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.

“A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial”

EVRON_A_Free_Moment
Nir Evron, still from A Free Moment, 2011.

The first three ICP triennials were given titles that imparted their organizing themes: “Strangers,” in 2003, considered street photography and images of people unknown to us; “Ecotopia,” in 2007, was about environmental change; and “Dress Codes,” in 2010, examined fashion’s role in our lives. The title of this triennial, “A Different Kind of Order,” which includes 28 international artists (only eight of whom are women), brings to the fore the wholesale shifts that have upended photography during the ten-year span since the 2003 exhibition. What had been subtext is now the central focus, and there are nearly as many moving-image works as still photographs. The primary medium of several artists is not even lens-based.

No single theme emerges, despite the curators’ insistence that the apparent chaos of our moment is the titular “new kind of order.” What patterns the four curators discern feel kaleidoscopic, liable to sudden shifts, rather than stable and self-evident. Keywords defined in the catalogue’s introduction—“Analog,” “Collage,” “Community,” “Self-Publishing”—are hashtags as much as principles, and suitable for our transitional moment.

Viewers could trace their own through lines; I was repeatedly struck by the sense of accumulation translated by the artworks, and by the ways lenses are being used to capture and represent bodies under duress. The acquisitive impulse was manifested simply, as in Roy Arden’s rather dull Quicktime slideshow of thousands of images he has gathered from the Internet, and in the selection of photographs from Michael Schmelling’s project The Plan (2009), which documents the efforts of Disaster Masters, a New York company that counsels hoarders. The emphasis on bodies in particular places at particular times is expressed with haunting clarity in London-based South African photographer Gideon Mendel’s photographs and video from his project Drowning World (2007–). What would have been full-length frontal portraits of flood victims in such places as Nigeria and Thailand are, sadly, converted into three-quarter or half-length portraits by the brackish waters that have risen up to their subjects’ knees, waist, or chest. The seven-minute video of people trying to go about their daily lives in these conditions is particularly poignant.

Jim Goldberg, Proof, 2011 (detail).
Jim Goldberg, Proof, 2011 (detail).

These two themes converge in some of the strongest contributions to the exhibition: Jim Goldberg’s Proof (2011), an affecting wall-length installation of contact prints depicting undocumented immigrants, and Thomas Hirschhorn’s Touching Reality (2012), a wall-size projected video of a woman’s hand swiping an iPad to scroll through images of bodies torn asunder by violence. The intimacy of the hand’s gesture is contradicted by the distancing effect of the screen (and that of the projection). It offers unvarnished proof of just how vulnerable our bodies are, while also reminding viewers that privilege—and our mass media—largely spare us the evidence of bodily harm.

If the exhibition felt like a grab bag, it nonetheless was stuffed with engaging works. Every inclusion that seemed weak or out of place—Huma Bhabha, Mishka Henner, Sohei Nishino, Elliott Hundley—was offset by revelations. The Israeli artist Nir Evron’s film A Free Moment (2011), presented here as a wall-size high-definition video projection, is at once rigorously structured and disorientingly unstable. Evron installed a dolly track inside the unfinished summer palace in Jerusalem begun in the 1960s by King Hussein of Jordan. The film begins with a commanding view over the city; the camera then pulls back along the track into the concrete shell of the building and begins rotating and panning in a 360-degree circle. Ground and sky are confused; detailed views of the concrete ceiling look like the surface of the moon; the film’s apparatus—the track, the camera—at times edge into the frame. Reminiscent of work by the Canadian artist Mark Lewis, A Free Moment is compulsively watchable. In its balance between order and disorder, Evron’s film is an elegant microcosm of the exhibition’s concerns.

Published in Art in America, September 2013. “A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial” was on view from May 17–September 22, 2013.

“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).

Interview: Carol Bove

Published as the cover story in Art in America, May 2012. For more information on Bove, contact Maccarone.

Detail of W.A., 2010, shells, steel, concrete, and bronze

Carol Bove’s considerable reputation rests upon more than a decade’s worth of refined and culturally literate artworks. Her early sculptural installations, often taking the form of plinths or wall-mounted shelves laden with period books and knick-knacks, evoke memories of 1960s- and 1970s-era bohemianism, and the individual and societal soul-searching that accompanied the period’s wrenching social transformations. That many viewers have no firsthand experience of that historical moment and know it only through publications, films, and other cultural objects is part of Bove’s point. Born in 1971 in Geneva, Switzerland, and raised in Berkeley, Calif., she too experienced this cultural ferment at a remove, filtered as it was by the preferences of her parents and their milieu. Because of this, her ability to capture what seems like the essence of the era results as much from an understanding of how we construct history as from a feeling for the lived texture of the time. Her deft juxtapositions—of Playboy centerfold images, paperback copies of Eastern mystical writings and Western psychological treatises—both frame a worldview and reveal the act of framing.

