Tag Archives: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Goya and nft’s: tragedy and Farce (each in more ways than one)

Obligatory comment on the “nonfungible token” (NFT) craze;

Goya’s Graphic Imagination; at The Met, through May 2, 2021.

Everyone interested in any way in “contemporary art” must comment on the development and encroachment of NFTs — virtual-only stuff stored in cyberspace in that makes Photoshop-minded and delivered imagery seem archaic –into the elite art world.  In some ways, art collecting always been that way–i.e., about chancing a “find” that would accrue in cultural as well as financial value in some sort of tandem. There’s been admiration, in retrospect, for collectors and dealers who made and jumped waves, individually and as part of art world cabals, variously near- and far-sighted; in short, part of what reifies art, artists, and artistic directions in history. Almost too obvious to be said, media and materials as well as what may be, in many cases, mementos of a particular moment in historical time (aka artificial [human-made] things) evolve.   There is evidence that elite members of a number of very ancient peoples sponsored the creation of symbolic and/or documentary “tokens” (art; artifacts), perhaps musing far into the future. 

It has been a tenet of many art dealers working with living artists across at least two centuries: don’t buy art only as investment–barely such a thing as sure-fire in the early days; make sure you like it as art or you may ultimately be very disappointed in more ways than one. Somewhere c. 1990 (formulating gradually under Reaganomics) that changed and so now we’re here with the crypto-currency crowd buying up code.   Who is shocked?

There is only so far I want to go with this after so much more explicit blabber, better and worse; honestly, I am not that interested. The idea that novelty per se in any form seems to have a kind of instinctual appeal and titillation for many, itself provokes mild curiosity. Specifically, I do believe the recent rise of this one particular $million sale of an NFT by the artist Beeple this week marks a pending final death knell for a postwar art world that survived the first decades of the new millennium (for better and worse).   Late boomers (me) have remained tethered to a mixed sensual and psychic interaction with art by any means (i.e., art in person, wherever, however – even if its in a booth or isolated place on a screen yet presented as the surround of the art). Traipsing through the galleries and museums of NYC for all sorts of reasons and non-reason and in many different hats and contexts–that was a norm and a boon and a privilege in New York for the art-leaning (in myriad directions). Whatever the exclusionary, financial-and-other scandal-laden networks of elite New York art dealers and galleries for several centuries now, the fact remains that their respective office spaces (as it were) have been largely open to anyone to peruse art for free. For many of us art-loving plebes the galleries were en route every day or a frequent small detour, if not a full-blown scene. That “norm” has drastically changed now in more ways than one. Veritably all art and general interest journals and newspapers cover physical art through online interaction.  Covid-19 of course is tied up in the kind of synchronistic event that is the Beeple sale. Certainly the gallery sphere appears to be headed to a wholly virtual reorganization very quickly. Likewise, some museums, spurred by the pandemic to be sure, are nearly saturated, even in online presentations, with digital bells and whistles.  So this blog was started at the the tail end of that era and the crest of addiction to “art on Instagram” that everyone acquired in isolation. We’ll see what happens.

For the moment, I reacted to the hype with an antidote–the sensitive, Gothicizing works on paper of Goya at The Met.  Goya is a good go-to when the going gets bad. His often cryptic, sometimes oddly breezy iconography of fear and suffering, especially that humans directly provoke in each other, are visceral at intimate scale, close-up, IRL. I find myself taking, or looking for, “sides” with Goya–not so much politically drawn as emotional and spiritual, in terms of reactions to his miniature mis-en-scenes–here fluid ink-washed drawings are included with his signature scratchy etchings. Images from some of his most renowned series,such as the intricately brutal Disasters of War, still shock–thank goodness. Also included are a few studies of more mainstream period subjects to remind of the stature, training, and assorted patronage of the “enlightened” artist; but the disturbing ones remain most compelling and communicate a soul-searching creative, as well as a unique artistic hand.

Topographic Painting, Worlds Apart: Thomas Cole; Tarsila do Amaral

Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings; through May 13 at The Met (Fifth Avenue building).

Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil; through June 3 at the Museum of Modern Art.

