabric design for Stehli Silk No. 28 (sugar cubes)”

As it steamed across the Atlantic one day in 1926, the Isle de France was the site of a chance encounter. Ruzzie Green, at the time an illustrator and designer, was on his way to Europe, perhaps to the Swiss headquarters of the Stehli Silks Corporation, where he served as art director. On deck he chanced upon Edward Steichen, the artist whose pictures were revolutionizing fashion photography. The two struck up a conversation, and, in short order, a deal: Steichen would contribute designs to Stehli’s popular “Americana” line of fabrics. The fruits of their collaboration, when released to the public the following spring, would prove to be not only a commercial success, but they would also draw together a remarkable number of aesthetic, social, and economic trends: celebrity, artistic abstraction, mass production and consumption, the creative appropriation of everyday consumer objects—in short, much of what we identify with modern American society and culture.

Green and Steichen’s meeting came at an auspicious moment. Historians of American culture, including Lizabeth Cohen and William Leach, have described the mid-1920s as an era of standardized production, mass consumption, corporate expansion, and increasingly influential advertising. America had emerged from the wreckage of World War I relatively unscathed and the stock market crash was still a few years away. Five-cent theaters featuring ethnic films were losing ground to the Hollywood system; mom-and-pop shops were being displaced by department stores and national chains. Recognizable brands were being promoted by familiar names and faces.

Stehli’s “Americana” line capitalized on these transformations, deploying celebrity name recognition to sell its mass-produced textiles. Green hired nearly one hundred prominent figures to create—or at least lend their names to—these patterns, which were sold by the yard for dressmaking and other domestic applications. Participants included Helen Wills, an eight-time Wimbledon champion, the cartoonist John Held, Jr., and the fashion desire Pierre Mourgue.

Green commissioned dozens of artists to create patterns for Stehli, but Steichen was the only photographers who contributed to the “Americana” line.

To read the rest, pick up Osmos 5 on newsstands or online via D.A.P.


“Our Poor Perishable World”

I wrote an essay on photographer Robert Adams, novelist Marilynne Robinson, and landscapes as sacred spaces that has been published in Issue Eight of The Common, a literary journal about “the modern sense of place.”

An excerpt:

Eden, unworthiness, ultimate judgment, grace: Adams’s is a biblical language of sin and possible redemption. Thinking of the Riverside picture in these terms, one can understand the blinding whiteness of the sun as a metaphor. Not only is it representative of our own destructiveness, suggesting that the further we push down the path of sprawl and development, the less of the current landscape’s beauty we’ll be able to see; it is also a symbol of our inability to comprehend what lies beyond this process—whether you believe that is more like heaven or hell. In Adams’s view, the landscape is sacred. And the quality of attention he gives to it is itself a form of prayer. At Yale, while I looked at hundreds of Adams’s beautiful photographs, beautiful even when they are records of humankind’s most wanton destruction, the treatment of landscape in an altogether different artist’s work came inexorably to mind.

The essay has been published online; read it by clicking this link.

Op-ed in the Cincinnati Enquirer

On November 18 I published an opinion piece in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Its subject, the use of cameras in public spaces, relates to my exhibition “Eyes on the Street” at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

How many times were you photographed or videotaped yesterday? The answer is likely higher than you think. In the last two decades, the rapidly decreasing cost of image-capture technology has meant a proliferation of cameras in both public and private spaces. At the same time, the widespread use of smartphones means most of us now carry a camera everywhere we go.

When a news story brings this proliferation to our attention, it’s often because a camera has captured something that, in the past, would likely have gone unrecorded. Think of the role cameras have played in bringing us information – instantaneously – about protests in far-off places like Hong Kong or the Middle East. Or how, closer to home, news of the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has been shaped by cell-phone footage. When public spaces and cameras enter the news together, it is often at socially or politically contentious moments.

It is important to try to understand more fully the ways our lives are now intertwined with cameras.

To read the rest, click here.

“Findings”—On Jochen Lempert

Several years ago, the literary scholar and biographer Richard Holmes told the story of the “second scientific revolution” in Britain. Beginning with Captain James Cook’s first round-the-world expedition, which departed in 1768, and ending with Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos Islands, begun in 1831, Holmes described how enterprising figures brought “a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work.” These men laboured in disparate fields—from astronomy to chemistry to biology—yet, Holmes claims, “the notion of wonder” united them. Reacting against the idea of a purely mechanistic universe, they took exploratory voyages and dwelt in mystery and inspiration. By the mid-nineteenth century, this “Age of Wonder,” as Holmes called it, would give way to a Victorian science more recognizably modern—cooler and more restrained. Yet the notion of Romantic science Holmes explores is worth retaining, not least because it highlights the acts of imagination that are an important part of any scientific enterprise.

In a similar vein, art historians and critics have recently examined the “Romantic” side of Conceptual art, itself commonly understood as wedded to notions of logic and rigor. As Jörg Heiser noted in a 2002 article, Conceptual artists such as Bas Jan Ader attempted “systematically treating the unsystematic,” such as emotional states. In the course of exposing the tensions of modern art, these artists collapsed its primary distinctions—“analysis versus beauty, thought versus desire”—in what Heiser described as a kind of “alchemy.”

