Constantin Brancusi, “View of the studio: Plato, Mademoiselle Pogany II, and Golden Bird” (c. 1920), gelatin silver print, 11 3/4 × 9 1/2 inches (29.8 × 24.1 cm). Private collection (© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery)

Walking through In the Studio: Photographs, a three-part show (Poses, Four Studios, An Embarrassment of Images) organized by Peter Galassi, former chief curator of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and spread over several floors of the Gagosian empire on Madison Avenue, the underlying themes of accumulation, storage, labeling, and just plain looking remind us how artists often surround themselves with visual repertories.

Those early repertories, arrayed in artists’ studios, were “thingy,” with images glued down, tacked to a wall, spread out on the floor. We assume they were collected with the intent of giving birth to other images, and that makes us look more closely, wondering just why this artist picked that particular work to adorn the workspace; the pictures a picture-maker puts on the wall must tell us something, though how direct an influence one has on the other is always a guess.

Many of these photographs of artist studios call into question just what is this thing called “studio.” Perhaps the establishment of such a place displaces the centrality of “home,” setting a place apart for creation (and commerce). Is the studio an externalization or perhaps a partitioning of the artist brain?

Starting with the model-free studio, or perhaps the studio as the model, we are shown spaces crammed with lots of pictures: people, landscapes, things, and famous/significant art-by-others. The largest photos, those by Edmond Bénard from the late 1800’s, feature the artists themselves reclining or at work (or both) in startlingly enormous studios and surrounded on every wall by paintings, paintings, paintings.

Installation view, ‘In the Studio: Photographs,’ Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Avenue, New York (© Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Robert McKeever)

How the artist then poses the self in the studio is as varied as the studios themselves. In the Bénard photos, essentially master shots and not compositionally compelling, the artist is the one human in a dominating landscape of assorted images arranged like thoughts around him. On another wall and another time, we get the assertive artist dominating the place, such as Lee Friedlander in his New City, New York studio. Constantin Brancusi, behind the camera, shows us his iconic works arranged (disarranged) in his studio. It’s not, directly, about him but about his environment. With Lucas Samaras, it really is all about him; his body so often being his own studio; a human surface on which his ideas are arranged. Josef Sudek shows us the world outside his studio, and how that view changes with the seasons; the real studio is the window itself, perhaps the most expansive metaphor for what and where a visual artist’s studio really is.

One of the trickiest pairs of photos are two by Rudy Burckhardt, with what are supposedly shots of the same studio in the same year, 1954, yet with very different views (“A View from Brooklyn I” and “A View from Brooklyn II”). You stare at the two photographs, seeing that, yes, they were taken at slightly different angles in relation to the window, but how can the massive Brooklyn Bridge, which dominates the top half of one window, be absent in the twin photograph? Maybe this is a better metaphor for a studio; a screen on which one projects a changing vision, which bears a very different meaning in a pre-digital print.

John O’Reilly, like Samaras, often places himself in his studio, but that “studio” is itself cut up and rearranged in these intricately constructed Polaroids, merging histories personal and historic/cultural like layers of the artist’s perceptual process. Although most of them are precisely dated (“A Paper Self, August 9, 1987”), they are not the “frozen moment in time” photography is often expected to portray. This thing called “the studio” is a flowing moment, a shifting stack of cards splaying and cohering, mutable and fluid yet fixed for us through a complex and informed artifice.

John O’Reilly, “Mythic Still Life” (1985), collage of gelatin silver transfer prints (Polaroid), 3 3/4 × 6 5/8 inches (9.5 × 16.8 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund (© John O’Reilly. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery)

What/who may a model be? In most of the early work, the human models are unnamed, a marker they apparently have shed with their clothes. This gorgeous anonymity comes through most powerfully in “Photograph of a Parisian Studio” from an unidentified photographer, circa 1900; the entire studio crew (a large group) clothed, surrounding the naked model who is front and center yet blurred. Perhaps the model could not remain still, and her movement makes her both more anonymous and more memorable. This anonymity is not the case with the 1969 Richard Avedon photo of the Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey/Factory gang. Naked though several of them may be, they must be named in order for the photo to be most effective, as this demimonde viewed publicity as part of the business of art. Yet there is mystery and emotional power here; was the naked Candy Darling one of the first popularly distributed photographs of a transperson? It also seems crucial to note just who is naked and who clothed: the directors (Morrissey, Warhol) get to keep their clothes on.

