Los Angeles

Deana Lawson, Assemblage (detail), 2019, digital prints, pins, dimensions variable. From “New Images of Man.”

Deana Lawson, Assemblage (detail), 2019, digital prints, pins, dimensions variable. From “New Images of Man.”

“New Images of Man”

Alison M. Gingeras’s sprawling “New Images of Man” reimagined both Peter Selz’s eponymous 1959 show and Edward Steichen’s notorious 1955 extravaganza “The Family of Man,” both held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. With forty-three artists, Gingeras demonstrated that in the midcentury as much as now, many artists’ experiences far exceeded those of the “man” the earlier curators imagined. Writing in 1959, Selz explained his exhibition’s context: “The revelations and complexities of mid-twentieth-century life have called forth a profound feeling of solitude and anxiety . . . of life in which man—precarious and vulnerable—confronts the precipice.” Selz’s description still rings true today, yet his exhibition focused only on particular cross sections of the precarious and vulnerable and addressed only a subset of life’s anxieties.

Sheer curtains enveloped Gingeras’s capsule show of photography, cocurated with Antonina Gugała. Images by the Polish photographer Zofia Rydet, taken in her home country between 1978 and 1984, were mounted on thin panels, which, with the fabric backdrop, nodded to Steichen’s exhibition design. Individuals and relatives in domestic spaces were pictured surrounded by patterned textiles, modern appliances, and images of Catholic heroes. Nearby hung an assemblage of drugstore prints, some of found images, by Deana Lawson, made between 2006 and 2008. A still of Eddie Murphy’s 1983 stand-up special was juxtaposed with photographs of a geography class, religious celebrations, and a young Barack and Michelle Obama on a love seat; also included were images of protest, violence, and death. Lawson’s and Rydet’s pictures argued for a more complicated accounting of social life than did Steichen’s mawkish, universalized categories such as “Marriage” and “Fathers and Sons,” many of which were illustrated with press images from Life magazine. Lawson’s standout work emphasizes black cultural excellence in spite of mainstream anti-blackness, countering the patronizing exoticism of Steichen’s depictions of black life; Rydet’s stoic representations of small families during a period of economic hardship challenge Steichen’s casual portrayals of familial joys.

Five rooms reckoned with the biases of the eponymous 1959 exhibition, in which Selz included twenty-two male artists and a single female sculptor, Germaine Richier—all of whom hailed from Europe or the United States. Gingeras’s selections highlighted the important midcentury art made elsewhere that Selz overlooked, as well as pieces by contemporary artists whose careers began well after his show but whose work expands the stakes of figuration. Ibrahim El-Salahi’s Alphabet No. 1, 1960, is a swirling example of the Sudanese artist’s small-scale work: In one section, calligraphic marks transform into a skeletal, sickly man who does not yet see the figure behind him bearing a basket of food. Alina Szapocznikow’s prolific career was represented by a sinewy one-legged figure in bronze (Filozof [Philosopher], 1965/2015), concentrated on her contemplative task, and by a lit plaster-and-resin sculpture (Iluminowana [Illuminated Woman], 1966–67), assembled from fragmented casts of the artist’s body. A bust by Niki de Saint Phalle conglomerated from newspaper, plastic toys, and artificial flowers sat near an engrossing painting by Kikuji Yamashita in which a soldier’s head seemed to peel away from the wide-eyed face of another man apparently emerging from within him. Like many others on view, these works elaborated Selz’s vision of humanity as anxious, fractured, and isolated to tell stories of people variously resolute, in need, or intertwined.

Several curatorial decisions more explicitly revisited Selz’s material. Dave Muller’s enlarged reproduction of the cover of Selz’s exhibition catalogue effectively introduced Alberto Giacometti as a historical foil while emphasizing the discursive processes that granted his work canonical status. Other insertions, such as a chalk rendition of a Willem de Kooning painting installed on the floor under Plexiglas, were less successful. Walking directly on the lauded artist’s work may have seemed like a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal of the canon’s power. Yet in failing to acknowledge the chalk artists while making numerous references to the MoMA exhibition’s artists, the curator risked replicating some of Selz’s biased distinctions between those recognized by the professionalized art world and “outsiders,” while undercutting the efforts of other artists included here.

Gingeras redrew the human figure as a variant, mutable thing: anxious, yes; in pain, at times; but also strong (see Misleidys Castillo Pedroso), proud (see Henry Taylor), sexual (see Carroll Dunham), and nonbinary (see Greer Lankton). Figuration, Gingeras claims, can help us express collectivity, desire, and joy—all the more important in a time of widespread precarity, vulnerability, and isolation.