The echo of scientific inquiry in the term alchemy is apropos of German artist Jochen Lempert, who trained as a biologist before turning full-time to art making in the early 1990s. His seemingly casual photographs of flora, fauna, and ephemeral natural events benefit from his scientific training, though their analytical rigor is less obvious than their “poetry” (that other Romantic specialty). His images are unprepossessing when encountered individually: a pigeon on a sidewalk, a stick bug on an outdoor table, leaves swept upward by an unseen wind. Yet they are animated by a savvy observational acuity, one honed by Lempert’s years studying dragonflies. And his installations, for which he devises novel combinations of photographs, possess a quietly mesmeric force. By carefully controlling the progression of focus, scale, and other features, Lempert performs alchemical transformations in his own right, and makes of his modest endeavors something enchanting.

The first thing one notices about Lempert’s photographs is their peculiar physical presence. In a world dominated by on-screen JPEGs and the smooth color gradations of inkjet prints, Lempert always works in black-and-white and prints his photographs using analogue techniques. He often manipulates them as he processes them in his studio lab. After a rigorous editing process, he hangs the finished artworks un-matted and unframed, taped to the gallery wall in such a way that their rippling edges sometimes lift off its surface. The paper he uses has a relatively loose weave, giving each picture a softer effect; even his most sharply focused images seem, upon first glance, like charcoal drawings or finely detailed pencil sketches. In a world of digital C-prints the size of billboards, the material properties of Lempert’s artworks reveal a sensibility rooted in timeless concerns.

These photographs are recombined for each presentation of Lempert’s work. Pictures from the early 1990s bump up against phenomena he observed recently. Some of Lempert’s sly juxtapositions are based upon formal allegiances. A subtle dark pattern on a butterfly’s hind wing is revealed more fully after Lempert juxtaposes it with a similar-looking tattoo on a woman’s upper back. An isolated piece of coral acquires zoomorphic attributes when placed next to an image of a flamingo’s body. Or consider, as in his recent retrospective at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, which garnered him the nomination for this year’s Deutsche Börse Prize, the berry of a deadly nightshade plant with light bouncing off its spherical surface; the toxic specimen parallels the eye of a squirrel in an adjacent picture.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at Norma Mangione, Turin, 2013.
Jochen Lempert, installation view at Norma Mangione, Turin, 2013.

Other combinations and series perform different tasks. Some are homages to figures in his initial field, as with his photographs of the title pages of Charles P. Alexander’s research papers on crane flies. The papers span several decades, and Lempert’s photographs of them are a paean to the unheralded task behind such research: dedicated, long-term observation. That dedication, however, can admit whimsy. Several photographs of four swans floating in a pond, included in the series Constellation, never quite create a perfect square. In that imperfection, they bring to my mind John Baldessari’s inimitable 1973 work Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts).

Other photographs celebrate pioneers of scientific photography, as with his photograms made by pressing light-sensitive paper to a computer-screen display of images from Anna Atkins’s 1843 volume British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, considered the first book illustrated with photographs. In a further reference to Atkins, Lempert has also made his own photograms with algae, as well as with other subjects, such as lily pads and frogs. One such artwork tracks the path of a glow-worm across several sheets of light-sensitive paper; the image it produced was exposed solely by the subject’s own bioluminescence.

But whether observed in the field or produced in a darkroom, Lempert’s photographs can also raise vexing philosophical questions. One of my favorite artworks he has made comprises six photographs of waves cresting on a roiling sea, each with an identical horizon line. They hint at the unremitting and yet futile attempts we make to organize perceptual phenomena; the images are similar enough that a viewer is tempted to devise a category into which to slot them—a fundamental human impulse, and a linchpin of scientific inquiry. (Linneaus is famous today for regularizing binominal nomenclature and his pioneering taxonomic classifications, not his collections of specimens. That deadly nightshade plant is also known as Atropa belladonna.) But what category might these pictures of waves slot into? And once you’ve outlined its contours, how would you fill such a category with photographs? Photographing the sea with any systematic intent is a Sisyphean task. As if to drive home the point, Lempert has also photographed the patterns created by raindrops splashing on the surface of a body of water—two impossible-to-visualize systems interfering with one another. He frequently tests the camera’s vision against the natural world, and then encourages us to dwell upon how the natural world trumps human perception and understanding.

By acknowledging those limitations, we open the door to doubt and uncertainty, for which we compensate with the poetic imagination. For all his training in science, and despite the scientific principles his photographs illustrate and the utilitarian information they may carry, Lempert’s pictures are also undeniably lyrical. In the catalogue accompanying his recent retrospective, Frédéric Paul asserts that it is “a human error to see a poetic invention in the behavior of a bird”—yet I’m confident that, like me, Paul succumbs to the impulse when looking at Lempert’s photographs. Lempert’s photographs are not controlled experiments, but rather explorations, voyages of discovery.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, 2013.
Jochen Lempert, installation view at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, 2013.

