Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Whitney, Finally Taking My Advice (like everyone should).

Back in the spring of 2007, the Whitney held an exhibit entitled, "The Legacy of F. Holland Day." It was to be something of an homage to him and to the genre of self-portraiture in general.

It was weak. Totally weak.

<--This is a picture of him looking for the actual exhibit he never got from the Whitney, you know- the good one you would expect for a world renowned icon of photographic history. Incidentally, I wrote a review* of the aforementioned exhibit and in it, I expressed my love of the Other thing I happened to see there, which was Alexander Calder's Circus. Now, almost two years later, they are having a special exhibit: Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933, it's up until February 15th.
Can I get a "Hell, Yes!"?

For those that don't know, these are the sculptures that usually reside at the Whitney. These are what stirred my love for this man:

Cirque Calder 1/2

If you liked that, it goes on in Video #2,

Cirque Calder 2/2

Now, I'm not going to say that they are having this expanded exhibit because of me but feel free to thank me anyway.
Next time I'll post another example of how the Guggenheim finally followed my advice, you'll be a believer ;).

*And now, here is the review I wrote for my class/ Prof. Editha Mesina. It's important to note here that they didn't bother to get any outside pieces, only put together what they already had.
Also, I know it's long but frankly, I don't know why you're reading this blog in the first place. If that's not a good enough reason, referenced are many noteworthy photographers who are good to know about, just because.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The recent collection of self portraits at the Whitney Museum was, in general- disappointing. Despite the fact it showcased fifteen artists, it seemed incomplete in its lack of theme and dismally small space which was more like an amputated limb than a featured exhibit. While I am sure that the curator’s intention was compiling the photographs under the general theme of “Self-Portraiture” with the pretense of displaying the variety in it and it’s possible relation to F. Holland Day- I believe that with the clout of the Whitney, it is necessary to live up to such a grand undertaking by doing “too-much” rather than “too-little” because too little is always lacking. Self-Portraiture is too large a theme and so diversely explored that displaying so few pieces is simply a mockery of the form. Would it have killed them to bring in other pieces from outside their collection? In an exhibit such as this, where so much of the gallery is over taken by paintings ( and sculpture,) Size Does Matter.
This is not to say there were not some thought-provoking and interesting pieces present, but this I credit more to the artists than any particular choice of the Museum since some of the pieces were hit or miss with varying degrees of conceptual ism. Lucas Samara’s Skull Milky Way, for example was both aesthetically pleasing, nontraditional and inventive because of it’s use of (literally) inner-self portraiture. Why he used pins- I don’t know but it makes you feel tingly and prickly if you stare at it for too long.

Goldin’s Nan & Brian seemed atypical of her usual pieces because she was not a victim, and it portrays the two in bed bathed in beautiful light. Additionally, her dominance of him in the photograph is different from the “suffering” aspect of Holland Day’s work and considering she had so many others more similar to this mentality, I felt it was a strange choice that was probably made because the Whitney happened to have a Goldin lying around.

Lyle Ashton Harris made my day with his sumptuous and decadent Billie #21 and Hammond’s Tabula Rosa brought up all sorts of mental stimulants with her nudity which was covered with drawn figures of Asian and non-Asian cartoons. It stirred questions- Tabula Rosa versus filling the body, Buddhism, Spirituality, Swimming?, Crashing Dominoes and sensual Chrysanthemums.

While intrigued with the original audacity of F. Holland Day’s works of sacrilege, I felt that seeing the piece was more of a novelty than the experience I was promised. Perhaps it was because of it’s fame and my previous experiences with the work in books and slides but I didn’t feel that way about The David so I think it was because of it’s underwhelming placement and display choices. It also astounded me that with such a mundane display that his work was the namesake of the exhibit. I felt the same with Francesca Woodman’s small print that seemed like the wall paper she was under because it was so close to the larger collection of dark Adrian Piper prints. This was personally disappointing considering the many beautiful Woodman images that were not included.

Chris Burden’s book, whose theme seems a credit to his name, sounded interesting but I felt I could have seen more from it to fully grasp the tense mentality that only electrocution can bring. Charles Ray’s piece was notably my least favorite as the quality seemed too poor and simplistic which might have been mitigated had I known his real purpose of tying himself to a tree. It just wasn't my taste but I did wonder if it was based on some deeper, more interesting meaning that was simply not communicated to me at the gallery and for that I am disappointed. (Later research would indicate that one of the explanations of this piece is relinquishing will yet maintaining power within art, for me the explanation seemed like, "attempting shock factor".)

Additionally, it reminded me of Collier Schorr’s photograph of a young man in a tree and when I kept thinking of it, I liked it less and less- but that might just be a personal thing.

Was the point here really to show the legacy of F. Holland Day? Are we to assume that just because some of the artists were tortured souls, or they dressed up that they should be in the same exhibit? Carefully choosing outside pieces could have made this exhibit more cohesive or at least more engaging and I’m sure there are other religiously based self-portraits that could have been added as well. Religion, with all of its implications, artwork and myths could have provided the link that the show needed. Not that it had to be the one link but it could have made an interesting exhibit!
While some of the pieces were thought-provoking and/ or aesthetically pleasing, I didn’t feel as though they should have been together, or at least not together in the fashion that they were, which was: arbitrarily in the room the size of a Manhattan closet. Other artists that were not mentioned were also sprinkled in to create a very random experience. Overall, I’m glad I went to see the work but I felt unsatisfied in the end.
In Conclusion:

Dear Editha,

Calder’s Circus= AWESOME.

Photography and the Self: The Legacy of F. Holland Day= Not so much.



  1. F. Holland Day’s works on the passion of Christ does leave one a little lacking in something mainly because he had not yet mastered the intricacies of outdoor photograph. But, his self portraits of a dying Christ upon the cross are by no means a novelty but more in the realm of the Cinematic similar to a Dryer or Pasolini film (remember this is 1898 in America) though that being said his work on the Passion was not his best. But, his much later photographs i.e. around the years of 1906-07 were truly brilliant and no photographer in recent memory has yet to touch upon them in my honest opinion. He showcased the beauty of the young male body without turning it into an object. Indeed many photographers before him had done just that like Wilhelm Von Gloeden for instance, but F. Holland Day with his camera turned the youthful male body into a painting of very haunting quality and not a mere photograph something that could perpetually adorn a museum or a church. He played with shadow and light and brought the works of classical antiquity and Renaissance elegance to life continually intruding on the present. He allowed the ruling white class of 1890’s America to view the "Negro" body without clothing in a time when blacks were considered not fully human. It was in word I tell you timeless and not in any way attached to eras of the 1890's and turn of the century America modern yet of the past yet not attached to the past. Indeed, many though not all of his works were quite ahead of their time if but one artist I would be given the chance to meet I would choose him "The slave to beauty" the Oscar Wilde and Caravaggio of the photographic world…

    Kevin Gibbs

  2. While I appreciate your commentary and agree to a large part of it, I think you misunderstood when I referred to seeing his work as "a novelty".
    True, his later pieces were his more masterful ones but the reason I chose the word "novelty" is to comment on the presentation of the piece.

    Given his body of work (and it's brilliance), I felt it was an unfair and unfortunate effect (being made a novelty rather than existing as one) because of the curation. I felt the Whitney had used his name (because of his wonderful work) in order to draw in an audience for a hodgepodge of pieces they simply plucked from their existing exhibit.

    In essence, I believe we generally agree about his work but I was making a statement about the Whitney more than anything else.

    A rather late reply to your comment but thankful nonetheless for your readership on this post at least.