I went down to DC yesterday in order to see the Robert Frank show at the National Gallery. In a recent post, I made the comparison between a curator and a conductor. While I think that that analogy is often true, there are other times when a different model comes in to play. In this case, I had the sense of the silent hand of a wise and patient archaeologist guiding me through a hall of treasures. Now I grant you that the subject of this exhibit is not particularly challenging. I mean, Robert Frank's book "The Americans" is obviously one of the most admired, influential, and important photography books ever produced. Any exhibition on the subject can be expected to be a big hit. Still, there are potential pitfalls, but Senior Curator of Photography, Sarah Greenough, nimbly avoids them while creating a show chock full of pleasant surprises.
It occurred to me while I was walking through the show, but I had never seen an exhibit quite like this. I mean that in the sense that this was a photography show specifically about a photography book which took the opportunity to present an exhibition size photo of every single picture that is in the book. Has anyone else ever done that? I'm sure I've never seen it, and I've never heard of anything exactly like it. I have seen sections of books exhibited in this fashion. For example, Paul Graham's "The Shimmer of Possibility" has been shown in an excerpted form as an exhibition supporting the book. But a full-blown representation of an entire book in a gallery format was new to me.
And it was a revelation. As much as we accept the catechism that certain photographs are not only created for books but are most effectively experienced as books, it is a completely different (not to say better or worse) experience to view an entire book in sequence - with all of the purpose and care that implies - but with large format prints. It very simply changes one's perspective. It gave me the naïve hope that perhaps a seminal book of Brassaï or Man Ray might be presented in a similar way.
The show opens with some historical perspective. We see earlier work of Mr. Frank and also the work of artists who influenced his style. Here, as later in the show, the curatorial style is light and sure. The influences are clear, not stretched, the interpretations make sense, the analogies are founded in fact. I've become too accustomed to wall text that reads like a synopsis to a different play than the one I'm actually watching. To extend my archaeological metaphor a bit further, I felt as if Ms Greenough were virtually reassembling an ancient treasure in front of me. As each shard was gently dusted off, it was painstakingly shown how it fit into the larger whole. We see Frank's letters to Walker Evans, applications for the Guggenheim fellowship, and then those same applications as they were edited (well, maybe actually written) by Evans. We see a wall of working prints showing how Frank edited and sequenced. We see contact sheets with photos chosen and rejected. All of this leading us into a grand tour of the final book with large format examples of each picture. Bliss. If a working definition of art is something that leads us to see the world in a different way (which "The Americans" did and still does), then surely a working definition of great curatorial practice is something that leads us to see a great work of art in a new way.
This is a great show. It successfully presents, promotes and defends "The Americans" as one of the most important works of photographic art ever. It makes good on its promise and delivers even more. It closes in DC at the end of this month. It's coming to the Met, but it will be a different show there. If you have any time at all, make your way down to Washington for the day and see it before it closes. You won't be sorry.
PS: If you do go to DC, make time to see the show, "Inventing Marcel Duchamp" at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition is a hall of mirrors that shows endless permutations of identity. Self-portraits of the multiple and mutable characters that were Duchamp are combined with the multiple and varied portraits of him done by his friends and contemporaries. The sum is an exercise in the search for core self and the subjectivity of portraiture. Fab.
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