New York

“Pictures of the Real World (In Real Time)”

It takes gall, balls, or copious amounts of irony to call an art exhibit “Pictures of the Real World (In Real Time).” When such weighty words as “real” get bandied about, you can barely speak in anything other than gross generalizations; for example, “Interspersing On Kawara’s famous date paintings with photographs ranging from a 1966 work by Dan Graham to a 1993 picture by Robert Barry, this exhibition (curated by Robert Nickas) explores the relationship between art and the real world for the last three decades. The earlier photographs in the show confront the real world head-on, as in Garry Winogrand’s hard-hitting depiction of a bloodied protester in Demonstration Outside Madison Square Garden, New York, 1968, and Larry Clark’s unflinching portrayal of teenage sex and drug use in a well-known picture from 1971. But as the years pass and you discover the artifice of Cindy Sherman’s film stills, the ‘appropriations’ of Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince, the solipsism of John Coplans’ monumentalizations of his big toes, there’s a noticeable deviation from work that is overtly mimetic or empirical. Did art turn away from the real world, or did the real world change? . . .” It’s so awfully easy to speak in generalizing terms like these that On Kawara’s paintings are practically reduced to the status of museum labels, and a number of profound questions—What’s real? What’s time? What’s a picture? Is photography objective or subjective? What is so great about certain works? Is it their esthetic value, their ability to express or engage their times?—are given the philosophical equivalent of blue balls: they’re raised but left hanging.

Andres Serrano’s 1986 Milk, Blood, structured like a diptych with two vast fields of white and red, refers more directly to Minimalism than to whatever reality those body fluids may have had. Nevertheless, this series of Serrano’s photographs became so politicized in the late ’80s that it’s difficult to look at any of them and not see the ominous face of Jesse Helms floating like a dead fish just beneath the surface of the blood, milk, or piss. In this sense, Serrano’s pictures became far more engaged in the real world than many avowedly political works. But is Milk, Blood thus a picture of the real world in “real time”? The latter term derives from computer models that are able to process data rapidly enough to simulate or to function in what we take to be actual time. Taken in this gallery context, however, does it imply not that we are in “real time” construed as some concordance with world historical events, but rather that we are inside a world of simulation, looking out? As a whole, the show looks less like an exploration of the intercourse between such strange bedfellows as art and reality than a pasteup for the perfect textbook of the last 30 years of photography. With so many star photographers and already famous works, it’s less about the real world than the art world, less about real time than art history.

Keith Seward