The question of why certain practices thrive at particular moments feels like the art world equivalent of asking why honeybee populations have collapsed in the last decades or mussels have started growing in the Hudson. Why, for instance, are contemporary photographers—or, if you like, artists working with photography—obsessed with abstraction, materiality, and process?
First, the evidence. A good place to start is “Processed: Considering Recent Photographic Practices” at Hunter College (East 68th Street and Lexington, through December 12). The show includes artists like Marco Breuer, whose spectral abstractions, made by scratching and scuffing chromogenic paper, are hung across from Josh Brand’s photograms that look like muted Josef Albers paintings. Markus Amm has folded photosensitive paper to create black-and-white photograms, while Curtis Mitchell drags photo paper through vats of chemicals to create moody, painterly “Meltdowns.” The work of Wolfgang Tillmans, Tamar Halpern, and Jennifer West suggests abstract photography as a kind of frenetic punk practice. West’s films, four of which are shown here, look like candy-colored Stan Brakhage films—at the same time nodding to Pollock’s drips and splatters—and are made by slathering film stock with substances like food coloring or Teen Spirit deodorant.
Over at MOMA (11 West 53rd Street, through January 11), “New Photography 2009” includes Walead Beshty, the best-known younger artist (James Welling being the older one) making abstract photograms. Several of his large, vertical works with rectangular bursts of color are here. Daniel Gordon, Sara VanDerBeek, and Leslie Hewitt take actual photographs—with a camera!—but of sculptural tableaux that play a variety of trompe l’oeil tricks. Meanwhile, Sterling Ruby digitally arranges photographs of Italian graffiti into Basquiat-like compositions, and Carter Mull scans sections of The Los Angeles Times to create hallucinogenic photomontages.
At Rachel Uffner (47 Orchard Street, through October 25), Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s appropriated images of comedians like Goldie Hawn and Vicki Lawrence have been put through a process of inkjet printing, saturation, scanning, and reprinting, so that they look like watercolors injected with grotesque specters. Adam Putnam, on view at Taxter & Spengemann (123 East 12th Street, through October 17), plays a game with uncanny space and reflections in his small silver gelatin prints and C-prints, as does Talia Chetrit, whose works at Renwick Gallery (45 Renwick Street, through October 17) were created by light bouncing off velvet or glass. Two other recent shows worth mentioning are Lisa Oppenheim at Harris Lieberman and Andrew Pearson, the greatest heir to Welling’s early-’80s photographs of tinfoil, at Marianne Boesky (both closed on October 10).
So why, at this moment, when the world is awash in vernacular images and consumed by geopolitical, eco, and economic crises, are artist-photographers holed up in their studios and darkrooms, interrogating the medium? Why not pick up a camera and document the collapse?
Nostalgia might be one answer—for the end of analog photography, or modernism, when artists like Christian Schad, Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, or Alvin Langdon Coburn could claim a revolutionary status for abstract photography. The return to chemical photography in the digital age echoes a similar move by filmmakers in the mid ’90s who adopted 16mm, primarily because they liked its physical properties and effects. (DVD projections of West’s films, transferred from 16-, 35-, and 70mm film, are on view at Hunter.)
Several theories are offered in Words Without Pictures, the recently published record of a year-long forum on photography sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the essays and discussions, there’s a suggestion that, while formalism might be an exhausted term for critics and historians, it could, as Kevin Moore argues, be “an anxious attempt” among artists to make something new and yet familiar in a moment when technology, politics, and culture are rapidly shifting. Others suggest abstraction as a response to the current global crisis—a kind of causal fragmentation/disintegration scenario—while editor Alex Klein warns that, while materiality and abstraction might have political implications for some artists, there are clearly others for whom it’s “trendy, market-savvy, and scarcely disguised by a veneer of easily digestible theory.”
That, as many bystanders have pointed out, is the rub. Words Without Pictures attests that this is an exceptionally articulate group of artists. And yet their work often feels as market- and institution-friendly as the Gursky-ites in the generation before them, or the Pictures artists, who at least had the figure of John Szarkowski, MOMA’s formidable photography curator, to rebel against. What Words Without Pictures demonstrates most, perhaps, is that photography—or art, in general—needs a new discourse that doesn’t rely on the straitjacket demands of “criticality.” Beshty, in his essay, quotes Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello from The New Spirit of Capitalism (2006): “Artistic critique is currently paralysed by what, depending on one’s viewpoint, may be regarded as its success or its failure.” (Although, irony here: Beshty’s work is the most beautiful, tasteful, and marketable of any of these photographers; a photographer friend likened it to “printing money.”)
If this kind of talk makes you uncomfortable, there are other photography shows around town that stick with the pre-millennial discourse. There is, of course, the Metropolitan Museum’s “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans” (1000 Fifth Avenue, through January 3), which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Swiss-born photographer’s book—most notably, by exhibiting Frank’s contact sheets. And Marian Goodman (24 West 57th Street, through October 30) has new photographs by the Canadian master of the uncanny himself, Jeff Wall, who once described his exaggeration of “the artificial” as an attempt to distance himself from Frank’s legacy.
Sometimes, however, the boundaries get blurred. In his show at Greenberg Van Doren (730 Fifth Avenue, through October 24), Tim Davis includes a photograph taken with a large-format camera of a scratched up, graffiti-riddled fresco in Italy—reminiscent, interestingly, of Ruby’s digitally collaged images of Italian graffiti at MOMA. Both seem to circle around questions of image, inscription, history, and artifact. And yet Davis is an artist who works very much in the peripatetic, social-critique tradition of Frank; he even did a road-trip project that resulted in his own version of The Americans, titled My Life in Politics.
So does it matter how either of these artists made their photographs? Or has process become the new (or revived) fetish of photography, something to occupy us now that the bickering over whether photography is art has died down? Except that another question looms, both on the pages of Words Without Pictures and elsewhere. Actually, it’s an old one, but it’s carrying new, post-digital baggage: What, in 2009, is a photograph?