Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Other Histories

I’ve been thinking about abstract photography lately - both the actual work, but also its current resurgence. This fall I wrote a piece that is now featured in the latest issue of Lay Flat that addressed this subject. More specifically, the piece addresses the ways in which certain histories of photography obfuscate and confuse contemporary and historical practice. While I don’t want to rehash my essay from Lay Flat, and encourage you to read it, I was thinking about these issues again when I read the latest Artforum and read Matthew Witkovsky’s essay “Another History.” While there are many things that I liked about the piece, and I admire its attempt to sketch an alternative to certain readings of photo history, it still falls victim to some recurrent problems in these current discussions.


Witkovsky opens his argument with an important and oft neglected point that photography has always been closely bound to its own technological limitations and obsolescence. As he notes,

Abstraction, however, is not photography’s secret common denominator, nor is it an antidote to “traditional” photography – if photography has conventions local or long lasting enough to be thought of in that way. And it seems equally mistaken to suggest that abstraction is more relevant today because it offers awareness of photography’s passing (and therefore of our own passing into a new historical age). Against present talk of extinction, we should remember that photography has since its first days always been “ending,” it technological bases continually displaced through the actions of (truly abstract) economic and historical forces, couple with shifts in popular habits of consumption and social interaction. No matter how refined or forward-looking in its individual instances, photography as a class of imagemaking is profoundly marked by the enforced obsolescence characteristic of the industrial and postindustrial eras.

Considering this fraught relationship, Witkovsky sets out to sketch his own “short history,” to borrow a phrase from Benjamin, of photography that navigates the relationship between the photograph as image and object.

Any history, curatorial effort or critical argument relies on exclusion. While this is accepted and necessary, the exclusions can often be as revealing and illuminating as what is included. After tracing a history beginning with the Polish artist Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, Witkovsky jumps to Mel Bocher, Jan Dibbets, James Welling, Liz Dechenes, Moyra Devey and Walead Beshty. While these artists are linked in various ways in terms of their practice, what fails to be asked is what is at stake in such a reading and narrative?

For example, in his transition to a discussion of Welling’s work, Witkovsky states “for more than thirty years now, abstraction has been an encrusted subspecialty of artistic academe.” Welling is once again positioned as the crucial link. The exclusions and jumps implicit in this statement as well as others are troubling and do little more than to reinforce accepted dogma. While I appreciate the attempt to trace a “another history” and cast a different light on the current discussion of abstraction, what the essay fails to do is reveal how truly messy and contaminated the long history of abstraction is within photography. It is also troubling how beholden the history is to the current accepted critical discourse on the subject.

As I was mulling over these issues, I was reading the latest issue of The Brooklyn Rail and read a wonderful op-ed by the Artseen Editors, where they reflect on, and praise, Roberta Smith’s recent article “Post-Minimal To The Max” in the New York Times (2/10/10). As they state in their op-ed,

… many of our institutional guardians have sought a prescriptive approach to ensure that visual art works “properly.” These gatekeepers want to dwell in the more easily manageable world of ideas, rather than in the messiness of reality and the tangled threads of aesthetic impulses. They want art that can be domesticated by criticism…

It is the historian and curator’s job to look beyond artist statements and read the artists work against the historical and contemporary landscape in which they work – not merely rely on the dominant critical discourse of the time or the machinations of the marketplace.

In my essay for Lay Flat, I too sketch a brief history of abstraction, but do so to begin the task of revealing not only the truly messy history of photography that is not only intermingled with the other visual arts, but also the parallel, and at times, convergent histories of the medium. Photography and photo histories are too often ghettoized and bound by master narratives. What is troubling are the ways in which particular narratives are repeated, reinforced and eventually accepted wholesale in ways that are not always transparent or seem to reflect the market rather than real practice. It is important to note that artists are constantly restaging, reinterpreting and reshaping the history and historical models of the past, and in doing so shape the way we understand the medium and its history.  Any examination of this long history needs to acknowledge and explore that fruitful dialog.

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