Thursday, January 26, 2012

Vivian Maier and Vernacular Photography

I first stumbled across Vivian Maier’s black and white street scenes at Mass MoCA over the summer and had the opportunity to re-visit her work this past weekend at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in midtown Manhattan. By now, everyone is familiar with the story behind this work. Maier worked as a nanny and had a passion for photography. Her time off was primarily spent photographing people on the streets of Chicago.  She died in 2009, leaving a storage locker full of tens of thousands of negatives and thousands of exposed but undeveloped rolls of film. At an estate sale, a Chicago real estate agent and amateur historian named John Maloof purchased the contents of the locker for $400. Realizing the significance of Maier’s work, Maloof began to scan and print the negatives, eventually exhibiting the work. You can read the full details of the story at the Vivian Maier website, as well as see many examples of her extraordinary work there. The degree to which Maier’s work has found rapid popularity and wide exposure is phenomenal. It is easy to see why: the work itself is excellent, her story and the story of her discovery are compelling, and her work coheres stylistically and in content with what many of the top photographers of her generation were doing.

As interesting as the images are  -- and her work has been compared to that of Harry Callahan, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Helen Levitt among others – equally fascinating is how little is known about Maier’s life and her motivation for taking these pictures. She printed very few of the negatives. There is no record that she ever showed the images to anyone. When she shot, she typically took only one frame per subject. And then there are the thousands of undeveloped rolls. Roberta Smith in her NY Times review interprets these last two points as a sign of confidence in her ability to get the shot. I’m not convinced of that. That could also be explained by simple economy or an urge to accumulate. Maier was a hoarder, compulsively collecting and organizing newspapers and items she picked up off the street. Pictures of the interior of her apartment show all the rooms – including the bathroom -- filled with boxes stacked from floor to ceiling. It seems the way she approached the material aspects of her photography parallels whatever impulse motivated the hoarding.

At its most fundamental, photography is about sharing, an extension of pointing and saying “look at this” or “remember this.” Why didn’t Maier share? Did she ever intend to show the work? Or was this project obsessively personal? Was she collecting moments, faces, and places? Or was the act of taking the pictures a means of connection, of expressing empathy for the people she photographed? Of course, it can be both a bringing in and a reaching out. As I wonder about Maier’s motivations, another set of questions emerges: how is it that her photographs are so good? Was she familiar with the work of the photographers to which she is now compared?  Maier is obviously gifted, but usually this level of visual sophistication is preceded by years of practice and training. Is there evidence of her process of growth? We’ll probably never know, unless a diary turns up.

And is this just the tip of the iceberg? The bulk of her work remains in its negative state, so we may be treated to more and more as the film gets processed, scanned and printed. To my knowledge, this situation in its scale is unique: an unknown photographer’s entire body of work is posthumously presented and marketed, without any precedence for how the images should be printed, or any sense of how the photographer might have edited the work. It seems like John Maloof, who controls the majority of Maier’s images, is treating her work with the appropriate care. Certainly, he has done a great service in bringing this marvelous work to light. 

There is something that nags at me about all this, and I’m not sure what it is. I felt it the first time I learned about Vivian Maier: perhaps it is the idea that someone else is profiting from her work when she did not herself. The Maloof Collection is authenticating and copyrighting all the images, which substitutes for the signature of the artist. There may be a technical or legal reason for doing it this way, but that feels odd to me: he may own it, but it is her work. It would sound better if the authentication and copyright was done through an entity like the Vivian Maier Foundation, which existed apart from the commercial interest in the work. In his defense, hearing Maloof speak about his efforts during a lecture at PowerHouse Books in December gave the impression that his heart is in the right place and that he is genuinely interested in her work. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that she is not able to share in the affirmation of her work, and disappointing that she didn’t share it with others during her life.

Vivian Maier: Photographs from the Maloof Collection closes at Howard Greenberg Gallery, 41 E. 57th St., on January 28. A concurrent exhibition of her work at the Steven Kasher Gallery, 521 W. 23rd St. remains open through February 25.

At Ziehersmith, Other Bodies: A Collection of Vernacular Photography provides a point of comparison. On display is a selection of 65 images from a collection of around 2,000 that were accumulated (the press release says “from a wide variety of sources” – I take this to mean yard sales, flea markets and the like) by artist Jason Brinkerhoff and curated by gallery owner Scott Zieher. These images are “found” images, the makers typically are unknown and they most frequently record images from everyday life. Many of the images are notable for what is wrong in the picture: accidents of composition or the kind of displacement in which the subject seems simultaneously both strange and familiar. There are some visually remarkable images in this exhibition, but a good deal are more interesting for their sociological content than their aesthetics. Unlike the work of Vivian Maier, which is surrounded by questions about authorship, the images in Other Bodies seem to be authored less by the people behind the camera and more by means of photography itself.

