Railing Opinion: Right on Timeby David Levi Strauss
The current (Summer 2010) issue of Aperture magazine contains a curious article written by Andy Grundberg, former photography critic for the New York Times and now Associate Dean and Chair of Photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. Ostensibly a review of Robert Bergman’s recent solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Grundberg’s piece says little of substance about the work itself, and is remarkably noncommittal about its particular qualities. Instead, Grundberg uses the occasion of Bergman’s show to attempt to prop up a defensive power structure within the old photographic establishment that I’d hoped we were well rid of.
Grundberg’s main complaint is a bureaucratic one—that this artist should not be recognized because he was not vetted by the proper authorities. If Bergman was really any good, Grundberg implies, the recognized arbiters in the field (like Grundberg) would have chosen him before and given him their blessing. Since Bergman did not receive this blessing, his work should never have come to light.
Grundberg begins by comparing Bergman (who is 66 years old and has been making photographs seriously for half a century) to the “untrained and unsung” 18-year-old street photographer in John Waters’s 1998 film Pecker, who is “discovered by a savvy New York dealer and becomes the toast of the art world,” causing problems for the subjects of his photographs back in Baltimore and raising troubling questions about “exploitation.” The film also features a New York Times critic getting “teabagged” in a Baltimore bar, marking the entrance of that recently politicized term into common usage, and a fictional curator at the Whitney toasting “the end of irony,” three years before 9/11. But Waters’s good-natured, prescient, and wise satire is lost on Grundberg, who finds Bergman’s artistic rags to riches story unsavory, and vaguely sinister. “It seems a tad curious,” he writes, “that scarcely anyone had heard of Bergman before this show, much less seen one of his pictures.”
Obviously, many people have seen Bergman’s work over the past 50 years, and his book A Kind of Rapture, published by Random House in 1998, with an introduction by Toni Morrison and an afterword by Meyer Schapiro, wasn’t exactly a secret. Grundberg’s category of “scarcely anyone” includes Morrison and Schapiro; Robert Frank and Danny Seymour; critics A.D. Coleman, Vicki Goldberg, John Russell, Paul Mattick, Katy Siegel, and John Yau; Sarah Greenough (who has championed the work for the past 14 years) and the entire exhibition committee of the National Gallery; Phong Bui, who curated the concurrent show at P.S. 1 and edited the catalogue of that show; Yossi Milo, who has shown the work in his gallery in Chelsea; and many, many others.
To malign this work as “latter-day Bowery Bum photography,” as Grundberg does here, is a pointed inversion. Anyone who actually looks at these images will see that they are the opposite of what Grundberg claims that they are. But by mischaracterizing them in this way, and using the tired old (now entirely institutionalized) tropes of “the aestheticization of suffering” critique to buttress his weak and cynical gesture, he can dismiss them as retrograde (appearing “a half-century too late”), and hopefully restore order to the canon. God forbid work should appear “out of order,” and be judged on its own merits.
In truth, the history of photography is full of examples of work that was misjudged and maligned according to the prejudices of the time it was made, and then eventually rediscovered and celebrated. Bergman’s portraits could not be sanctioned or exhibited before this because the institutional arbiters that Andy Grundberg represents did not approve of them. They did not fit in to the then reigning formalist orthodoxy about what this kind of image could or should be. They were too subjective, too raw, too much about portrayal rather than mimesis or typology. Now those old institutional aesthetic regimes have lost some of their power to control what is seen, and Grundberg is left holding the bag. Bergman’s extraordinary portraits are not arriving 50 years too late, but right on time, when they can be seen for what they are. What is late, and ineffectual, is Grundberg’s official censure.
ContributorDavid Levi Strauss
DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.