by Jason Rosenfeld
WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART | MARCH 2 – JUNE 10, 2018
And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make.
-Lennon–McCartney, “The End,” 1969
The relationship between “take” and “make” is essential to Zoe Leonard’s deeply personal, associative, nostalgic, and generous art. This is especially true in the Whitney’s absorbing mid-career retrospective. A take/make dialogue of process and exchange suffuses her work in all media, and is inherent in the actual DNA of How to Take Good Pictures (2018), her arch topographic installation of stacked books, set against the backdrop of the fifth floor gallery’s monumental windows over the busy Hudson River that concludes the exhibition.
How to Take Good Pictures is a compendium of editions of Kodak’s now out of print guide to everyday photography, first published as How to Make Good Pictures in 1912, and modified to How to Take Good Pictures in 1981. The stacked volumes are arranged in chronological sequence beginning at the south wall of the gallery; they stretch north in variously heighted piles, until reaching the book’s final edition of 1995. The rise and fall of the individual heaps echoes the variable New York City skyline, and the increasingly built-up New Jersey shoreline visible across the river.
To “take” a photograph implies an exchange between subject and lens, but with the emphasis on the viewing artist who determines the point of view and the particular choice of equipment.1 To “make” a photograph is to turn this conceived and constricted vision spied through a viewfinder into physical form, a print, a possibility inherent in photography since 1839, while, as the curators write, “calling attention to the subjective position of the camera as a framing device.” As Leonard never crops her photographs and retains a visible border, what you see is generally what she saw. This gives her photographic work a roughness, as if her consideration of the scenes are in flux, but also a degraded texture commensurate with her preference in installations, as in Robert Rauschenberg’s art, for objects bearing evidence of decay—rotting fruit, aging suitcases, creased and frayed postcards posted long ago.
Leonard’s photographs usually bear two dates: the year she shot them and the year she printed them for exhibition or sale. Thus, the take/make tension and extended gestation of her work inherent in her overall practice is the very topic of the work. But the same applies to her installations. They all involve a taking of found or accumulated materials and making them, in often barely perceptible gestures, into art. The Beatles’ postulation in the penultimate song of their final recorded album is one of equivalence: love and love—you get out what you put in. For Leonard, equivalence in art is about allowing the viewer to see existence as she does, in simple terms (process), but in all our lived complexity and with a communicative intensity that can resonate in an art historical, political, or deeply personal way (exchange).
Leonard meticulously and generously installed the show with Whitney curator Elisabeth Sherman in seven galleries, each of which has an inherent theme.2 As with most exhibitions of contemporary art, didactic object labels are limited, but this proves the correct gambit, one reflective of Leonard’s overall modus operandi. There is just enough information supplied about approach and process and context, but the installation gives visitors space to make up their own minds: to many viewers the themes will appear both familiar and topical, and Leonard is counting on this—hers is not an art of unapproachable obscurantism.
Part of the thrill of the art is that on the surface it can seem quite basic, even simplistic in form (in the sense of facilidad, the art which conceals art, a trait Vasari long ago attributed to Raphael), but for those who commit and open themselves to its themes, it becomes more and more complex. Hence the large first room commences with a pair of pendant aerial photos of pulsing ocean currents absent of horizons in Water no. 1 + Water no. 2 (1988) on the left hand wall as the viewer enters, while Model of New York and Model of New York no. 2 (1989/1990), vertiginous views of the Queens Museum’s Panorama of New York City, are mounted at the right of the entrance. Running perpendicular from the water images is 1961, fifty-six suitcases lined up from the wall and stretching into the room like a Carl Andre sculpture, invading and bisecting the space. All are in shades of blue, and all are antiquated. Each September, around her birthday, Leonard adds another (procured on Ebay). Since 2014 this work has been owned by the Guggenheim, site of On Kawara’s memorable retrospective Silence in 2015, the year after his death. Leonard and Kawara share an aesthetic intertwined with the lived life, marking their time on earth in various ways. 1961 will conclude with Leonard’s death, as did Kawara’s matchless Today Series/Date Paintings (1966-2014), but the suitcases, all but two of which have tags (one with her birthname, Kathryn Leonard, and a misleading Barnard College address as she did not attend college), also imply travel and a winged view of life that is reflected in the other works on the walls in the sense that they all imply, as with the first images of water and the overhead view of the New York Panorama, a mobile view of the world and the possibility of relocations.