Bove came to New York during the mid-1990s and graduated from New York University in 2000. She began exhibiting immediately thereafter, and her carefully calibrated arrangements of objects were widely acclaimed. In the ensuing years, Bove has broadened the range of materials she works with, the forms her artworks take, and the historical antecedents she repurposes. Though “the ‘60s” (a time not coterminous with the 1960s) remain a touchstone and one of the period’s emblematic art movements, Minimalism, a preferred esthetic framework, today her art has been drained of much of its cultural specificity. Bringing together materials both luxurious (peacock feathers, gold chains) ad rough-hewn (driftwood, steel), Bove has elaborated an esthetic at once unique and capable of rehabilitating artistic precedents that have fallen into disfavor.

The artist works in a large studio a few blocks from the industrial waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The location is important: she scavenges urban detritus from her immediate environs, and produces work in collaboration with artisans whose machine shops are within walking distance of her building. At present she is working on her first two large-scale outdoor commissions. One sculpture will be exhibited in Kassel, Germany, from June 9 to September 16 as part of Documenta 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The other will be presented later this year at a New York City location that is yet to be announced.

* * *

[Two excerpts from the middle of the interview]

SHOLIS What has it been like to scale up your work and, given the unpredictable circumstances of the setting, to build for contingencies?

BOVE It’s totally, totally different from what I’m used to. Most of the time I’m very dependent upon everyone in the exhibition space taking care of the work, ensuring that no one touches things … and now I have to think about the work being rained on, or people climbing on it.

SHOLIS Is it difficult to accommodate yourself to that?

BOVE No, it has actually been stimulating to revisit my early experiences of outdoor sculpture, to realize how formative and exciting they were.

SHOLIS In the past you’ve mentioned childhood experiences playing with the Arnaldo Pomodoro sculpture on the Berkeley campus.

BOVE Yes, the sculpture garden at the Berkeley Art Museum was very important to me. It does not exist now—I think because of earthquake concerns. Anyway, later I had the idea that outdoor sculpture was simplistic because of its need to be accessible, and now I’m realizing how wrong I was about that. There is something fascinating about placing out in the world an object with no instrumental purpose, something provocative about the gesture.

SHOLIS How far have you traveled along a path from, on the one hand, artworks that require knowledge of cultural references to, on the other, artworks that are easily accessible?

BOVE In terms of how I conceive of the works’ intellectual contexts, I don’t think there’s a big difference between my gallery shows and my new outdoor projects. In both instances I’m interested in the open-endedness of the situation. In an outdoor environment, especially one used for numerous other purposes, viewers’ initial indifference requires something different of the artist, a novel way to hook people. The benefit, of course, is that viewers don’t come to the work with preconceived ideas of what it should be or do. How can an artist communicate through a public artwork, even on an unconscious level? These are interesting questions to try to answer.

* * *

SHOLIS Can you discuss your relationship to Berkeley, where you grew up?

BOVE There are wonderful hills and parks in Berkeley, but I also always loved the city’s more industrial areas.

SHOLIS Near the water?

BOVE Yes. Even as a teenager, making artworks—my juvenilia, I guess—I was really attracted to industrial districts. I collected rusty junk. Decades later I realized, “Oh, I’m still doing what I did as a teenager.” The use I make of these materials is different but the impulse is consistent.

I have a kind of romantic attraction to liminal spaces. I feel they are underappreciated. They feel wild, and the lack of care for them is attractive to me. Somehow I identify it with 1930s-era Farm Security Administration photographs—shabby America.

SHOLIS So it’s the atmosphere surrounding the materials more than the act of rescuing. You’re not a hoarder?

BOVE [laughs] No, I’m not obsessive-compulsive. I’m not a collector; I don’t like to hold on to things. I spend time with them and then allow them to continue their lives elsewhere.

SHOLIS Though it’s a very carefully thought out path that you send them on.

BOVE Right. For now, at least. But down the road they may end up unbecoming sculpture. I can imagine them losing their sculptural form. In a way, I build for this. My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.

