An ambitious exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue, curated by Peter Galassi, rustles up many issues. As Roberta Smith quoted in the New York Times: “…trophy-curators. Clout is definitely on display here, contributing to that heady combination of overt excellence and subtle vulgarity that may be something of a Gagosian specialty.”
The exhibition includes nearly 150 photographs by over 50 artists—spanning from the origin of the medium to the late twentieth century. The curator is former Chief Curator of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The studio is a place of creativity and reverence throughout art history. It can become the subject, a participant or the background for painting and photography. Distinct are these applications, due to the historical positioning of these environs. Since the incipience of photography and due to the long exposures of early photography, a studio was mandatory to create the image and background. It created the milieu for the subject, as it did in many painting periods, from Flemish, Spanish to contemporary images by Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. Gagosian has two exhibits concurrently, one of painting downtown are one of photography uptown, which I will review here.
This ‘studio’ element plays many roles. In the first section titled, “Pose and Persona,” artist that exhibit themselves or corpus, as exampled by the notorious Cindy Sherman who has made a career of ‘self-revelation.’ The press release makes proud mention of this: “The nudes and portraits assembled here are exemplary because they acknowledge the role of the setting, or accentuate the deliberateness of a pose, or highlight the purposeful enactment of a persona.” I believe here that painting is much more successful at this endeavor, especially (as shown in the downtown space) Philip Guston (complete with light bulbs and painting brushes), Alberto Giacometti and Alfred Stevens. There is a long, rich tradition of employing the studio in painting from still life to actually painting the easel, as employed by Goya in his familial paintings. Some of these photographers are much are more adroit in the field than the studio, especially the king of all ‘street shooters’ Lee Friedlander, as well and renown interpreters of street imagery, Brassai and Walker Evans. Photographers have created a genre of photographing artists in their studios, which has revealed much of their process. The most famous was of Jackson Pollack “action” painting for Life Magazine. The portrait here of Matisse is a prime example.
With Richard Avedon, the studio strips the subject bare to the essentials, especially using large format photography where details glare at the viewer. With another master Irving Penn, the background is a ‘stage’ of presentation of the model or the object. There is the further genre–where the studio is the actual subject, illustrated here by Brancusi’s images of his own studio, grouped here as the second section of images, “Four Studios.”
Another section, “Sittings” evoke the self. Lucas Samaras, whom this writer had the pleasure of reviewing in his New York Studio in the seventies, with his Polaroids of his twisted, deranged face glaring at the camera. This group is all about Self. Robert Mapplethorpe, whom I also reviewed during this period in his studio, projects their unique persona. Lynda Benglis and Helmut Newton execute the same indulgence. I find these too self-referential, too thin to hold my interest. Yes, shock of the seventies does have it’s place in art history, but they do not hold up against time; indulgent exercises in ego, like Vito Acconci’s performance pieces do–which I witnessed, including the loaded gun. That genre has gained serious traction in the indulgent work of Nan Golden and Sam Taylor-Johnson, the director of the recent film, Fifty Shades of Grey. This raises a deeper issue of studio as self. It must, in this reviewers mind, rise above a simple recording of “me.” Cindy Sherman succeeds this regard, it is indeed, of her–in her studio but the image is about much more.
The third section and final, “An Embarrassment of Images” include images shot from the artist studio. Josef Sudek’s views are lovely, as Smith phrases it, “photographs of photographs.” He has always been to Romantic for my taste but I appreciate his sensitivity to light and form. More compelling would have been Henri Cartier-Bresson’s images of Henri Matisse in his studio. These harken back to a more formidable concern of structure, introduced by the Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko.
Parenthetically, the extremely moving and inspiring work of the genius, William Kentridge, which this reviewer had the honor of viewing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a few years back, consolidates this purpose of these two exhibitions, at the downtown gallery. He both is the artist viewing and employing his studio in his work, both in his films and paintings.
Disclaimer: Due to some restrictions on the use of photographs, not all the images in this review are found in the exhibition, but intended to be illustrative of my opinion.