New York

“Group Show,” “The New Dimension: Traditional Artists And Photography”

Daniel Wolf, Inc., Prakapas Gallery

Group shows. I hate them. And “Group Show,” was a perfect example of why. It contained 60 photographs by 36 contemporary photographers. There were silver prints, platinum prints, salt prints, and color prints. Most of them were by people about whom even the gallery knew precious little. What can you do with a show like this? Nothing. It’s chaos. There was too much material for me to get my mind around the whole exhibition, and too little to allow me to concentrate on any one photographer. Going from image to image, I felt as if I were picking lint.

The motives for putting on such a show include, I’m sure, a certain altruism. Each year galleries receive for consideration far more work than they can possibly exhibit. They give one-artist shows to the new photographers they like the best, but always feel that there are others left over who are deserving. So a group show like this one at least allows these others to add an exhibition at a major gallery to their résumés. The trouble is that while a show of this sort is generous in one sense, it’s condescending in another. These shows invariably appear in summer, when it is assumed that the serious customers are away in the Hamptons and only the tourists are making the rounds of the galleries. In a very basic way, the purpose of a show like this isn’t to be seen.

If this show had only limited interest because the photographers in it need a kind of recognition it couldn’t provide, “The New Dimension” was limited in the opposite way—because most of the people in it didn’t need recognition as photographers at all. In this case the photographers were “traditional artists.” With the exceptions of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, they have reputations primarily in other areas of the arts. Photography cannot be considered more than a sideline with them, a footnote to careers whose place in history lies elsewhere.

The one conclusion that might be drawn from the show is that many of these photographers weren’t particularly interested in exploring photography as a medium. They were simply trying to expropriate it. By bending photography to their concepts and designs, they were demonstrating not its capacities, but their own. When Walter Gropius photographed the Flatiron Building on a diagonal, he gave it a dynamic that seemed to point toward his work. When Josef Albers drew on a photograph with pen and ink, he was incorporating the whole medium into his own art. For both these and other artists in the show, being able to express their ideas with photographs as well as traditional media was a way to make the ideas seem more nearly universal.

Colin L. Westerbeck Jr.