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Long ago, when Hal Foster, not yet a Princeton professor, was still an editor at Art in America, and the journal October had just been founded, Douglas Crimp’s Pictures exhibition (1977) introduced some influential, novel ways of thinking into the American art world.
That gallery show included Troy Brauntuch, Sherrie Levine, and three other artists. And soon Louise Lawler, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman also became associated with the theorizing developed for the exhibition.
Crimp’s title may sound neutral; the art world is filled with pictures. But as Rosalind Krauss rightly indicates in her deft historical summary, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (Thames & Hudson, 2004), an interesting claim was at stake, that “a group of young artists whose strategies of appropriation and critiques of originality [were advancing] the notion of ‘postmodernism’ in art.”
Their “strategies of appropriation and critiques of originality” included Sherman’s “film stills,” photographs that actually had no immediate source in the movies; Levine’s artifacts that were seemingly identical to prior modernist works; and Lawler’s photographs critiquing art exhibitions. Their shared aim was to deconstruct modernist views of artistic creativity. Modernism, they implied, was finished.
Troy Brauntuch’s new exhibition A Strange New Beauty contains two large works in the main gallery of Petzel’s uptown outpost: on one side is “A Strange New Beauty (White Cases)” (2019), a wall full of prints; and on the other, “A Strange New Beauty (32 Plates)” (2019), a sequence of double-hung prints. There are also two smaller series of prints, one individual work, and an artist’s book.
And in the second gallery you view “Selected Shoes” (2019) — altered shoe advertisements from the New York Times — and two other selections of plates. So far as I can see, all of these works offer variations on one theme. It’s the theorizing that is the attraction here, for it alone explains why these pictures deserve attention.
Using archival evidence of National Socialist art exhibitions as his photographic source, Brauntuch tweaks this material, exposing, so the Petzel handout says, “the ease by which information in sensitive archives can be manipulated and referenced at later points in time, as truth.”
To be honest, I am not sure what to make of this claim. To manipulate the historical record, I would think, is to abandon the search for truth. The gallery handout goes on to say that these manipulated “images paired with fashion advertisements from major newspaper publications lead one to consider how ideology can transcend generations and normalize into quotidian spaces.”
What exactly, is the parallel, the shared ideology, that we are meant to see between these German photographs and banal contemporary American commercial advertising?
Brauntuch may claim to be respecting history, but really he isn’t. In my opinion, whatever you think of publicity in The Times for women’s shoes, these consumerist advertisements really come from a world apart from Nazi art collecting. There is something truly irresponsible, I think, in taking this parallel seriously. “Re-archiving” these photographs of German art exhibitions — that is, manipulating them, such as adding contemporary advertising materials to “A Strange New Beauty (32 Plates)” — is really to destroy their archival value.
And that’s an especial problem with such highly charged political materials. Images can seductively lie or tell the honest truth. And that’s why Photoshopped political images are so pernicious. Art, it’s true, often lies to achieve aesthetic effects. But what happens when truthful political materials like these documentary Nazi photographs are turned into artworks? I am not sure how to answer that question.
I suspect that in 1977 no one, neither the young artists in Pictures nor Crimp could have imagined that his analysis would mark the starting point of an ongoing artistic tradition. Indeed this seems to what Brauntuch himself realized some years ago when he said: “I probably should be more ambitious, but I never thought I would make art all my life” (Richard Hertz, Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia, Minneola Press, 2003).
But this show demonstrates that Pictures made possible an ongoing practice. As Crimp explains in good detail in his important book, On the Museum’s Ruins (MIT, 1993), his aim, in historical context, was to critique the way photographs were treated as an art form by the museum.
His argument was that photographs are not just another art form deserving of attention, which is what the museum would assert, but that the very nature of photography, which makes possible an indefinite number of legitimate copies of the unique original, dramatically undercuts the foundational premise of the art museum.
That claim deserves scrutiny. But for now, looking just at this exhibition — given that the Pictures artists have been accepted into museums, where their art is treated no differently from the modernist paintings — how, then, should we understand Brauntuch’s works in A Strange New Beauty?
Taken literally, then, I do not believe that the claims upon which Brauntuch’s art depends are remotely plausible. But then, a great deal of significant art has been made under the spell of beliefs that cannot really stand up to critical reflection. Within modernism, for example, the great art of Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian depends upon implausible theosophical theorizing.
If I understand him at all, an ongoing tradition is what Crimp himself expected when looking back at the fate of his argument, as he states in On the Museum’s Ruins: “Contemporary art’s critique of the museum and the modern aesthetic it produces still ‘belongs’ to the museum, even if reluctantly […].”
Perhaps this is why we art world people no longer speak of postmodernism. By extending this anti-modernist way of thinking, these new works by Brauntuch, visually a little dull in my judgment, thus are conceptually fascinating.
Troy Brauntuch: A Strange New Beauty continues at Petzel Gallery (35 E 67th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 7.
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