PRINT December 1999

Carol Squiers

1. The Religious Right’s Promotion of Photography The ’90s brought the medium massive public attention when various “transgressive” imagemakers were caught dead-center in the culture wars. Some photographers were damaged in the skirmish; others became celebrities. But all the bad publicity made the medium itself a succès de scandale. Alas, the art world, called on to defend the work of photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe, failed to rise to the occasion. That lapse spelled the doom of NEA grants to individual artists, but the controversy also provoked a salutary, if tardy, scramble within the art world to confront photography as an artmaking medium.

2. Hiroshi Sugimoto (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1995–96) The decade’s most sublime exhibition of photography showcased Sugimoto’s rigorous application of concept in the service of visual pleasure. Especially marvelous are his “Night Seascapes,” which offer the bottomless depth of a Rothko black painting while clearly maintaining their status as photographs. In them, Sugimoto achieves an almost otherworldly balance between abstraction and figuration.

3. Barbara Kruger (The Geffen Contemporary, Los Angeles, 1999) Barbara Kruger made the Geffen sizzle. For this powerhouse of a retrospective, she carved the immense space into three broad swaths of image and words, creating an enormous installation that served as frame and format for a dizzying production spanning three decades. In the face of her take-charge Geffen performance, one saw it in an instant: For Kruger, standard venues are too damn small.

4. “In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1996) A groundbreaking show for the all-American audience accustomed to seeing Africans through the eyes of travel photographers and photojournalists. This exhibition offered up images of, but also by, postcolonial Africans. If these pictures are subtler, more beautiful, and more thoughtful than the typical fare, they can be equally unsparing. Among many revelations were the stately portraits by Seydou Keïta of Mali and the oddly contemporary-seeming self-portraits (think Cindy Sherman) shot in the ’70s by Samuel Fosso of the Central African Republic.

5. Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation, Toronto Hendeles is a one-woman cultural phenomenon: a collector and curator who puts herself on the line. An unparalleled visual sensitivity, a passion for ideas, and an intensely personal connection to the art she buys and exhibits have yielded a decade of complex group shows in her private art museum (founded in 1988). Bringing together a range of historical and contemporary art, much of it photographic—Barbara Kruger and Walker Evans with an anonymous daguerreotype; Louise Bourgeois and Katharina Fritsch with Eugène Atget—Hendeles explores aesthetic, social, and psychological connections with a vitality that points up the cool inconsequentiality of so many curatorial efforts.

6. Cindy Sherman (Metro Pictures, New York, 1992) Sherman’s horrifying (and laughable) images of plastic medical-supply mannequins, dismembered and reconstituted as a troop of mutilated Venuses and fragmentary Adonises, were among the most startling and memorable of the decade. Who could forget—or look very closely at—the image of a bondage-masked “female” in a Miss America wig displaying her rosy, sausage-shaped cunt? “Sex sells,” the most overused strategy of the ’80s and ’90s—think Jeff Koons no less than Calvin Klein—went hand-in-glove with the anti-feminist backlash. Sherman took that logic to its illogical extreme, paring the body down to the “dirty,” and decidedly unsexy, bits.

7. Peter Fischli & David Weiss This duo blitzed New York, Paris, Zurich, London, and Cologne with eye-blistering slide-show installations. Double-exposed nature shots dissolved from one fantastical frame into another and put forth a series of mutually exclusive propositions, including the utter banality yet profound glory of nature (and its photography) and the hypertrophied lusciousness but brain-squashing nullity of photographic effects. I saw the show at London’s White Cube gallery, and after twenty minutes of photo-confrontation I felt like I was dangling at the edge of the representational abyss.

8. “Photographs, Drawings, and Collages by Frederick Sommer” (Baltimore Museum of Art, 1999) Sommer’s underappreciated production prefigures much that is now considered central within the visual arts, especially in his uses of discontinuity, abjection, and undecidability in both subject matter and style. His horizonless desert landscapes, dead-animal compositions, and broken-toy assemblages look as wonderful in this viewing as ever—and as strange.

9. “A History of Women Photographers” (New York Public Library, New York; Akron Art Museum, Akron, Ohio, 1996–97) The significance of this flawed but important exhibition (based on Naomi Rosenblum’s book of the same name) lies less in how it looked than in what it did—restore the place of many largely forgotten women in a history that has, until recently, concerned itself almost exclusively with men. The sheer number of photographers included meant that each was represented by a single image, a fact that made the exhibition both conceptually and aesthetically diffuse. That’s unfortunate—but inevitable when you’re confronting 160 years of erasure.

10. Alison Jackson Photography as fiction—That’s an idea that’s been around at least since Hippolyte Bayard propped himself up and played dead for the camera in 1840. More recently, of course, the turning of photographic truth claims on themselves has opened whole new areas of exploration. Last July, Alison Jackson created a sensation in London’s Blue Gallery when she exhibited uncanny “portraits” of Diana, Dodi, and their hypothetical mixed-race baby (all played by look-alikes). Nightmare or dream come true? Depends on your politics. The British tabloids brayed like jackals at Jackson’s vision of the couple and its spawn—as real (almost) as the real thing.