The organization of and examples in The Met’s Thomas Cole exhibition effectively create a transporting experience for viewers that follows the artist’s journeys between England, the United States, and Italy in the early 19th century.  Cole (1801-1848) was the product of an era in which continental aesthetics and art history were becoming consciously intertwined with artistic goals specific to the painting medium, especially; close imitation of both nature and the idealized form of “the ancients” was di rigueur.  Cole breathed air into the former—that is, within meticulously detailed and composed, glazed and polished landscape scenes and scenarios.  Whether portraying a precise locale or synthesizing and staffing various settings into monumental narratives and allegories, his pictures convey credibly atmospheric, weather-y conditions.  This propulsion he shared with peers like Turner and Constable, who are included, among others, for comparative contexts, not least to convey a splurge of individualistic technical flourish apparent beyond overlaps in nascent Romantic sensibilities associated with outliers from The Academy.

Themes broached in Cole’s oeuvre turn on colonial savage versus civilized significations and sublimes, and prescient ecological concerns in tandem with the accelerating Industrial Revolution; but, above all, the cyclical drama of nature, in full light of the encroaching Anthropocene, climactic in his renowned, metaphoric, Course of the Empire series, which is highlighted in a make-shift niche that allows easy cross-referencing between the stages of civilization depicted.

Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973) also created parallel worlds in paint that are nonetheless locally grounded in desert and jungle topographies of her homeland.  At the Modern, viewers are plopped into marshmallow-mound landscapes punctuated by stylized flora and fauna, bright suns, and sometimes bulbous humanoid bodies.  Stand-outs depict un-nameable creatures scuttling along flat bubbles and bands color, encroached upon by out-sized indeterminate foliage and melting cacti.  Part European-modern—Post-Impressionist, Surrealist, abstractionist—and part indigenous, in form, symbolism, and inspirations.  Put another way, Gauguin, Matisse, Tanguy, and Magical Realism milled to morphic and coloristic essences while conveying a real connection to earthy surrounds.

Mad Munch at Met

Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed; at the Met Breuer, through February 4, 2018

“Between a rock and a hard place” would have been an equally apropos title for this copious display of swirling anxiety by the brooding, eternal modern screamer, Edvard Munch.  Trapped between old and new values and modes of existence, his oeuvre conveys tensions between the restrictive mores of an immediate Christian past and an intuitively and philosophically Bohemian worldview–inflected by pervasive illness as well (himself and those close to him).

The title painting, a late self-portrait, shows “the master” isolated in a monk-like studio (just his art and a bed are identifiable), presided by a sentinel-like, towering and seemingly ticking clock.

Indeed Munch’s art-book persona as depressive, gone-mad anti-hero and soul-bearing post-Impressionist is powerfully reinforced here.  His ability to ensnare viewers into his chaotic emotional orbit is considerable–even for those who will not identify with its central,  fraught protagonist.  His forthright  engagement with Freudian conflicts surrounding women and virility is at full force in a gallery of femmes fatales that burn with raw vulnerability.  Most compellingly haunting, however, are his writhing, perspectivally perilous views of Oslo from Ekeberg Hills and related, washy, windswept night scenes punctuated with ghostly figures.  Overall, his fluid, lightly muddied painting technique, along with the existential and psychological introversion of it all, strongly prefigures Abstract Expressionism.

Perceptual Delirium at Met Breuer

Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, The Met Breuer, though January 14, 2018.