These other accompanying black-and-white photographic series are arrayed clockwise around the first room as one skirts 1961, and they include: eight views out airplane windows (1989), five scenes of railroad tracks, rivers, and urban grids (1986-1989/1990-2008), and a shot of Niagara Falls, all seen from above. Ringing those suitcases, they invoke the idea of transport, but also of seeing the world from an elevated point of view. The concluding single vertiginous shot of a Maid of the Mist tour boat dwarfed by Niagara Falls (1986/1991) is accompanied by a second installation in the room: Survey (2009-2012), comprised of a rough work table made of two saw horses and a top covered with wax paper; across it Leonard spread stacks of 6,266 vintage postcards of Niagara Falls dating from the 1900s to 1970s. The stacks are organized from left to right with images of the falls corresponding to a vantage point, from the Canadian side, from east to west. Survey traces both a national and personal obsession with the original locus of the American sublime in art, and one of the nation’s first great tourist attractions. She also asks us to consider this antiquated medium: in the age of digital imagery, why do so many vintage postcards survive? They are about tracing a history of connection, like Kawara’s I Got Up project (1968-1979), where he sent two postcards daily to friends and associates with the title phrase and time he arose.
If the first gallery documents an elevated and removed perspective, subsequent rooms trace Leonard’s activism and rootedness in specific places. Works in the second gallery address institutional and cultural control of female bodies: photographs of anatomical models in a French museum, a chastity belt, the head of a bearded woman under glass, and the extensive Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993-1996), made in collaboration with the director Cheryl Dunye for her film The Watermelon Woman (1996) about a fictional gay African American performer in the 1930s. The documentation of Fae Richards that appears in the film was made by Leonard. The anatomical model and bearded woman in a bell jar evoke the 19th or early 20th century; thus there is a presiding interest in the past in such works, despite the purported presentness of photography. Here images take advantage of the temporal distancing effect of black and white, and critique institutions that control how womens’ history is constructed.
The third gallery is filled with forty selections from the well-known Analogue Portfolio (1998-2009), dye transfer prints of depopulated snippets of local color gleaned from Leonard’s Lower East Side neighborhood, venerable shop fronts that bespeak of a different New York, one on the cusp of disappearing. For contemporary Manhattanintes, they might seem to be from a different city entirely. Adjacent is an entrance to an enclosed gallery designed to diplay Strange Fruit (1992-1997), her deeply moving response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in America, whose title refers to the song made famous by Billie Holliday in 1939 that decried the lynching of blacks in America—the result of governmental disinterest and pervasive racism. Leonard sewed together with thread or zippers the hides of fruit. These are displayed in a loose grid on the floor in this room that is painted from floor to ceiling a light gray to set it apart from the white walls of the rest of the exhibition. Still decomposing, their melancholy odor of loss pervades the space: Strange Fruit becomes a kind of perpetual memorial whenever it is displayed. The piece is dedicated to David Wojnarowicz, who like many other friends of Leonard, endured an excruciating death from the HIV virus while the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations sat idle and demonized its sufferers.
A subsequent long gallery includes the monumental You see I am here after all (2008). Originally installed at DIA:Beacon, it consists of thousands of colored and black-and-white vintage postcards with iconic photographs of the Falls arranged on a single long wall, again as in Survey stretching from left to right, corresponding to an east-west view of the natural wonder from the Canadian side. Look closely and you will find the panoramic format black-and-white card titled “Brink of the American Fall” with “You see I am here after all” handwritten in cursive on the front and signed “Lulu 9/20/1906.” It is impossible to see what Lulu wrote on the back, but her assertive and triumphant “I told you so” inscription from over a century ago informs the enormity of Leonard’s similarly panoramic display. You see, she is here in the Whitney after all, embraced and in all her considerable wit and emotional expressiveness, with a sense of determination and purpose that ripples through every room.
There is an important, almost secret, coda to the exhibition, installed in ten staff areas on five other floors of the museum. Leonard has stenciled on the walls quotes from Linda Nochlin’s essential 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” They are visible to the public through windows and doors and down corridors if you seek them out. It is titled Homage (2018), as Nochlin died last year, and is moving and exhilarating, while firmly fitting the artist’s Take/Make mantra. Appropriately housed in an institution deeply committed to inclusiveness in its displays and exhibitions, the ten stirring quotations serve as both injunction and declaration—a spirited demand that curators and administrators continue to expand the museum’s present mission, and, simply by their presence, a confirmation of the embrace of Nochlin’s still relevant call to expand the ranks of art history. The commensurate equivalence in Leonard’s art is, indeed, about a produced and shared love—for the political power of art making and the institutions that can support it; it is a wholesale embrace of the personal power in taking from her own experience and, in the end, translating that into a form that speaks plainly but directly to the art world, the powers that be, and the individual alike.
- Leonard says she “take[s] my photograph among the millions of photographs that can be taken,” implying a kind of object truthfulness in her selection. Zoe Leonard: Survey, p. 51.
- See the forthcoming conversation with Leonard in the May issue of the Brooklyn Rail. The exhibition was co-curated by Bennett Simpson at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where the show travels next, and he wrote the lucid and thorough lead essay in the catalogue.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail.