Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Collecting Emerging Photography Panel

I've been invited to participate in a moderated panel discussion on collecting emerging photography. The details of where and when are below. I think it could be a lively event. One of the main things to wrestle with is the definition of the word "emerging" in the context of collecting. Is it an economic term? Is it defined by youth? Gallery representation? I think the term is understood in many different ways by many different people. I hope some of that will come to the fore in our discussions. Please come if you're free, and feel free to post comments after the event.

Collecting Contemporary Photography (Emphasis on Emerging)

The Camera Club of New York will present a panel discussion about collecting contemporary photography (emphasis on emerging) on Tuesday, March 3, 8-10pm, at the School of Visual Arts Amphitheater, 209 E. 23rd St., 3rd Floor.

Participants include photo dealers Daniel Cooney and Michael Mazzeo; photo collectors Joe Baio and Evan Mirapaul; and Cara Phllips, co-founder of the online site Women in Photography and Amani Olu, private dealer, curator, and founder of Humble Arts Foundation, a non-profit that works to advance the careers of emerging fine art photographers. Photographers Allen Frame and Saul Robbins will moderate the panel and take questions from the audience.

Please rsvp to info@cameraclubny.org or call Emile Dubuisson at the Camera Club, 212-260-9927. Please note that the event has been changed from the Camera Club of New York to SVA’s Amphitheater to accommodate the wide interest.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Light/Dark at Sepia Gallery extended

The Light/Dark show at Sepia Gallery -- blogged about below -- has been extended to February 28th. If you thought you missed it, here's a second chance to go see it. It's well worth the time if you ask me.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Fred Sandback at David Zwirner & Zwirner and Wirth

Jeez, I love the work of Fred Sandback. If you haven't gone to UES or W. 19th St. to see the concurrent shows, don't miss them. His work always reminds me that the greatest genius distills a concept down to the simplest materials. Who would have imagined before he appeared that thread and wire could shape and distort space? Who could have imagined that drawing could be a three dimensional exercise? I marvel every time I see his work.

I have little to add to what has been already written about this show (Holland Cotter's review in the NYTimes is right on the money) other than to note a small anomaly I've noticed. Sandback's work obviously is very effective in person. It's also very effective in two dimensions in his prints and drawings. But he seems to utterly fail in photographs. When I see his sculptures in photographs, I can hardly imagine that they are the masterworks that I know. This isn't a particularly illuminating observation except for the fact that the drawings are so VERY effective and powerful. They seem to point in a direction that says that the work can be represented in two dimensions. But photography is just not that medium, or the work suffers by being mediated by someone other than the artist himself.

Up on W. 19th St. through February 14th. UES through February 28th.
David Zwirner
Zwirner and Wirth

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Weston in Akron

Edward Weston: Life Work

On view at the Akron Art Museum through April 26, 2009

Edward Weston: Life Work surveys the career of a giant of 20th century photography from the early Pictorialist work to his final photograph, made in 1948. Previously unpublished masterpieces are interspersed with well-known signature images. The 115 photographs in the exhibition are all from a single private collection, that of Judith G. Hochberg and Michael P. Mattis.

I traveled to Akron, Ohio last week to see the opening of the Edward Weston show at the Akron Art Museum. The purpose of my visit wasn't completely artistic. Akron is my home town so it was a chance to spend a day with my father. If the show had opened in Columbus, I'm not sure I would have made the trip! Still, the show tugged me west for more reasons than a family visit.

Michael Mattis is a name that comes up frequently in photography circles. Together with his wife, Judith Hochberg, he is an avid collector. He also has a strong philanthropic profile. He has helped build the collections of two museums about which I care a lot: ICP and Akron Art Museum(AAM). Part of his philanthropic profile is also his involvement with an organization called
art2art Circulating Exhibitions. Art2art was responsible for this show of Weston from the Mattis-Hochberg collection.

(A little side note here. Mr. Mattis has a played a significant role in another recent post. He is one of the principle players in the Mike Disfarmer narrative (www.disfarmer.org is his website devoted to that subject).
While we may disagree on some of the talking points about Disfarmer, we have many more points of agreement. I didn't name names in the Disfarmer post for just this reason. I want my posts to be about ideas and thoughts, not personal attacks. Whatever our disagreement about one photographer or another, I have tremendous respect and gratitude for Mattis' philanthropic philosphy.)