Other Bodies: A Collection of Vernacular Photography at Ziehersmith, 515 W. 20th St., runs through February 11, 2012. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Advice to Young Artists . . . on the Subject of School

Let’s assume that you’ve made the decision to attend art school. It is expensive and unless you are specializing in an applied art, like graphic design or commercial photography, after graduation, for most students it will be challenging to sustain oneself in one's chosen field.  For talented artists, there will always be opportunities. There just won't be as many opportunities for artists as there are for engineers, or many other professions, relative to the annual pool of graduates of each discipline.  However, our society does need artists, in the same way that we need continuing generations of geneticists, doctors, carpenters and so forth. Someone needs to take the plunge.

If you are that person, or if you know someone who is, I highly recommend Advice to Young Artists in a Postmodern Era by William V. Dunning. It should be required reading in all 4-year B.F.A. programs, and ideally assigned in the first or second years. Don’t get thrown by the word “Postmodern” in the title. This book is about how to be a good student in art school and how to get the most from your time there.  Like many fields, art is competitive, and students will want to leave school prepared.

As an aside, one might wonder if attending art school is even necessary to become an artist. In theory, I would say no, as there have been other models of study and apprenticeship in the past.  However, as a practical matter, as I look at work showing at major galleries here in New York City, I don’t remember seeing a resume of an exhibiting artist under 50 without some form of formal art education listed. I’m sure there must be some, but it is rare.  In fact most artists have an M.F.A. in addition to an undergraduate degree.

What makes graduate school so important? From the perspective of one’s career: networking. Most schools have a lecture series that brings in prominent artists, gallerists, and curators, perhaps 5 – 10 each semester. Typically, the lecturer will make a presentation to both the entire student body and afterwards meet individually with the graduate students. These meetings can result in studio assistant positions after graduation, recommendations, introductions, and other opportunities to those who are ready. The faculty of the school itself can be a great resource to the M.F.A. students after graduation. And finally, the relationships formed among classmates will provide the initial source of group support and feedback for the student after school has ended. These connections tend to be deeper at the graduate level.

For aspiring artists who have degrees in other fields, graduate school provides a way to catch up to their B.F.A. peers, Sometimes a year or two of preparation is all that is needed to put together a successful application. For these potential students, graduate school also offers something they probably haven’t experienced before: the time to focus one’s attention on art making free of distraction. This will likely be as significant a benefit of graduate school as the networking possibilities.

Two related issues that I hope to comment on at some point in the future:  (1) the debate on whether art itself can be taught; and (2) how to keep going after the support system that school provides has faded into the past. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Chelsea Gallery Notes: James Nares, Damien Hirst, Bill Jenson, Joel Sternfeld

Some highlights of the current group of shows up in Chelsea in January 2012.

James Nares is best known for his elegant brushstroke paintings: gestures which refer to Asian calligraphy scaled-up by means of home-made brushes and a harness system (which suspends Nares above the canvas) to create larger than life marks of the hand.

Paul Kasmin is showing a precursor to this body of work: James Nares 1976: Films and Other Works presents the artist engaged in a quasi-scientific study of mark making, gesture and motion. Involved in the studies are gravity, pendulums of various forms, and an engineer’s natural curiosity about how things work. This is one of the most fascinating and unusual exhibitions I’ve seen in some time because it gives insight into the creative process of the artist.


I had one of those a-hah moments connecting the dots between the motion of the pendulum and the suspended painter, linking through process two bodies of work that visually are so different. That kind of leap is what creativity is all about – and it is refreshing to see. Paul Kasmin Gallery, 515 W. 27th St., through February 11, 2012.

I say refreshing to see because it is a commonplace to say that with a lot of contemporary art, the art part is eclipsed by the merchandising and marketing aspects. This is obviously a lead in to Gagosian’s Damien Hirst extravaganza: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011More has been written about the economic and sociological aspects of Hirst’s work than the actual experience of looking at it, and for good reason. I was pre-disposed not to like this show, but to my surprise, there is something to see here.

There is a predicable retinal sensation produced by patterns of multiple discrete elements within a field – this was recognized by the Pointillists and provides the technical foundation of op-art since the 1960’s.  Many of the spot paintings – those with lots of relatively small spots -- trade on that kind of optical sensation and are not particularly remarkable. 


But there is a subset of the paintings that function in a surprising way. They have fewer elements, square grids of 9 or 16 spots. On these, the spots seem to hover above the ground of the canvas as if detached from it. Additionally, the composition – simple as it is – feels dynamic. The unusual decision not to leave any canvas between the spot and the edge is the reason for the sense of implied motion, pushing the spots on the perimeter outwards. It is an interesting and unexpected optical effect.

Gagosian Gallery, 555 W 24th St. and 522 W 21st St., through February 18, 2012. I think it is only necessary to see this work once; the installation at the 21st St. location is the stronger one.

