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Untitled #40 (Freeways)

Untitled #40 (Freeways)

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Photo opportunity

Three museum shows make up a primer on the rise of the camera as a serious artistic tool.

By Howard Halle

The show


“Catherine Opie: American Photographer”


Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Sept 26–Jan 7

THE BACKGROUND
Although Catherine Opie (born 1961) emerged onto the scene in the early 1990s, she has been taking photographs since she was nine years old. It was then, she explains, that she fell in love with the work of Lewis Hines, whose Depression-era images of construction workers at the Empire State Building are national icons. Hines’s photography is both art and social document, and in this respect, Opie’s childhood interest in him is telling.

THE TALENT
Opie has been something of a shape-shifter, producing portraiture and landscapes in color and black and white, large format and small. Her subjects have included transgender people, surfers, Wall Streeters, strip malls, freeways, Alaskan wilderness—and herself. “I’m an out lesbian,” she says, “and I have a family. So even though the work is definitely centered around how we think about photographic genres—portraiture, landscape, street photography—and even though I play with that language, it goes back and forth to focusing on myself in terms of queer identity.”

THE SIGNIFICANCE
“Very rarely is my work just purely about visual beauty,” Opie explains. “It’s a bigger exploration of ideas and community, and how we construct our world around us.” Opie’s images of her friends, for example, aren’t as casual as Nan Goldin’s. And while her work is rigorously formal, it’s not as straitjacketed as Robert Mapplethorpe’s could be. Opie’s work can seem almost classical at times, dealing with history as a recording of events, and as a series of categories—as well as stereotypes she’d like to explode.

NEXT SHOW: “New York, N. Why?: Photographs by Rudy Burckhardt, 1937–1940,” »

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The show


“New York, N. Why?: Photographs by Rudy Burckhardt, 1937–1940,”


Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sept 23–Jan 4

THE BACKGROUND
Born in Switzerland, Rudy Burckhardt moved to New York City in 1935 and quickly befriended the poets, painters and composers of Gotham’s artistic scene. He was a polymath, a prolific filmmaker and painter, as well as a photographer. “He was the original Renaissance man,” notes Douglas Eklund, assistant curator in the Met’s department of photographs. Burckhardt’s strongest suit, however, was photography, and yet, for all of his talents, he didn’t care about public recognition. He was probably best known for a series of shots of artists working in their studios, taken for ARTnews magazine.

THE TALENT
“New York, N. Why?” was a series Burckhardt began a few years after arriving in New York, and it breaks down into three categories: pictures of building facades, images of ads and storefronts, and pictures of pedestrians. They departed from similar images taken by Walker Evans and others, because of their refusal to make a statement about their subjects. “The street was for social commentators,” Eklund observes. “Burckhardt was into weight, balance, form—painterly issues. If he depicted advertising or aspects of mass culture, he did so without comment. Evans kind of sniffed at him for this.”

THE SIGNIFICANCE
Burckhardt was more interested in locating the city’s subliminal choreography. “He loved the fact that Americans had a certain style of walking confidently,” Eklund says. “He captured the unconscious artistic expression of the individual and a New York which no longer exists.” In this respect, the poet John Ashbery had it right when he described Burckhardt as “practically a subterranean monument.”

NEXT SHOW: “William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961–2008,” »

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Untitled from "Los Alamos"

The show


“William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961–2008,”


Whitney Museum of American Art, Nov 7–Jan 25

THE BACKGROUND
According to Elizabeth Sussman, the Sondra Gilman curator of photography at the Whitney, it was Eggleston’s upbringing in the old South that informs all of his work. His disdain for racism, his experience with the upheavals of the Civil Rights movement, gave him a kind of outsider’s point of view in his own region of the country. Being a Southerner only reinforced that perspective when his career took him to Harvard, where he taught for a while, and then to New York. Still, it is the uncanny framing of his pictures, their ability to seem both random and specific at the same time, that is the hallmark of Eggleston’s work, along with its almost psychedelic opticality.