This theme could be twisted to include  just about anything – on the other hand, that’s just it – “twisted” – denotative and connotative —which provides fluid links between the gathered works; and literally provides one of four sectional themes that overlap. By extension, the arbitrary and  relative nature of conventionalized signifiers like numerals and the terminology of reason (logic; rationality).   Everything from dangling wiry grids and other “anxious” Minimalist sculpture by Eva Hesse and Yayoi Kusama (among others); to faux- mystical art-mathematicians like Alfred Jenson and Hanne Darboven; to jittery,  often (not only) feminist videos by Carolee Schneeman and Dara Birnbaum, a requisite early Bruce Nauman body-part examination; to pre-Neo-Geo, entoptic (it fits) drawings and paintings that joggle the optic nerve, especially some South Americans, several seen in big abstraction  shows in NY over the past two seasons—yes, a folded aluminum sculpture by Lygia Paper; and, on another note, her idiosyncratic Brazilian colleague, Helio Oiticica, just off his Whitney retrospective.  Serialist-Minimalists, with their self-perpetuating, spreading compositions (the eternal return of the same, to pull Nietzsche out of context) are juxtaposed here with the raw painterly limbs of Philip Guston, meaty slabs of matter by Paul Thek; and  the nutty painted  people-eaters of Jim Nutt and Peter Saul.  Big hits and misses but overall, well illuminates some shaded aesthetic corners of late 20th century art.  Overall, the show seems to suggest that not only the personal but the perceptual is political—at least by the time it is processed by our sensory and  intellectual consciousness.

“We Mourn Our Loss”: Kerry James Marshall Retrospective Right On Time

At The Met Breuer, through January 29, 2017:

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry 

The morning after the election debacle brought immediately to mind a painting in this timely (for the artist, the art world, and American society at large) Marshall retrospective.  On a huge, gold-fringed canvas tarpaulin, a glitter-winged, but gravity-bound women, very black as are virtually all of Marshall’s figures, fusses with a flower arrangement in a pristine, spacious living room.  One wall is adorned with a banner featuring medallions of MLK, JFK, and RFK above the slogan, “we mourn our loss”–itself echoing a cloud of fading photo-screened portraits hovering at the top of the composition above a carefully glitter-scripted caption, “in memory of.”  With a silvery-grisaille companion piece hung nearby, in which memories of the 1960s infiltrate a domestic interior veiled by shiny beaded curtains that can read also as bars and grounded with the inscription, “what a time what a time,”  Marshall’s layered iconography and mix-and-match painting techniques provoked in this viewer a palpable nostalgia for the immediate post-Civil Rights decade or so possibly approaching the intensity of Marshall’s own that inspired them.

Marshall’s entire 30-some-year oeuvre has been related in content to the subdued but rich private and pubic, social and emotional summaries encompassed by these two mentioned works–first recognized definitively in a breakthrough series based on urban-periphery “garden apartment” housing projects erected through the 1960s and 1970s, here exhibited in full (about a half dozen unstretched canvases from the mid-1990s).  In these vaguely Norman Rockwell-ian scenario blow-ups, bicycles, dogs and school kids abound.  Adults are scarce.  When they do appear, they are sartorially suggestive–Afrocentric or literally white-collar.  Sporadically dripped passages staining below and over the figurative aids in evoking clouded memories.  The aesthetics and messages overall vacillate between tentative and idyllic, challenging, disappointing, and ultimately loving, through the eyes of a knowing artist from early on destined to stay the course.  Especially gripping (perhaps as I had looked at it closely years before, now encountered in a political context that lent nearly to tears) is a scene of three youths performing a solemn and private patriotic ceremony in a patch of yard, which bears the slogans, “Happy July 4th,” “Bang,” and “We are one.”

Marshall’s stylistic signatures of very dark skin color and deliberate, stoic poses can recall traditional African votive scultpure–ameliorated with the Western realist figurative tradition in which he is deeply ensconced.  Canonical art history seeps into his naturalism one way or another throughout, variously referenced and appropriated.  This is most obvious in an intermittent, loose series of artist-at-work pictures, capped by a bubbling, stocked and staffed  studio extravaganza to rival Courbet’s ubiquitous proto-modern prototype (The Painter’s Studio . . . , 1855).   A tour de force is a bustling hair salon scene emanating shades of Ernie Barnes and Barkley Hendricks as well as Rockwell, Archibald Motley, and maybe a hint of Kehinde Wiley, not to mention a shout out to Chris Ofili directly in a reproduced poster of his art hung in the salon–all crowned with a sarcastic riff on the Renaissance novelty of anamorphosis–as you scan across the picture plane, an abstract blob in the foreground becomes a disembodied blond Barbie-head.

