Photography’s initial accomplishment was to allow for the instantaneous transformation of a four-dimensional object or event into a static, two-dimensional representation. However, in the catalogue for the 1970 exhibition Photography into Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, Peter C. Burnell — the museum’s then curator of photography — insisted that the medium could be pushed to even greater creative possibilities:
Photography into Sculpture embraces concerns beyond those of the traditional print, or what may be termed ‘flat’ work, and in so doing seeks to engender a heightened realization that art in photography has to do with interpretation and craftsmanship rather than mere record making.
Forty-four years later, Hauser & Wirth has compiled a selection of works from Photography into Sculpture in the exhibition The Photographic Object, 1970. It offers an enlightening counterpoint to photographers testing the boundaries of the medium today.
All of the artists in The Photographic Object, 1970 pushed the conventions of the time period’s dominant street- and documentary-style photography to astonishing heights. It was as if each artist worked out a definition of photography, then systematically subverted it, point by point. The largest and perhaps most sensational piece, Ellen Brooks’s “Untitled (Lawn Couple)”(1970), is a room-sized installation of a slightly distended Astroturf field; a black-and-white photograph of a nude couple relaxed in supine intimacy lies embedded in the neatly manicured green fibers. The photograph is entirely one with the landscape, its surface following the uneven swatch of fake grass and warping like mercurial fluid when viewed from different angles. In this way, Brooks adds new elements of time and materiality to the traditionally flat, paper-based medium.
Dale Quarterman and Jack Dale continue the photographic reconsideration of the body in two very different ways. For “Untitled”(1968), Quarterman layered four portraits of a woman, with each silhouette-shaped image decreasing in size toward the center of her torso and in each the woman losing a layer of clothing until she’s fully nude. In the outermost portrait, the woman looks confidently ahead, but with each denudation her eyes become more downcast, until she adopts a posture of modesty or shame — a poignant exposition of the male gaze.
In his two sculptures “Cubed Woman #3 a-b” (1970) and “Untitled Cubed Woman” (1970), Jack Dale also presents a multifaceted portrait of a woman: positive and negative black-and-white images of her sitting fill a three-dimensional grid inside cuboid Plexiglas. With photographs printed on every side of the grid, the overall image transforms when viewed from its five visible sides. Like a four-dimensional collage of frozen moments, the piece updates a Cubist treatment of time and space with modern materials. Michael de Courcy’s untitled multilevel tower of one hundred photo-silkscreen printed boxes (1970–71) is aesthetically similar to Dale’s cubes, but also antithetical. The boxes’ lack of transparency and stacked arrangement obstruct a view of all but the outermost sides, allowing de Courcy to expand and obscure while Dale contains and reveals.
All of the 62 works on view at Hasuer & Wirth warrant further in-depth investigation, for example Robert Watts’s funny optical manipulations: in “BLT”(1965), a photo transparency of bacon, lettuce, and tomato sits sandwiched between two colorless, bread-slice-shaped pieces of Lucite; in “Table with Two Wine Glasses” (1965), a photograph of two glasses on a table mounted on the surface of an actual table creates a disorienting illusion. The tongue-in-cheek straightforwardness contradicts their lack of verisimilitude, toying with the viewer’s expectations of how to interact with these pieces.
Beyond the historical significance of the artists’ works here, though, the relationships between the 1970 MoMA exhibition, its current reconsideration at Hauser & Wirth, and recent exhibitions of artists challenging the materiality of photography at Hauser & Wirth (Fixed Variable) and the International Center for Photography (What Is a Photograph?) provide insights into the development of the medium. Some things are the same: all shows have significantly more male artists than female. One change is the way photographers address space and substance. Working long before the omnipresence of digital technology, the artists in the 1970s seem to have tried making everything but the kitchen sink into a photographic object (though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn someone did, at some point, incorporate a sink). Now artists increasingly layer within their photographs, using digital media and the depths of the internet to extend their explorations; for instance, Lucas Blalock’s digital photographs in Fixed Variable, “Cactus Action”(2014) and “Big Bear”(2012), look realistic at first, but their oddities slowly reveal his alterations through digital collage and cloning. In this way, though, not much really has changed: the artist’s drive to challenge the objectivity of a photograph continues unabated.
The Photographic Object, 1970 continues at Hauser & Wirth (32 E 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through July 25.
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