The adjoining Avedon, of a frightful group of Daughters of the American Revolution “generals,” leaves them unnamed, iconic in their self-assurance, though the broad back of the single DAR dame not facing the camera becomes a studio in itself, as a viewer cannot help but project onto that canvas; why is she not looking our way (and isn’t her skin surprisingly dark)? Further on, we get another Lee Friedlander photograph, a 1975 portrait of the painter R.B. Kitaj, who lurks in the background, the foreground dominated by the naked hips and crotch of a young woman. The title names the artist and locale, “R.B. Kitaj, London.” Forty years on, this image comes close to feeling jokey; the serious young male artist (named) contemplating the naked (unnamed) muse. It’s a terrific photograph for all the right and wrong reasons. This arrangement gets a reversal of sorts in the whimsical “London” (1960) by Weegee, in which the legendary ambulance chaser lies flat on his back (fully clothed) while a zaftig woman in a bathing suit hovers over; the photographer pinned by his usual target.

Florence Henri, “Self-Portrait” (1928), gelatin silver print, 11 × 8 inches (27.9 × 20.3 cm). David Dechman and Michel Mercure (© Galleria Martini & Ronchetti, Genova. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery)

What’s Robert Mapplethorpe’s infamous Self-Portrait from 1978 doing here? The still-shocking shot of his ass, bullwhip protruding, as he turns to face the camera is so theatrical a pose, so deliberate a gesture, that it suggests this artist’s studio was not only the bodies of others, but also his own, a bridge between Samaras, Irving Penn, and Avedon. Perhaps. At least among the men, the more assertively “out” gay photographers, Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar, seem to be the least afraid of deliberately addressing sexuality and the forbidden. Hujar shows us a young man sitting and addressing his own erection (“Bruce St. Croix,” 1976), and Mapplethorpe leads us into his own ass. Samaras seems the most playful and sexually ambiguous in his relationship to his own body and to others’; in one series he shows himself watching his own models in a manner both self-referential/reverential and self-effacing. In another, AutoPolaroids (1971), twelve drawn-on photographs of the artist are taken with his feet in the foreground as if shot from below. It’s not flattering, and makes one think of John Coplans, noticeably absent from this show.

Noticeably absent in anything approaching parity are women — as photographers, though not of course as models. Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, Hannah Wilke each get one photograph, all three aiming the camera at themselves, exploring the multiplicities in the concept of a single self, and perhaps questioning the (male?) need to seek an external model. I am told that the curator limited the work to material produced before 1986, which may partially, but only partially, explain the gender imbalance of this show.

This show gathers into an evolving portrait of what might be meant by “model,” and by “studio,” over photography’s relatively brief history. A photographer puts someone into a space and takes a photograph; is this a portrait of the model, of the space itself, or a placeholder for the artist self (multiple selves maybe)? We are given a multitude of models over an abundance of times and places.

The dividing lines between the sections of this very large show blur. As with the best thematic shows, it isn’t the specific theme that is being directly addressed but a fluid series of connections, visual exchanges that we carry as we wander among the images, looking and recombining. Galassi’s curation gives us an opportunity to re-see an image, to place it in, and out of, a continuum, and to feel that unstable dynamic between studio, model, artist, and pose.

In the Studio: Photographs continues at Gagosian Gallery (980 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 18.

Jeff McMahon is a writer and performer. He holds an MFA from the Writing Program, School of the Arts, Columbia University, and a BA in Interdisciplinary Art from SUNY/Empire State College. He is a Professor...