"The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today"

MoMA explores the uncanny relationship between between two mediums.

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  • Photograph: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

    1NaumanWaxing

    Waxing Hot

  • Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    2Friedlander

    Lee Friedlander. American, born 1934

  • Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    3Goldblatt

    David Goldblatt. South African, born 1930

  • Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art, New York

    4MattaClarkCircus

    Gordon Matta-Clark. American, 1945

  • Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    5HarrisonVoyage

    Rachel Harrison. American, born 1966

  • Photograph: 2010 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

    6StieglitzFountain

    Alfred Stieglitz. American, 1864

  • Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Art & Project

    7GilbertGeorge

    Gilbert & George (Gilbert Proesch. British, born Italy 1943.

  • Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    8WilkeSOS

    Hannah Wilke. American, 1940

  • Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection.

    9BrancusiLoiseau

    Constantin Brancusi. French, born Romania, 1876

  • Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    10SteichenMidnight

    Edward Steichen. American, born Luxembourg, 1879

  • Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    11AtgetStCloud

    Atget. French, 1857

  • Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    12HorstCostume

    Horst P. Horst. American, born Germany, 1906

Photograph: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

1NaumanWaxing

Waxing Hot

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

This robust exhibition, organized by Roxana Marcoci, a curator in MoMA's department of photography, examines how that art form has been used to record, reinterpret and ultimately reinvent sculpture over the past 170-plus years. In the process, it goes a long way toward explaining how it happened that, in our own time, the term sculpture can be applied equally to Auguste Rodin's 1889 marble The Kiss (which appears here in three different pictures) and to Kiss (2003), a performance work for two actors by Tino Sehgal (whose "constructed situations" lie outside the purview of this show, since the artist does not permit them to be documented).

A leitmotif of the show is the various means by which a photograph—whether a photomontage or a snapshot, whether isolated or in combination with others as part of a sequential arrangement, whether straightforward or incorporating extreme angles or lighting—can radically transform our perception of the objects it depicts. That this was evident even to the medium's earliest practitioners is illustrated in a shot, taken by journalist Maxime Du Camp at Egypt's Abu Simbel temple in 1850, of a partially excavated head of the pharaoh Ramesses II. The picture might almost be of a tiny fragment of statuary forgotten in the dust, but for one detail: Sitting atop the colossus is a man in native dress, an Egyptian sailor by the name of Hadji-Ishmael, who appeared regularly in Du Camp's photographs to provide a sense of scale.

The exhibition is divided into ten sections, including two, each devoted to the work of a single artist, that are themselves almost worth the price of admission. Eugne Atget's early-20th-century photographs of the historic districts of Paris and its environs—all textures, light and silence—were favorites of the Surrealists. Here, arrayed on two walls, are his studies of lonely, lichen-spotted classical sculptures in the gardens at Versailles and details of carved doorways and fountains at Paris's Muse de Cluny. The impression of hidden life, conveyed by images such as that of a stone griffin lurking under a naturalistically rendered leaf, is echoed in more flamboyant fashion in the strange and wonderful pictures that Constantin Brancusi took of his own sculptures. In them, by means of double exposures and flashes aimed at the works' reflective surfaces, Brancusi sought to transcend the material limitations of his bronze, wood and stone creations.

It was Marcel Duchamp, though, always ahead of the pack, who first created artworks, such as Sculpture for Traveling (1918)—made from strung-up slices of rubber bathing caps—that only, or mostly, existed for the camera. By the 1930s, artists would be exploiting the ambiguous space of the photograph to designate found objects and industrial artifacts as sculpture. From replacing actual objects with a picture, it is only a short jump to photoconceptualist works by Michael Heizer, Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson, and from Smithson's Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1--9) (1969) to a terrific piece by Cyprien Gaillard, one of the few genuine stars of last year's "Younger than Jesus" exhibition at the New Museum. Gaillard's Geographical Analogies (2006--2009), each comprising a block of nine Polaroids, collectively present a dystopian global landscape of unfinished resorts, crumbling modern apartment blocks, vandalized statuary, shabby museums and endless golf courses, all given the same approximate value as cultural landmarks.

"The Original Copy" takes several detours—one in the direction of the uncanny, with sexy works by Hans Bellmer, Jindrich Styrsky and Robert Mapplethorpe; another into the world of photojournalism, with excerpts from David Goldblatt's critical series on South Africa's public sculptures (their titles alone are enough to convey the institutionalized racism of apartheid) and Lee Friedlander's 1976 book, The American Monument. A third examines performance art and the use of the body as living sculpture, and includes a shot of Gilbert and George acting out Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, their made-up faces looking remarkably like those of Atget's mossy gods and goddesses.

Rachel Harrison's iconic photo-frieze, Voyage of the Beagle (2007), runs along the top of the wall in one of the last galleries. The deadpan series of figurative images, ranging from a prehistoric menhir to a stuffed polar bear to a kitten printed on a plastic toilet-seat cover, makes a fitting touchstone for this exhibition. It would also have made a great lead-in to a room devoted to younger artists—Erin Shirreff, Sara VanDerBeek, Elad Lassry, Amanda Ross-Ho, Lucas Blalock and Sara Greenberger Rafferty all came to mind—whose work likewise demonstrates how thoroughly photography has permeated the world of contemporary sculpture, and vice versa. The absence of such a room is disappointing. But for the most part, this is a gem of a show, and its digressions, missteps and overreaches—and even its tantalizing omissions—only seem proof of its originality and vigor.

Museum of Modern Art, through Nov 1

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