It is another literary scholar, the late Guy Davenport, who describes what I take to be the impulse animating Jochen Lempert’s work. In an essay on the “amateur archeology” of family trips to hunt for American Indian arrowheads, Davenport writes, “what lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things—earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem not ever to have been looked at before. . . . [Thoreau’s] daily walks [had] a purpose that covered the whole enterprise but was not serious enough to make the walk a chore or a duty.” Davenport continues, “our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.” Foraging, that prehistoric impulse, has not been bred out of us. Lempert’s modest voyages of discovery—often no more than day trips around his hometown—result in photographs that give us twin pleasures: that of the hunt, of course, and that of attending closely to what he has found.

This essay is published in the catalogue accompanying the 2014 Deutsche Börse Prize exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, London. The exhibition is on view until June 22. For more information, click here.

Sharon Core, Early American

My short essay “Cross Pollination” has been published in Early American, a monograph devoted to the series of the same name by photographer Sharon Core. The book is available now from Radius Books. Here is an excerpt, taken from the middle of the essay:

Like [Raphaelle] Peale’s paintings, Core’s photographs possess remarkable descriptive detail, which contrasts with their plain, indistinct environments. The objects of our attention rest on a ledge or table of indeterminate scale; the backdrops at times blend seamlessly into this horizontal surface. A gentle light suffuses each scene, often from one side of the image, its source unknowable. The compositions, too, are meant to be unobtrusive. Peale centered his objects, which are arranged in stately, pyramidal heaps. They are placed uncannily close to the viewer, the better to highlight their anatomical detail. These choices are partly unique to Peale, and partly a function of the time in which the paintings were made. In early nineteenth-century America, before the invention of photography, still lifes were not only objects of aesthetic delight, but also tools of instruction. They were a way of recording the country’s bounty, and of demonstrating to Americans the specific qualities of that bounty.

It took Core long hours to collect the items (both organic and inorganic) necessary to re-create Peale’s compositions….

Core will be signing copies of the book at Yancey Richardson Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, on Wednesday, November 28, from 6:00–8:00 PM.

“The Permanent Way” Brochure Essay

This essay accompanies “The Permanent Way,” an exhibition I have organized for apexart. It opens Wednesday, June 6, with a reception from 6 to 8 PM, and runs through July 28, 2012.

Famous Horse Shoe Curve, on Main Line P.R.R., ca. 1910. Collection of Luc Sante.

July 1 is the sesquicentennial of the Pacific Railway Act, the federal legislation that enabled the development of the first transcontinental railroad. The law, in conjunction with the Homestead Act (passed just six weeks earlier), signaled the government’s commitment to westward expansion even as the union itself was imperiled by civil war. It provided thirty-year government bonds and extensive land grants to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies, which used these concessions to build over 1,700 miles of track. In May 1869, the two roads were joined at Promontory Summit, in the Utah Territory. Other transcontinentals followed soon thereafter.

Historians have long debated the economic and political value of these railroads. For Alfred Chandler, the growth of the railroad companies required an important “managerial revolution” that pointed the way to modern corporate capitalism. For Richard White, writing recently, the transcontinentals were thoughtlessly built ahead of demand, and the dramatic failures of these companies at the end of the nineteenth century unjustly imposed punitive costs on the public. All scholars of the railroads, however, agree that their amazing growth during the second half of the century fundamentally reshaped the American landscape. As White notes, “these railroads formed a lever that in less than a generation turned western North America on its axis so that what had largely moved north–south now moved east–west.”

The shift wasn’t only in the movement of goods, but also in the picture of America that its citizens carried in their minds. In recognition of the Pacific Railway Act’s anniversary, “The Permanent Way” considers the centrality of railroads to Americans’ understanding of the country’s landscape. Today, trains are a “natural” component of that picture, as essential as broad, grassy plains and mountain peaks in the distance.

That we take trains for granted was not always the case. Cultural historian Leo Marx’s important book The Machine In the Garden (1964) opens with the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne enjoying the tranquil environs of Sleepy Hollow, near Concord, Massachusetts, in 1844. Hawthorne’s pastoral reverie is rudely interrupted:

But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive—the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumberous peace.

The smoke-belching engines were an unfamiliar incursion, and Marx catalogues the affronted responses of numerous writers upset by the recognition that railroads would permanently alter their environment. Yet by the time of the Pacific Railway Act, just two decades later, the railroads had become an integral element of American life, for better and for worse. Time and space collapsed as people were able to travel further, faster, than ever before, and places without benefit of direct connection were woven together in a mesh of steel. The costs of such convenience, we now recognize, were enormous: the lives of the railroads’ (often immigrant) construction crews; the livelihoods of those pushed aside by the entering wedge of westward expansion; the political ideals corrupted by back-room business negotiations; the savings erased when lines failed to materialize or collapsed. Yet there was no going back. In the eight years after the end of the Civil War, the mileage of operating railroad track more than doubled, to seventy thousand. As landscape writer John Stilgoe notes, “Emerson and his contemporaries knew the train and the railroad as novelties; subsequent generations were born into a world in which trains seemed as commonplace as spiderwebs.”

Justine Kurland, Doyle, CA, 2007.

