Replacing Modernist Art Photography in the 1960s and 70s.

Photography as a medium was realised within Clement Greenberg’s formula during the 1960s and 1970s. The refocusing of criteria for the use of photography by Conceptual artists discussed in Jeff Wall’s essay “Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as Conceptual Art.” Wall presents a thorough account of the redefining history of photography. Most importantly he states two important directions photography takes in order to transcend the pictorial: pictorial and the deskilling of photography respectively. The work of Richard Long, Bruce Nauman, Robert Smithson and Edward Ruscha will be referred to as examples. Traces of Conceptual art upon contemporary approaches will be discussed using Joachim Schmid’s work.

Photography had adapted the traditions of modernist painting and sculpture since the 1920s with Stieglitz and the Sucessionists. Elevating photography to a fine art was seen only viable by mimicking painting and sculpture.

Abandoning Pictorialism in the 20s, and influenced by the growth of mass communications, the avant-garde experiments led to an imitation of photojournalism. “Photojournalism… elaborated a new kind of picture, utilitarian in its determination by editorial assignment and novel in its seizure of the instantaneous, of the “news event” as it happened.” (1) The notion of the unique, unspoiled integrity of photography is evident in the work of Paul Strand, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson. This mimicry of reportage and alignment with new culture industries, enabled photography to abandon the sensuous picture surface and contrived composition in favour of what Cartier-Bresson coined as, “the decisive moment.”

henri_cartier_bresson_bicycleHenri Cartier-Bresson, The Var Department, Hyères, France, 1932.

1024px-Allie_Mae_Burroughs_printWalker Evans, Portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, 1936.

strand_the-white-fence-1916-lrPaul Strand, The White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916.

Jeff Wall states, “The art concept of photojournalism began to force photography into what appears to be a modernist dialectic. By divesting itself of the encumbrances and advantages inherited from older art forms, reportage pushed toward a discovery of qualities apparently intrinsic to the medium, qualities that must necessarily distinguish the medium from others, and through the self-examination of which it can emerge as a modernist art on a plane with the others.” (2)

During the 1940s and 1950s, photography receded back into the language of Modernist Pictorialism. Artists such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, were elevated to a heroic position. Adams trekked into the mountains, lugging large format cameras, risking life and limb in order to get the quintessential shot. the photographer this becomes revered as a genius for revealing the truths in the world. These photographers carefully considered compositions and the textural sensuousness of the picture surface.

Adams_The_Tetons_and_the_Snake_River

Ansel Adams, The Tetons – Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1936.

Weston-pepper30Edward Weston, Pepper No. 30, 1930.

Painting and sculpture, through Abstract art had abandoned depiction, and Minimalism was refocusing issues regarding the validity of the art object. “In the process of developing alternative proposals for art “beyond” depiction, art had to reply to the suspicion that, without their depictive or representational function, art objects were art in name only, not in body, form, or function.” (3)

Finding other possibilities for photography was difficult compared with painting and sculpture. “It is in the physical nature of the medium to depict things.” (4) Conceptual art’s pursuit to transcend photography’s unmitigated picture making qualities sought to reconnect the medium to the real world.

Jeff Wall examines two important directions which emerged from this process; “The first involves the rethinking and “refunctioning” of reportage, the dominant types of photography as it existed at the beginning of the 1960s.” (5) “The second is related to the fist, and to a certain extent emerges from it. This is the issue of the deskilling and re-skilling of the artist in a context defined by the culture industry, and made controversial by aspects of Pop art.” (6)

In the sixties, younger artists bored with the traditions adopted by photography from painting and sculpture agitated the medium by returning to the fundamental “auto-critique” of art associated with the tradition of the avant-garde. (7)

The experimental work of Robert Smithson, Bruce Nauman and Richard Long did not derive as an antithesis of the aesthetic work of their precursors such as Adams and Weston, but rather stems from the concept of reportage as art-photography from the avant-garde of the 1920s. The criteria for art was refocused by the photo conceptualists. As Jeff Wall writes, firstly, it was legitimised by having transcended the boundaries of art, and secondly, the works produced are compelling in their superiority and yet invariably “… they seem to dissolve, abandon, or negate it.” (8)

The idiosyncrasies of reportage were altered with photo conceptualism. Reportage is directed inward and ridiculed by the artist. “The gesture of reportage is withdrawn from the social field and attached to a putative theatrical event.” (9) This was demonstrated in two ways according to Jeff Wall. Firstly, by using Long and Nauman as examples, the staged picture becomes affiliated with the new concepts of performance. Secondly, photojournalism and the photojournalist are ridiculed in the work of Smithson.

