January 1, 2009

Artists Making Photographs at the Whitney Museum

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), CY + RELICS—Rome, 1952.
Gelatin silver print, 14 15/16 x 14 15/16 in. (37.9 x 37.9 cm).
gift of the artist and Pace/MacGill Gallery 93.57.
© Robert Rauschenberg, licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.
Artists Making Photographs focuses on five major artists from the Whitney's collection – John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg, Lucas Samaras, Ed Ruscha, and Andy Warhol – all of whom are best known for their work in sculpture and painting, although they have each made significant works with a camera as well. The exhibition, in the Sondra Gilman Gallery, opens January 16, 2009; it is organized by Elisabeth Sussman, Whitney curator and Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography.
The pioneer of the group is Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), who exhibited passionate interest in both painting and photography from the beginning of his career. He first studied photography at Black Mountain College in the early 1950s. In 1951 he stated that he would photograph the U.S. “inch by inch,” attesting to his investment in the medium. The following year he traveled to Rome, where he made numerous photographs, including one of fellow artist Cy Twombly, which is on view in the show. Rauschenberg’s large-scale black painting, with its multi-panel construction and textural ground of newspaper collage, provides further evidence of the artist's dedication to radical experimentation. Rauschenberg’s enthusiastic embrace of photography initiated a range of experiments over the next two decades.
Aware of Rauschenberg's work, Andy Warhol (1928-1987) explored photography in the mid-1960s. Warhol, however, sent his subjects into a photo booth rather than composing and taking their portraits himself. The process and aesthetic of mechanical reproduction would become integral to Warhol's work in the ensuing years, represented here by Nine Jackies with its repetition of appropriated photographic images of Jacqueline Kennedy taken at the time of her husband’s assassination. With this new style, Warhol initiated the genre of photo based history painting that continues to be explored by artists today.
The paintings and drawings of Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) similarly seize upon iconic images of American culture. With the recent discovery of his extensive body of photography, it now appears that Ruscha's ability to capture an image and create a mood derives, in part, from the focus provided by the experience of using a camera. The exhibition includes a sampling of the many themes that occur in his work across mediums. For instance, a self-portrait with a black eye finds poetic echoes not only in the “portrait”drawing of a familiar anti-nausea medication, but also in the medium of its execution: gunpowder.
John Chamberlain (b. 1927) and Lucas Samaras (b. 1936) are two artists who began to explore the possibilities of photography in the 1970s. Chamberlain’s abstract photograph of distorted planes of color recalls his welded sculpture of fragments of car parts. Samaras’s insertion of his body into decorative fields and his fluid manipulations of photographic emulsions parallel the surrealistic contortions of his laboriously crafted yarn and plaster chair.

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