Then there are the ethereally-hued and musically-ornamented pictures of black love–family; romantic; in myriad settings, which stop short of both sentimentally and irony to convey a rare authenticity (for lack of better term).  Add light-box-presented comics that Marshall has developed over the past decade surrounding a character called “Mastr.”  Final bonus: none of the artists I’ve mentioned, but many more, are included in a gallery of “favorites” across time and place from The Met’s collection selected by Marshall.

Great paintings change through time, carrying their pasts with them.  Many works in this show fit that delineation.   All Americans and many others should be moved by them for many reasons–not least as a collective demonstration of the continuing powerful potential of depicting forms we recognize as direct reflections of life, i.e., figurative painting.

Works described (google):

Souvenir I, 1997 (MoCA, Chicago)

Memento #5, 2003 (Nelson-Atkins)

Untitled (Studio), 2014 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

School of Beauty, 2012 (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Bang, 1994 (Progressive Corp.)

Frenchman makes Good among Ex-Pat Caravaggisti in Rome . . .

At The Met (Fifth Avenue;  through January 16, 2017):

Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio

The Eternal City was art central in the early 17th century, and the patronage of art rainmaker, Cardinal Barberini, which Valentin enjoyed, conferred art status.

Riding on Caravaggio’s tidal wave  blend of gritty realism–i.e., painterly humanism–and stagecraft, Valentin (born c. 1591, Parisian outskirts in the district of Seine-et-Marne, rather than his geographic namesake; died 1623, Rome) continued to push in both directions.  Saints and sinners interact and interchange in mainly elaborate and roiling, but sometimes deeply contemplative, biblical “portraits” and narratives, especially featuring Old Testament and Christian martyr-related violence–popular Counter-Reformation visual rhetoric; along with slyly symbolic gatherings in the mean streets of period Rome.

Valentin exploited Caravaggio’s overall dark ambiance–aka tenebroso–and his dramatic chiaroscuro to the hilt.  In fact, the subtlety associated with C’s veritable revolution of form and iconography has given way in Valentin not only to bolder lighting but more imperfect figures with disarmingly foreshortened limbs organized in complex groupings.  Most fun are the dozen or so bubbly genre cafe concert and gaming (cards, dice) scenes, an obvious specialty.   In their winking dual nature as allegorical puzzles (e.g., The Prodigal Son; the Ages of Man; the Senses) and credible glimpses into the urban subculture of the day, Valentin was perhaps somewhat influenced by his Dutch associates in the wide caravaggisti band.  Often set in taverne and staffed with then common types–“orientializing” fortune-teller, wily cardsharp, laughing prostitute, gruff soldier–they offer a feast of sartorial and still-life detail;  the installation includes some weapons and a few other objects from the collection to compare with the painted representations.  Note also, scattered throughout, the fuzzy lambs and occasional other seemingly observed, symbolically-infused fauna.

Most compelling, this oeuvre offers a dialectic of absorption and theatricality (to simplify Michael Fried’s aesthetic construction, c. 1981).  That is, Valentin (again, picking up where C left off) seems to play with both the physical and emotional position of viewers.  We look in, as voyeurs, on a distanced world in which others are wholly engaged, while that world also elides, via strongly compressed repoussoir (cropped foreground figure/s) nearly into our viewing space to forge pictorial empathy with the collective “beholder.”

Baroque painting in general has a haunting kind of appeal, in its moody mimesis, in the digital age, perhaps akin to its originally intended effects in context.  It’s still difficult for many to imagine that Denials of Peter, Judith and Holoferneses and flayed Bartholomews (et al.) were ubiquitous and their respective artists barely differentiated–analogous to, say, international, non-objective abstraction in the postwar era to most but connoisseurs.  Yet, the particular mix of mystery and clear-eyed fleshy scenarios by which visitors are bombarded in these works are nonetheless arresting and spectacular.

Photos on the Fence (of Evidence and Art): Diane Arbus; Danny Lyon

At The Met Breuer, through November 27, 2016:

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning

At the Whitney, through September 25, 2016:

Danny Lyon: Message to the Future


In the new-normal virtual world,  b & w darkroom prints are increasing compelling in their accrued aesthetic objecthood–including technical variation–which both exhibitions exemplify and further.