Long’s A 1/2 Mile Walk Sculpture, 1969, is an artistic gesture made specifically to be photographed. Long walks traces into the grass leaving a trace. The artist inverts the traditions of pictorial landscapes by positioning the walked track as the foreground motif. (10) The performance does not have meaning unless it is documented, thus the photograph becomes a substitute, a record for the event.

linewalking

Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, England, 1967.

Nauman photographs in the studio which in itself contradicts the Pictorialists. Failing to Levitate in the Studio, 1966 and Self-Portrait as Fountain, 1966-67/70 are examples of Nauman’s experimental art which changed the conditions of reportage from a documented event to a staged and theatrical kind of practice which was becoming known as Performance art. Studio photography and reportage are this deconstructed. The studio literally becomes the place of truth and reality when it is reinvented during this times becomes many things including a theatre, gallery and meeting place. (11) The studio is also ridiculed as a place where the performative artist as genius creates. Undoubtedly Nauman is referencing the high seriousness of the film documentary of Jackson Pollock, where the artist can be seen in deep concentration making paintings. Self-Portrait as Fountain, is Nauman’s homage to Marcel Duchamp’s fountain. Falling to Levitate in the Studio, parodies Cartier-Bresson’s “the decisive moment,” that split second that photography is known for. This work also questions the notion that photographs are “true.”

schuster8Bruce Nauman, Failing to Levitate in the Studio, 1966.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain 1917, replica 1964.

115602

Bruce Nauman, Self portrait as a fountain, 1967.

“This integration or fusion of reportage and performance, its manneristic introversion, can be seen as an implicitly parodic critique of the concepts of art-photography.” (12) Photojournalism combines photography with writing. Smithson’s “Mock-travelogue” (13) A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, 1967, describes the journey he took from the Port Authority in New York to Passaic County. His tour of the monuments in New Jersey begins at a bridge over the Passaic River. When he photographed it in the midday sun, he described it like, “photographing a photograph… The sun became a monstrous light bulb that projected a detached series of “stills”… When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph…” (14) The narrative is quite entertaining in its parody of photojournalism. The works duality derives from the narrative which describes the making of the photographs, “one never knew which side of the mirror one was on.” (15)

tumblr_n0ut3lpnAE1touknro1_500 tumblr_n0ut3lpnAE1touknro2_500

Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic”, Artforum, December 1967.

tumblr_m6wmkao4K31r2v7j3o2_500

Robert Smithson, The Bridge Monument Showing Wooden Sidewalks, 1967.

Photography was unable to abandon depiction entirely and thus could not reconcile to Greenberg’s reductivism. “Depiction is the only possible result of the camera system, and the kind of image formed by a lens is the only image possible in photography.” (16) With an influx of students and younger artists adopting the medium, the reduction in photography occurred with the elimination of pictorial and technical skill. By rejecting historical pictorial conventions adopted from painting, photography was now free to demonstrate Greenberg’s formula of “the effects [in each art] exclusive to itself.” (17) Joseph Beuy’s catch phrase, “every man is an artist,” (18) could now circulate within photo conceptual rhetoric with the advancement and democraticisation of photographic equipment like the Kodak Brownie.

“It became a subversive creative act for a talented and skilled artist to imitate a person of limited abilities. It was a new experience, one which ran counter to all accepted ideas and standards of art, and was one of the last gestures which could produce avant-gardist shock.” (19) In Some Los Angeles Apartments, 1965, Edward Ruscha’s performance as an ordinary person photographing the apartments in a banal way combines the, “brutalism of Pop art with the low-contrast monochromaticism of the most utilitarian and perfunctory photographs.” (20) “Ruscha has treated each image in a straightforward, deliberately artless manner and ignored the… artful effects of lighting, cropping, composition, or print quality.” (21) Depiction is this finally eliminated by reducing art to an intellectual concept.

1965-2_some-los-angeles-apartments-lowEdward Ruscha, Some Los Angeles Apartments, 1965.

csm_1991_504-001_50d2e0ddb2Pages from the book.

