Mike Mandel

Robert Mann Gallery
525 West 26th Street, Floor 2
May 11, 2017–June 30, 2017

Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, Untitled, Evidence (detail), 1977, silver print, 10 x 8".

The shared blunders of Richard Nixon and our current leader are obvious, but there’s one stark difference between the two presidents: Nixon, who loved classical music and reportedly wanted to throw liberals a bone during the Vietnam War, demonstrated strong support for the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1971, its budget was doubled. By the end of the decade, the number of working artists in the country had increased by 81 percent.

“Good ’70s” is a fitting name, then, for this exhibition of Mike Mandel’s work, all from projects made over the course of that decade. It was a productive period for the artist—the recipient of several NEA fellowships—and his images reflect the protean identity of photography at the time. At a glance, the twenty-one black-and-white snapshots of barbershops, airports, shop fronts, and other public spaces appear commonplace—until you spot Mandel himself, lurking in the periphery or grinning goofily next to his subjects. Are they self-portraits? Sure. But they lack the genre’s forced introspection, and they cheekily eschew street photography’s air of detachment as well.

Also on view are Mandel’s best-known projects, The Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, 1975, and Evidence, 1977. They, too, forged new territory. Spoofing the art world’s competitive atmosphere and photography’s growing status within it, Mandel shot 134 well-known photographers—each posed comically with bats, mitts, and balls—then crafted a baseball card for each of them, complete with stats, quotes, and complimentary chewing gum. He sold the cards to museums in packs, igniting a collecting frenzy. It’d be a prank if it weren’t so subtly high concept. Ditto Evidence: After receiving one NEA grant, Mandel and his long-term collaborator, Larry Sultan, used proof of their federal funding to gain access to the archives of government agencies and assembled a collection of images depicting esoteric procedures and scientific sites. It’s too beautiful, the government paying to showcase its own photographs. But work is, ultimately, all about the money.

— Juliana Halpert