I’d encourage anyone interested in painting to take a look at Bill Jenson’s work at Cheim and Read. Lush painterly abstractions, suggestive of both the subterranean and the subconscious, these are a real treat to see. Cheim & Read, 547 W 25th St., through February 18, 2012.

And finally, to relive the vibrance of the 1970’s, head over to Luhring Augustine to view First Pictures by Joel Sternfeld. Masterfully composed slices of life, taken with a gentle eye. Luhring Augustine,  531 W 24th, through February 4, 2012.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bertien van Manen at Yancy Richardson

Gallery season is starting up again in Chelsea. On Thursday evening I went to the opening of Bertien van Manen's Let's sit down before we go, an exhibition of photographs taken over the past two decades in the former Soviet Union. The show will be up at the Yancy Richardson Gallery through February 11. In this work, van Manen combines the diaristic intensity of Nan Golden with the abjectness of  Boris Mikhailov. What is striking is the psychological nuance of Manen's portraits: how unguarded, open or vulnerable her subjects appear -- while at the same time seeming reserved, wary of outsiders, and not at ease with themselves.

This seemed especially so, as I had just been to the Joel Sternfield show at Luhring Augustine: the Americans of the 1970's in Sternfeld's pictures generally seemed so self-satisfied and uncomplicated while the 1990-2000's era Russians in Manen's were anything but. Van Manen on the top; Sternfeld below:

Where does that kind of complexity come from? Was there a sociological reason for it? Was it in the subject, or did it come from the photographer? Part of the answer may lie in van Manen's approach. She tries to become a part of whatever community she is photographing, to the extent of learning the language and developing personal relationships with her subjects. To the degree that she can, she becomes an insider. A few more from the show at Yancy Richardson:

For some background on van Manen, there is a short interview here in which she discusses a prior body work titled Give Me Your Image, featured at MoMA's 2005 New Photography exhibition.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Roland Fischer's Figure and Ground

Roland Fischer is a German photographer who shows at Von Lintel Gallery in New York. He has done several series of portraits shot in swimming pools that are remarkable for several reasons. One is his lighting, which casts absolutely no reflection on the surface of the water. This has the effect of placing the figure in an almost abstract, ethereal space.

The water reaches the level of the collarbone, creating a portrait bust-like shape which provides the basis for an unusual figure/ground relationship. One can read the image as being broken into two clearly defined sections: the model and the water. In my introductory photo classes, I often talk about the significance of the ground and the importance of creating interesting negative space (non-figure) shapes. Fischer's use of the pool solves this problem in a very elegant way.

But there is a third section: where water and the figure overlap. This area functions as a transitional space in which both elements exist simultaneously and provides an alternative to the either/or of the figure and ground. This area becomes very significant, and I think the intent is to use the suggestion of intermediacy to go beyond portraiture and into philosophy -- a discussion of his work expands to include the ways that we divide and categorize.

There's one more thing: the water as background comes in front of the figure, creating a kind of compositional/metaphysical joke. Below is another example of Fischer's work, from a series of building facades, shown at Von Lintel last September. Is this figure, or is this ground?

Carsten Holler at the New Museum: Zero Impact

Pills dispensed from a ceiling-mounted chute mass in a huge pile in one of Carsten Holler's pieces in his mid-career survey at the New Museum. There is a nearby water-cooler and stack of paper cups, inviting gallery goers to take a chance. Pulling apart the gelatin capsule, the pill was empty -- an apt metaphor for a show titled Experience. There has been a lot of criticism regarding the show itself and the more general trend in contemporary art towards spectacle. Rather than repeating those arguments, I'll simply recommend Jerry Saltz' recap of curatorial abdication in New York magazine or Karen Rosenberg's review in the NY Times.

The mirrored carousel.

For me, the various experiences were neither profound, intense, nor subtle. Walking away from the museum, I wondered what, if anything, I was taking with me. What was the experience I had just had and how did that measure up against other comparable experiences? There were technical reasons why the exhibition fell short. One example: the mirrored goggles failed to cover the entire field of one's peripheral vision, preventing a complete entering into the upside down world they were designed to create. This isn't nit-picking. For a show constructed to challenge a viewer's perceptual preconceptions, details matter.

The entrance to the slide everyone is talking about.  It corkscews through 2 floors and takes about 5 seconds.

Taken as a whole, was my sense of perception expanded? The best art can show how the world has changed. It can give the viewer a greater sense of what is possible. It can facilitate the perception of external change or the awareness of something within yourself you had not recognized previously. I remember  the first Gursky show I saw back in the mid 1990's. As I was walking through New York, to my surprise I saw Gurskys everywhere, where I had seen none before. My manner of seeing had been changed, and now I was seeing the world through his eyes. I've been less interested in Gursky's work since that initial encounter, but that first experience was a powerful one. I've had similar experiences after looking at the work of Gerhard Richter and Robert Irwin, and many other artists. I had no such experience walking up Bowery after I'd left the New Museum.