Friday, October 17, 2014

William Eggleston, From Black and White to Color @ Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson

William Eggleston: William Eggleston - Before Colour
William Eggleston,  Untitled (A Cafe in Memphis), Memphis, c. 1968

The epigram to the catalogue’s main essay quotes Eggleston: “I think of them as parts of a novel I’m doing.” The quotation finds Eggleston reflecting on his series of photographs, as though next to each other, the narrative unfolds. As I wandered this small, but rich, selection of Eggleston’s work I was fascinated to see that each image tells a story, each image contains a long, and often mysterious, narrative that begins with the suggestions in the image and continues in the viewer’s imagination. Even before they are put in their series, within each frame, there is a story to be told. And if we recognize early on the debt owed to Eggleston by photographers such as Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff, what the contemporary photographers don’t do is also very clear.

William Eggleston, Untitled (Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background) 2011
Eggleston’s photographs tell stories in a way that photography in a post-photographic world does not. A man’s hand picking something off the ground reflected in the fender of a car, a black man and a white man standing together in what looks like a remote location, a car with its door still open behind them, or an old man sitting on bed with a gun at his finger tips. All these images are swelling with a story that’s not yet told.  All these images hold us before them, conjuring up the narratives that have led to the moment Eggleston finds in the image. In other photographs, the mystery is ignited and the story begun through the framing. It’s rare that Eggleston includes the whole object in the image, mostly it’s parts of objects, places, even people, that come into his frame to create textures, shapes, patterns, and thus, to give them a before and an after. Our imaginations are tempted.

William Eggleston, From Los Alamos Folio 1, Memphis
(supermarket boy with carts),
So much of what Eggleston is doing, so much of what makes these works not possible in today’s post-photographic world lies in the materials of his art. Everything in these photographs begins with the richness and materiality of their color. The color is not only vibrant and clear, but the colors themselves are unusual for today’s viewers. The pinks and yellows and cobalt blues are the result of Eggleston’s use of the dye transfer process. A boy pushing shopping trolleys, a woman in the car with her children, even a television bathed in the yellow light of the setting sun are so rich that on seeing the photographs, it’s as though Eggleston discovers the existence of this magical hour of the day. The yellows, pinks, greens are bright, intense, deeply saturated and with not a trace of disintegration over the years. Eggleston discovered the dye transfer process in the early 1970s as a printing process that would allow for the reproduction of intense colors: in its original use for advertising, the brighter the color, the more attractive the product. Eggleston takes uniqueness of dye transfer—its larger color gamut and tonal scale than any other process—and sees the world through its possibilities. Again, it’s as if the world he discovers did not exist before he saw it through the lens of his photographic process.

William Eggleston,  From Dust Bells, Vol 1
, c. 1965-68
 But it’s not all process, because Eggleston’s photographs are anything but advertising. It’s something to do with the fact that the places and spaces, the objects and even the people are rarely photographed in their entirety. Composition is of utmost importance to the poignancy and odd simultaneity of mystery in these photographs. Similarly, he points his camera at the decay that he finds on the streets of the 1970s American South. The overwhelming sense of decay to the places and objects and surfaces that fill these photographs put them at a remove from the advertising images for which the dye transfer process was made.

William Eggleston, From Los Alamos, Folio 4
, c. 1971-74
 The images are everywhere about the American South. When a black man and a white man lean at two different service windows of the same Real Pit Bar B-Q joint, for all the perfection and suggestion of the harsh fluorescent lighting, there’s one thing we see: a black man and a white man leaning at different windows. This is the American South after all. And the gentleness of the light on a wet street in Los Alamos (maybe) cloaks four women on a street corner, making them anything from friends out at night to prostitutes waiting for business.  It’s difficult to say which. There’s not much sadness in Eggleston’s worlds, just age and many sets of stories that we cannot know, but which are begun through the suggestions of what finds its way into the image.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Marcel Duchamp. La Peinture, même au Centre Pompidou

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, no. 2,1912
If it achieves no other of its goals, Marcel Duchamp. La Peinture, Même will put to rest any doubt that the placement of a urinal in a museum display is a gesture filled with brilliance, ingenuity and cultural sophistication. While this exhibition doesn’t really convince me that Duchamp was a great painter, or even a painter to pause over as it sets out to do, it does show Duchamp to have one of the great minds of the twentieth century. Duchamp’s art is not particularly beautiful or seductive, even aesthetically pleasing to look at, but it is intellectually brilliant, and his mind emerges from the exhibition as fascinating. In this respect, Marcel Duchamp. La Peinture, Même shows Duchamp to be an artist on the scale of Leonardo da Vinci, both with their infinite inventions made by minds that move effortlessly between science, engineering, art, architecture, design and painting.

