New York

“Conceptual Photography from the 60's and 70's”

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

Although Conceptual art was largely an attack on the primacy of the visual, it often took photographic form. What this excellent, if uneven, exhibition of forty-eight works by seventeen artists suggested is that the field of Photoconceptualism included diverse rather than uniform strategies. Many of the pictures, though seemingly ad hoc, function as secondary documents of more transitory, often site-specific or performance work. Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting, 1974, and Etant D’Art pour locataire (Conical Intersect), 1975, for instance—both of which feature buildings “cut” by the artist with chainsaws and other power tools prior to demolition—act as records of ephemeral events and gestures. Likewise, Hamish Fulton’s Seven coca leaves on the path from Cusco, 1974, featuring leaves arranged by the artist during one of his signature walks, along with a number of photographs by Richard Long, Hans Haacke, and Vito Acconci from the late ’60s and early ’70s, capture performances and installations in a way that is as ordinary and unassuming as snapshot images in a family album or in a real estate agent’s window. There is a pervasive indifference to qualities of presentation subscribed to by the fine art professional. Rather, these artists seem more interested in the functional and commonplace characteristics of photography, concerns that fitted quite readily into Conceptual art’s oppositional ethos.

At the same time, the show featured work in which the complexities of the medium were more at stake. Pieces such as Bruce Nauman’s Drill Team, 1966 (a sardonic visual pun featuring five drill bits on a block of wood), John Baldessari’s Untitled, 1970 (a somewhat humorous storyboard arrangement of pedestrians whose trajectories are highlighted with drawn-on directional arrows), and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s schematic grids of cooling towers and generic German houses are more in line with the formal concerns traditionally found in amateur photography. While they still look like they could be made by anyone, these pictures depend on specific moments or viewpoints, and are thus more in tandem with dominant artistic notions of taste and sensitivity. By the same token, many of these artists are photographers per se, unlike those whose work was restricted to seemingly uninflected snapshot images.

But along with snapshot and amateur photographs, this show featured works in which photography is integral to a larger Conceptual gesture. In the full spirit of Conceptual art, the photographs are no more or less important than the texts, maps, or even performances that accompany them. Robert Smithson’s Mirror displacement, Yucatan, 1969, depicting several one-foot-square mirrors arranged on the ground by the artist in various locations during a psychedelic road trip through the Yucatan Peninsula, Dan Graham’s mid-’60s color snapshots of vernacular suburban architecture in New Jersey, or the ten photographs included in Douglas Huebler’s Duration Piece #4, 1969, act as key elements in decentered works that include other equally crucial components.

Spanning the ’60s and ’70s, the show was not without its shortcomings, especially in its presentation of work of the latter decade. With the exception of Hilla Becher, all of the seventeen artists exhibited were male, which attests to the continued lopsidedness of this artistic movement in terms of gender. Absent were Adrian Piper, Rosemarie Castoro, Mary Kelly, Martha Rosler, along with many other artists who rightfully deserve examination in the context of Conceptual art. Similarly, the exclusive focus on American and European Conceptual artists was to the detriment of those from other parts of the globe—such as Hélio Oiticica, Luis Camnitzer, and Cildo Meireles—who played an important role in this international art movement. In addition, many of the works on display were altered for presentation following the date indicated on the gallery’s checklist, which is somewhat troubling since the exhibition claimed to be historical in nature. For example, Acconci’s Doors, 1969, a collage of six black-and-white images, or Graham’s Housing Project, Staten Island, NYC, 1975, an arrangement of two color snapshots, one above the other, might have been photographed in the years indicated, but they were certainly composed into the particular juxtapositions they take in this show much later. But these are small quibbles if one keeps in mind that this was a gallery exhibition, not a museum survey, and featured ambitious works about which many institutions remain apprehensive.

Alexander Alberro