Photography was itself a new invention in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and as a technology it grew up alongside railroads—especially in America, where the first accurate representations of a given place were often made by photographers working on behalf of railroad expansion. Surveys of this vast, largely uncharted territory were commissioned by the government and by the railroad companies themselves, and sent photographers like A.J. Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson out into the field. Their images, widely distributed through government documents, news-media reproductions, and tourist publications, played an especially important role in refashioning the imagined American landscape.

This exhibition includes a small selection of such materials, encompassing railroad maps, lithographs taken from illustrated magazines, other prints, and turn-of-the-twentieth-century photo-postcards. From them, one can discover how quickly fresh observation gave way to visual convention. Axial views quickly become a stock-in-trade, whether depicting tracks receding to a single vanishing point in the distance or bisecting the frame parallel to the picture plane. So, too, one can repeatedly witness railroad engines, marvels of human ingenuity, overcoming adverse natural elements, as in the two nearly identical prints, from separate publications, depicting a train struggling through snowdrifts, its headlamp a beacon of progress.

Subsequent generations of photographers have walked the same trails, navigated the same canyons, forded the same rivers, and ascended to the same peaks as these men did during the “Era of Exploration.” They have also responded to the visual tropes inherited from earlier eras. The artists included in this exhibition are not exclusively engaged with depicting railroads, or even solely concerned with the American landscape. Nonetheless, at various points in their careers each has found the railroads—or their ruins—a subject worth exploring.

Of the five artists included in this exhibition, Mark Ruwedel, based in southern California, is most closely identified with railroads. His series “Westward the Course of Empire” (1994-2007) documents with taxonomic precision the remains of North American lines. In a gesture reminiscent of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruwedel exhibits small black-and-white photographs as grids arranged by type: trestle bridges, cuts through rock faces, tunnel mouths, paths through field and forest. The Bechers survey industrial plants, and Ruwedel’s adoption of their signature technique highlights the “industrial” nature of even the most rural Western outpost. Despite focusing upon abandoned rail infrastructure, his lens necessarily captures evidence of the land’s other uses, thereby demonstrating how the rails were but one human use of the landscape in an unending succession of uses. Even when the environment is seemingly pristine, as in the photographs by Jeff Brouws presented here, one can’t help but be aware of human incursion, of the fact that human places are necessarily palimpsests. Best known for his photographs of the signs, buildings, and infrastructure of vernacular and decaying American landscapes, Brouws’s images here are by contrast remarkably restrained. Working near his Dutchess County home in upstate New York, the artist sought out traces of the competing agricultural and dairy railroads that helped feed New York’s hungry mouths and slake its thirst. The resultant works show no evidence of this bustling industry save for their pathways, the quiet negative space an inversion of the sites’ former bustling activity.

The complexity depicted in these photographers’ landscapes can have economic, social, political, and cultural manifestations. In many of her photographs, Victoria Sambunaris manages to reveal several such entanglements at once. She seeks “phenomena that are ubiquitous and familiar to a particular region but are anomalous to an ordinary eye,” and often finds an elevated or distant vantage point from which to highlight incongruities. So it is with a photograph included in this exhibition.Untitled (VS-10-10), Train from Cristo Rey, Sunland Park, NM, from her ongoing series “The Border,” depicts a rail line bending dramatically as it skirts the US-Mexico border. At this site, robbers from nearby Anapras, Mexico, had regularly thrown items onto the Union Pacific tracks to force the trains to stop, after which men would sieze the cargo and carry it directly across the border. The FBI organized a sting in 2000 that went awry, leaving two agents badly injured. The railroad still operates along this corridor, funneling millions of dollars worth of goods through dangerous borderland territory and highlighting, with each run, economic disparity and social tension.

Justine Kurland’s images often feature people who have oriented their lives to particular places. They become, frequently by choice, socially marginalized, interacting as much with like-minded communities as with the broader population. In her recent series “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” Kurland focuses upon the subculture of the nomadic hobo—as both romantic American myth and quotidian lived reality. In the unpopulated images from the series chosen for this exhibition, one can sense the landscape as these particular inhabitants view it, with trains accorded a central role.

Jeff Brouws, Railroad Landscape #56, former Poughkeepsie and Eastern right-of-way as ingress to private hunting presere (abandoned 1938), MP 92, view south, Winter, McIntyre, New York, 2010.

James Welling’s railroad photographs, made two decades ago, are but one facet of a prismatic career that encompasses abstractions, architectural photography, and experiments with the properties of the medium. In this exhibition they offer the closest look at the infrastructure of working railroads, and by extension the trains themselves. The engines move through a space that Stilgoe dubs the “metropolitan corridor” to indicate both its technological sophistication and its sense of in-betweenness and linkage. In Welling’s documentary images, one can witness how the complexities described above are mirrored in an intricacy manifested along the route.

Permanent way is a term for the track on a railroad, from roadbed to rails. Here it is shorthand for the epochal shift these railroads caused in our picture of America. This exhibition commemorates the momentous decision, taken 150 years ago, to commit to the railroads’ expansion, and reflects upon how even its greatest champions could not have predicted how transformative such a choice proved to be.

Further Reading

Chandler, Alfred D. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1977).

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 [orig. 1964]).

Naef, Weston J. Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West, 1860-1885 (Buffalo, NY: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1975).