Untitled, 2009, peacock feathers on linen

Richard Zacks, Island of Vice

Earlier this week, Capital New York published my review of Richard Zacks’s Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. The book is fun, though it has some limitations, as I tried to make clear:

Some of Zacks’s most entertaining passages chronicle Roosevelt’s after-midnight prowls along city streets, searching, often alongside a reporter for one of the city’s many dailies, for cops sleeping or drinking on the job. He would nearly pick a fight with those he found, then gleefully inform them just who they were arguing with and demand they appear at police headquarters early the next morning. Such episodes are retold with zest, and the book is unfailingly entertaining. Drawing upon courtroom and committee room minutes, as well as newspaper reports and his subjects’ voluminous correspondence, Zacks has crafted a popular narrative history of a pretty high order.

It enters a crowded field. There are not only many lengthy biographies of T.R., like the one by Edmund Morris, whose third and final volume, Colonel Roosevelt, arrived in late 2010, but also a steady flow of narrower studies, such as Hot Time in the Old Town (2010), about Roosevelt and the summer 1896 heat wave, or Honor in the Dust (2012), on Roosevelt’s place in American imperial expansion. Island of Vice dovetails with perennially popular studies of Gilded Age excess and crime, such as Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City (2007). It’s easy to see how such a book was published, sitting as it does at a busy intersection on the map of publishers’ desires: the Roosevelts, New York City, sex, and crime.

What broader developments Zacks hopes to explain, or what lessons he wishes readers to draw, are somewhat harder to discern.

To read the rest of the review, click here. New York magazine ran a feature on the book devised with Zacks’s help. This nugget of service journalism asks the all-important question, “Do You Live in a Former Brothel?”

Interview: Liz Deschenes

Published in Art in America, March 2012. For more information about Liz Deschenes, visit her page on the Miguel Abreu Gallery website.

Liz Deschenes, Tilt / Swing, #3B, 2009.

From early experiments with green-screen backdrops to recent, camera-less images made by exposing light-sensitive paper directly to the night sky, Liz Deschenes has persistently explored the photographic image-making process. She isolates the component parts of mechanical seeing and underscores the materiality of the screens that display images. But the loveliness of her artworks belies the astringency this description suggestions.

Deschenes (b. 1966 in Boston, Mass.) graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1988 and has worked in New York since the early 1990s, exhibiting regularly from the end of that decade onward. She outlined the contours of her practice with “Photography About Photography” (2000), an exhibition she curated for Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York that drew together artists (Vera Lutter, Adam Fuss, Thomas Ruff, Uta Barth) who likewise explore the medium’s mechanics. I first encountered her work in a 2003 exhibition, also at Andrew Kreps, where a selection of her monochromatic photographs illustrated a range of printing and display techniques. These works, in varying shades of gray, were bereft of information when seen from a distance, but upon closer inspection revealed details that hinted at how they were made. One was an image of a plasma television screen (turned off), other photographs made with the light from an enlarger. These works, though conceptually related to their predecessors, seemed far more sober than Deschenes’s earlier, brightly colored images.

As the decade progressed, her work shed external references. Yet from limited means Deschenes creates a visual plenitude. For her 2007 solo exhibition at New York’s Miguel Abreu Gallery, she photographed perforated paper held against a window, then superimposed two copies of each negative in an enlarger to create moiré patterns that were somehow both understated and optically vibrant. Two years later, “Tilt/Swing (360 degree field of vision, version one),” her show of six graphite-colored photographs installed on that gallery’s floor, walls, and ceiling, revealed no image. Yet the installation captured the reflections of viewers who stood among the works, as if the prints were being continually remade in the image of their beholder. That their untreated surfaces are meant to oxidize, to change over time in response to the atmosphere, adds a sense of romance to the blankness.

As the unconventional presentation of “Tilt/Swing” suggests, Deschenes has added to her explorations of the medium an interest in display strategies. Now she thinks of her work almost exclusively in terms of the other artworks with which it will be shown, and the conditional nature of that approach extends to her studio itself: she doesn’t have a room to which she retreats daily. She divides her time between New York and Vermont, where she teaches at Bennington College, researching and experimenting constantly but making her art on an as-needed basis. At present it’s needed at the Whitney Museum, where she’ll participate in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she will exhibit in a two-person show with Austrian artist Florian Pumhösl [April 21-September 3]. We spoke in January at the CUNY Graduate Center.

