Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Jeff Wall, Conceptual Art, and Light Years at the AIC


In Jeff Wall’s “Marks of Indifference,” Wall discusses the relationship between photography and conceptual art, exploring the effect they had on each other.  Central to this essay is the fact that “photography cannot find alternatives to depiction, as could the other fine arts.  It is in the physical nature of the medium.”  (Wall, p. 32)  Later in the essay he writes of photography’s “heavy burden of depiction” for the reason it could not follow “pure… Conceptionalism all the way to the frontier.” 

Wall explains Pictorialist photography, specifically defined (and perhaps created or invented) by Alfred Stieglitz and elaborates on the subsequent move away from this type of photography in the 1920s.

Pictorialist photography was dazzled by the spectacle of Western painting and attempted, to some extent, to imitate it in acts of pure composition.  Lacking the means to make the surface of its pictures unpredictable and important, the first phase of Pictorialism, Steiglitz’s phase, emulated the fine graphic arts, re-invented the beautiful book, set standards for gorgeousness and composition, and faded….  By 1920, photographers interested in art has begun to look away from painting, even from modern painting, toward the vernacular of their own medium, and toward the cinema, to discover their own principle of spontaneity, to discover once again, for themselves, that unanticipated appearance of the Picture demanded by modern aesthetics.  (Wall, p. 33)

Steiglitz, The Steerage


Steiglitz, Equivalent


Steiglitz, Georgia O'Keefe

 
I enjoyed the capitalization of the word Picture, establishing it as a concept separate from a photograph or a painting.  Speaking of the immediacy and technical nature of photography, Wall says “every picture-constructing advantage accumulated over centuries is given up to jittery events as they unfold.” This is a radically different way of making a Picture than by making a painting, or through printmaking in the tradition of the masters such as Durer, which Wall had previously mentioned. 

Albrecht Durer, Rhinoceros

(speaking of Durer, there was an interesting exhibit recently at Harvard including many of his works- it's off topic for this particular class but it can be seen here.)

Wall focuses on how the photograph can function when it is no longer trying to imitate the qualities assumed to make good “art” as defined in Western Culture.  Great art was generally assumed to be a depiction of something, so a move toward abstraction necessarily caused a re-thinking of what art could be.  However, with painting, Wall argued, it was very clear to any viewer, regardless of their training in art, when a painting did not depict something.  They could tell instantly that it was not “great art” as they had been taught.  However, with photography, due to its burden of depiction previously discussed, it had to be used in more nuanced or complicated ways in order to subvert the traditions of what was generally considered to be “art.” 

One of the ways that photography does this is by not giving weight to what the photograph depicts, but rather how it is used.  Wall cites examples of creative uses of text and the photo essay, as in the case of Dan Graham’s Homes for America,” and the systematic use of photography as in Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations.   

Dan Graham, Homes for America
Ed Ruscha, Twentysix Gasoline Stations


Images from Twentysix Gasoline Stations

Speaking of Ruscha’s photography as a “hilarious performance, an almost sinister mimicry of the way ‘people’ make images of the dwellings in which they are involved,” Wall proves his point that “it became a subversive act for a talented and skilled artist to imitate a person of limited abilities.”  While on first glance it might seem that Ruscha was trying to bring his work out of the realm of high art and into the reach of everyday people, Wall argues that he was actually sarcastically mocking the banal ways in which everyday people make images, almost patting himself on the back for being better than them and for having the irony and intelligence to point out such a difference.  Ruscha’s book is a perfect example of the anesthetic, a work of art that derives its meaning from the system in which it was created, not in the aestheticism of its imagery, composition, or construction.  Wall writes:

“Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1962) may depict the service stations along Ruscha’s route between Los Angeles and his family home in Oklahoma, but it derives its artistic significance from the fact that at a moment when “The Road” and roadside life had already become an auteurist cliché in the hands of Robert Frank’s epigones, it resolutely denies any representation of its theme, seeing the road as a system and an economy mirrored in the structure of both the pictures he took and the publication in which they appear.  Only an idiot would take pictures of nothing but the filling stations, and the existence of a book of just those pictures is a kind of proof of the existence of such a person.  (Wall, p. 44)

I was interested in the idea of art without depiction as offering the viewer a direct experience as opposed to a representation of an experience.  In some ways Ruscha’s book might do this also.  Even though it depicts 26 gas stations, the book is not representing the experience of a gas station.  The viewer would have a much different experience viewing this piece than viewing an Ansel Adams photograph, for example.  
 
The larger image was restricted, but here is an example of a print Ruscha made of the cover for Twentysix Gasoline Stations as well (from the Harvard Art Museum).




In the Light Years exhibition at the Art Institute, it was interesting to see not only one of Ruscha's books, but also its mockup.  Also interesting were the photographs of the book hung on the wall as works of their own, a further deconstructing of the photographic image.  