Many traces of Conceptual art are located in the work of contemporary artists such as Joachim Schmid. Since 1982, Schmid has collected over two hundred and fifty photographs discarded at photo booths and found on his travels. His Pictures from the Streets, are first, “visual artefacts and human documents,” (22) and secondly, the pictures, “aren’t really art at all and were never intended by their makers to be seen in a public exhibition.” (23) Schmid intervenes in the stories and life of the images he has found, they were created somewhere else by parties unknown. By not editing the selection according to aesthetic conventions Schmid, “instead provides an apparently unbiased, sociological sample of imagery lost or thrown away by its owners.” (24) Pictures from the Street, ultimately raises questions over Schmid’s artistic authorship. The work operates on many levels, it comments on the fetishisation of photography and visually the photographs are fascinating in regard to the mystery they possess and questions they pose in the mind of the viewer.

joachim_schmid-bild037Joachim Schmid, No.37, Berlin, August 1987.

joachim_schmid-bild083

Joachim Schmid, No.83, Berlin, July 1990.

joachim_schmid-bild830

Joachim Schmid, No.830, Madrid, February 2004.

A video of Joachim Schmid, an artist who is obsessed with finding images rather than making them.

By dismissing Stieglitz in the post-Pictorialist phase, a shift in style from the painterly to photography’s inherent directness and immediacy positions the medium within mass culture. The validity of reportage was precisely the kind of art concept photography sought to revolutionise the picture. After a mild lapse in the 1940s and 50s, Conceptual artists turned towards reviving photography’s inherent qualities according to Greenberg’s theories, photography turned to reportage. Unable to deny itself its mechanical nature based on the lens, depiction is transcended by reduction of photography to an intellectual concept.

References

1. J. Wall, “Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art” in Goldstein, A. and Rorimer, A. (eds.). Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, Los Angeles, Cambridge (Mass.) and London, 1995, p. 249.

2. ibid.

3. ibid., p. 247.

4. ibid., p. 247-248.

5. ibid., p. 248.

6. ibid.

7. ibid., p. 247.

8. ibid., p. 252.

9. ibid., p. 253.

10. ibid., p. 254.

11. ibid.

12. ibid.

13. ibid., p. 255.

14. R. Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” in Wallis, B. (ed.). Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writing by Contemporary Artists, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1987, p. 75.

15. Wall, op. cit., p. 255.

16. ibid., p. 260.

17. ibid.

18. ibid., p. 263.

19. ibid., p. 265.

20. ibid.

21. A. Rorimer, New Art in the 60s and 70s Redefining Reality, Thames & Hudson, London, 2001, p. 114.

22. John S. Weber, “Joachim Schmid-Anti_Auteur, Photo-Flaneur” in Schmid J. Bilder von der Strasse/Pictures from the Street, Berlin, 1994, p. 11.

23. ibid.

24. ibid., p. 12.

Images

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var Department, Hyères, France, 1932. http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=29YL53KGUTK

Walker Evans, Portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, 1936. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walker_Evans

Paul Strand, The White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O93493/the-white-fence-port-kent-photograph-strand-paul/

Ansel Adams, The Tetons – Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1936. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ansel_Adams

Edward Weston, Pepper No. 30, 1930. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Weston

Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, England, 1967. http://www.richardlong.org/Sculptures/2011sculptures/linewalking.html

Bruce Nauman, Failing to Levitate in the Studio, 1966. http://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/32/schuster.php 

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain 1917, replica 1964. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573

Bruce Nauman, Self portrait as a fountain, 1967. http://cs.nga.gov.au/Detail-LRG.cfm?IRN=115602 

Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic”, Artforum, December 1967. http://openstacks.tumblr.com/post/76365278353/robert-smithson-the-monuments-of

Robert Smithson, The Bridge Monument Showing Wooden Sidewalks, 1967. http://absolumentmoderne.tumblr.com/post/26841593431/robert-smithson-monuments-of-passaic-artforum

Edward Ruscha, Some Los Angeles Apartments, 1965. http://daskunstbuch.at/2013/02/11/kunstlerbuch-artists-book-ed-ruscha-some-los-angeles-apartments-1965/

Edward Ruscha, a page from the book. http://mmk-frankfurt.de/de/sammlung/werkdetailseite/?werk=1991%2F504

Joachim Schmid, No.37, Berlin, August 1987. https://schmid.wordpress.com/works/1982-bilder-von-der-strase/

Joachim Schmid, No.83, Berlin, July 1990. https://schmid.wordpress.com/works/1982-bilder-von-der-strase/

Joachim Schmid, No.830, Madrid, February 2004. https://schmid.wordpress.com/works/1982-bilder-von-der-strase/

Joachim Schmid video http://petapixel.com/2014/09/24/joachim-schmid-artist-finds-publishes-peoples-photos/

“My work is all my personal history… I can’t separate my art from my life.” Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work deals with issues relating to life, gender, sexuality and death. All these things happen to the body but no bodies as such appear in his work. In Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) 1990, the artist uses the body of his lover Ross as a metaphor, which is signified in the “ideal” weight of candy used for the work. Untitled (Bed) 1991-92, appeared in several locations on billboards in the New York area. The body is absent yet alluded to in the unmade bed. Audience participation is an integral element to Gonzalez-Torres’ work. The artist’s choice of displaying such intimate imagery in a public form relates to his resistance of separating private and public domains. The Word Portraits further establish Gonzalez-Torres’ ability to create the historical meaning of an individual beyond representation of the body.

