What does an artist do with work that isn’t quite up to his or her standards? Throw it out? Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg both tried that, putting artworks they didn’t like out with the trash, only to find them on sale in galleries a few years later. Some artists preemptively destroy works they don’t like — “There’s enough bad art in the world,” Indianapolis, Indiana painter Charles Mundy once told me, “I want to spare the public bad art, especially if it’s mine” — or perhaps they lend or give it away. The solution for most artists is just to keep their misfires in storage, which only postpones a decision.
The question becomes trickier when the artists are dead, and a current exhibition of images by street photographer Garry Winogrand (1928–84) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a real poser. Perhaps one-quarter of the images on view were developed from rolls of film that Winogrand used but never developed. They just sat in storage until curators going through the artist’s archives decided to develop a portion of them (there were 2,500 undeveloped rolls of film); the curator of this exhibition, Leo Rubinfien, chose to exhibit quite a few. Rubinfien’s intention, as he described in the catalogue essay, was to make a case that Winogrand’s late work did not represent a precipitous drop in quality, as a number of scholars claim, but is in many instances equal to his more celebrated material of the 1960s. Lost in this debate is Winogrand’s own view, which he offered only by omission.
What are we to make of the work that wasn’t put on view during their lifetimes (and artists always produce more than they show and sell)? One has to assume that the artists knew best what they wanted presented to the public, and those pieces that didn’t make the cut may be kept around for any number of reasons. Scholars certainly appreciate the opportunity to examine artworks that reveal less well-known aspects of an artist’s thought process.
There are numerous instances in the literary world of putting out for the public works that writers chose for one reason or another not to publish. There have been, for example, more posthumous Ernest Hemingway novels — Islands of the Stream, The Dangerous Summer, True at First Light and The Garden of Eden, not to mention works of nonfiction — than many writers produce during their lifetimes, and we are seeing more and more of this in the fine arts. In late 2013, an exhibition at New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery displayed newly created posthumous metal sculptures by Constantin Brancusi that were produced using molds that were found in the artist’s studio. These new sculpture editions looked lovely, but perhaps too lovely, since Brancusi tended to work over each cast piece (polishing here, roughing the surface there) in order to make every one unique. Were these real Brancusis or just objects that look like Brancusis but aren’t? Worse, the objects themselves weren’t explicitly labeled by the gallery as posthumous.
In another example, the United States Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale consisted of an untitled sculpture by the artist Félix González-Torres, who had died 11 years earlier and had only made rough sketches of what he wanted the final artwork to look like. Unfazed, Guggenheim Museum curator Nancy Spector organized the creation of this work based on those sketches for this important international exhibition. No one faults Spector, but what we are getting is her best guess.
Last fall, a posthumous 30-foot tall artist’s proof of Roy Lichtenstein’s 1988 “Coups de Pinceau” was produced by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation and installed on the grounds of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. The sculpture probably would have suited the artist (1923–97), better known for his paintings (“Coups de Pinceau” means “brushstrokes”), but it was the Foundation’s language-defying designation of this piece as a posthumous artist’s proof that suggests someone felt a bit awkward when describing it.
A growing number of photographers have gone back to their older negatives in order to see if something that didn’t appeal to them years back now looks better. For instance, photographer Cindy Sherman produced two series of prints in 2000 from images she took in 1976 (“Bus Riders” and “Murder Mystery”), and a number of photographs taken by Larry Clark in the 1960s and ’70s were printed by him in editions in the 1980s and ’90s.
There are many reasons that a photographer may not print an image reasonably close to the time that the picture was taken. He or she may have been concerned with a particular subject and wasn’t focusing on the image that had just been taken; perhaps, the photographer was just too busy with other projects or just forgot about them. Herman Leonard took hundreds of images of actors and jazz performers during the 1940s and ‘50s, but did not start printing editions of photographs until the 1980s when he was “discovered,” his Chicago dealer, Catherine Edelman, told Hyperallergic. The year in which Leonard took the picture is noted on the back of the photograph, along with the notation “’Printed Later,’ since I don’t know and he doesn’t remember if he printed it in 1997 or 2002.” Some other photographers and their dealers only note the year in which the image was taken, completely disregarding the printing date. “There is no norm in the photography field,” Edelman said.
Some of the early images that Cindy Sherman went back to print decades later “didn’t really work for her,” her dealer, Janelle Reiring of Manhattan’s Metro Pictures, said last year. One of those images, an untitled 1980 image from her “Rear Screen Projection” series, was donated for a portfolio of 10 images by 10 artists to be used as a fundraiser for the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS. It may not have been up to her standards, but it was good enough to help a worthy cause, and did.
There is nothing illegal or unethical about this, and Sherman’s photographs are marked “1976/2000,” referring to the year in which the image was taken and the year in which the print was produced so that prospective buyers understand what happened and can judge for themselves. In fact, buyers do understand and make judgments, and the prices for what might be called “artists’ seconds” tend to be at a much lower tier than the highly valued vintage works of the earlier period. Still, these old negatives can seem like a rainy day fund.
For photographer William Eggleston, the prices for newer editions of older images is considerably higher than those of his more recently produced photographs. “There is an enormous catalogue of work from the 1970s that was never published,” Howard Read, co-owner of New York’s Cheim & Read gallery, which represents photographer William Eggleston, said. So, one can expect to see more newly made images from the 1970s by this artist in the coming years.
But back to Garry Winogrand, who had no part in developing old rolls of film and producing new images from the 1970s that were included in the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. There are two concerns — one immediate and one for the future. In the exhibition and catalogue (far more of them are included in the catalogue), these images are identified as the work of this artist. They are and they aren’t. Winogrand focused his camera and snapped the shutter, but much of the work of a photographer takes place in the darkroom, where images are cropped, tones are enhanced or lightened, and decisions are made about the developing process that will be used (silver prints, sepia tones, platinum, dye transfer — lots of options). For photography collectors, there also is a worry that these newly made images will be released as editions for buyers, muddying both the appreciation of Winogrand’s body of work and the understanding of what the artist produced and what others produced on his behalf.
Certainly, posthumously produced photographs do appear on the market from time to time. The children and grandchildren of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston regularly sell newly printed versions of older, well-known images by these artists. However, these heirs identify on the back of each print when the images were produced and who did the actual printing, and the prices of these works are a few hundred dollars, not the five- and six-figure amounts that the ones made by these artists (or under their supervision) sell for in high-end galleries and at auction. Think of these prints as high-end souvenirs.
Art and the art market are difficult enough to understand without adding the confusion of works that artists did not complete, may not have liked or were undecided about. A deserved tribute to Garry Winogrand is turning into an ethical morass that does no one any good.
Garry Winogrand continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 21.
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