The exhibition Serialities, presented by Hauser & Wirth and organized with art dealer Olivier Renaud-Clément, is built around the photographic works of August Sander. Born in 1876 in Herdorf, Germany, Sander is commonly thought of as the most significant portrait photographer of the early 20th century. His photographs are posed, his sitters self-conscious, and his images printed in black and white from glass plate negatives. His project People of the Twentieth Century strove to catalogue all of the types of persons living in his proximity during his lifetime.
The aspiration to photograph the People of the Twentieth Century isn’t far removed from the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler’s ambition “to photographically document the existence of everyone alive” or, for that matter, from Taryn Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII (2008–11), which traces bloodlines. Retrospectively, it is easy to see in Sander’s work the germ of some of the most important photo-based projects that have followed. The exhibition, Serialities appears to want, once and for all, to drag photography out of isolation and contextualize it within the larger framework of art making.
One saw tentative steps in this direction when the Whitney Museum reopened in its new home with the exhibition America Is Hard to See. Although photographs were still generally sequestered in their own rooms, they were contextualized as part of a larger history rather than being presented as an entirely separate enterprise. It is true that, for decades, certain individual photographers have been considered artists. Many of the Pictures Generation would fall into that category, including Cindy Sherman and Louise Lawler, who are both represented in Serialities (although the latter not by her photographic work). And yet the distinction persists, such that Cindy Sherman is deemed an artist and Garry Winogrand, a photographer. This discrimination also affects price points in the marketplace: artists have more value than photographers, even if the artist’s work is entirely photo based.
The exhibition sets about its project of integration in several interesting ways. The most striking is to hang Sherrie Levine’s “After August Sander” (2012) — a series in which Levine rephotographed 18 images from Sander’s work People Who Came to My Door, part of his larger effort to document those living around him — in a gallery adjacent to the one containing Sander’s original work. The conversation about Levine’s remarkable project is largely familiar to us now, but the pairing reminds us that, ironically, appropriating the images of other photographers conferred an originality on those works — one that had been long withheld, in part because they had been seen as the products of a mechanical process and theoretically able to be multiplied ad infinitum. Originality was, for a long time, the preserve of painters.
In Levine’s work we also see indexicality turned in on itself. She reproduces the photograph not by creating a new print from an existing negative, but by rephotographing a photograph and then claiming authorship of the new image. This is now so common we barely notice it, but when Levine first presented the work, it was seen by many as scandalous. The underlying assumptions of these two bodies of work differ — we would generally refer to Sander as modern and Levine as postmodern. Yet if we simply stand inside the galleries and look at them, what we see is not so different. Both have been created through indexical reproduction. And while the disavowal of authorship and the artist’s hand was a big rhetorical point for postmodern art, it is not clear that it was Levine’s purpose; she may not even be critiquing the aura of the original artwork in the liberatory fashion deduced from Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), or commenting on the absurdity of an endlessly reproducible original. Maybe, to the contrary, what she cared about most was claiming for herself and other women the same rights and benefits of authorship that are granted to men. This is not a new assertion, but her early work was written about largely by men, who stressed the postmodern ideas over the feminist ones.
Indexicality, was of course, fundamental to pre-digital photography: the image was created directly from the light reflected onto the negative from whatever stood in front of the camera lens. With the exception of Peter Galassi’s anti-intuitive observation in his book Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography, that landscape photographers learned from landscape painters, photography has always been over-identified with its mechanical means. Yet it is exactly that ability to record something existing in time and space that gives photography its pathos. And seriality and indexicality became more closely intertwined with the advent of the form, because photography makes repetition easier.
Seriality traverses art history, from high modern iterations such as Barnett Newman’s The Stations of the Cross: lema sabachthani (1958–66) to the Minimalist rejection of embellishment and illusion and on to the postmodern appropriation of mass media as a form of critique. This exhibition examines where seriality intersects with indexicality, mostly in photographic works that fall on either side of the modern–postmodern divide by practitioners who aren’t necessarily considered photographers. These decisions diminish the gap between what is seen as traditional photography, with its own unique history, and those works that have already been accepted into the history of art.
Robert Kinmont, for instance, would fall more readily into the conceptual artist category, someone for whom the physical object or photograph might be referred to as a documentation of his ideas. But, akin to Roman Opalka, who is also in the exhibition, his objects have begun to have a life of their own. In “Just about the right size” (1970/2008), Kinmont has documented himself in a series of nine modestly scaled, black-and-white photographs, standing full body in front of the camera and holding a different object in his hands in each: a shovel, a dead fish, a shoe. There is a guilelessness and optimism in these photographs that betrays their modernity — they represent a time when the zeitgeist was one of grand narratives and all-encompassing explanations, and when the universal still meant “white male.” In “This is my Hand” (1970), serial photographs of Kinmont’s hand and forearm remind us that the some of the earliest indexical images were the tracings of hands found in the caves of Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira. The first uses of indexicality converge with photography and take advantage of the ease of repetition, all at once.
In the tradition of the serial painting, in which the slightest nuance or change is rendered from one work to the next, Roni Horn’s Portrait of an Image (with Isabelle Huppert) (2005) consists of 50 color photographs of Isabelle Huppert. Horn captures subtle shifts in her expression from close-up to close-up, creating an image bank of expressions that are the stock and trade of actors. Here we get not only the self-consciousness of sitters that we saw in Sander’s work, but our own awareness that the posing is being done by a professional performer, who is completely aware of every aspect of her performance. Comparing these images to Kinmont’s makes his work look all the more flush with the false innocence of modernity.
While Roman Opalka can be viewed as a conceptualist, he worked primarily as a painter who cared about materiality as a form. He is represented in the exhibition by just one of his number paintings, as well as by a sound piece in which he recites those numbers and by three close-up photographs of his face (selected from many), shot over a significant period of time. The last, beautiful and stark black-and-white images which read as mostly white, act out Roland Barthes’s observation that the photograph represents the catastrophe to come, that it documents he or she who will one day be dead. They bear a resemblance to Roni Horn’s documentation of shifting gestures but are more emphatic about the passage of time. Postmodernism may be a path to the loss of innocence, but facing one’s own mortality is another.
Cindy Sherman is perhaps the most hybrid artist in the show, in that she is part of the history of photography but also incorporated into the history of art. She is represented by four very early works: “Cover Girl (Vogue)” (1975/2011), “Cover Girl (Family Circle)” (1975/2011), “Cover Girl (Redbook)” (1975/2011), and “Untitled (Line-Up)” (1977/2011). These pieces, like much of her work, critique the media and the way representation is deployed throughout our culture — the reason she is considered an emblematic figure in the advent of postmodernism. Yet, unlike other artists of her generation, including Richard Prince or Sherrie Levine, she has always indexed herself to create her work. In that sense she has a kinship with Kinmont. But while he holds up simple objects for contemplation, Sherman holds up media representations. In that way, she straddles the modern–postmodern divide and creates a bridge between the works that have been segregated into the history of photography and those that have been accepted into art history. And from there, it is not hard to see the connections between an artist like Sander, documenting all of the human beings he comes into contact with, and one like On Kawara, also in the exhibition, documenting each passing day in the form of a painting.
The argument of the exhibition — that photography should take its rightful place within art history — is borne out by the fact that Sander’s photographs do not feel out of place side by side with other, later photographs, or with drawings by David Smith or constructions by Sol Lewitt. They seem to be part of the same complex history, which is bigger, more unwieldy, and harder to theorize than the “history of photography” will allow.
Serialities continues at Hauser & Wirth (548 W 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 8.