As a supporter of AAM, I was invited to a vernissage dinner at which Mr. Mattis was scheduled to give a tour of the show. Though I am familiar with him by reputation and word of mouth, I had never met him, nor heard him speak. Michael Mattis revealed himself to be an articulate and passionate speaker on the subject of Weston and the history of photography in general. I guess it's no surprise that someone who has amassed such an important collection would have a scholarly knowledge of the subject.

The show is comprehensive starting with early examples of his work as a commercial studio photographer and ending with his final photograph, The Dody Rocks (1948). In between, the photos are grouped generally by period, but also by some of the subjects that Weston used most effectively. So, we start in California and Mexico, then progress through portraits, nudes, and still lifes, and finish with the sand dunes and California landscapes he worked on at the end of his life.

Though the exhibit is filled with eye-popping examples, I had my favorites. There were a few platinum prints scattered through the first few rooms that were just exquisite. They came from a tight little period between 1921-23 and were mostly portraits. The portraits of fellow artists Johan Hagemeyer (1921) and Tina Modotti (1921) were character studies of the first order, while the portrait of Ralph Pearson beguiled with unusual framing, exquisite use of shadows, and genius use of negative space that limned an adobe wall as abstraction. Of course, the photo of the smokestacks of the Armco factory in Ohio was a treat to see both for its magnificent print quality and the way it showed Weston's move away from Pictorialism towards modernism.

Later in the show, there was the room devoted to Weston still lifes. One was not surprised to see the iconically famous "Nautilus" and "Pepper #30." A bigger treat for me, though, was to see Peppers from the series that were new to me plus two remarkable detail studies; one of the fins of the underside of a toadstool and the other a cabbage leaf that could as easily been the veins on the forearm of a sculptor. I had never seen any of these as anything but reproductions, so it was a revelatory treat to see them in person.

Akron's pleasure is New York's loss. I've posted here many times what a vigorous and exciting program AAM consistently mounts. It made me wonder what kind of reception this show would receive if it came to NYC. Would the NY audience feel they had seen it all before because a few fine examples are occasionally seen at the Met or MoMA? Would the show be seen as too classical in a city where the word "contemporary" sometimes doesn't extend back 5 years? Or would we see it as a chance to re-visit and renew our pleasure and knowledge in a foundational figure in photography? I would love to find out. In any case, I'm glad I didn't stay home.

Light/Dark at Sepia Gallery

Sepia Gallery has a cool show that may not be on the route of every West Chelsea art seeker. Light/Dark has some great examples exploring how photography has investigated whiteness to blackness as well as light versus darkness. I also like how the show investigates a few different approaches to photo technology. (Full disclosure here, two friends of mine are in the show, so I'm not exactly objective about Go Sugimoto or Michelle Kloehn.)

Go Sugimoto challenges the limits of whiteness in his Paper Work series. There is almost nothing visible in the frame. He photographs paper constructions in a specially built lightbox, then prints them at the very edge of visibility. I love them. They fuse drawing, photography, and minimalism. I am challenged to see what is there; to guess at the shape and wait until my eyes adjust to the white in order to see more edges. Is my brain filling in information that isn't there? Am I assuming that the shape continues past the point of visibility? One can't be sure, but the mystery and the formalism combine to make a satisfying whole.

Michelle Kloehn uses the antiquarian tintype process to explore abstract still lifes in a fashion that 19th century photographers could not have imagined. The process and the image have an inherent tension between them that I really like. An artist to watch.

The "discovery" for me is probably the artist who has the biggest career of all among the 5 artists in this show: Linda Connor. I was really taken with her "Lick Observatory" series. Ms Connor has taken century old glass plate negatives from the Lick Observatory in California and used them to make contact prints with printing out paper. This means that she leaves the negatives out in the sun on top of photo sensitive paper in order to make a 1:1 ratio print. This seems to me to be a perfect marriage between process and content. The sun is used to print pictures of the night sky, and an antiquarian process with antique negatives is used to make contemporary prints of an event that happened millions of years ago. It is the soul of the show and perfectly illuminates the theme and the fact of Light/Dark. I particularly loved the the one of the broken glass plate neg from 1895, printed in 1996. A century between the making of the negative and the printing of the plate on a negative at the very edge of destruction. I found it a beautiful metaphor for where photography is now, and a potent example of how photography represents and utilizes time.