* * *

[Excerpt from the middle of the interview]

DESCHENES Of course, there’s a deep research component to the work, some of which takes place in terms of teaching, at Bennington or elsewhere. I build scale models for all of the exhibitions in which I participate. The Usdan Gallery at Bennington is actually based on the third floor of the Whitney building, so instead of using a foam-core model I used a model that was built in the early ‘70s …

SHOLIS … that you can walk into!

DESCHENES … that I can walk into and actually feel the proportions of the work. The initial proportions I came up with for the four-panel piece [to be installed in the Whitney Biennial] were too wide for the space, so I narrowed them down. And returning to my interest in pedagogy, I think the Art Institute exhibition points to those concerns. Using the Breuer—er, using the Bayer—I can’t believe I just confused them! They weren’t close friends. Using the Bayer drawing to guide people through space in a new way touches on this. And of course what gets installed on those walls will be equally crucial to understanding the exhibition, and I like that a lot of those decisions haven’t yet been made. The walls are being built right now, but I won’t know until I actually go to Chicago what work gets installed, so there is an aspect of spontaneity that frees me from a daily studio practice. I’m more interested in responding to the conditions of exhibitions. As they change, I can change along with them.

SHOLIS Your “decisive moment” happens during the installation process?

DESCHENES No, it keeps on happening. I constantly have to respond to the changing conditions of the work, which is part of the reason why I’m trying to make work that also changes during the exhibition—and beyond. Because there is no decisive moment.

SHOLIS You also mentioned pedagogy. For a long time you were learning new things about photographic technology, but now it’s also as if you’re trying to give yourself a kind of autodidact’s M.Arch. degree. Reading new kinds of drawings—plans, axonometric views, and so on—almost entails a new way of seeing and thinking. Is that a fair characterization of what you’ve been up to in recent years? And, if so, does that impact the ways that you think about the field of photographic image-making you know so well?

DESCHENES That’s an interesting question. Earlier I described the Whitney photographs as being stand-ins for the building. The building will obviously continue to exist, but as a newer or different institution. So to actually put scaled photographs representing the façade in the interior of the museum is a way off repositioning what you would generally find outside them museum. I don’t necessarily need to understand the things that Breuer had to understand in order to build that building. It’s more about trying to understand photography through architecture.

“Weegee: Murder Is My Business”

Weegee, Line-Up for Night Court, ca. 1941.

I reviewed the exhibition “Weegee: Murder Is My Business,” on view at the International Center of Photography until September 2, for Capital New York. An excerpt:

The Weegee that’s surveyed in this entertaining exhibition is not only the man, an immigrant born Usher Fellig in Austria, but also the myth, who described himself as both “Weegee the Famous” and the “official photographer of Murder Inc.”

Curator Brian Wallis has crafted a show that demonstrates how and why Weegee became one of the best-known photojournalists in New York City from the mid-’30s through the ’40s. Operating out of a sparse room across the street from police headquarters, he made nightly forays into the streets in search of breaking news. He nearly always found it, returning with pictures of lifeless bodies sprawled out on sidewalks and the inquisitive bystanders and pained relatives who had witnessed the crimes.

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“The Greatest Grid”

Earlier this week, Capital New York published my review of “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.” The show is on view until April 15, an appropriate enough date given the prevalence in the galleries of tax assessments, land-sale auction handbills, and other ephemera related to the transfer of Manhattan real estate. The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated and informative catalogue, published by Columbia University Press (Amazon, Columbia).

Map of Property Belonging to C.C. Moore of Chelsea, 1835. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

An excerpt:

The plan’s Cartesian rigor made it a machine for such frenzied growth, and the exhibition contains hundreds of artifacts that chart the city’s scramble uptown. There are surveyors’ maps and tools, land-sale auctioneers’ handbills, and ledgers documenting tax assessments. Numerous photographs reveal just how much labor went in to unifying the landscape: giant boulders had to be broken up and carted away; rolling hills had to be leveled; houses perched in the middle of planned roadways had to be torn down or carted to a new location.

At the exhibit’s center is one of the three original copies of the nearly nine-foot-long map of the Commissioners’ Plan, its size and detail a measure of the ambition it represented. Generations of canny politicians, imperious real-estate developers, and visionary architects have tried to implement changes or carve out exceptions to its rule, yet the Manhattan this map depicts is recognizable to us today: a somewhat claustrophobic, undifferentiated mass of right angles that cedes almost nothing to topography or the human need for variety.

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