San Francisco

Gianfranco Gorgoni

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

A native of Italy who moved to New York in 1968, Gianfranco Gorgoni is a highly romantic photographer whose stylistic inclinations work well with the monumentality and implied drama of many temporal installations. Photographs of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Christo’s Running Fence and Heizer’s The City/Complex One are printed in a large (30 x 40") format which thoroughly conveys both the mysticism and impact of these undertakings. Gorgoni’s theatrical leanings are ideal for Earthwork depiction. The image of a sunrise behind City/Complex One or the photograph of Spiral Jetty at the time of day when the water reaches its most intense luminosity reflect a sensitivity to both the artists’ work and the environmental factors which surround the piece. Similarly, a shot of Christo’s Running Fence acting as a backdrop behind a farmhouse and clothesline prove Gorgoni to be capable of seeing the more subtle and humorous aspects of these projects as well.

Gorgoni has documented many of the major Earthworks and indoor installations either independently or, as in the Running Fence project, as a staff photographer. His reputation has been stimulated by extensive publication of his temporal installation photographs in both magazines and books.

A medium-sized selection of Gorgoni’s Earthwork and installation photographs (preferably exhibiting both color and black and white) probably would have been a provocative and revealing exhibition, focusing on some of the major developments of art in the late ’60s and early ’70s. However, the curators at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art mounted 140 black and white photographs which placed more emphasis on Gorgoni’s depictions of art luminaries than on their actual work.

Gorgoni’s portraits tend to be stereotyped images in which the artists are portrayed in a slick, high-key tonality, a journalistic style of photography more appropriate to rock stars and movie celebrities. Gorgoni’s images rely on artifice or blatant theatricality for their effect. Robert Rauschenberg is part of a double portrait with the goat’s head from Monogram. Ellsworth Kelly poses with a leaf obscuring his face and Claes Oldenburg appears with a Mickey Mouse mask.

In other photographs Gorgoni tries to convey the seriousness or intensity of the artists’ positions. Smithson, on the site of Spiral Jetty, scowls at the camera in an extreme closeup. Alfred Leslie, expressionless, with a protruberant belly, poses in front of his massive self-portrait. And Laddie John Dill, shown at work in his studio, is dramatically illuminated by the neon tubing on the studio floor.

In each portrait the subject is forced to assume an attitude, which in true journalistic fashion transforms the sitters, through obvious techniques, from the role of artists with psychological dimensions to expected cultural archetypes. Clearly the only way to escape Gorgoni’s artist personality simplification is to have the strength to overcome him. This Georgia O’Keeffe manages to accomplish with great aplomb.

Gorgoni also presents a series of “Darkroom Projects”: composite pictures which incorporate a portrait of the artist with a selection of his work. These appear even more artificial than the single-image portraits. In the Joseph Beuys composite labelled Untitled Swamp Piece, the repetition of Beuys in the water is neither humorous nor informative.

A substantial portion of “Art in the Seventies” is devoted to images of the Running Fence project. In addition to the actual fence documentation, Gorgoni photographed farmers, production crews and a number of meetings. He attempted to capture the chaos and energy surrounding the project, but only succeeded in adding a good deal of uninteresting and contextually unstructured information. In one photograph a woman at a meeting holds up a map, but there is no indication if she is pro or con on the fence issue or what the meeting is even about. The curators arranged the images in closely hung groups, but this can’t hide the fact that the photographs of farmers and fence workers are mediocre documentary shots at best.

“Art in the Seventies” is a pretentious exhibition which suffers from a lack of editing and selection on the part of the photographer and curators. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a tendency to mount oversized photographic exhibitions. In this instance the museum’s decision to hang a large group of black and white photographs rather than a selective exhibition of color and black and white Earthwork/installation photographs reflects poorly on both the museum and Gorgoni.

Hal Fischer