161459_2809251Felix Gonzales-Torres, Untitled (Ross in L.A.) 1990

Felix Gonzalez-Torres avoids representation. Candy in this case becomes “saturated with personal association, memories and emotions.” (1) The body of Ross, his lover, is the subject of the work. Ross’s body is represented in the “ideal” weight of the candy, this is 175 pounds, which is stipulated in the certificate of authenticity. The candy is either piled in a corner or spread out in “carpet like landscapes.” (2) “The spills appear as parodies of abstract, geometric sculpture.” Gonzalez-Torres described them as subverting the neutrality of minimal sculpture by annexing issues that derive from his biography.” (3)

As a metaphor the candy is consumed, the viewer sucks on someone else’s body. Felix Gonzalez-Torres said, “my work becomes part of so many other people’s bodies…” (4) It is at this point, when the candy is consumed, that the work is complete. Charles Merewether writes that the candy represents, “not only an eating away of the body, but a sign of regeneration, as in the symbolic eating of Christ’s body and the miraculous giving of life.” (5)

Apart from addressing consumption and challenging galleries, the political ramifications of this work are more pertinent because Ross was a homosexual man dying of AIDS. Thus the work, “… confronts visitors with the issue of homophobia and their fear of contact with HIV carriers.” (6)

Felix Gonzalez-Torres said, “in a way, this letting go of the work, this refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture, in favour of a disappearing, changing, unstable, and fragile form was an attempt on my part to rehearse my fears of having Ross disappear day by day right in front of my eyes…” (7) Freud wrote that we rehearse our fears in order to lessen them. By relinquishing his control over the work and allowing audiences to touch, eat and possess his work, Gonzalez-Torres rehearsed the imminent loss of Ross. “Memory offers a path back to the other side of the line between life and death: it is all that remains after the disappearance of the body.” (8) The replenishment of the candy memorializes the subject.

FGT_Manhattan_sized-643x428Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Bed) 1991-92

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ billboard, Untitled (Bed) 1991, is a black and white image in soft focus of the artist’s unmade bed. The impressions of bodies are left behind in the indented pillows and rumpled sheets. The absence of any accompanying text offers no explanation for the image by the artist. Yet, this vacant space openly invites the viewer to enter the work based on their own memories of loss, absence, leaving and grief. (9)

For Gonzalez-Torres, “it is a wrenching, intimate depiction of his loss.” (10) The unmade bed becomes a metaphor for the love and loss of his lover Ross to AIDS. Most viewers were unaware of the artist’s biographical information and would therefore construct meaning based on what was personally relevant to them. The unmade bed a place of pleasure and intimacy, or of absence and loss. “Inviting audiences to remember moments of closeness and separation, this image is a passage linking the particular losses we experience with a culture of collective grief… Although the bodies are gone, memories sustain the experience, allow the feelings these bodies generated- the warmth and passion- to be revealed, recalled, recorded.” (11)

The audience participates to in the meaning of the work. (12) Gonzalez-Torres measured his work against the same questions, “I need the viewer, I need the public interaction. Without a public these works are nothing, nothing… I need the public to complete the work…” (13) Gonzalez-Torres felt that collaboration with the viewer was the force behind the work giving it meaning and emotion. Hence, Duchamp’s 1957 speech on the creative act is fully embraced by Gonzalez-Torres. Duchamp claimed that there were two poles in the creation of a work of art: the artist and the spectator. (14) Another repercussion to the artist’s method is Roland Barthes’ notion of the death of the author “… and [the] fundamentally emancipatory idea of the birth of the reader into the structure.” (15) Although Gonzalez-Torres adapts devices from the Minimalist vocabulary, his work is distinguished from it because his personal experience is transcended to become universally valid. (16)

Gonzalez-Torres said, “my work is all my personal history… I can’t separate my art from my life.” (17) The work was first displayed simultaneously at the Museum of Modern Art and twenty-four billboards around New York. By displaying such intimate and private experiences in a public form that typically promotes consumer products, Gonzalez-Torres dissolved the boundaries between public and private space.

