Deadpan Handling

Performance art and the rise of contemporary photography

Photography, long an understudy in the hierarchy of the arts, came to its leading role in contemporary practice in part through the back door of performance art, when decades ago the camera proved a handy instrument for documenting the bizarre goings-on in ateliers and public places. It's odd to see these pictures, many of which were never meant as art per se, hanging on the walls of a blue-chip gallery. (In fact, they're all drawn from a single, unnamed private collection.) But alongside contemporaneous examples of "idea-based" photography, they give off a whiff of times past, when ephemeral acts and the deadpan recording of American vernacular culture were winning out over the market's cultivation of art as luxury goods.

Buster Keaton's pathos meets the formalistic concerns of Richard Serra in Charles Ray's marvelous Plank Piece II (1973)—two large-scale photographs showing Ray's limply hanging body pinned by a large wooden beam to his studio wall. Dan Graham juxtaposes images he shot of a 1960s American nuclear family at a highway rest stop, and four semi-vans parked outside of it, as if they were strange equivalents. Most mysteriously, Giuseppe Penone covers his pupils with mirrored lenses and has someone take his picture, suggesting that the artist's vision both reflects his world (in this case, an ordinary street corner) and is turned blindly inward, to the depths of his own imagination.

 
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