One of the most assertive curatorial decisions in MOCA’s 30th-anniversary exhibition is the mixing of painting (and sculpture) with photography. Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt and Robert Frank haven’t been shunted off to their own galleries or to their own floor as you see at encyclopedic or modern museums, their work is installed next to and across from paintings by Rothko, Tapies and so on. From the first two galleries of its 30th-anniversary show, MOCA, which likes to think of itself as America’s most significant contemporary-forward art museum, is saying that from the 1950s on the pursuits of artists with cameras and the pursuits of artists with easels are intertwined. While it’s a curatorial point that at first seems friendly and inclusive, by the end of MOCA’s Grand Ave.-based presentation of art from 1940-80, MOCA’s curators make plain why they started mixing photo and painting from their start.
This approach is particularly striking because as a visitor walks through the first galleries at MOCA’s Grand Ave. building, where art up to 1980 is installed, the paintings are colorful, abstract and devoid of people. The black-and-white Arbuses, Levitts, Franks and so on nearly always have people in them and the pictures are about those people. Part of MOCA’s point here is that representation did not leave art during America’s abstractionist heyday, it just went somewhere else.
Even as abstract painting gives way to sculpture, expressionism, pop and so on, the photographs stay full of people: Garry Winogrand shows us parades, space-shots and Vietnam-era tumult. Nan Goldin captures lonely lusties finding company. Lee Friedlander takes to the streets and photographs people while hiding in plain sight. [Above: Friedlander’s New York City 1968, 1968.] Larry Clark finds young people with whom something seems to be wrong. And so on through Wallace Berman, William Wegman and more. People, people people.
Then, suddenly, MOCA has installed a wall of photographs with no humans in them. Their impact is astonishing. Because they are photographs without people, they are photographs about us, about our collective actions. These pictures aren’t about what people are doing, they’re photographs about what a people has done. The installation is Lewis Baltz’s The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, Calif. In MOCA’s presentation of the story of contemporary art, it’s a big moment, an artist’s pushing a medium forward into a bigger-picture place. Baltz seems to have believed that to take a step toward a more conceptual use of his medium that he had to purge pictures of what they were best-known and most-used for: people. (I discussed the story Baltz was telling in New Industrial Parks here and here.)
Baltz didn’t realize this on his own. By the 1970s painters’ use of photography was almost 100 years old. But in MOCA’s presentation the visitor can see that painters were using photography similarly to how Baltz was: They purged photos of people so as to open the door to conceptualist point-scoring.
Not far from New Industrial Parks is Richard Artschwager’s 1967 Untitled (Tract House) [above], a painting in acrylic on Celotex, an industrially produced building material used to insulate tract houses. Artschwager isn’t just painting a house, he’s making an art object in one of art’s most lasting, permanent media, painting, and he’s doing it by using a relatively new material that is intended to make permanent humans’ incursions into new, often harsh landscapes.
A 1964 Malcolm Morley, Boat, uses the medium through which centuries of Europe’s cardinals, popes, dukes and kings declared their wealth and import — painting — to portray a way in which America projected its Cold War might: a battleship.
Also nearby is John Baldessari’s classic 1966 This Is Not To Be Looked At [left], a painting of an Artforum magazine with a Frank Stella on the cover. Baldessari’s canvas argues for progressiveness in art, that abstraction is out of ideas and that painting may (or may not…) be too.
As Baldessari uses a photograph to say that a common object, an art magazine, is not to be looked at, Baltz uses photography to say that a common object that we often ignore — boring, bland industrial parks — should be looked at and considered more often. Baltz is turning Baldessari’s cheeky formula on its head — and he makes something new out of his medium in the process. It’s a chapter in the story of contemporary art that MOCA didn’t begin to tell in the galleries surrounding New Industrial Parks, it’s a dialogue that MOCA set up by including photography from the beginning of its collection presentation.