Rauschenberg. Chamberlain. Ruscha. Samaras. Warhol. If the Whitney sought to make its title artists in Artists Making Photographs ring like a photographers' walk of fame, they had the right idea. Second in a three-series presentation, the newly opened exhibit showcases several transitions from canvas to camera, but it is questionable whether they do the art or the artists justice. The exhibit begins on the right foot with Rauschenberg. In "Quiet House, Black Mountain," a coruscating slant of light shines on two chairs in a dark enclosed space, resembling the black and white photography of Arbus or Horst. Along the wall, Rauschenberg's pieces maintain the artist's comforting yet mesmerizing textbook style— contrast, simplicity and the balance of elements permeate through his photos. "Scatole Photographer," a black and white desktop of meticulous items all arranged in chaotic harmony, is a prime example of Rauschenberg's photographic elegance. This quality quickly ebbs as Chamberlain's work appears. Though stirring, Chamberlain's blurred tableau of color seems tepid. Moreover, compared to his peers, Chamberlain simply lacks diversity in his photographs. Indeed, his collection seems a poor comparison to Lucas Samaras's work across the room. His dye diffusion—hand-painted Polaroids—transform quotidian scenes into surrealistic visions. An eye amidst a psychedelic sea. A mouth in a forest of thumbs. A naked man draped over a chair in a cow-spotted room. Samaras blends painting and photography to an engaging effect and seems strikingly contemporary, given that his work was done 50 years ago. Samaras's signature motif is the chair, which recurs throughout his Polaroids and is capitalized upon in his Dalí-esque sculpture, "Small Chair," which looks more like a brontosaurus than furniture, is covered in a white plaster skin that exudes a weary, exhausted and alien quality. Perhaps Samaras's most striking work, though, is his "Skull & Milky Way," a gelatin silver print of our backyard galaxy. Pins are embedded in the starry whites, emphasizing them. In the center, a cut-out X-ray profile of a skull sits pinned to the print along its perimeter such that the outline is preserved to look as if the night sky harbors the natural shape of a skull. The piece is a very bold message in the Milky Way, showing Samaras's mastery of mixed media. Mixed media is a typical style sadly lacking in the work of perhaps the most infamous artist featured in the show, Andy Warhol. Silk-screened, "Nine Jackies" stands nearly ceiling-to-floor, an iconic testament to the child of painting and photography. Beside "Nine Jackies" are four photo-booth-style strips of different members of his entourage. While amusing, these photographs fail to communicate not only Warhol's signature salaciousness or his progressive raciness, but also his true style. Similarly misrepresented is Edward Ruscha. His Americana landscapes are lacking monochrome gas stations and suburban roads. In their place are gritty underworld snapshots, such as a woman smoking and a self-portrait with a black eye. The photographs are pinprick glimpses of the American underbelly. While this other side is still a part of the all-American apple pie, Ruscha, like Warhol, has been amputated and distorted, leaving the said pie in a gutter. Like a change of weather through an aperture, the exhibit moves from classic (Rauschenberg) to psychedelic (Samaras) to kooky (Warhol) to dark (Ruscha). However, this show does not compare to the museum's modern art walls or to Alexander Calder's wire sculptures downstairs. Although accompanied by a disclaimer, the museum's photography pales all-too-obviously in comparison to its painting and sculpture. Though interesting, in the end, the photographs as a whole are not powerful enough to overcome their eternal limitation—the frame.
Columbia Spectator Staff