review — Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960




Currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is a show entitled, Seeing Now:  Photography Since 1960. The BMA tells us the exhibit, ending on 15 May 2011, contains “200 compelling and provocative images.”  I was less impressed — and actually left the show with a nagging feeling of antipathy.

Some of the show (at least to me) bordered on the pretentious, and some of it left me wondering:  what were they thinking?  Consider, for example, Untitled (Sand), No. 1- No. 8, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres:

To my eye, these are snapshots of footprints in the sand.  The BMA sees something much more transforming:

“Sand offers an ever-changing surface – smooth and firm one minute, uneven and choppy the next – as it surrenders to the weight of passing feet.  These eight patches of sand, each with a unique pattern of ridges and hollows, bear the imprint of people who have ventured through and moved on, leaving only footprints behind.  For Felix Gonzales-Torres the footprints spoke of the painful loss of dear friends to the Aids epidemic.  The patterns preserved in these photographs were probably short-lived.  The action of wind or water (or perhaps more feet) could have erased them in a minute.  Yet on paper they remain as reminders of the power of light and shadow to create beauty at the same time that they become lasting metaphors for impermanence and loss.”

Tying these images to the serious issue of Aids doesn’t, to my sensibility, make them better; and while I’m an existentialist at heart, I don’t think eight images of a trodden beach is a uniquely worthy springboard for reminding us about the transience of life.  Shelley did it much better I think, and a long time ago, in Ozymandias.  As for the remark that these images are “reminders of the power of light and shadow to create beauty” … puh-leeeze.  They’re footprints.  And not very pretty ones.  I know I’m in the minority here as I’ve learned elsewhere on the web that these eight images fetched $83,000.  I hope it wasn’t the BMA that paid this price.  If so, the next time you’re thinking of giving them a donation you might want to think about that.

Another grouping is Trademarks, 1970, biting as much of my body as my mouth can reach.  Here we see a man contorting his body to bite various parts of himself.  In one image we’re treated to the bite marks alone:

I guess there’s some kind of psychological/social commentary going on here.  Interestingly, the BMA is not alone in appreciating this work.  Though “not currently on view,” it’s also owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In another grouping by William Christenberry we see a shack being invaded over time by enveloping leaves:

Perhaps Christenberry too is a fan of Ozymandias.

Photographs by Diane Arbus?  I saw two; if there were more, I couldn’t find them.  Helmut Newton? – a few.  There were also a number of Friedlanders and Winogrands if you like these guys.  I’ve never been a fan of Eggleston but surprisingly found I liked his displayed work more than most of the show.

I’d be curious to see what the curator chose not to show.  Art is, of course, subjective, so if others ultimately find this show to be spectacular, as did Tim Smith and Mary Carole McCauley of the Baltimore Sun, I think that’s great.  That’s what makes the world go ’round.



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