The ubiquity of Arbus’s most famous images and related commentary, not to mention her dramatic bio (1923-1971/suicide), weighed heavily upon approach; yet, very soon I was absorbed in her/my journey–from tentative to provocative “art” photography.   This was facilitated by the ingenious installation (worth seeing in itself), which lined up rectangular columns through the main viewing space, hypostyle-like,  each displaying one work on each side.  The unusual alternative to the typical horizon-line ordering of small-scale photo shows disrupted preconception in general; and also: mimicked the action of the individual photo shot; evoked a Surrealist-tinged maze apropos of Arbus’s marginalized or else mainstream-transformed-to-slightly-sinister-through-the-viewfinder subjects; and offered flexible viewing paths.  Given that the bulk of work included dates from within a dozen years before her prematurely final images, a triumphant selection of which was featured in an exiting gallery, chronology was somewhat beside the point–even the attention to thematic placement was not essential–it’s all postwar New York.  The point was to illuminate, broadly, the break from her commercial studio career with her husband in the mid-1950s in pursuit of her art–at least as conceived within the realm of photography at the time.  (Work produced on various assignments was not necessarily excluded.)  It’s a captivating glimpse into that fiercely precocious (as a photographer and woman) foray, driven by a cache of never before exhibited work.

Coney Island carnivalesque–“freak” shows, the wax museum, and the like–was a magnetic draw for the quirky Arbus and the photographic encounters here seem to encompass an intended mix of a sympathetic and artistic, even expressionistic, eye, with selective truth-is-stranger-than fiction documentation, climactic in her famous pictures.  Elsewhere, uptown grotesques, Mad Men-midtown scenarios, the downtown demimonde, and urban street urchins link her variously to more conventionally journalistic predecessors and peers.   Her compositions are often from head-on perspectives, with undertones of an “exposé” aesthetic.  In places, I thought of Nan Golden; in others, especially the suburban pictures, Gregory Crewdson; also Carrie Mae Weems, among other photographers emerging in the mid-1990s in the context of a broader contemporary art world who have focused on the tropes, trappings, and relative truth of  documentary photography.

Danny Lyon (b. 1942) has had a brilliant, prolific career from the early 1960s in the documentary realm, imbuing straight images with emphatically committed partisan politics.  This passion came through early in his insider, close-up Civil Rights work, and later in several near-anthropological series in which he took an “embedded” approach, cutting edge at the time–e.g., motorcycle bikers, prison life, a foray into rural Columbia.

However, the bulk of small pictures in the humongous Whitney galleries gets . . . difficult . . . as a manageable whole.  While the show was organized by FAMSanFran, and the Whitney curators broke up string-course rows of photos (the usual, as noted above) with intermittent, free form arrangements, the installation still needed a bit more . . . editing (? – something) to be both engaging in the moment and memorable–despite the power of many individual prints.

A “bulletin board”-type display of media images culled by Lyon, illustrating his professed visual and conceptual thinking, segues to some collage and montage work–fairly basic to methods and extra-curricula experiments of many photographers.  Other artsy (not in a bad way) works incorporate language–mainly expressions of freedom and the perpetual questioning of the post-Kerouac on-the-road/looking-for-America counter-culture.

The Civil Rights work will be of particular interest to specialists delineating the extent and nature of the many peer contributors to the cause; and there is a good amount of ephemera throughout for those with scholarly interests related to Lyon and the documentary field in the decades covered.  For the laity: brief prep/background and patience will be rewarded.

For those with a whole lot of time and/or inclination after making it through the expansive photographic display, there are several of Lyon’s feature-length films on view (within the exhibition – with seating).  I didn’t have either – although, after the latter, I will be looking into some of his film work (one way or another).



Vigee Lebrun: Woman Portraitist Painted Privilege from the Inside

“Vigee Lebrun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France,”  Metropolitan Museum of Art, through May 15.

At the current economic moment, felt keenly by many focused on art-related careers, it can seem superfluous to all but specialists to wander through this paeon to the dwindling ancien regime via ludicrously puffed, powdered, and posed portraits for posterity. But stick with it.

