Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, sycophantic court photographer to the art world, has lined the Mary Boone Gallery with photographs of members of that court taken over the course of two decades. Seven hundred portraits, hung wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, form a walk-in yearbook: a wraparound who’s who—or a who was who, or who was never who—of artists, dealers, critics, collectors, curators, and people who you never know what they do other than that they always seem to be doing it. If you were a part of this world between 1980 and today, your life might pass before your eyes.
Despite the weaknesses of Greenfield-Sanders’s individual photographs, the ensemble presentation is oddly affecting in a class reunion, rogue’s gallery sort of way. It’s a photographic walk down collective-memory lane. It’s also some kind of work of art, maybe of conceptual art, where the artist sets up a project and carries it out, one picture, one mover, and one shaker at time. Other photographers came and went. Peter Bellamy and Roland Hagenberg, for example, photographed dozens of 1980s artists; Nan Goldin, David Seidner, and Jack Pierson also dabbled in it. But Greenfield-Sanders acted on an ambition that was at once submerged and obsequious, genuine and grandiose. Basically he wanted to be the art world’s August Sander and Andy Warhol.
Unfortunately, his photographs have neither Sander’s individuality, gravity, and humanity nor Warhol’s artifice, which lets the viewer know that the person in the picture is a glamorous construct, fabricated by Andy and his henchmen, his camera, and the sitter. On their own, Greenfield-Sanders’s pictures aren’t all that interesting. If you don’t know the identity of the players and what their games were, they fade fast.
Greenfield-Sanders’s formula is as generic as it is equalizing: a black-and-white photograph of a person in front of a blank background. Occasionally he employs a pointless blurry effect, or varies the background, but there’s almost no rapport here, almost no playfulness, and little insight. Greenfield-Sanders’s true aesthetic model is the mug shot. However, he should be credited for avoiding the typical artist’s studio photograph—the image in which the artist (usually a he) stares out at us meaningfully with a look of immeasurable cool that says, This is my space. This is my stuff. I am a genius.
Throughout the ’80s, I looked at Greenfield-Sanders’s portraits and thought, “God, these are mundane. I wish I could be in one.” Finally, in 1991, an Italian museum requested a picture and specified Greenfield-Sanders. It was time for my close-up.
Showing up at his weirdly Gothic former rectory on East 2nd Street, wearing an L.L. Bean hunting jacket, I had this insipid image of myself as the outdoorsman-welder-art critic.
Greenfield-Sanders, who works fast, coached from behind his big view camera: “Don’t smile. Keep your mouth closed. Don’t act,” all the while asking, “Who else should I shoot?” Within 20 minutes, he had my coat off and me looking like a puffy, Jewish golf pro. When I saw the picture in the gallery, I wanted to write under it, “I’m thinner now,” though, to my horror, I was wearing the same clothes.
No matter—at Boone, I seemed to be part of something. There, the mug shots become a moving accumulation of people, events, alliances, intrigues, feuds, and gossip—a record of the forgotten, the dead, of couples past and present, of the beautiful and the talented. Eschewing chronological and alphabetical order, this is a dinner party; the show isn’t hung so much as it’s seated. Drift around, try to spot the famous faces, check out who’s with who. Be catty; try to figure how so-and-so got invited; see people pre- and post-plastic surgery. Many of these names are unfamiliar; others pop up more than once. I lost count of Jasper Johns sightings after five.
There is a sweetness to it all. Look at the couples side by side. There’s Gilbert looking startled and George cute as a button; the critics Brooks Adams and Lisa Liebmann, exuding glamour; the artist Cecily Brown is reunited with her art critic father, David Sylvester. See the forgotten faces of the East Village or the great faces of Marisol and Klaus Kertess. Some people manage to look striking: Elaine de Kooning with her cigarette; Sherrie Levine, the only one in sunglasses; David Hammons in the manner of a street prophet; Agnes Martin as our Gertrude Stein; artist Mike Sale in a dog collar; and Jack Pierson shirtless. Some, like Walter Robinson and Larry Clark, we see when they were young and beautiful. Others, like me, don’t fare as well. Gerhard Richter looks like a dapper German businessman.
To get a fix on his longing to please, see how Greenfield-Sanders “seats” his hostess. Mary Boone is surrounded by power and money. On her left, the megacollector Eli Broad; on her right, Leo Castelli, who is next to Larry Gagosian, who is next to Ileana Sonnabend, who is next to Brice Marden—who, touchingly, is next to his wife, Helen. Meanwhile, Greenfield-Sanders’s great friend Peter Halley is placed between Warhol and Johns.
This is not a complete picture of the art world, and it’s not always a pretty one, but taken whole, and with a huge grain of salt, this family portrait will have to do until a better one comes along.