Los Angeles

Robert Watts, BLT, 1965, black-and-white photo transparency embedded in Lucite, 6 x 5 3/5 x 1 1/4". From “Photography into Sculpture.”

Robert Watts, BLT, 1965, black-and-white photo transparency embedded in Lucite, 6 x 5 3/5 x 1 1/4". From “Photography into Sculpture.”

“Photography into Sculpture”

Cherry and Martin

Robert Watts, BLT, 1965, black-and-white photo transparency embedded in Lucite, 6 x 5 3/5 x 1 1/4". From “Photography into Sculpture.”

Among the most ambitious gallery shows coinciding with the J. Paul Getty Musuem–instigated “Pacific Standard Time” initiative—a sprawling self-study of Southern California’s emergence as a significant art hub—is a restaging of an exhibition that originated in New York: Peter Bunnell’s “Photography into Sculpture,” which first appeared the Museum of Modern Art in 1970 and traveled to seven other venues before eventually landing at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles in 1972. (Most of the original objects or similar works by a given artist are included here; a few have been remade for the occasion.) When it was initially presented, the curator claimed the exhibition to be the “first comprehensive survey of photographically formed images used in a sculptural or fully dimensional manner.” Indeed, it framed a noteworthy tendency toward photographic applications for then-new art materials such as vacuum-formed and molded plastic, photosensitized canvas, Plexiglas, and “Leisure Turf,” among other things, while largely coalescing around the innovative work of LA-based artist Robert Heinecken and his students at UCLA.

It is clear, based on the nearly kaleidoscopic arrangement of the objects on display at Cherry and Martin—some tellingly dated, many surprisingly fresh-looking; a few objects were reconstructed or repaired for the show—that the artists gathered by Bunnell were busy sorting through the overwhelming implications of Minimalism and (especially) Pop, while also hinting at lingering tendencies inherited from Surrealism and Dada, from Cornell and Duchamp in particular. For example, Jerry McMillan’s Torn Bag, 1968, a lunch sack ripped open to reveal a landscape view, curiously predicts Duchamp’s Étant donnés, which, though dated 1946–66, actually made its public debut in 1969. (Granted, the former’s exacting but whimsical fabrication has none of the latter’s creepy scopophilic frisson.) The inclusion of Robert Watts—represented in both the original and recent “Photography into Sculpture” shows with BLT, 1965, a small work that literally sandwiches a black-and-white photograph of bacon, lettuce, and tomato inside a Lucite slice of bread—suggested the impish influence of Fluxus. And I couldn’t help but wonder if the proliferation of nude bodies, male and female, evidenced a historical kinship with Muybridge’s motion studies (see, for example, the women of Heinecken’s Six Figures, 1968), or simply revealed a more liberated social moment. The hip answer, surely, is both.

The central argument of Hilton Kramer’s reliably cranky 1970 review of Bunnell’s show for the New York Times—that the artists featured in the MoMA exhibition debase the photographic medium in order to produce objects that fail to achieve sculptural interest—makes clear that any critical evaluation of these objects on their own terms is difficult if not impossible, given the baggage inherent to both media, recalling the more famous prohibitions of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried about mixing media (though of course Greenberg and Fried largely avoided photography from their contemporaneous purview). That many of the objects in the show were intimately sized to be engaged by the hand or eye at close range (Cornell, again) revealed a diversion from the 1960s Minimalist and post-Minimalist preference for objects or fields of stuff keyed to the scale of a body moving through space.

What Kramer failed to notice is that the medium of photography—even a tradition of “photography as a fine art,” as he imagined it circa 1970—has, from its inception, been inextricably tied to its objecthood: from the polished copper substrate of the daguerreotype to glass-plate picture postcards to Atget’s albums, from the stereoscopic card to ever more novel formats. In other words, the photographic image, despite William Henry Fox Talbot’s pioneering notion of “fixing a shadow,” has never fully stabilized into a final format but has, rather, continually refreshed itself through technological innovation and obsolescence. Curiously, most of the artists included in Bunnell’s show eschewed color printing, as if deliberately nodding to tradition while simultaneously testing out new, material possibilities.

But in 1970, well over a century into the medium’s unabated florescence, the artists in “Photography into Sculpture” clearly embraced and exploited the very instability of the photographic image. The restaging of the show in 2011 is a reminder of how unfixed the photographic is now, in ever-proliferating digital manifestations—and fair warning that apparently fresh approaches are just as likely to be dead ends as breakthroughs. Still, Mary Leigh Cherry and Philip Martin, like Bunnell before them, should be commended for fixing attention on that indecisive moment—one that strangely reflects the present.

Michael Ned Holte