Tags, modernism
5. Beyond Paul Strand: What Can Radical Photography Be?

I started this blog by posing some questions about the arbitrariness of dividing Paul Strand’s career into a late period of political subject matter and activism and an early period that seemed devoted primarily to formal concerns. Certainly, this is something of a straw man, because most of us would agree that the visual arts are inherently about shaping matter, with all its inherent recalcitrance, into form, regardless of the desired or received “meaning” of that shaped form. The other problem is, of course, what we intend by the terms, “political subjects” or “political art.” The gathering together of any people into a governing unit begins to constitute the body politic, so that virtually all social life in some sense can be read as “political.” However, historically we distinguish “political art”—art that is intentionally made to express a political party line or promote a particular government or policy position—from art that can be read as confirming a location within conflicting ideologies (which may cut across formal party platforms or regimes).  This latter sense of art as functioning politically and representing certain values that can be decoded has driven much of the social history of art in the past fifty years and is what I was striving to uncover in Strand’s enigmatic urban views. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 10.03.2015
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5. After Liberalism

One of the most idiosyncratic yet unrecognized trends of the 1970s is how it was precisely then, when the prewar documentary culture from the 1920s-30s began to appear in a new light. Besides the Walker Evans retrospective at MOMA in 1971, which I mentioned in the previous post, the decade started with a series of seminal monographs on the FSA and the 1930s documentary, including Jack Hurley’s Portrait of a Decade (1972), Roy Stryker and Nancy Wood’s In this Proud Land (1973), and William Stott’s Documentary Expression and Thirties America (1973). mehr

Veröffentlicht: 08.07.2014
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4. Heart of Darkness

The 1960s are dark and phantasmagoric, like an ambiguous terrain vague or “nowhere land” in the periodization of photographic history. I’m not free from that uncertainty about the interpretation of this complex decade. It seems like a moment when the past was not quite over and the future had yet to start. Such ambiguity is evident if we compare Steichen’s The Bitter Years with Szarkowski’s New Documents. Both exhibitions were created within only five years of each other, yet stand for two different historical eras in the same decade. In a way, The Bitter Years is the last hurrah of prewar modernism, a living fossil that represents the peak and the end of the 1920-30s’ innovations. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 29.06.2014
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3. Excursus: Politics of the Victim

I mentioned in my first post that the rise of documentary discourses between the World Wars resulted from the political need to visibilize the working class in the new media culture corresponding to the era of mass democracy. Both in its “from above” (state/liberal/Griersonian/FSA) and in its “from below” (social movements/revolutionary/worker-photography) versions, documentary rhetoric contributed to this political need, in part through the dissemination of an iconography of a victimized working class.

The production of a poetics of dispossession is a key contribution from documentary methods emerging from the 1930s to social struggles for justice and democracy. Beyond the specific historical prewar context, I think this poetics was a central contribution to the 20th century universal citizenship democratic imaginary, which finds precisely a key historical iconic source in the worker-photography documentary project. I mean, the iconography of a fragile and precarious life is constitutive not only of the project of proletarian documentary, but is in the root of the poetic construction of democracy and justice. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 19.06.2014
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2. Paul Strand after Margaret Mead

In this second post I’d like to expand the scenario somewhat by introducing a few other possible significant references for an interpretation of the logics of the 1950s.

In 1949, Beaumont Newhall’s 1937 catalogue of the MOMA exhibition, Photography 1839-1937, appeared revised and enlarged as an autonomous book: The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day. Postwar liberal modernist photographic culture now had its foundational text, its Bible. Chapter 10 in Newhall’s book was devoted to documentary, and the genealogy it proposes on the subject remains as canonical as Newhall’s history itself. The genealogy is as follows: first we have the 1860s and 1870s geographical surveys as a pre-history of documentary. Then we have Jacob Riis as the precursor and Lewis Hine as the founding father of 20th century documentary photography, which reaches its complete and most self-aware form with the FSA. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 10.06.2014
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16.04.–31.05.2014
1. Two Radically Disjunct Approaches

This is the first of five blogs I will be writing for the Fotomuseum Winterthur and, as it happens, the first I have ever written. But because almost everything I write is done on commission, the daunting freedom provided by this kind of blog (“write anything on photography”) is more intimidating than exhilarating. Given such freewheeling editorial liberty, I had to decide whether to orient this first blog to the “general,” or to the “particular.” Both approaches have their problems. As soon as photography is invoked as a generality, that is, as an abstraction (as though its technologies, uses, and practices could be considered one thing), differences are flattened, history disappears, context vanishes. But to write about a particular photographer, body of work, or specific exhibition, seemed too close generically to a journalistic review and a blog need not simply ape the conventional form of arts journalism. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 15.04.2014
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15.09.–31.10.2013
5. Delirious Anthropology

I feel like I’ve spent the last four weeks overstating my scepticism about contemporary art’s retrospectivity—as seen in the repurposing of modernist art and architecture, the incorporation of pre-existing archives, and the retrieval of outmoded mechanisms of display. All three are examples of art’s fascination with the past that too often forgets to keep its sightlines on the present. This week I’d like to conclude my series of blogposts by looking at three recent videos that take past works and pre-existing archives as their starting point, but which do so in order to assess the present: Provenance by Amie Siegel (recently on show at Simon Preston Gallery in the Lower East Side), Grosse Fatigue by Camille Henrot and Ricerce Three by Sharon Hayes (the last two exhibited at the Venice Biennale). mehr

Veröffentlicht: 26.10.2013
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4. Displaying Research

Last week I promised a discussion of Goshka Macuga, whose new show at Andrew Kreps Gallery is yet another example of the retrospectivity trend I’ve been tracking in these blog posts. Macuga’s work synthesizes a number of points that addressed in previous weeks: the obsession with modernism, the archival character of contemporary installation art, and the display of information and research. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 11.10.2013
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3. Archival Myopia

This week and next I’ll be addressing another retrospective tendency in contemporary art: artists presenting other people’s archives. This is already a well-known strategy on the biennial circuit: think of Akram Zataari presenting the archive of Lebanese studio photographer Hashem el Madani (Studio Practices, 2007), or the Otolith Group presenting the photo archive of Anasuya Gyan Chand, former president of the National Federation of Indian Women (Daughter Products, 2011). In a less global and more local vein, Carol Bove’s current show at Maccarone presents the archive of Harry Smith and the Qor Corporation (1958-1962), a New York-based studio that sought to explore the possibilities of mylar (a kind of polyester resin) as a print base for kabbalist designs. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 02.10.2013
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2. Monumental Bling

It feels like a million new shows have just opened in Chelsea for the new season, and several of them chime perfectly with my theme for this blog: the retrospectivity of contemporary art, particularly the current fascination/obsession with Modernist art, architecture and design. In this post I’m going to focus on David Maljkovic at Metro Pictures, but also The Propeller Group at Lombard Fried; there are other shows too, but I’m going to save them for next week’s blog. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 24.09.2013
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1. How Did We Get so Nostalgic for Modernism?

I’m going to use this blog as a way to test out some ideas relating to a series of essays I’m putting together on the retrospectivity of contemporary art. What do I mean by retrospectivity? The tendency, found almost globally, for art to quote and repurpose pre-existing cultural artefacts. Pre-eminent among this tendency is the trend for repurposing Modernist art, architecture and design. There have been a number of exhibitions circling around this theme: think of I Moderni (2003), Altermodern and Modernologies (both 2009), and of course the leitmotiv of Documenta 12 in 2007 (‘Is Modernity Our Antiquity?’). mehr

Veröffentlicht: 14.09.2013
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