From our collection: Artists and Photographs Portfolio
by Janae McHugh, Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation Intern
by Janae McHugh, Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation Intern
A multiplicity of movements occurring in the late 1960s is represented in the portfolio collection Artists and Photographs. Essentially a boxed exhibition, this portfolio, compiled and published in 1970 by Marian Goodman’s Multiples, Inc., assembled photographs, prints, texts, or artist books by nineteen prominent artists of the time, the majority of whom are now recognized as some of the most important artists of the latter part of the twentieth century and as leaders of Conceptual Art, Land Art, or Pop Art.
At the close of the 1960s, art was jostling with an expanded definition. It was evolving beyond object to incorporate language and idea and continuing its radical interrogation of itself that questioned the assumption that the role of the artist was to create material objects. This line of inquiry carried over into photography, propelling the discipline beyond contrived frames and master prints to quickly captured images that functioned as documents or indexes. In turn, these changes also influenced traditional methods of art production, its display, and the manner in which viewers encountered art. Many artists deployed mechanized productions of multiples in order to circulate their work more directly to the public, particularly to a larger, younger population, thus providing patrons a way of affordably collecting art.
Marian Goodman, recognizing artists’ interest in this experimentation, published Artists and Photographs in an edition of 1,200. The portfolio contains nineteen individual works and a contextual essay by art critic Lawrence Alloway. As the portfolio circulated among collectors, a complete edition was acquired by the University Art Collection. In excellent condition and now rather rare, it provides a very significant piece of art history.
Like many artists of his generation, Robert Smithson, best known for his monumental Earthworks, championed a critical revision of the use of photography in art. In a discussion about Land Art in 1969, he observed that "photographs steal away the spirit of the work." With site-specific work that altered landscapes by moving earth, rocks, and soil to affect waterfronts, deserts, and mountains, Land Art and Earthworks inherently favored physical experience and direct encounter over photographic representation. However, as Lawrence Alloway points out in his essay that accompanies Artists and Photographs, one use of photography is to provide "coordinates of absent works of art." Alloway explains that Earthworks can only be experienced by a very limited number of people, while a photograph provides a document that makes ephemeral work accessible to a larger audience by providing “grounds for believing something happened."
Land artists’ contentious relationship with photography takes a humorous turn in Smithson's contribution, entitled Torn photograph from the 2nd stop (Rubble). A primarily brown, red, and gray snapshot of dirt and rocks—“general rubble,” as he calls it—is ripped into four square pieces. In keeping with his Earthworks focus, Smithson highlights the impossibility of containing and exhibiting earth. Additionally, the torn image of an inconsequential yet ubiquitous subject is a strong interrogation of landscape photography, debunking its traditional pictorial function and bringing it literally down to earth.
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Edward Ruscha provides Artists and Photographs with another humorous and somewhat absurd piece, in the form of a fifty-two-page artist book, Babycakes. Its light-blue cover pages are hole-punched and bound by a pink ribbon, with the title written on it in light-green flocking. The book consists of a series of black and white photographs of a few-months-old baby captioned with his or her weight, followed by snapshots of twenty-one cakes or pieces of cake also captioned by weight. Ruscha piles one idiosyncratic gesture upon another by means of tongue-in-cheek wordplay: he gives superfluous attention to the physical form of the book as a cute blue-and-pink fuzzy package, and riffs on the convention of listing a newborn’s weight on a birth announcement by transferring it to images of actual cakes. Like many of Ruscha’s Pop-influenced text paintings that emphasize meaning, language, or humor, Babycakes documents a pun by depicting mass-produced, packaged cupcakes (VanDeKamp’s Cupcakes, six in a box, 1 ½ oz. each), slices of jelly rolls, or tiered wedding cakes in display cases. With little regard for composition, lighting, or sociological nuance, Babycakes is an ironic document, full of deadpan candor.
"I would like to see photography make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable." (Marcel Duchamp)
"In my opinion, you cannot say you have thoroughly seen anything until you have a photograph of it." (Emile Zola)
Image courtesy of Artists' Books and Multiples blog
These two quotes appear in Mel Bochner's Misunderstandings (A Theory of Photography), a manila envelope containing one "Polaroid negative” and nine handwritten quotes printed on index cards. Bochner collected these quotes around 1967, when he realized that his conceptual work had moved toward photography. With this realization, he was compelled to research the medium, giving special emphasis to its history and critical issues of discourse. Dissatisfied with the writings he found, and encountering what he deemed “misunderstandings,” he began to compile a list of them and then added a few of his own, further calling into question the authenticity and reality of every sentence found in the historical and academic record. Bochner titled this initial set of quotes Dead ends & vicious circles.
Turned down for publication by both Art Forum and Art in America, he was told to submit the project to photography magazines, at which point he put the collection in a drawer and forgot about it. But the invitation to contribute to Goodman's Artists and Photographs portfolio provided an ideal opportunity to publish the piece. Along with the quotations, Bochner included a false document ––a photograph printed as a Polaroid negative (which, of course, Polaroids do not produce). Playing doubly with prevarication, this image––of the artist's extended arm and hand, entitled Actual Size––is a reproduction of his earlier series dealing with measurement, and was originally printed as actual size. This 5” x 8” reproduction joins Bochner’s fabricated text in setting up a constant presence of falsehood that requires viewers to think about photographic truth and to question its uses.
Image courtesy of the MassArt Artists Book Collection
Sol LeWitt, widely known for his conceptual wall drawings based on geometric abstraction, contributes an example of his somewhat less well-known photo work to the portfolio. In Schematic Drawing for Muybridge II, LeWitt’s practice of structuring ideas as drawings or sketches is clearly evident through his presentation of a conceptual dialogue with nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge. Working in the 1860s, Muybridge became the first photographer to capture and analyze motion successfully by using a sequence of photographs that were resynthesized to produce moving pictures on a screen. LeWitt pairs this exploration of the camera as a tool that captures movement and process with a much more traditional but loaded art historical subject: the female nude.
Printed in a horizontal line on a single rectangular card, the small, cropped, circular, black-and-white photos offer a visual spatial progression. The photograph on the far left presents a long, angled view of a nude female standing in a nondescript darkened room. The subsequent photos capture the camera moving closer to the subject, narrowing the frame with each stop until the final photo on the far right is an extreme close-up of the woman's navel. Interestingly, LeWitt designed this piece to be viewed directionally, encasing it in an envelope with an opening on the right vertical edge, so the viewer encounters the extreme close-up first. As the card withdraws from the envelope, each photo is evidence of the camera moving backward through space, thus visually describing more, not less, of the static female subject. This is not only a departure from Muybridge's construct of capturing the motion of the subject; it also captures the motion of the camera itself. By using a format aligned with the qualities of his non-representational, system-driven conceptual work, and by subduing the representational elements of photography, LeWitt draws more attention to the temporal and spatial process of the camera and its product than to the traditionally lauded art subject.