Up until February 21st. Check it out.

"Figure Studies" at Deborah Bell

Deborah Bell has done it again. She has transformed her small gallery into a jewel of a show that examines an intriguing concatenation of photos around a central idea. This time it is the human figure. A lovely pairing of Kertesz and Brandt, a few beguiling Erwin Blumenfelds, and a couple of first-rate Fierets are just a few examples of the wonderful work on display. Up through February 28th.....take a look.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In Memoriam: Gerard P. Fieret

I was surprised and saddened to hear from Deborah Bell about the recent death of Gerard P. Fieret. I have admired this unique and quirky artist since the first time I saw his work. Despite a number of US shows and pretty good representation in NYC, he remains in relative obscurity to US collectors. I was not able to find an obituary from any US gallery or museum online. I include a link here to the obituary on the website of of the Hague Museum of Photography.

Fieret Obituary

If you want to see more of his work, Deborah Bell and Tom Gitterman are both good sources to see it in person. Ms Bell has a few examples up in her current show about which I will write a few words in an upcoming post. I loved the obsessive, outsider vibe to his photographs, and I was always engaged by his sort of covert formalism and beautifully implicit narratives. I am sorry I never met him.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Debate at Rockefeller University

Last Tuesday, on February 3rd, I went to a debate at Rockefeller University sponsored by Intelligence Squared. The motion or proposition of the debate was: "The art market is less ethical than the stock market." I quote below from the press release at the organization's website the day after the debate in order to establish some of the parameters of the evening:

NEW YORK, February 4, 2009— Intelligence Squared U.S., the Oxford style debate series sponsored by The Rosenkranz Foundation, announced the results of its second debate of the spring 2009 season, "The art market is less ethical than the stock market."

The final vote at the conclusion of the debate, before a packed auditorium, many from the New York and London art scene, at The Rockefeller University, New York City was 55% for the motion and 33% against. Twelve percent remained undecided.

The results saw a dramatic swing in the undecided vote, as prior to the debate, the audience voted 32% for the motion and 30% against. 38% were undecided.

Speaking for the motion were Richard L. Feigen, founder of Richard L. Feigen & Co. art dealers, Michael Hue-Williams, owner and CEO of Albion Gallery and Adam Lindemann, an influential collector of contemporary art and author of Collecting Contemporary.

Chuck Close, artist and and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton, Amy Cappellazzo, deputy chairman at Christie's and Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York magazine spoke against the motion. John Donvan, correspondent for ABC News Nightline, moderated.

This was a marvelous evening and a format of which I would like to see more. It was such a pleasure to see a real debate around an issue as opposed to faux debates we see in election season. I was also thrilled to hear impassioned yet respectful dialogue emerge from the structure of the evening.

One of the successes of the night was the topic itself. I have raised the question myself a number of times since the debate with friends and art groups. It never fails to elicit an hour of heated and partisan conversation. Try it yourself! You'll be amazed at the response.

My vote was for the motion both before and after the debate. I agreed with the "for the motion" side that, while many more crimes and violations are committed in the financial world, they are actually crimes in that world. In other words, the ethical boundaries are already defined by law. People may break those laws regularly, but they know that they are acting illegally, and, if caught, will be punished. In the art world, the lines are not nearly as clear. What would be a crime in the financial markets is routinely done in the art market. Chandelier bidding at auction, covert syndicate buying, insider trading, and price fixing are all stock and trade of the art market. These actions are clearly proscribed in the financial world and you breach them at your peril.

I found that the "against the motion" side made many errors of strategy and fact. They seemed unwilling or unable to separate the "art world" and the "art market". Their argument was that the art world is basically ethical and self policing. I feel that there is clearly an art market which is definable and separate from the art world. The conflation of the two by the "againsts" was a weak argument. That art has been monetized seems obvious. That monetization doesn't alter the emotional value or timeless nature of great art, but there IS a monetized market. The community of artists, curators, and collectors who orbit around the art market may be a fundamentally ethical place which profits little from its work, but it is still separable from the art market.

