The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Private Visions

A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio
Photo by Man Ray . Source: moma.org
Man Ray, "Laboratory of the Future" 1935

When May Ray photographed his studio in 1935 reflected in a silvery orb, he called it Laboratory of the Future. And when the Museum of Modern Art created a photography department only five years later, it might have used the same title. At least it had much the same idea in mind, and its impact in shaping a canon was every bit as great as in painting and sculpture.

So when a new chief curator rehangs all six rooms for photography, one expects revelations. Where is photography going, and how about MoMA? Maybe nowhere fast, but for now they are heading indoors.

"A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio" will have anyone looking for clues to MoMA's future. Its very theme rules out much of the museum’s past. Out goes portraiture of famous artists in their galleries and studios, the kind of history just recently in the museum's "American Modern." Out goes an actual penny studio, the photo booth that Walker Evans turned into an image of America. Out goes the studio's traditional role as a commercial portrait studio, although the show does include Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Robert Mapplethorpe. (For that, one would have to detour a mile to the Whitney, to see Edward Steichen at work for Conde Nast.) Above all, out goes photography's incessant search for America, from its politics and seaminess for Diane Arbus to its small towns, gas stations, backyards, and open roads for Evans, Ed Ruscha, Joel Sternfeld, Robert Adams, and Lee Friedlander.

The show may also leave trail hunters disappointed. This is, after all, still the storied permanent collection, not a repeat of MoMA's fall display of "New Photography." It sticks poignantly and almost exclusively to black and white, although Jan Groover in still-life and Walead Beshty in near-abstract photograms offer stunning bursts of color. Critics have found the entirety dated, repetitive, and even "demure," but then a cynic might say the same about Modernism. In conversation, Quentin Bajac, the curator with Lucy Gallun, disclaims any grand agenda. He has only a show in mind.

It is an ambitious show all the same, as well as a slippery one. It allows a medium its own world, much like formalism, and its ninety artists and nearly two hundred works defy a quick summary. It gives each room its own theme as well, for the studio as stage, as set, as playground, as backdrop, as laboratory, and as workplace. And which, it asks implicitly, is the studio itself?

In practice, the themes can seem slippery as well. By laboratory, it has in mind experiments like photograms and strobe photography, while Man Ray's Laboratory is in the room with a photographer's day-to-day environment.

Photo by Uta Barth . Source: moma.org
Uta Barth, "Sundial " 2007-13

That is not to say that the groupings are meaningless. From Man Ray, one can turn to Bruce Nauman's studio as waste site or Uta Barth's over the course of a day, saturated in light. One can watch Geta Bratescu on film scouring her studio in Bucharest, as if in search of herself. One can see Josef Sudek approach his studio both from without, across trees and snow, and from within, looking out at the same but now distant scene. In their playground, one can see Adrian Piper nude but in darkness, William Wegman with his dog, or Peter Fischli and David Weiss with their self-destroying perpetual motion machine. Among stop-action experiments, one can compare Eadweard Muybridge and Harold Edgerton half a century apart.

Photo by Francis Bruguiere . Source: moma.org
Francis Bruguiere, "Light Abstraction" c. 1925

The groupings are meaningful, too, by what they leave out. While the studio can serve as a neutral backdrop, it does not serve in its traditional role as a commercial portrait studio, although the show does include Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Robert Mapplethorpe. For that, one would have to detour a mile to the Whitney, to see Edward Steichen at work for Condé Nast. Mostly, though, the show succeeds on a smaller scale, with smaller surprises and ingenious pairings. An Edward Weston nude, meaning her buttocks, hangs between the Factory and the AIDS generation on one side and a plate of Brussels sprouts from 1900, by Charles Harry Jones, on the other. And who is to say which best represents Weston's gaze?

Photo by Marclay . Source: moma.org
Marclay, "Allover"

Bajac makes a clear effort to include women on both sides of the camera, like Cindy Sherman out from under cover of the movies and the dirt. He has an unusual emphasis on European photography, as well as artists not often known for the medium, such as Robert Rauschenberg, Kiki Smith, and Christian Marclay—the last, of course, with busted cassette tapes as part of his engagement with sound art.

While the show does not catch up with contemporary artists straddling painting and photography, like Jacob Kassay and Eileen Quinlan, it expands its definition of photography all the same, to include video and film. It deconstructs the play between artifice and realism with two artists known for photographing small models as if they were grand, haunted spaces, but here James Casebere works in small prints and Thomas Demand faces his studio as what one may as well call real life. Then again, when Man Ray spoke of the laboratory of the future, did he mean the orb, the studio, the medium, or himself?


A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio
Curators: Quentin Bajac and Lucy Gallun

The Museum of Modern Art
11 W 53rd St.
Midtown         Map

212 708 9400
moma.org

Saturday, February 8 to
Sunday, October 5, 2014
Hours: Weds to Mon, 10:30 to 5:30, Fri to 8
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