New York

Lina Bertucci

Perry Rubenstein Gallery

Lina Bertucci’s photographs of contemporary artists are an irresistible prospect for fans: Who wouldn’t be curious to see his or her favorite painter or sculptor submit to the aesthetic of another? Nevertheless, the images do resonate beyond the recognition factor, since photographic artist portraiture dates back to the dawn of the medium. And the tradition of artist portraiture in the nineteenth century arose concurrently with the nascent mass media, itself facilitated by the invention of photography. As exemplified in the oeuvre of, say, Félix Nadar (who photographed Eugène Delacroix and Sarah Bernhardt), artists, for the first time, had been incorporated into the ranks of the “famous”—that is, they had themselves become images for popular consumption.

Dating from the late 1980s to the mid-’90s, the photographs on view here cover the art-world waterfront. Among the subjects are elder statesmen like Mario Merz, Ilya Kabakov, and John Cage, but most are pictured at earlier stages of their careers: Jeff Koons in 1988; John Currin, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Matthew Barney, Andrea Zittel, and Jane and Louise Wilson in 1993; Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Sam Taylor-Wood, Elizabeth Peyton, and Doug Aitken in 1995. Bertucci’s subjects are also irreproachably “serious”: There seems to be an awareness on both sides of the lens that these poses are for posterity. She is thus engaged not only in documenting but, perhaps inevitably, in constructing artistic aura. The bulk of the photos are modestly sized silver gelatin prints (in contrast with the more ambitiously scaled, digitally enhanced color work she’s been producing more recently) and this restrained format adds to the sense of gravitas.

One of Bertucci’s strategies in the portrait shots was to riff off the artist-subject’s own work—a tack that proves only intermittently successful, and is more often overly cute. Haim Steinbach, 1988, which captures the Yoda-masked artist slouched on a sofa with a pair of Diane Arbus–like twins standing on the seat next to him, wonderfully mirrors his signature shelf-mounted displays of store-bought objects, but Thomas Demand, 1995, a poorly lit image of the artist standing at the bottom of a staircase (echoing his own Staircase [Treppenhaus], 1995, which in turn responds to Gerhard Richter and Marcel Duchamp) is less successful at transferring the artist’s aesthetic into a meaningful model for representing the artist himself.

In the best photos—a playfully obscured James Lee Byars, a dyspeptic Merz—the artist-as-persona is established by less contrived means. More often, however, these works function collectively like entries in a high school yearbook, where most of the fun is seeing what Charles Ray, Alix Lambert, Alexis Rockman, and Andres Serrano looked like back in 1993. The works don’t, as a group, possess the subtlety or acuity of Richard Avedon’s devastating post–Valerie Solanis study of Warhol from 1969, or Hans Namuth’s riveting documents of Jackson Pollock engaged in his hypnotic painting-dance.

The fact that Bertucci’s images lean heavily on the supposed celebrity of their subjects is ironic for two reasons. Firstly, her attempts to capture the essence of The Artist began when Roland Barthes’s notion of “the death of the author” had already been thoroughly incorporated into the framework of art theory. Secondly, they exist in an era in which the artists remain marginal, overshadowed by movie and music stars. They draw inevitable comparison with the projects of Annie Leibovitz or David LaChapelle, but ultimately function more like subcultural talismans than images of significance in the popular realm.

Martha Schwendener