Sandweiss, Martha A. Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002).

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986).

Stilgoe, John R. Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983).

White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

Alexander Gutke

This essay was written in 2009, and is published in Alexander Gutke (Fundação Caixa Geral de Depoósitos – Culturgest, 2011). For more information on the artist and images of his other works, visit his page on the Galerija Gregor Podnar website.

Exploded View, 2005. Installation view and detail images.

On September 26, 2003, the Eastman Kodak Company declared, in a press release, that it would stop making and selling slide projectors by the following June. “In recent years, slide projectors have declined in usage, replaced by alternative projection technologies,” the announcement noted. Alternative, of course, was a code word for digital, and for many people the decision represented yet one more nail in the coffin of analogue technology. Yet, as art historian Pamela M. Lee observed soon afterward, “Given its ubiquity in both studio and art-historical pedagogy, the modern slide projector… has played more than a supporting role in the visual arts from its inception.” Thus Kodak’s decision prompted a brief spurt of commemorative activity, including “Slideshow,” an exhibition held at the Baltimore Museum of Art in early 2005. Though not consciously a response to the Kodak announcement, Alexander Gutke’s slide-projection pieces Exploded View (2005) and Lighthouse (2006) stand out amid the stream of artworks and texts that it occasioned for their rigor, their austere beauty, and the conceptual complexity embedded in their seemingly simple execution. Like the staple technique of the art history class, these two works offer what can be termed a “slide comparison.” But, rather than juxtapose two images, Gutke’s artworks place two ways of understanding analogue projection technology side by side: Exploded View examines what a projector is; Lighthouse demonstrates what a projector does.

Exploded View appears to be a vivisection. Its eighty-one slides lay bare the innards of another Kodak Carousel projector. To create the work, Gutke had a technician slice apart a projector one slide bay at a time, a process that the artist documented in photographs. Each successive cut revealed more of the machine’s plastic, metal, and glass guts; each image projected onto the wall presents a different combination of wires, lenses, bulbs, small screws, and the body housing these elements. The images progress from representational to abstract and back again, as distinct elements of the projector’s body come into view and are diligently excised. (Since the carousel loops, the process never ends.) The precise articulation of the projector’s component parts calls to mind Albert Renger-Patzsch’s ultra-clear Neue Sachlichkeit-style photographs of industrial machines. Gutke’s images, tissue samples of an outmoded technology, could perhaps be used to reconstruct the machine.

Lighthouse substitutes lyricism for Exploded View’s quasi-scientific astringency, without lapsing into sentimentality. In this work, a rectangle of light is slowly rotated through 360 degrees, over the course of eighty-one slides. What begins as a flat plane of light resting on the surface of the wall seems to become an incision into the wall’s surface. At the carousel’s midpoint, the narrow sliver of light is ostensibly “perpendicular” to the wall onto which it is projected. As the slides progress, the “image” of light swings back into parallel alignment with the wall. Then the cycle is repeated. The work’s title evokes a tower erected by the coast, its searching beam of light aligning with the seafarer’s eyes once per revolution. But Lighthouse suggests other equally romantic interpretations. The light’s waxing and waning, for example, calls to mind charts of the lunar cycle.

Lighthouse, 2006. Installation view.

Exploded View and Lighthouse are attempts to find intrinsic content in a machine that is usually subservient to the images dropped into its bays. Gutke demonstrates how the projector can generate meaning on its own, without the assistance of Tintoretto paintings or technical diagrams or family photos slotted into its carousel. One way this can be interpreted is as a subtle rejoinder to the inexorability of the switch from analogue to digital projection technologies. The works remind viewers that something particular and distinctive is lost in the transition. What basically is this insistence on medium specificity, other than a protest against supersession? If the Kodak press release announced the “death” of the slide projector, then perhaps Exploded View is less like a vivisection and more like an autopsy. According to this view, having explored the projector’s guts and found something estimable, Lighthouse, with its “voided” image, becomes the scene of resurrection. The images have fled to some great beyond, but the autopsied machine returns to life and exhibits its essential dignity.

The way Gutke isolates particulars about his chosen medium to highlight their specific properties has an art-historical precedent in the experimental and conceptual artworks created in the 1960s and 1970s using film, slide projectors, and then-new video technologies. Exploded View and Lighthouse recall works by Dan Graham, Anthony McCall, and others. Lighthouse, in particular, through its tracing of a circle, brings to mind Robert Morris’s infrequently exhibited film installation Finch College Project (1969). For that work, Morris instructed cameraman Robert Fiore to film a crew of workers installing and de-installing a grid of mirrored squares and a gridded black-and-white photograph on the opposite walls of a room. Fiore set the camera on a turntable revolving at one revolution per minute, and the finished work was projected into the same space; the projection rotated around the now blank walls at the same speed. But, whereas Morris’s projection relied on filmic imagery to create a palimpsest of past and present, Gutke’s work deploys a contrived, though plausible, “function” of the slide projector to create a palimpsest of real and fictional space. Lighthouse and Exploded View are works in which the seemingly direct efforts made by the artist produce uncanny, manifold effects.

