View of “Clegg & Guttmann,” 2013. From Left: DA, 2013; BT, 1982/1990/2013; Bildtidningen, 1985/1989/2013.

View of “Clegg & Guttmann,” 2013. From Left: DA, 2013; BT, 1982/1990/2013; Bildtidningen, 1985/1989/2013.

Clegg & Guttmann

View of “Clegg & Guttmann,” 2013. From Left: DA, 2013; BT, 1982/1990/2013; Bildtidningen, 1985/1989/2013.

Power, it’s been said, has been a central theme of Clegg & Guttmann’s portrait photography since the 1980s. The titles or captions of some works openly catalogue the professional stature of their subjects, and symbols of wealth and position abound: power suits, power ties, strings of pearls, bourgeois coiffures. Some of the subjects, in fact, commissioned their portraits. The images, too, as time has come to show, possess a palpable iconic status and historical relevance not unrelated to power.

First gaining attention in New York and then in the German-speaking art world, where Clegg & Guttmann quickly established themselves, these photographs were more or less eclipsed within the artists’ own practice by their sculptural works––especially those from the early to mid-1990s relating to libraries, which were generally categorized as Context art. Photography, however, has remained a mainstay of the duo’s production. And the works in this exhibition, many of which revisit earlier portraits, show just how important a precedent Clegg & Guttmann are for numerous younger artists with largely photo-based practices focusing on stock and appropriated imagery as well as commercial strategies such as trend forecasting and branding––for instance, those associated with DIS magazine or those included in the 2013 Artists Space exhibition “Frozen Lakes.”

Art Consultants, 1986/2013, depicts nine Manhattan-based corporate curators in a style similar to the portraits traditionally accompanying a company’s annual report. The subjects have been arranged into two rows, and a caption below the image identifies them as the parties responsible for the collections owned by Citibank, Seagram, AT&T, and Chase Manhattan, among others. Two other details present in the image frame the work’s focus: One is an early-twentieth-century classical-style group portrait of Hamburg senators occupying the background, indicating another point of reference for the artists’ procedure; the other is the discernible pixelation of the photo as seen in this exhibition, belying the fact that it depicts a reproduction of a preexisting work, from 1986. In actuality, all but one of the photographs on view are based on older works, a fact made clearer by BT, 1982/1990/2013, which shows a Japanese art magazine dated 1990 with one of Clegg & Guttmann’s images on its front cover.

Another of the artists’ gestures to recontextualize their own practice, DA, 2013, consists of a large, clumpy, mixed-media sculpture in the form of a dated hairstyle popularly known as a duck’s ass. But though it complements the slick, ostensibly self-serious images on view––and serves as a valid nod to the diversity of the artists’ practice––the photographs remain the centerpiece of the exhibition. Each pictures a moment in time, a direct representation of the circumstances that inspired it or the subject portrayed. And the works also incorporate narratives regarding changes in the subjects’ status. A case in point: The Curators of the 1987 Whitney Biennial, 1987/2013, depicts a young Richard Armstrong (now director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation), Richard D. Marshall (today an independent curator), and Lisa Phillips (currently director of the New Museum). While the earlier photograph portrays people who temporarily held a given position, the individuals themselves ended up achieving the status of cultural authorities. Fulfilling the work’s promise of putting power on display, the subjects’ professional ascent has now been inscribed into the image’s symbolic order.

––John Beeson