Critics’ Picks

F. Holland Day, The Seven Words, 1898, seven platinum prints in wooden frames, 8 1/2 x 34 1/2".

F. Holland Day, The Seven Words, 1898, seven platinum prints in wooden frames, 8 1/2 x 34 1/2".

New York

“Photography and the Self: The Legacy of F. Holland Day”

Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
December 20, 2006–March 4, 2007

This small show, tucked into the Whitney’s mezzanine gallery, posits a somber series on the Passion by F. Holland Day, The Seven Words, 1898, as a precursor to fourteen self-portraits by contemporary artists. Though the works at first appear loosely gathered from the museum’s collection, coherent themes—masquerade and engagement with individual history, for example—materialize. Strange intersections of art and life occur, and the exhibition makes it difficult not to see deeply unsettled personae and the structurally unsound facade of identity everywhere one looks (perhaps the earlier artist’s “legacy,” if you will). Day’s compulsive depiction of Jesus, which necessitated a self-transformation that involved growing his hair and losing weight, finds kinship in works by Adrian Piper, Hannah Wilke, Chris Burden, and Charles Ray. With its blend of introspection and histrionics, Piper’s Food for the Spirit, 1971—fourteen black-and-white photographs made while she obsessively read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, fasted, practiced yoga, and feared losing touch with the physical world—is perhaps most closely aligned with Day’s work. The series documents Piper’s search for corporeal reassurance, although she appears translucent and ephemeral and progressively fades away through underexposure. This seemingly confessional, diaristic mode—prevalent in “Photography and the Self”—provides compelling evidence that the psychological insights of art have transformational effects. This show is evidence that in bridging the small gap between art and life, one can find transcendence.