Ed Ruscha, Every Building on the Sunset Strip

Photography as a medium lends itself well to systems and to archives.  We read last semester of photography’s use as a police tool and how it came to be that our society associates the photograph as something real enough to be used as proof for things ranging from basic identification to crimes such as murder.  

Thinking of photography as in an archive, I thought of Deborah Luster's photographs of prison inmates, which we so luckily got to see in person last semester, as well as her images of homicide sites in New Orleans that she shows in a grid and reproduced in a ledger format.  The archive is integral to this work, though she does not attempt to subvert it in way that other artists have done, such as Martha Rosler with her work The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems.  

Deborah Luster, image from One Big Self

Deborah Luster's book Tooth For and Eye, which reads like a ledger


Deborah with one of her images from Tooth For an Eye


Deborah's installation of Tooth for an Eye at the Museum of Contemporary Photography

Luster's exhibition style also deals directly with the archive.  

For Tooth For an Eye, she constructed a long table to present her works in ledger format, in addition to arranging them in grids on the wall.  

Tooth for an Eye, Installation view


An example of the ledger format, with the homicide information recorded on the left


For One Big Self, she had a metal cabinet constructed to house all of her small, hand-sized portraits so that viewers could have the experience of opening heavy metal drawers and flipping through the photographs, spending as much time with them as they would like.  

One Big Self, Installation view

Martha Rosler's work The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems questions our basic assumption of truth and description in relation to both photography and text.  It was fantastic to see this piece in person after reading so much about it last semester.  

Martha Rosler, The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems

The idea of conceptual art also got me thinking about Sol Lewitt's wall drawings, in which the idea, not the execution, is the piece itself.  By making his instructions available to others and inviting them to re-create his works, slightly different each time, he is democratizing art and allowing it to be accessed and re-interpreted by many.  One of my favorite exhibitions is the 25-year installation of Lewitt's wall drawings at Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA.  The installation took 65 artists and art students nearly 6 months to complete and is one of the largest exhibitions of Lewitt's work in existence.  

From the Mass MoCA website:

"Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, states, “Watching this grand installation of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings progress over the past six months has been nothing short of thrilling. In addition to providing an enduring exhibition of great beauty, this retrospective will enable visitors to behold for the first time the full trajectory of a major aspect of Sol’s artistic career. Until today, the only way to view multiple LeWitt wall drawings has been to travel far and wide, pursuing them individually in situ or in temporary museum exhibitions. Now, visitors will be able to return to MASS MoCA again and again to experience this visual feast of Sol’s wall drawings in a single location, doing so at their leisure over the next twenty-five years.”


LeWitt—who stressed the idea behind his work over its execution—is widely regarded as one of the leading exponents of Minimalism and Conceptual art, and is known primarily for his deceptively simple geometric structures and architecturally scaled wall drawings. His experiments with the latter commenced in 1968 and were considered radical, in part because this new form of drawing was purposely temporal and often executed not just by LeWitt but also by other artists and students whom he invited to assist him in the installation of his artworks."


Some of Lewitt's wall drawings at Mass MoCA:










Issues of systems played heavily into conceptual photography, and Lewitt's work is perhaps one of the best examples of a system for art-making that can be followed by anyone.  Similar to a composer of music, Lewitt created the idea and original score, but anyone can execute it, adding their own hand, however subtly, to the artist's intent.


This way of approaching art making is similar to Yoko Ono's instruction pieces, in which painting is separated into two functions: the instructions and the realizations. 






Yoko writes:

"Instruction painting separates painting into two different functions: the instructions and the realization. The work becomes a reality only when others realize the work. Instructions can be realized by different people in many different ways. This allows infinite transformation of the work that the artist himself cannot foresee, and brings the concept of "time" into painting. It immediately eliminates the usual emphasis put on the original painting, and art comes down from the pedestal.
Instruction painting makes it possible to explore the invisible, the world beyond the concept of time and space. And then, sometimes later, the instructions themselves will disappear and be properly forgotten."

The idea of intention versus chance also plays into much of conceptual art.  In our guide, it's written as motivated (conceptual) versus arbitrary (random).  While these ideas are a significant part of conceptual art's history, this made me think of work I saw recently in Boston at Gallery Kayafas: Daniel Ranalli's snail drawings, in which he arranges the snails in a particular pattern, photographs them, and then lets them go where they will, and photographs them again.










This work, while very contemporary, is clearly building on the tradition explored by John Baldessari with his piece Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line, which we saw at the Art Institute in Light Years.  

John Baldessari

This week's reading, and exhibition, sets forth such a huge topic in the history of photography and art in a larger context.  This blog has probably only scratched the surface of all of the issues at hand.  Many of the effects of conceptual art on photography, and vice-versa, seem so intregrated in our current experience of art that they can be difficult to recognize, but are nonetheless critical to understanding contemporary photography, both as a viewer and as a maker.  

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