The slide projector’s historical antecedent is the magic lantern, which is generally thought to have been invented in the mid-seventeenth century by the Dutch scientist Christiaen Huygens. The relationship of this device to death and to haunting was noted early in the lantern’s history. A 1671 description of the lantern in Athanasius Kircher’s Ars magna lucis et umbrae was accompanied by illustrations depicting projections of a soul in purgatory and a skeleton holding an hourglass and a scythe. (Huygens’s device, used to entertain elites and royals, was called “the lantern of fright.”) The “phantasmagoria” magic lantern show would remain popular throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States. Gutke’s focused explorations of the slide projector ostensibly remove the “magic” from this magic lantern–like technology. There certainly seems to be nothing hiding behind Exploded View. Yet something ineffable and entrancing remains.

One might contend that what lingers is mere nostalgia for an obsolescent technology, though it’s hard to see how these two artworks are nostalgic. Art historian T.J. Demos has observed that a slide projection, by “locating the viewer between memory and anticipation, opens an indeterminate zone between the autonomy of the single-frame photograph and the uninterrupted continuity of filmic illusion.” This observation is astute, but does not seem to account for the particular effect of Gutke’s two slide-projection works. It seems to me, rather, that the enduring power Gutke confers upon the humble Kodak projectors arises from a tension between finitude and infinitude. Gutke’s exploration seems to have reached a logical conclusion (and is therefore finite) yet in doing so it highlights something endless: the circular carousel’s loop. His incisive reduction of the slide projector to its barest essences—what it is, what it does—coexists with the recognition of the machine’s ability to imply ceaselessness. And it is precisely this sense of perpetuity that counters any fatalism about the death of the medium. At the moment of the slide projector’s ostensible “death,” Gutke has invested the humble contraption with a dignified sense of life.

Essay in “Taking Aim”

To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its Artist in the Marketplace program, the Bronx Museum has published Taking AIM: The Business of Being an Artist Today. The book, edited by Marysol Nieves, features essays by and interviews with figures who play numerous roles in the art world, among them artist, dealer, curator, art advisor, collector, art fair director, and foundation executive. I contributed an essay to the section devoted to critics; it appears alongside a survey of five other critics–slash–art historians conducted by Raphael Rubinstein. In my text, I use reviews of the annual Artist in the Marketplace exhibitions published in the New York Times to trace recent developments in art and the art world, including the fluctuations of the market, the ethnic diversity of artists, and the rise of the MFA program. Below is an excerpt. Related exhibitions, “Taking AIM” and “Bronx Calling,” are on view at the museum from June 26 through September 5.

Those who created the Artist in the Marketplace program recognized important, and relatively new, aspects of the art world in 1980: its increasing complexity and the differentiation of roles within it. Successful artists based in New York would henceforth have to negotiate not only with dealers, the small coterie that had been their professional face for decades, but also with curators, lawyers, critics, and others. To run a studio, the program’s founders suggested, required management skills that until roughly that time one could mostly avoid having. The title of the program, and particularly the use of the word “marketplace,” acknowledged another new reality. Despite the rapid proliferation of “arts professionals,” power, however one wished to define it, was increasingly concentrated in the abstract space of the “marketplace”—a space into which only a few people could see clearly. The definition of artistic success had been channeled into a narrower frame: market acceptance. Artist in the Marketplace aimed to demystify both developments. It would introduce emerging artists to the dense thicket of people they would have to engage and it would explain many of the ground rules for that engagement.

Critics sensitive to such systemic changes recorded them in print, though their tone was not often one of such pragmatic adjustment. Rather, they lamented the flight of power from their hands. Peter Schjeldahl inaugurated his column in the Village Voice in 1981, only one year after AIM’s founding. His opening salvo explained the ascendant dynamic with typical flair: “Such purposeful power as critics used to have disappeared with the time lag between the appearance of something new and its acceptance, a transition dealers manage now seemingly in a matter of hours. The art-worldly function of critics has become largely ceremonial: after-dinner speakers at the victory party. Thus critics tend to dig in their heels.” [1] Indeed they did, and in subsequent decades critical handwringing became its own art form, as evidenced in the contentious collections The Crisis of Criticism (1998) and Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice (2006). [2] Though each participant in these debates offered a different answer to the question of what is to be done, a majority voiced Schjeldahl’s concern that the elevation of artists to canonical status was no longer a slow, thoughtful process in which critics actively participated. What was to become of connoisseurship and taste?

Such rhetoric, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt. The glory days, for which the height of Clement Greenberg’s career in the 1950s and early 1960s is shorthand, were not always glorious. And the downward trajectory these critics lament hasn’t been a slide into complete irrelevance: Artists still seek thoughtful critical responses to their work; being selected for the cover of an art magazine remains an important career milestone; and critics are, after all, still invited to speak with AIM participants each year. One ironic result of this (at times overwrought) concern with supersession was that some critics unselfconsciously followed the dictates against which they railed. As one critic phrased it in a review of a group exhibition in 1987, “Few if any of these artists have yet staked out a personal territory. Partly, it is a matter of youth but mostly it has to do with the press’s view of artists as athletes and its compulsion to beat the bushes for ever younger champions.” [3] By seeking to ensure their own influence upon art, at least some writers felt they ended up playing the game by the marketplace’s rules.