Another challenge I had with the against side was their seeming assumption that scale of profit was the same as scale of ethical standards. It's clear that the financial markets are much, much larger than the art market, and when rules are violated the figures involved are bigger by orders of magnitude. But I would argue that a theft of $50 is not less ethical than a theft of $5. It is the same theft on an ethical scale, so the size of the market is irrelevant.

In a similar vein, I found some of the arguments on the against side seemed to be saying that profit itself was somehow an indicator of ethics. Since Wall Street makes more money than the art market or financial fraud is so much more lucrative than art fraud, then therefore Wall St. is less ethical. Phooey. To cheat in the financial markets, one must break many existing laws or codes. The ethical standards are clear. The standard is there. In the art markets, those same actions are regular practice, and while the perpetrators may know they are doing wrong, the ethical standard is not clear. I think it is simple human nature to say that wherever the ethical standard is unclear, the ethical behavior will be lower.

There also seems to be some misrepresentation of the position of the "for" side. Jerry Saltz, arguing against the motion, has written on his Facebook page that the "for" side argued for regulation in the art market. I quote:

The "other side" of our debate (my side was Chuck Close and Amy Cappellazzo) was Richard Feigen, Michael Hue-Williams, and Adam Lindemann. They were saying the art world SHOULD BE REGULATED and complaining because "anyone could get in it." I was horrified. I said I never want it to be regulated and that all of us are here simply because we want to be there; none of us had to pass an entrance examine; I told them I have NO DEGREES; that we're all learning on the job everyday and making this up as we go along.

This was explicitly not true. I invite anyone who is interested to read the transcript of the debate or listen to it from the link to NPR on Intelligence Squared's website. The "for" side repeatedly said that they were against regulation. Hue-Williams is even quoted on the first page of the press release saying:

"I think that the art market is open for manipulation because it's unregulated, I think it is unregulated because, historically, it's found its own way of operating, because it's just simply actually not possible to regulate this market, and it would be a ghastly thing, if it ever could be regulated." - Michael Hue-Williams

I'm a big fan of Mr. Saltz' writing and criticism, but in this instance he is just not reporting reliably. Hue-Williams and Lindemann both made repeated and clear statements against regulation.

Win or lose, right or wrong, the pleasure and lesson of the evening was the debate itself; the process. I would love to see more debates in the art world and fewer lectures and panel "discussions" (are these ever really discussions?). There are three more debates in the Rock U series. None of them are related to the art world, but I know I'll try to go to them all. Take a look. It's a worthwhile endeavor on whichever side of the argument you happen to fall.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Collection of Self-Portraits

I've just found a new blog I like called A Collection of Self Portraits. I've added it to my "Blogs I Like" section so you can click on it to find the site. I really enjoy these themed, photo based blogs I stumble on now and then. I may even convince myself to start one or two myself. All themes are not created equal, and I think this blog shows what a durable, malleable, and ever-fresh theme the self -portrait is. Take a look.....http://selfportraitgallery.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

David Haxton at Priska Juschka Fine Art

David Haxton

Color Photographs

January 15 - February 14, 2009

David Haxton
No. 629, Yellow from Behind and Yellow with Holes to Blue
C-print mounted on aluminum
65 x 68 in.
165.1 x 172.72 cm.

There is an intriguing show of new and vintage work by the artist David Haxton at Priska Juschka Fine Art. At first I thought the work might be in the vein of artists like Sara VanDerBeek at Damelio Terras, Sarah Conaway at Bellwether Gallery , or the Irish artist Liam O'Callaghan who all use sculpturally created space to make photographs which explore that space. The surprise came when I discovered that he has been doing it since the '80s. I found it to be an exciting show. I was engaged first by the art and then by the story. I found it to be a fine combination of color, scale, and space. Like the best work of this genre, the objects can only exist as photographs. The lighting and perspective collude to make the artist's view of the object the only one worth seeing. It's well worth a look and maybe not on the route of many photography lovers. Up through February 14th.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Dissing Disfarmer

Last Wednesday I went to see the production of "Disfarmer" at the St. Ann’s Warehouse. It is a puppet theater piece conceived, directed and designed by Dan Hurlin. I am no theater critic, so I will only say that there was a New York Times review that I basically agreed with and a Variety review which I basically didn't. The draw for me -- and what I'm perhaps more qualified to speak about -- was the history of photography implicit in the play. Another reason I chose to go on the night that I did was the panel discussion which was scheduled at the end of the evening.

