“The Last Picture Show”

The pictures in “The Last Picture Show,” a survey covering the “conceptual uses” of photography from 1960 to 1982, demonstrate an approach to the medium that contrasts sharply with the one Alfred Stieglitz and his progeny developed to attain for photography the exalted status of Art. The Conceptualists’ stripped-down aesthetic, which sought to document an action or fool the eye and evinced a resolute lack of interest in the subtleties of the print, remains startling to this day.

Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, 1960, first printed in a decoy of the French newspaper Dimanche, occupies a central, even talismanic position in this show. Yellowing in a vitrine just inside the entrance, the front page of Klein’s Dimanche features the legendary photograph above the fold. Klein hired two photographers to shoot the moment just after the artist leaped off the roof of a suburban Paris building. As for the “void,” Klein and his helpers employed the now quaint technique of photomontage to excise from the picture all traces of the students (from a nearby judo academy) who held the tarpaulin that ensured a safe landing.

“The Last Picture Show” provides ample opportunity to reflect on contemporary artistic strategies that date back to the period in question. Hiring a photographer to shoot what you want, setting up an elaborate tableau, and manipulating the results—all of which Klein used to such romantically antiromantic effect—are today business as usual for the many artists now working with photography.

As if to prove that the big picture and the blurred boundary between photography and painting predate the era of Gursky, Struth, et al., the first object presented at the entrance to the show is Giovanni Anselmo’s Entrare nell’opera (Entering the Work), 1971. Printed on photosensitized canvas, Anselmo’s overhead view of himself striding down a volcanic hillside is not only a congenial welcome, it’s also a knockout. Notwithstanding Anselmo’s alleged interest in the metaphysics of gravity, what remains remarkable about the work is visual: the way the canvas support establishes a nubby, grayish middle ground that interacts with the picture’s lights and darks to coax photographic illusion into the more ambiguous, retinal realm of the senses. In a show of conceptual work, such appeals to the senses prove the exception, not the rule.

Douglas Fogle, the Walker curator who organized this formidable show, eschewed chronology in favor of loosely thematic clusters, with sections devoted, for example, to the grid, the body, architecture, landscape, and constructions of the self. To maintain order among so many small and medium-size objects, Fogle divided three very large spaces at the Walker into a network of more intimate galleries in which the effects of curatorial choices are clear. Sometimes those choices imbue familiar objects with unfamiliar meanings. In one gallery, Charles Ray’s gritty black-and-white photographs face off with the color ones of genial Dutch-born Conceptualist Bas Jan Ader. Ader’s sad and funny visual embodiments of the anxiety of influence, portrayed in pathetic pratfalls (Pitfall on the Way to a New Neo Plasticism, Westkapelle, Holland, 1971, for instance), draw out a similar theme from Ray’s photographs of himself wedged against a wall by a wooden plank—one realizes the artist must have felt wedged in by the example of Richard Serra and his “prop” sculptures.

One way the Conceptualists managed to circumvent such deadlocks was to make art from art’s discursive frame. Consider, for example, the lowly slide show. Here, Robert Smithson’s recorded slide talk, Hotel Palenque, 1969, occupies a room of its own. The slide carousel is synchronized with the artist’s recorded voice as he subjects the picturesquely decrepit tropical structure to a battery of iconographical and formal analyses. Notwithstanding the self-satisfied giggles of his audience members, hearing Smithson’s guileless presentation is moving beyond reason. Dan Graham’s Homes for America, 1966–67—another slide show (unaccompanied by recorded commentary)—is installed in a distant gallery of its own, its proximity to photographs documenting Gordon Matta-Clark’s house splittings restoring the critical edge to both projects that canonical status arguably dulls.

Hanging on a wall just outside the gallery dedicated to Hotel Palenque, Smithson’s Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1–9), 1969, makes one think twice about authenticity. Identified in the label as nine Cibachrome prints from chromogenic 35 mm slides, in this context they prompt the question: Do these prints really date from 1969? Did Smithson identify the “work” in this work of art as the prints or the slides—or both? To entertain such doubts is to realize the potential these creative strategies once had to wreak havoc in the cultural economy they depended on to resist. Since then, the certificate of authenticity has served as the linchpin that holds this attenuated economic structure together.

The final series of galleries were the show’s most cogent. Concerned with the performative aspects of gender, race, and identity—the self as theater and masquerade—this sequence leads, inevitably, to Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills,” but it begins, unexpectedly, with Adrian Piper’s creepy, paranoid cartoon saga about the politics of race and gender, The Mythic Being: I/You (Her), 1974, and continues with works by other artists not commonly associated with the so-called Pictures generation: Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (Facial Cosmetic Variations), 1972/97, Hannah Wilke’s “S.O.S.—Starification Object” series, 1974–82, and Jeff Wall’s life-size Double Self-Portrait, 1979. In the same space, one might well be puzzled to find James Welling’s early foil and filo-dough photographs—ambivalent evocations of the very tradition of art photography that so much of the work in this show defines itself against. Here, in the company of other works that address the contingent construction of self and identity, one grasps what has so rarely been understood about Welling’s genrehopping practice: that it, too, is performance, that his temporary yet total immersions in disparate photographic genres define him, yet don’t.

Ambitious historical surveys inevitably risk distorting and/or romanticizing the past, and the effects of that distortion impinge on our sense of present possibilities. The absence from this show of evidence that artists engaged in unmarketable projects into the ’80s (for example, Louise Lawler and Sherrie Levine’s A Picture Is No Substitute for Anything) promotes the overly simplistic impression that experimental practices vanished as the market culture demanded more salable stuff. Though vastly outnumbered, such anomalies still survive, holding out the promise that this may not be, after all, the last picture show.

“The Last Picture Show” travels to the UCLA Hammer Museum, Feb. 8—May 11.

David Deitcher teaches art and critical theory at Cooper Union, New York.