The mild mea culpa offered by this writer was published in a review of the 1987 AIM exhibition. Tracing the developments outlined above through reviews of AIM exhibitions is difficult; The New York Times has been the only consistent venue for interpretation of these shows. (This fact in itself prompts useful thoughts about what is considered the proper object of traditional forms of art criticism.) The sample size is not only small—limited to a handful of the paper’s staff critics—but also atypical. Unlike trade magazines such as Artforum, Frieze, and Art in America, which often feature writing by congenital worriers who contribute to books on the state of art criticism, the Times has a mass audience. Its writers must demystify the arcana of contemporary art objects—in a manner akin to the AIM program’s mandate to explain the social milieu that surrounds those objects.

While one can’t precisely diagnose the health of art criticism through these reviews, reading thirty years’ worth of them does offer interesting lessons about the possibilities and limitations of the form. It quickly becomes apparent that AIM program exhibitions are a kind of Rorschach blot. The shows are large and include work in a range of artistic media. The artists are represented by only one or two objects and are often unknown to the writer. Times critics therefore have neither the ability nor the space to engage with any individual artist or object in depth. In many instances, they use the cross-disciplinary “representativeness” of the exhibition, as well as the selectivity of the AIM program, to make grand pronouncements about the state of art.


What remains unexplored in these texts is the unique structure of the AIM program itself. The newspaper review must adhere closely to the objects readers will encounter upon a visit to the gallery, and the trade magazine editor often won’t consider nonthematic group exhibitions of young artists worth analyzing in her pages. Yet these annual summertime presentations are not regular group shows; they are the culmination of an intensive, months-long educational and social process. Should the AIM program’s distinctive structure—and its effects, if any, upon the objects presented in the gallery—be analyzed critically? This is where a more broadly conceived criticism should step in. The singular nature of the AIM program calls out for equally idiosyncratic examination; critics should feel encouraged to explore the boundaries of the review format. The changing media environment that we are currently navigating—especially the proliferation of new distribution technologies—may provide opportunities for such efforts. What would it mean for a critic to “embed” with an AIM cohort for some time prior to reviewing the exhibition? Or to discuss the maturation process itself? The newspaper review remains an important rite of passage for young artists; it allows them to see how the ambiguousness and richness of their work is distilled by the mind of an astute viewer, and it introduces them to a wider audience than they might otherwise have found. But during the past thirty years, both criticism and the marketplace have undergone fundamental changes. Marking the anniversary of Artist in the Marketplace provides an opportunity to rethink the ways in which critics evaluate the capstone exhibitions. Doing so thoughtfully could provide benefits to both artists and critics.

[1] Peter Schjeldahl, The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978-1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 63.

[2] Maurice Berger, ed., The Crisis of Criticism (New York: The New Press, 1998).

[3] Raphael Rubenstein, ed., Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice (Lenox, Mass.: Hard Press Editions, 2006).

Sara VanDerBeek

Published in Aperture 202, Spring 2011.


Sara VanDerBeek, A Composition for Detroit, 2009. Installation view, MoMA, New York.


Sara VanDerBeek’s contribution to the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography 2009 exhibition was A Composition for Detroit, a quartet of photographs made that year. Like the photographs she had been exhibiting for the previous half decade, it is made up of images of images: each panel depicts a geometric scaffold, erected against a dark backdrop in the artist’s studio, to which she affixed reproductions of other photographs, including ones by Walker Evans and Leonard Freed. Unlike her earlier works, however, A Composition for Detroit also includes images VanDerBeek herself shot while visiting Motor City. Some of these component parts are in the background, obscured by the scaffolding or a painted pane of glass hung on it; others are depicted whole. VanDerBeek has said that the idea for the work came from a bank of broken windows she saw in Detroit, and the blank spaces in her composition—both within and across the four panels—deftly evoke that inspiration and give the work a syncopated rhythm. A Composition for Detroit is a threnody for a place laid low by the mid-century flight of manufacturing and its middle-class tax base, a place now grappling with the additional traumas of the current economic recession. With its inclusion of careworn photographic reproductions and its spacing across multiple panels, the work is also, more broadly, a meditation on time and entropy.

The photographs for which VanDerBeek first became known were, like the piece exhibited at MoMA, created in the studio with techniques borrowed from sculpture and collage. Most feature a single, somewhat rickety construction, laden with both photographic reproductions and talismanic objects—feathers, necklaces and chains, ribbons, and the like. The pictures are themselves invocations, calling forth the spirits of modernist precursors, from Constantin Brancusi and Alexander Calder to László Moholy-Nagy and Max Ernst; of classical cultures and historical figures; and of the artist’s father, the experimental filmmaker and artist Stan VanDerBeek, for whom the canny juxtaposition of images was second nature. Sara VanDerBeek brought together items ripped from the pages of art-history surveys and mass-market magazines or extracted from her father’s archive or from her own collections, placing them in exquisite if somewhat precious arrangements that she bathed in dramatic light. The resulting photographs, with evocative titles like A Different Kind of Idol, Ziggurat, and Mrs. Washington’s Bedroom (all 2006), are long on atmosphere and rich in allusions: each fragment is a keyhole into another world. Everything is suspended within shallow, anonymous spaces. These images, while possessing the qualities of a dream, are also commentaries on the erosion of boundaries in today’s media environment and on the instantaneous retrieval of historical information made possible by modern technology. They present history as image, or as a palimpsest of images. VanDerBeek makes calculated use of light, shadow, color, and the boundaries of the picture plane. Yet the prints are unusual in a distinct way. Each image is a one-to-one-scale replica of its subject: that is, a tabletop arrangement of twenty-by-sixteen inches results in a print of approximately the same dimensions. Each photograph is not only an index of something that once existed in the world; it is a direct copy of that worldly presence.

