In 2017, a selection of Judy Linn’s black-and-white photographs was included in the exhibition, Deana Lawson, Judy Linn, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, at Sikkema Jenkins, which I reviewed. After seeing her current exhibition, Judy Linn: LUNCH at CUE Art Foundation (closing today), curated by Arlene Shechet, the kernel of a thought that I developed at the exhibit has grown much larger: Linn is not better known because she has never identified herself with a specific subject or style. In this she shares something with her longtime friend, Thomas Nozkowski, with whom she memorably collaborated in 1995, pairing her black-and-white photographs with his intimately sized paintings in the exhibition (and accompanying catalogue), Thomas Nozkowski: An Autobiography at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
The installation feels laid back. Unframed photographs of different sizes are pinned directly to the wall. The spacing between them and their height on the wall varies. Do not be fooled by this: there is a rigor to these photographs, in which everything is locked into place by geometry.
In her catalog essay, Shechet calls attention to the abstraction informing Linn’s photographs, writing, “[…] Judy’s luminescent Walmart photo does the same thing for me as a Majestic Ellsworth Kelly painting.” This comparison is certainly one way into “walmart” (02.13.2017 3:02 PM) and other photographs, but, in contrast to Kelly, Linn is not trying to pare her subject down to a pure state. Based on the dates of the photographs, two things become obvious: Linn has been very good for a very long time and she did not allow what she learned from abstraction to dominate the composition. Rather, it gives the subject another layer of relationships to reflect upon.
The early photograph “elizabeth st” is a good example. It is an aerial view of the street below. We see a sleeping man curled up on the sidewalk near the curb. The pose is familiar to anyone who has witnessed the many people living on New York’s streets.
The sleeping man is in the exact center of the photograph, while the edge of the curb bisects the photograph diagonally, from the lower left hand corner to the upper right corner. The composition’s underlying abstraction does not reveal itself right away, partially because of the vehicles we see parked at the lower left and upper right of the diagonal. Rather, it seeps into our experience, from seeing where the man is located within the composition, to noticing how the photograph crops the one-story building’s roof into a triangle wedged into the upper left corner, to noticing the different grays of the sidewalk’s incised slabs, to realizing that the man has not jumped, but has seemingly fallen asleep.
For me, the interplay between the human subject and the abstract composition raises all kinds of questions. Placed dead center within a diagonally divided rectangle, the sleeping man is just another thing within a larger scheme of things. One might say that Linn’s photograph calls into question the liberal humanist current running through many photographs of men sleeping in the street while remaining sympathetic and tender to his vulnerable state. It recalls sensationalist tabloid images of people who have jumped to their death, especially from the 1930s and ’40s — the Age of Weegee. The viewpoint she presents is of man who has fallen, overlain with the memory of images of those who jumped to their deaths. She asks viewers to think about what that means.
Linn is preternaturally conscious of textures and surfaces. She has a knack for noticing the odd and unexpected in everyday life, and seems to have her camera with her at all times, including while driving on the thruway in fog. She is acutely aware of the placement of things within the flattened space of the photograph.
In the close-up, black-and-white photograph “pinhole” (Spring 2008), a black plastic film canister stands before a hard pack of Camel cigarettes (with the camel visible) on wall-to-wall industrial carpeting before a painted cement block wall. We see everything at nearly eye level.
The visual echo between the camel, framed by a border within the pack’s overall shape, and the canister’s columnar shape is just one of the many interesting elements of the photograph’s evocation of a landscape. We become acutely aware of the different surfaces of the carpet, plastic container, cellophane-wrapped cigarette pack, and painted cement-block wall.
In “dendur” (2001), which James Whistler might have titled “Composition in Gray and Yellow,” a standing gray pharaonic figure with a worn, pebbled surface, and a yellow bucket sit on a polished, gray marble tile floor in front of gray granite wall. The placement of the bucket so perfectly aligns with the sculpture that they get equal billing. The kicker is that the black letters stenciled on the front of bucket spell out EGYPTIAN, seemingly naming itself, rather than the figure.
As with “pinhole,” I slowly became aware of the different surfaces, which quietly flood the image with an understated tactile sensuality that is rare in photographs. In “shingles” (1998), Linn photographs the brown shingled façade of a structure, which forms a right angle and corner with a white textured wall of horizontal strips. Pressing down on these intersecting structures is a ceiling similar to the white wall. Seen from an angle, the double-hung screened window in the façade faces what? By refusing to step back and show us where we are, Linn defines a space that is bizarre and banal.
Linn isn’t programmatic in her approach and seems to have no agenda. She does so many different things that cannot be addressed in the space of a short review. In some photographs she is particularly sensitive to the interplay of light and shadow, form and dissipation. In other photographs, she focuses our attention on something quirky and inexplicable. In “54th street” (03.08. 2005), we see an angled view of two identical red brick apartment buildings with an alleyway between them. The buildings take up most of the image. At the bottom, in the shadow cast on the empty sidewalk by unseen buildings nearby, a black, impossibly long power cord winds lazily from the photograph’s lower right side to the middle of its bottom edge.
If this selection of photographs is any indication of what Linn has been up to over the past 40 years, she deserves to be far better known. The sensibility radiating throughout her work is unlike anyone else’s. Doesn’t being singular still mean something? It seems to me that an adventuresome curator with institutional backing (do they still exist?) ought to give her a show and publish a monograph to go with it. It is the least that she deserves.
Judy Linn: LUNCH continues at CUE Art Foundation (137 West 25th St., Ground Floor, Manhattan) through today.