On ViewBowdoin College Museum Of Art
February 24–June 5, 2022
There is a portrait of Susan Sontag sitting in a windowsill, her relaxed pose and outfit radiating a particularly butch sensibility, that beautifully captures the writer’s distinctive gaze, marked as it is by both skepticism and yearning. The photograph was taken by Marcia Resnick, an overlooked figure in the downtown New York scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, who is currently the subject of a comprehensive retrospective at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine. Resnick’s portraits of iconic figures such as Sontag, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kathy Acker, and Gary Indiana, among others, have become well-known documents of a much-romanticized period in the history of New York. Yet few are familiar with the photographer’s multifaceted and wide-ranging practice beyond these portraits, something the curators of this retrospective, Resnick’s first ever, hope to change.
Intrigued by the potential of conceptual art after attending a lecture on Happenings by Allan Kaprow at Cooper Union, Resnick decided to pursue her MFA at CalArts. Her teachers there included John Baldessari, whose witty sense of humor is palpable throughout Resnick’s work. Returning to New York after graduating in 1973, Resnick taught photography at Queens College, NYU, Cooper Union, and other institutions to pay the bills while maintaining a dedicated studio practice. Over the next decade, the artist created an impressive body of work that increasingly explores the medium of photography not as a documentary tool but as a site of fictive play. The series “See Changes” (1974), for example, captures James Welling, with whom Resnick drove back to the East Coast from CalArts, looking over the Grand Canyon with his back turned to the photographer. Creating twelve prints of the original photograph, Resnick made unique interventions into each by cutting, drawing, and painting on or into the photographs’ surface, thus emphasizing the images’ artifice.
Two years later, she embarked on a series that tackles photography’s deceptive quality more explicitly. Titled “Landscape/Loftscape” (1976), here Resnick created diptychs that showcase one photograph taken outdoors, while the other was taken in the studio with readymade objects created to mimic the “natural” landscape. Yet it would take another two years for Resnick to arrive at a project that marks a decisive shift in her oeuvre. Turning away from observations of the outside world, Resnick redirected her attention toward the self. In “Re-visions” (1978), the photographer staged scenes that recreate her childhood and adolescent memories, and accompanied them with text written directly onto the print that recounts said memories. A photograph of a balloon, reminiscent of a pregnant belly, firmly held between two hands with neatly polished nails, reveals a needle in the left hand about to puncture the object. Underneath the image, Resnick has written: “She enjoyed making loud noises in quiet places.” Another one depicts a hand grasping a pair of sunglasses emerging from a fabric surface reminiscent of a vaginal opening. “She became an expert shoplifter,” the text below reads.
These experimental series are striking in their dialogue with LA-based artists of the time, such as Alexis Smith, Al Ruppersberg, and Baldessari. The connection is visible in their strategies of sequencing, juxtaposition of image and text, and, of course, their subtle humor. Historically, LA art has also always allowed more room for humor and play, unlike the often theory-heavy and self-important attitude of the New York art scene. The interest in self-analysis and self-invention is also something that was pursued more commonly by LA artists of the late 1970s, a dramatic contrast to the New York scene, which at the time was dominated by the Pictures Generation group, artists that aimed to erase or profoundly compromise the very idea of the self. I cannot help but wonder whether Resnick would have received more attention and critical interest had she stayed in LA.
It is always instructive for an art historian to see a comprehensive treatment of an artist they were not fully aware of, except from perhaps a handful of works. While Resnick’s experimental attitude towards photography intrigues me, I did still find myself most drawn to her portraits of others. Walking through the exhibition several times, despite myself I kept returning to Susan Sontag. But then again, I always do.