THE SIGNIFICANCE
Eggleston’s lens transformed such quotidian moments as the pause of a woman’s hand stirring a drink next the window of a jetliner, or the profile of a young grocery clerk in the late afternoon bringing shopping carts back in from a supermarket parking lot. His subjects have included the less everyday as well, like his portfolio of Graceland in the 1980s (Memphis is Eggleston’s hometown). “There is an undercurrent of the most vague type of narrative in his work,” says Sussman. “He’s not trying to tell a story of his home and the New South, but nonetheless he has.”

THE TALENT
If Burckhardt’s approach touched upon painterly concerns, Eggleston moved them front and center with one seemingly simple yet all-encompassing act. “He’s generally credited with making color photography suitable for art photography,” says Sussman. “He was always interested in the latest technology and he liked the aesthetics of color slides.” Before Eggleston, art photography meant black and white; color film was more or less consigned to snapshots or magazines. That all changed when, in 1976, the Museum of Modern Art—where the photography department, run by legendary curator John Szarkowski, was considered the final arbiter of art photography—gave Eggleston a solo show. Of course, it wasn’t just the fact that Eggleston used color that made such an immediate impact; it was the way he used it. “It’s like he always says, that he wants to make the ‘ordinary extraordinary,’ ” comments Sussman. “And so, he often goes to things that are just completely ordinary, and he’s able to frame them in such a way that they become interesting.”

NEXT: A room of one’s own Not content with just a show at MoMA, Lucy McKenzie is redesigning the gallery space itself.»

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A room of one’s own

Not content with just a show at MoMA, Lucy McKenzie is redesigning the gallery space itself.

By Sophie Fels


Untitled from "Los Alamos"

For most people, making art means taking risks. But for 31-year-old Scottish painter Lucy McKenzie, art is a blue-chip, career-track slog: the Tate, the Modern, Venice, Berlin, yawn. So last year she started an interior-decorating business—and when MoMA wanted to debut her work as part of its ongoing “Projects” series, she arranged to redesign the gallery the pieces are going into. We reached her at home in London.

What are you bringing to New York?
I’ve made an all-encompassing interior mural on canvas, a very dark, paneled library. And then we have heavy drapes to hang framed work on, and tape to stencil a rug onto the museum floor. I have a small company with two friends, Beca Lipscombe and Bernie Reid—we’re called Atelier, and the installation is by us as a design team.

Does being in more than one field make you feel more secure financially?
It’s a different economic paradigm, getting paid as an artisan. You don’t have all the value-added rhetoric about artwork. Beca and Bernie come from completely different fields, and I feel slightly guilty about introducing them to the contemporary-art world. It’s so bizarre to them.

Your résumés look different?
Oh, totally. And it’s always interesting to see how people treat them, because if someone, if an institution treats them badly—if people don’t respect them because they’re not “the artist,” you know, it’s not very good in my eyes. [Laughs] I respect all the fields of art and design, and especially well-made objects that aren’t necessarily contemporary art. I just studied for six months in a specialist school to learn patinas, gilding, wood graining and marbling, and all these traditional techniques that I use in the installation. I learned so much more about painting there than I ever did at art school.

Compared with those skills, is there something scary about a market where a signature raises the price of anything?
It’s not that I think it’s scary. I think it’s unchallenging.

Because you’ve already done that?
Because making something that will be in a place permanently, for people to live or dance or be with, tests your work so much more extremely. I’m not against white boxes at all, but what you see in a white box like a museum or gallery often ends up on somebody’s living-room wall, and it’s often much more interesting and sympathetic there.

“Projects 88: Lucy McKenzie” is at MoMA Sept 10–Dec 1.

NEXT: The odds»

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ODDS

that these headlines will be used in coverage of “Andres Serrano: Shit” at Chelsea’s Yvon Lambert gallery, Sept 4–Oct 4


“Shit happens”

100%

“Crap shoot”

30%

“Seen and turd”

15%

“Turd world”

12%

“Origin of the feces”

7%

“Smell yes!”

0%

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