Vigee Lebrun (1755-1842) got with this crowd early and successfully chased, ultimately across Europe, a network of privilege as a premiere portraitist.  And not without top training in Neoclassical painting style and techniques, as far as would be allowed for a woman of the era (sketching nudes and history painting subjects, for example, were off limits).  Without any conveyed revolutionary sympathies, she was a feminist in spite of herself, and persevered diligently in her craft until the end.  Her self-portraits exude an easy confidence and subtle bravura.  It also stands out that she gave full attention, in her art, to her own, as well as others’ children.

Her particular spin on the au courant status style is a realist edge and occasional side-eye that brings these elite stiffs, as well as their jewel-encrusted, starched draperies, to life.  A tamely brilliant homage by Alex-Joseph Perignon done decades after her death, which opens the show, is a dual portrait of Vigee-Lebrun and her most famous patron,  Marie-Antoinette, which conveys, albeit sentimentally, an apparently authentic closeness between them–supported by her several relatively casual images of the late-baroque queen.   Even when Her Majesty among other high-status sitters requested “formalization” (as certain labels explain), a bubbling small-brush bravura foils the prevalent slick, embalming-like surfaces of the day.

Crossing into Kongo Reality at the Met

Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Kongo Power and Majesty”; through Jan. 16, 2016.

This show presents art from the 16th through early 20th centuries collected from the now extinct Kongo kingdom, a region that extended across boundaries of the present nations, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, and Angola.  “Kongo culture” as such evolved from a collection of related smaller ethnic groups, which effected stylistic differences in techniques and object types, as emphasized in this display.  Also included are a cache of archival documents (maps, texts) by Europeans that reflect on early relations between the two continents; along with a few photos of votives in situ that bring home their distanced de-contextualization in the museum setting.

From a purely visual standpoint, an extensive display of raffia cloth remnants impresses mainly collectively, as it casts light on an evolved craft and design enterprise.  Beyond the visual:  the largely lost history of this traditional textile production via cultural repression and economic exploitation by Europe, metastasized through the slave trade in which Kongo elites eventually participated.  Such anxious undercurrents simmer throughout the show.  Put another way, the paradox and irony of what the Europeans collected and subsumed barely scrapes the surface of what they directly or indirectly destroyed.

The heavy missionary hand of early Christian contact is evidenced in a number of 16th – 18th century cast metal and carved wood ritual and status objects (such as staffs), where Kongo spirits perch on crucifixes or alter European-type images of the baby Christ and St. Anthony.  On the other hand, a group of small-scale, delicately carved mother and child wood figures, more so than counterparts or syntheses of the Marian icon, are universal humanistic (for lack of better term) exemplars in the particular.   Close looking revealed notable variety within the canonical seated type characterized by large heads and geometric stock poses.  Through represented scarification, mixed-media details and iconographic gestures, they convey (individually and collectively) communal artistic and spiritual knowledge.   

The final gallery comes around directly to power (as per the exhibition title) with an arresting display of just-smaller-than-human-scale wood votives known in English as “power figures”–nkisi nkondi (singular).  This umbrella Kongo term can encompass many ideas and forms, but is frequently associated with an aggressive male being known as Mangaaka, of which most of the dozen or so known sculptural incarnations from the late-19th to early 20th centuries are featured here.  They comprise an intimidating familial pack, with menacing grimaces and stuffed medicine bags dangling from their potent, protruding, cowrie-studded navels.  It seems such apotropaic creations, on the one hand related to aspects of traditional Kongo ritual belief, had come to address also the extreme social violence of the colonial era culminated under Belgian despot Leopold II.  The sculptural approach is rough, deliberate, and infused with suggested animation through a forward-leaning, bent-knee balance they share.  Fascinating to behold, they also spark contemplation with regard to provenance, specific intention and accrued meanings.

The wall texts emphasize points of blending between European and Kongo cultures partly in mutual admiration early on.  Of course, little of the Kongo perspective on the initial alliance can be conveyed.  And the contextualization stops short of addressing why more is not known about the power figures, only three or four generations old and now virtually obsolete.  While core information about Kongo ritual objects was not widely shared with outsiders or even all members of the communities that produced them, colonial disruption of ancestral continuity underpins so much missing African heritage. 