Duchamp was a modern man. He was one of the handful of successful artists of any medium who worked in the first decades of the last century to explore what could not yet be seen by the human eye, what was not yet understood. Duchamp was a man fascinated by the representation of what the human eye could not see: of motion, of desire, of the mystery of the changes brought by technological innovation. Like so much of modernism, Duchamp’s work make visible what is otherwise invisible.
Marcel Duchamp, the Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, 1915-23

Another success of the exhibition, even though it is not its intention, is the demonstration of Duchamp working in a vibrant, provocative cultural milieu, even if he is the artist to be annexed today. In fact much of the exhibition is devoted to the cultural and artistic influences on Duchamp’s work. The most exquisite stereoscopic daguerrotypes were on display, showing this medium’s interest in the exhibition of women’s bodies, and also underlining Duchamp’s fascination with looking or peering inside an apparatus, to discover what is otherwise hidden away. The daguerrotypes were by anonymous photographers and Felix Jacques Moulin from around 1850. Étant Donnée (1946-66) which is considered the penultimate achievement of Duchamp’s artistic career, even if it was his last major work, is so clearly influenced by these early daguerrotypes, not just by Courbet’s Origins of the World. Of course, the presence of Marey’s work in Duchamp’s mechanized Nude Descending a Staircase or the various Portrait of Chess Players is not new. But again, the display here spotlights the connections, and brings to the fore how on the pulse Duchamp was to the developments in the new medium.
Marcel Duchamp, Etant Donnée, 1946-66
In the paintings there is rarely much to look at in his work. At least, there is no temptation to stand before the paintings for any length of time. Duchamp is not a visual artist but rather much more conceptual in motivation. So often artists who are trying to make these grand iconoclastic gestures are so of their historical moment that, today, the iconoclasm has faded. I am thinking here of the beauty of Warhol’s paintings for today’s viewers. However with Duchamp, a work such as Bicycle Wheel (1913) is as radical today as it was all those years ago. Even an object that has become so iconic as the bike wheel on a stool remains still fresh and challenging today. This is impressive, to recognize anti-aesthetic of Duchamp’s work resonates one hundred years after its conception.
Marcel Duchamp. Bicycle Wheel. New York, 1951 (third version, after lost original of 1913)
Marcel Duchamp,  Bicycle Wheel, 1913
 What is really beautiful is the Large Glass and often his other uses of glass – like the Paris air, or the lenses and mirrors in Étant Donnée. There’s something very sensuous and delicate about Duchamp’s use of glass. In the early works on paper, the most intimate and delicate of images are the lithographs – it’s as though those fragile bodies in love are transferred to the delicacy of The Bride Stripped Bare. It is in this masterpiece that we see how brilliant Duchamp was; the modern day Leonardo. He was the scientist working out the mechanics of the glass, building the machines, the artist connected to Cranach whose glazes on his Venuses were the inspiration of the transparency of The Large Glass. And through it all, the cinema, motion and the vision of what cannot otherwise be seen, remains present. In addition, the symbolic meanings of the work are mind boggling: spiritual, erotic, geometrically, physical and psychiological. It’s true that not only his life’s work, but the multiple and multivalent strands of modernism come together in The Large Glass.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Philip Glass, The Photographer, Cité de la Musique, Paris

The Photographer @ Cité de la Musique
I can’t imagine why I have never previously made the connection between Phillip Glass’ minimalist music and Edweard Muybridge’s photographs. And yet, it is so obvious, as if the work of the two artists were made for each other: both are structured through repetition, movement towards an infinity that nevertheless finds natural resolution. Both Muybridge’s photographs and Glass’ music are caught between a stasis and movement that bring surprises to the otherwise highly defined rhythms.

All of the resonances were captured so the production I saw last night of Glass’ chamber opera, The Photographer, based on Muybridge’s trial for homicide. The music and photographs are brought together with spoken text by David Byrne and dance choreographed by Shang-Chi Sun. The music, text and dance relate the sensational story of Muybridge’s murder of his wife’s lover and then, as we know, his acquittal at trial. It’s a great story that, like the tensions in still images that are set in motion by a photographic camera, interrupts the narrative with bursts of unpredictability and flamboyance from the dancers in this particular performance.

The innovation of this staging of The Photographer is very much in its bringing together of different media. The modern dance element, inspired by the photographs and Glass’ music is repetitive, postured, yet always very simple and singular. Video projections of Muybridge’s photographs are patterned on the screen behind the dancers, in no particular order, demonstrating the postures and positions of the body in motion, as well as the extraordinary images he took in the Yosemite Valley. The lighting casts shadows of the dancers to fill the screen when there are no other photographs projected.

The one thing I would have liked to have seen more of in this performance was the use of chiaroscuro. The infinite repetitions and patterns of Glass’ music, the same in Muybridge’s photographs that put animals and human figures in motion, and the three dancers whose figures are reflected in shadows on the screen behind them were in perfect conversation. Often though, the shadows were not marked, and could have been more dramatic, in an attempt to magnify further the narrative of repetition and auguring that is Muybridge’s life story.  In the early days of moving images, the days when Muybridge was working, shadow plays told familiar narratives, but as a function of their production they could also appear mechanized. It would have been convincing if the shadows had mimicked these characteristics of the shadow play, and thereby accentuate the multi-media concert of The Photographer.