Having developed a unique pictorial language, VanDerBeek spent several years honing it, a process that first entailed the stripping away of extraneous elements and later the near total exclusion of photographic reproductions. The busily referential works she exhibited in 2006 gave way to a series of increasingly spare compositions, such as Eclipse I (2008). In that image, two photographic reproductions of ancient sculptural figures are affixed to a vertical, white-painted wooden pole. Also affixed to it is a thin metal ring from which emanates a series of string “rays” (likely the source of the work’s title). Subtle details animate the composition, reminding viewers that they are looking at a sculpture in space, not a flat image composed on a screen: one of the classical reproductions is affixed to the side of the pole and one to its front face; the entire arrangement is not perpendicular to the lens but slightly off-kilter; the “rays” slice diagonally downward, while the shadows the construction projects onto the white backdrop canter off in the opposite direction. After (2009) achieves a similar complexity without recourse to other images, relying instead on the play of angles and simple washes of paint over plastic and glass for incident.


Sara VanDerBeek, Caryatid, 2010.

In more recent works, color too has been drained from the image—VanDerBeek shoots with color film but prints in black and white. Caryatid (2010) is one example of this technique. A column of six cast-plaster forms rests on a sun-dappled wooden floor between two windows. The light streaming through them washes out the upper corners of the composition, leaving an inverted T to offset the thin vertical presence in the center of the image. Mirrors resting on the floor reflect VanDerBeek’s caryatid, hinting at Brancusian endlessness. Such a simple figure seems to aim for the impassiveness and iconicity of an architectural column or a totem pole, yet the handmade quality of VanDerBeek’s construction remains evident. Here is something stark and timeless, yet expressive of an individual maker.

VanDerBeek’s series of reductive gestures approaches an endpoint with images like Treme (2010). Two blocky forms, white over blue, rest against a neutral gray and white background; they too are cast in plaster, and have been painted in simple vertical washes. Despite its reticent minimalism and its genesis within the walls of VanDerBeek’s studio, the picture has a real-world referent: its juxtaposition of colors mimics the stairway outside an abandoned modernist schoolhouse the artist encountered in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.

Treme is part of To Think of Time, the three-part suite of new photographs (all 2010) comprising VanDerBeek’s first solo exhibition in a museum, presented last autumn at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. In advance of that show, VanDerBeek returned to the field, this time visiting two new sites that lend themselves to meditations on past and present: New Orleans, which was then about to mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and Baltimore, the artist’s hometown. The locations symbolize VanDerBeek’s attempt (begun with the work created after her foray to Detroit) to examine how both private and public memories are encoded in the physical environments we inhabit. Inspired by the observational acuity and sensitivity of Walt Whitman, from whom two of the exhibition’s photographic arrangements draw their titles (Song of Myself and Sleepers), the roughly three dozen small-scale images present fragments, whether captured in the field or constructed in VanDerBeek’s Brooklyn studio. In the image Treme School Window, one windowpane opens to reveal a metaphorical black hole at the center of the composition. Another, Baltimore Window, depicts an antique leaded window, exhumed from dusty seclusion in the basement of the artist’s childhood home, resting in a slot carved into a rectangular block of plaster; a narrow shaft of light cuts through the window and falls directly behind it onto the wall.


Sara VanDerBeek, Baltimore Window, 2010.

Such resonant images, gathered into a halting frieze around the Whitney’s first-floor gallery, were punctuated by nearly abstract photographs of building foundations in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. The concrete slabs carry evidence of the houses they supported, such as rust-caked holes into which rebar once slotted, and the scraps and gouges left behind by the storm. As VanDerBeek told exhibition curator Tina Kukielski, “I felt when looking down upon them for the first time that these foundations retained in their surfaces the entire history of our civilization. They reminded me of early pictographs, and with their pale fragments of color and texture, they echoed the images of fractured frescoes or ancient Greek and Roman art.” The works’ grayscale tones are joined by hints of dusky blue or sunrise pink, indicative of the natural light in which all the images, whether shot inside or outside the studio, were made. The light itself is a subtle indicator of time’s passage. Reading the installation from left to right, the amount of light in each image gradually rises and then dissipates. It would be easy to extrapolate from this sunrise-to-sunset narrative a tragic tale of decay: urban infrastructure enters into terminal decline, its only remaining function to bear noble witness to the lives lived in its midst. But to do so would be to neglect an idea that the generative, studio-based half of VanDerBeek’s work speaks to: around the corner there is always a new dawn.