It is widely known that the Mangaaka type and much other sculpture in the show were the result of tripartite negotiations between client/patron (which might be communal), artisan, and priest (nganga), with central focus on use and intended effectiveness.  Despite an unbridgeable abyss, and even as a melancholic note lingers, there are surely many benefits to shining global art world light onto these proud and intriguing ancestral remains–if in an inevitably less than ideal context.  Yet again, let’s keep in mind the “invisible” Kongo descendants in this aesthetic history, metaphorically speaking.  

Photographs out of Africa in Focus at Met

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

In and Out of the Studio: Portrait Photographs from West Africa”; through January 3, 2016.

The Aftermath of Conflict: Jo Ractliffe’s Photographs of Angola and South Africa“; through March 6, 2016.

The Met photo dept. has really up-ticked in recent seasons,  it seems to me especially since the comprehensive, “Photography and the Civil War” (2013).  Diverse exhibitions of historical and contemporary work have been increasingly inventive and complementary between themselves and those of other departments.

This fall: images of Africans in Africa by African (for the most part) photographers in two exhibitions.  “In and Out of the Studio” deals with the development of portrait photography in west Africa, mainly Mali and Senegal.  It includes phenomenal early examples, testifying to the serious early engagement of African practitioners with the medium and genre, and moves along chronologically.  We see a blend of indigenous self-fashioning and both the self-conscious appropriation and hegemonic influence of European conventions and adornments across the images through time.  The sartorial bricolage of the subjects (collectively) is intriguing, with patterned textiles–both a trope and a truism in relation to cultural identity in much of Africa–prominent.  The directorial hands of individual photographers are gleaned in the selected naturalistic and constructed back-drops, many in dialogue with their clients.  It’s also interesting to view the works of more familiar postwar figures like Seydou Keita, Malike Sidibe, and Samual Fosso in sight of direct antecedents.  Adding to the visual experience of these images is the ironic “objecthood” and even “aura” that the array of negative and print types take on in a personal viewing in our age of endless electronic reproduction.


The intersection of journalistic photography and aesthetics has been fraught from its beginnings (famously brought to the forefront of photographic theory by Susan Sontag, 1977).  Since the 1990s, this volatile visual dialectic has been increasingly broached by photo-artists, as well as art curators and institutions.  Many African American photo-artists, from Roy Decarava to Carrie Mae Weems to LaToya Ruby Frazier (to cite one direct lineage) have worked at the conceptual edge of this breach.  Not surprisingly, post-apartheid South African photographers have been another  collective force mining this terrain, which blends documentation and strongly conveyed subjectivity to reflect upon prolonged circumstances of social crisis, carrying forward the legacy of indefatigable octogenarian, David Goldblatt.*   Jo Ractliffe (b. 1961) appears a prominent heir in the work on view in “The Aftermath of Conflict,” which includes images from several series of recent years, in her use of black and white and focus (though not exclusively) on landscape.  Her images of  wreck-strewn coastal towns near Luanda and desolate, perpetual make-shift survival elsewhere are interspersed with those reflecting the installation of colonial power at the foundations of the decades-long, brutalizing political wars across central and southwestern Africa.  (Formatted digitally and uniformly for this display, the object-presence of these “pictures” [mentioned above] defers to a perceived news transmission.)  The images are highly, if subtly, informational, and provide important evidence of human devastation in remote locales at a particular point in time, as well as very slow-going transition.  In several,  viewpoints and details like a legible sign in the distance and eerily hanging uniforms more boldly evoke narratives–and that is part of the rub.

For most Westerners, due largely to the suppression of much colonial history, there are large gaps between basic understandings of pre-colonial societies in Africa and bleakly futuristic ones such as the late-20th-century Angola of Ractliffe’s exposé.  Perhaps the Met’s forthcoming, simultaneous show, “Kongo: Power and Majesty,” (opening Sept. 18), which shares geographic overlaps, may facilitate some related discussion.

*For basic, introductory info, google recent shows:  “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life,” ICP (9/4/12-1/6/13)”; “South African in Apartheid and After,” SFMOMA (12/1/12-3/5/13).