New York

“Collage and the Photo Image”

“Collage and the Photo Image” is a classic (meaning typical) Museum of Modern Art small survey show from its own collections. Most of the work in it is already familiar, and could have been predicted to be in a MOMA show with such a title. Thus it is no surprise that a show of this kind includes works by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Heartfield, Moholy-Nagy, and Christo, etc. George Grosz’s The Engineer Heartfield was a surprise only because I had never noticed its collage elements, which is to confess never having paid much attention to it. Interesting for me in this show was the category formed—its conception and title—and the relation of specific works within it. All exhibitions form categories with definitions and criteria for inclusion; even in a one-man show, the category is the works, often recent works, of that artist. The museum situation is, however, more interesting because museums constantly mount new exhibitions from their collections, which is to say, they constantly form different categories and relocate the same works of art within those various categories. If whatever is said about a given artwork never seems enough, the fact that the work can be located in such a complex of overlapping categories gives an indication of the problem: there are lots of ways to think about things.

The works in the show by Roy Lichtenstein, Christo, Grosz, Jan Dibbets, Max Ernst, and a few others literally fulfill the requirements of the show’s title; certain elements in each work are photographic, and certain elements (not necessarily the same ones) are materially on top of, or distinct from the material of the ground surface. But many works in the show are not collage in the usual sense, in that they consist in one uniform, continuous flat surface. Moholy-Nagy’s photo-gram has the same continuous flat surface that any photographic print has. The inclusion of a photo-gram within the category means a certain stretching of the term “collage” to take in a collage situation occurring prior to the finished work. In the case of photo-grams, the collage situation occurs in the darkroom in the form of a material object’s being physically on top of the light-sensitive paper during exposure; in a sense, the object subtracts from rather than adds to the final image which is the work. The photo-gram, then, is evidence of a collage situation having occurred at a certain point in the process of making the work, but is not itself a collage in the usual sense. The double-exposure photographs of Steichen, Harry Callahan, and Jerry Uelsmann present similar situations of works which are not collage, but in which collage had a prior occurrence. What is not known in the cases of these photographs is whether the collage situation took place inside the camera or on the enlarging easel.

Stretching the term still further, Rosenquist’s works in the show are just prints—customary small versions of his paintings. He has always exploited the fragmented look of collage, and some of his paintings have collage elements, but these prints have nothing to do with collage. The famous work of Heartfield in the show, as well as Violon d’Ingres by Man Ray and Roulette de Monte Carlo are collage only to the point that they are doctored photographs photographed. Richard Hamilton’s Interior, 1964, is a serigraph of what was originally a collage work, and thus, it is not a collage but a picture of one. In a sense, then, we come full circle back to trompe-I’oeil, but without attempts to either fool or impress the eye with dexterity.

Every category has its problematic borderline cases, and whenever it is decided to allow one borderline case into the category, another such case, with logical inevitability, arises. The desire to eliminate borderline cases by including them and, thereby, strengthening the conception of category, ironically leads to the category’s diffusion. On the other hand, failure to locate the borderline cases in precise relation to the category, and thus strengthen it, leaves the conception of category vulnerable to the “sore-thumb” of borderline cases and the consequent suspicions of arbitrariness. As the “collage” term of the category is stretched to neutrality by the inclusion of so many borderline cases, Robert Rauschenberg’s transfer drawings stretch the term “Photo-Image.“ With the inclusion of more borderline cases in proper sequence, the category can be so stretched as to eventually include everything.

Bruce Boice