Six From the Seventies: The Last Years of Modern Photography and Evidence of Impact: Art and Photography 1963-1978

HOWARD GREENBERG GALLERY | June 18 - August 28, 2004

WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART | May 29 - October 20, 2004

Michael Bishop. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery.

To your right, as you walk into Howard Greenberg, Frank Gohlke makes a few poker-faced jokes about parking lots, planting a bush in the center of his frame or leading you in with a few well-positioned arrows painted on the road. To your left, Joel Meyerowitz divines DiCorcia and Jeff Wall. Michael Bishop pauses over colorful rectangles that mirror the shape of the page. On another wall, Michael Martone waxes melancholy in black and white. Then comes the real surprise: photographic collage on fax paper and vinyl by William Larson and Bea Nettles, respectively.

“These artists represent a real irreverence and rebelliousness,” says Rick Wester, curator of Six From the Seventies. They’re all about “experimentation and pushing the envelope, stretching the definition of photography.” What defines the rebelliousness of this work is the way it’s all made: each artist uses a different camera and printmaking technique. Each arrives at a different sized print, a different look, and a different, personal conclusion to the same modernist questions: what can I do with photography and what can photography do with itself? This is a noticeably different sort of audacity from shock value. It is the kind of challenge that taxes the artist as well as the viewer.

We are invited to visit the street and the subconscious as never before. The juxtapositions of patterns and swatches of color in the work of Meyerowitz and Bishop are both as planned and as random as the collage work of Nettles and Larson. In fact, the whole act of photography comes to resemble collage: perhaps the cut and paste process is conceptual in “Customs House, Green Van, #1 Broadway, New York City,” but the end is as tangibly disorienting as any one of Larson’s Electro-Carbon Prints.

Meyerowitz slaps the floral curtains of a grass-green van in front of the hint of some streamlined bus, on top of a dark angular old building, and on top of the honeycombed windows of a huge office building. This picture is about the connections he makes while making the picture and the connections you make while looking at it. Even the kind of personal mythology that slips out of one of Bea Nettles’ Kwik Prints, or the kind of kitschy melancholy of some of the women in her pictures, is still a cryptic description of the subconscious, rather than a fleshy story about being a woman in 1978. For the first and last time in photography’s short history, so far, this work has no dominant narrative except for the exuberant process of making and looking at pictures.

Consider, briefly, the history of mid-20th century photography. The fifties turned out beautiful, serious work, sometimes ironic, but rarely funny. Think Steichen’s Family of Man exhibit and Robert Frank’s The Americans, first published in 1959. Minor White founded Aperture in 1952, and his tastes were certainly formal. Aaron Siskind turned out many compelling found images of abstraction. The tone of the fifties was deliberate and mature.

Photography in the sixties was lighter and stranger and more self-conscious: Garry Winogrand started photographing women, Lee Friedlander peppered his street photography with his awkward shadow, and Diane Arbus began to photograph freaks. These people popped the cherry on black and white. Then again, artists everywhere were thinking about presence, the art object, and self-referentiality. Frank Stella was hard at work on the literal surface of his paintings, and Mel Bochner worked briefly in photography, exploring all sorts of elements of the literal surface of the print. (He investigated, for example, the properties of transparency and opacity, in the series by that name, shown now at the Whitney.)

Then, when self-referentiality and the theatrics of the objecthood debate climaxed with the popularity of performance art, photography bent over backwards to phrase this new genre in two dimensions. It coupled with text to take on this project. At the Whitney, again, we see evidence of photography’s new posture. Robert Smithson took a walk in New Jersey, revising the concept of sculpture. Photography and text put that project in Artforum in 1967. In 1971, Dennis Oppenheim stood in the center of a circle on the ground and had himself pelted with rocks. The piece shown at the Whitney is composed of two photographs. The top photograph is a bird’s-eye-view of the artist in the circle, and the bottom photograph is his fearful face. Linking the photographs is a bit of text that describes the project.

At Howard Greenberg, you’ll also find that many photographs involve text: Larson includes it in his faxes and Bishop, Meyerowitz, and Gohlke include it in their frames. This is evidence of a digestive process for photography. Text and photography collaborated in the sixties, but in the seventies, photography claimed text as a compositional element, not so much for its communicative skills.

Composition was an act. It was not some easy, mannerist, meaningless exercise. There seems to have been an expectation of consequence in artists at the time, including photographers: the amount of energy put into a piece equaled the amount of energy the viewer experienced in looking at it.

This year, critics and curators have been looking at a lot of work from the sixties and seventies. What is current about that period, I think, is its digestive, journey-oriented methodology. The artists at Howard Greenberg, for example, did the work for the next generation of photographic art-stars. They figured stuff out. For the most part, these artists aren’t so famous anymore, but if they had not made their many pictures, in their many different ways, then the decisive, monumental work of the following generation would not exist. The Gurskys and the Walls would look like conclusions to a missing question in fine art’s short paragraph on photography.

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