George Chauncey states that, “there’s no queer space; there are only spaces used by queers or put to queer use. Space has no natural character… no intrinsic status as public or private.” (18) For a homosexual man, the ramifications of whether there can be a separation between private and public space are enormous in light of restrictive and repressive legislation ruled by the U.S Supreme Court in 1986, “which denies same-sex couples rights to a private sphere.” (19) By displaying such a deeply personal and emotional image on billboards around New York, Gonzales-Torres perpetuated what George Chauncey argues is a tactic used by gay men, “… to claim space for themselves in the face of a battery of laws… designed to exclude them from urban space altogether.” (20) This reciprocal relationship quantifies Gonzalez-Torres choices. The artist said his choice for the billboard was an easy one. He wanted to distance himself from his bed. With Ross’s death, his bed has become a source of pain and grief, especially at night.

Ann Goldstein clearly states:
(…) the nature of his work in general (…) subtly yet emphatically intensifies one’s own self awareness, subjectivity, and sense of personal history. In effect, his work insists upon the inclusion of the complexities of those areas most preciously protected or deeply repressed – it sets up a conflation of public and private, and the personal with the professional. (21)

The artist insisted that an individual could not be isolated from the socio-political structure that governs our world. Conversely, politics has always had ramification upon every individual. As a homosexual man, Gonzalez-Torres was directly effected by public policy as it impacted on his private life. His choice to present his unmade bed in public domains affirms his works ability to provocatively comment on socio-political issues.

Gonzalez-T_portrait_2011-repl_colorFelix Gonzalez-Torres, Word Portrait.

Gonzales-Torres’ amalgamation of public and private life is evident in his Word Portraits. They are also examples of the use of text as a metaphor for more than just the body, but for a life lived. Gonzalez-Torres would collaborate on commissions with the prospective owner asking them for their formative experiences and the concurrent dates. (22) Gonzalez-Torres intercepted this information with important public events that he believed undoubtedly contributed to their personal history. Thus, the portraits positioned the owner within a personal and a collective history. Gonzalez-Torres changed the order of the events, which coincides with the nature of memory as fragmented. He also included events before birth and places never visited by the owner. He felt that the portraits were more than a life, they were a history, “to sense our connectedness with the rest of the world.” (23)

The following Word Portrait is Gonzalez-Torres’ from the Brooklyn Museum commission of 1989. The intention of the museum’s curator was to blur the line between public and exhibition space. This Word (Self) Portrait was installed in a small annex near the elevators. It was painted in light blue and ran along the top of the wall in a single line. (24)

Red Canoe 1987 Paris 1985 Blue Flowers 1984 Harry the Dog 1983 Blue Lake 1986 Interferon 1989 Ross 1983

In Untitled (Ross in L.A) 1990, Gonzales-Torres uses candy to signify the loss of his lover Ross to AIDS. By avoiding representation in Untitled (Bed) 1991-92, the artist adopts devices from Minimalism. Yet, he subverts them and imbues them with personal significance. The universality of the signs invites the viewer to participate, to complete the work of art. Gonzales-Torres transfers the private into the public domain in a calculated response to the restrictive legislation imposed upon the homosexual body. In his Word Portraits, Gonzalez-Torres’ combines the personal and collective history of an individual based not on physical characteristics but on lived experiences.

References

1. D. Elger, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cantz Verlag, 1997, p. 107.

2. ibid., p. 44.

3. L. Weintraub, Art on the Edge and Over, Art Insights, In., 1996, p. 115.

4. Elger, op. cit., p. 92.

5. C. Merewether, ‘The Spirit of the Gift’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 70.

6. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 115.

7. ibid.

8. R. Ferguson, ‘The Past Recaptured’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 32.

9. B. Hooks, ‘Subversive Beauty: New Modes of Contestation’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 47.

10. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 116.

11. Hooks, op. cit., p. 47-48.

12. Merewether, op. cit., p. 61.

13. Elger, op. cit., p. 44.

14. ibid., p. 106.

15. ibid.

16. ibid., p. 81.

17. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 110.

18. G. Chauncey, ‘Privacy Could Only Be Had in Public: Gay Uses of the Streets,’ in Stud; Architecture of Masculinity, Joel Sanders ed., Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, p. 224.

19. Elger, op. cit., p. 18.

21. Chauncey, op. cit., p. 224.

21. Elger, op. cit., p. 18.

22. Elger, op. cit., p. 51.

23. ibid.

24. ibid., p. 50.

Images

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Ross in L.A.) 1990 http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/152961

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Bed) 1991-92 http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/04/04/printout-felix-gonzalez-torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Word Portrait http://edu.moca.org/education/teachers/curric/themes/artandtext/looking/discussion-7