Shared Intelligence: American Painting and the Photograph
Shared Intelligence will be the first major museum exhibition to survey the fraught but highly productive relationship of painting to photography in 20th-Century American Art. It brings together approximately 75 photographs and paintings by such artists as Robert Bechtle, Chuck Close, Thomas Eakins, Sherrie Levine, Georgia O’Keeffe, Cindy Sherman, Charles Sheeler, Ben Shahn, Edward Steichen, and Alfred Stieglitz for whom the two mediums were essential to their practices.
In opposition to Modernist critics such as Clement Greenberg and John Szarkowski, who have tried to establish the autonomy of painting and photography, a crucial theme of this exhibition is the way in which the two mediums have always intersected and spilled into each other. The camera has been used repeatedly to reinvigorate painting, even as photography has been frequently enriched by a dialogue with painting.
Whereas in the beginning of the 20th Century photographers felt obligated to justify their use of the camera as a means of expression, today the question is no longer, can photography be the equal of painting but rather has the photograph, and photo-based images, supplanted painting’s position in the hierarchy of the art world. Certainly it is nearly impossible to imagine a contemporary artist whose work is untouched by the camera, if only as a means of reproduction. And yet the photograph’s role in modern art goes far beyond reproduction or even as a source of subject matter. Photographic seeing, the way the lens freezes, flattens, enlarges and crops the world conditions all visual representations. Above all there is no way of escaping the photographic archive, the camera’s service to the vast legal, scientific and economic systems of knowledge that categorize and regulates modern existence itself.
Central to the exhibition will be the role of the crop and the close up in the modernist figurative tradition. O’Keeffe’s early work cannot be separated from the photographic practice of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz and the other photographers he represented. Her use of the close up in her paintings, while not literally based on particular photographs, responded to and influenced the photographs of Stieglitz and of Paul Strand. Certainly Stieglitz and his collaborator, Edward Steichen, were profoundly influenced by contemporary painting and collage (Steichen began his career as a painter).
The exhibition will pair paintings and photographs in which the visual relationship is both compelling and intrinsic to the creative process. How did Ben Shahn translate his photographs of a store window into a painting of the same subject? What elements did David Hockney take from his photographs of pools and swimmers in order to create a painting of a boy diving into the water? How does Chuck Close obsessively grid out and copy his source material so that in the end the process itself becomes an essential part of the work’s meaning? The aggregate result of the exhibit will be to refute the idea that painting from a photograph is some sort of failure of imagination or technique—rather the two mediums enrich each other. Ultimately, the exhibition will emphasize the role of the artist as picture maker, rather than as either painter or photographer.