Fort Worth Contemporary Arts
Through April 14
by Catherine Caesar
The current exhibition at the Fort Worth Contemporary, Color Pictures, is organized around a seemingly simple premise: unite images that document the rise of color photography since the 1940s, and that bring a fresh eye to a technology that a contemporary viewer might perceive as ubiquitous and commonplace. The show, curated by TCU art history professor Frances Colpitt, was spawned from a seminar on the subject (the wall texts were composed by the seminar’s students). Consequently, the show reads as a sort of art history lesson on key moments in color photography, commencing with Russell Lee’s 1940 Farm Security Administration-commissioned documentation of New Mexico farming and ending with Allison V. Smith’s 2010-2011 series of majestic Maine landscapes centered within the square format of her Hasselblad camera.
Yet upon closer reflection, the show seems to form a different type of art history lesson, one that transcends a chronology of artists employing color photography and invokes major art movements, primarily in modern painting. Even the title of the show, Color Pictures, suggests the relationship between photography and nineteenth and twentieth-century picture-making. Interestingly, though, the era of painting referenced does not necessarily correspond to the photographer’s own time period. For example, the first work one encounters, Ann Stautberg’s 7.11.07 PM, #11, recalls the nineteenth-century practice of hand coloring photographs: the artist creates an abstracted floral image by painting atop a black and white photo with a vivid red oil. Though the work was produced in 2007, it presumably initiates the show to symbolize not only the process of tinting photos prior to the advent of color film, but also the early modern proliferation of flower paintings in Western art.
Following cohesively from the red pigment of Strautberg’s work is William Eggleston’s image of a lightbulb affixed to a ceiling in a red-painted interior, found in his 1973 dye transfer print, Greenwood, Mississippi. Much of Eggleston’s imagery is derived from his travels in his native Southeastern U.S., and he is renowned for his pioneering role in advancing the technology and the reputation of color photography—his 1976 show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “Color Photographs,” being key in this enterprise. Yet the predominance of the red gloss paint in the stark interior also recalls color-field painting, most notably Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimus (1950-1), while the humble light fixture calls to mind the Neo-dada use of the mundane object in works like Robert Rauschenberg’s Odalisk or Jasper Johns’s cast bronze lightbulbs from the mid-1950s.
It is Sarah Charlesworth’s photographs that seem to most directly resonate with modern painting. First, the subject of the work is paint in that Charlesworth mixes pigments and arranges them in little pots or containers that reference color charts or color theory. The wall text likens the brilliant color of the photographs to the opticality of the modernist painting of Morris Louis or Jules Olitski. To me, the literal nature of the pigment seems more related to the deadpan, anti-expressionist use of color charts by painters including Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Gerhard Richter.
Charlesworth was influenced greatly by pop and conceptualism, and her work is hung in close proximity to John Baldessari’s conceptual project Color Car Series: 1968 Volvo, Dirty and Polished (1976/2011). From afar, the diptych evokes visions of a seascape drenched in fog, but we are denied our romantic vista once we approach and read the title, which promptly returns us to the banal comparison of two close-up images of a smoky blue car door, once dirty, now cleaned. Here, Baldessari pokes fun at the solemnity and sublimity associated with Newmanesque monochromes.
Our art-historical survey is concluded by a selection of photographs from Thomas Ruff’s 1999 L.M.V.D.R. (architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s initials). Ruff juxtaposes four images of the interior of Mies’s German Pavilion (constructed for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona), identical save for the color of the central curtain, which Ruff has tinted, alternately, in the three primary colors and black. Whether we associate Ruff’s work with stark modernist architecture or the seriality of minimalist sculpture (i.e. Donald Judd’s “one thing after another”), we are left to consider the perennial question of photography’s relationship to the holy trinity of traditional artistic media: painting, sculpture and architecture. Alfred Stieglitz’s famous statement is called to mind: “The arts equally have distinct departments, and unless photography has its own possibilities of expression, separate from those of the other arts, it is merely a process, not an art.” Is the study of photography beholden to the art-historical canon, we ask, or can it eek out its own ‘possibilities of expression’?
Catherine Caesar is an art historian specializing in American art of the 1960s and 70s, and Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Dallas.