Other Photosculpture Showdowns

July 17, 2014

What is it about exhibition documentation, particularly from the 1960s and 1970s, that makes it so new, so compelling? Let's start with the image quality: black and white, with photographic grain on display, in democratic focus all the way from fore- to background, unspoiled by human presence or even the idea of visitors. Typically we see these documents at small scale,  as comparative figures in a scholarly essay, or, more rarely, printed in a catalogue from the era. In museum exhibitions of a historical nature, we sometimes encounter such images enlarged and adhered to the walls, a contextual backdrop to the materials on view. Only rarely do they become objects unto themselves.

In Other Primary Structures, the inspired, provocative exhibition on view at The Jewish Museum, the first thing we see (after passing through the brightly colored entrance hall with its mirrored wall texts and reverse timeline) are such photographs: documents of the original 1966 exhibition, blown up to monumental scale and presented on angled plywood displays. Here they assert themselves as objectsnearly artworks in their own right—and are even included on the wall labels’ location keys. The photographs are captioned with an exact register of the sculptures they depict: a studious mise en abyme.

Why are these monolithic intruders to the gallery space so sexy, so fun to look at? Is it their moire dot screen that evokes humble origins in the pages of a previously printed publication? Their monochrome resolve, which lends them an impassive presence? Their sheer scale, the disjunction between the white, minimal interiors reproduced and the neoclassical flourishes of the rooms they now inhabit?

One thing is clear: if this is a competition—a game of international football—between the documents of another, simpler era in which inclusivity, globalization, and the post-colonial were nascent ideas, versus artifacts gathered through an alternative selection process, then the home team has the advantage. The objects from the so-called Third World, the non-aligned artworks that populate The Jewish Museum's mansion in the present day, appear puny by comparison to these towering murals.

A photograph is resolute; it is decisive; it offers a fixed perspective and a single path to navigate its flat surface. An exhibition, by contrast, is closer to Vertov’s ideal: the viewer-eye exists everywhere, scrutinizing each object from any position it occupies. Perhaps this tension is part of the curatorial argument: the chasm between a half-remembered, mythological moment of prior innocence, and the current one, in which we must choose a viewpoint—politically, geographically, and otherwise. In this war between the absent and the known, the silent, unswerving player always comes out on top.