The panel was composed of four people:
  • Philip Gefter - moderator. Writer on photography and former NYTimes staff.
  • Peter Miller - the man who found and bought the original cache of Disfarmer glass negatives
  • Julia Scully - was the photo professional to whom Miller first showed the negatives
  • Brian Wallis - Chief Curator at ICP
Mr. Miller and Ms Scully both seemed to have a position about Disfarmer that allowed no room for questioning of his genius status. Mr. Gefter, though mostly objective in his role of moderator, seemed to agree with this position. Mr. Wallis, though stating his affection for the work, was nearly shouted down when he offered some other, less laudatory perspectives on the work. All in all, I found the panel much too weighted in the direction of those who had a vested interest in Disfarmer's mythology.

So this leads me to a question has been nagging at me lately: Why do I have such a viscerally negative attitude toward the photography of Mike Disfarmer? I mean, ordinarily I think I would like work that looks like this. I'm a big fan of vernacular and "non-art" photography, and his faux-objective style is right up my alley. Add to that the almost taxonomic picture of his native Heber Springs, Arkansas and it would seem that his work points beautifully back to August Sander and forward to artists like Diane Arbus and Walker Evans.

So what's not to like? Well the first thing that comes to mind is the hype. There's lots of hype. There's hype about his lone genius story. There's hype about the rarity of his images. There's hype about the prices his work can command, and there's hype about what effect his work has had on following generations of artists. Lots and lots of hype. I'm skeptical about most of it, and it damn near kills any pleasure I can find in the pictures themselves.

I believe Mike Disfarmer was a talented and interesting photographer from a relatively remote spot in America. His style has more in common with the itinerant tintype makers (of which he probably saw many examples) than with August Sander (of whom he was probably unaware). The flat pose, the simple makeshift backdrop, the natural light all seem to be a natural cousin of the earlier, traveling, rural tintype maker or perhaps other locally based portrait makers. So what is the difference between Disfarmer and these other artists? Inventory.

I would like to posit a slightly different scenario. Let's say Mike Disfarmer lived exactly the life he lived and took the photographs he took, but only a fraction of them survived. Let's say 40 pictures; enough to see a body of work, an artistic perspective, and an idea of the small town life he was outlining. But not enough for multiple dealers to sink their teeth into. For this we need enough inventory for multiple exhibits, books, clients, collectors and museums. If there weren't enough inventory to make this kind of a business enterprise, do we believe that all this fuss would be made about Mike Disfarmer? I do not. Mind you, I'm not saying he was a better or worse artist for having more pictures survive. I'm only saying the hype around him would have been different because there was less business to be done. I agree with those who say that there are many, many examples of fine, interesting, and personal portrait photography by local American photographers; we just don't have the cache of their work to make a larger case.

I also take issue with the idea that he was a huge influence on modern photographers. Arbus, Friedlander, Winogrand, et al. all had a defined style long before they could have ever seen Disfarmer's work. Walker Evans certainly didn't. The Southern Gothics mostly didn't or at least not before their mature style was already achieved. Richard Avedon says the work influenced his "In the American West" series. I have become so mistrustful of anything this master self-promoter says, that I cannot believe anything except that he saw an opportunity to hitch his wagon to a hot moment.

This is all to say that I wish there could be a more balanced and objective view about Disfarmer's opus. I'm sure there are those who are passionate about his work that could give reasoned and principled rebuttal to all of the points I have raised. I think that's wonderful. Art makes us ask questions, right? So if the gift Disfarmer gives to me is to force me to ask questions and look more carefully, then he has met his artistic mission in a big way. Still, I have been looking at his work for years now, and the cries for his exalted status still ring empty for me. Maybe I'm missing something, but I'm more and more convinced that, without the hype, something isn't there.