By Heather Corcoran
Capturing the entire career of an artist in a retrospective is a daunting task. This week, the Whitney and MoMA give it a go, with decidedly different results.
The Museum of Modern Art
“Jeff Wall,” Through May 14.
“Jeff Wall” at the Museum of Modern Art is a survey of the career of the influential Canadian photographer of the same name.
Wall was a key figure in elevating photography to the level of fine art, and 30 years later, his early images are still arresting. Arranged chronologically from 1978 to 2006, 40 of his light boxes – super-sized photos lit from behind – trace recurring themes in this carefully edited exhibition.
“Pictures at their best are often hard to see,” said Wall last week at the show’s preview. When images are easy to read, “We consume them quickly and then move on.”
Wall’s photos are worth taking the time to decipher. Staged tableaux are stuffed with characters and details that reference everything from Japanese artist Hokusai to Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man.” Other photos recreate everyday scenes that might otherwise go unnoticed, like the angry glare and subtle gestures of two men passing on the street. Wall calls the style “cinematographic photography,” and his photos do have the crisp quality and movement of a Hollywood film.
His thoughtful work, which often slyly references well-known paintings in the poses of his figures, is a counterpoint to the barrage of oversimplified images we encounter every day. The exhibition offers very little explanation, just a short introductory text and dimly-lit rooms filled with the glow of the photos. Wall’s monumental work needs time to be taken in. Fortunately this expansive show gives plenty of space for contemplation.
The Whitney Museum of American Art
Gordon Matta-Clark, “You Are the Measure,” Through June 3.
When an artist doesn’t leave his best work behind, it’s tempting to try to fill in the empty space with whatever’s around. That’s where the Whitney’s new exhibition, “You Are the Measure,” goes wrong.
The retrospective spans the short career of Gordon Matta-Clark, the conceptual artist who died in 1978 at age 35. The exhibition is the first in 20 years to examine his entire oeuvre in detail. Well over 100 works make up the show, from scraps of paper to thick slices of buildings, cut with a chainsaw into cross-sections.
Working at a time when real estate wasn’t valued and experimentation was, Matta-Clark created a new way of looking at art and architecture by using his native New York as a canvas. In the crumbling city, he hacked open abandoned buildings and bought up unwanted property from city auctions.
Today, only remnants are left of much of Matta-Clark’s work, which was often site-specific and always ephemeral. The exhibition’s cloudy photographs and stuttering video projections do more to evoke nostalgia for the ‘70s than to recreate the effect of his dynamic sculptures.
In one of his best-known pieces, 1974’s “Splitting,” Matta-Clark systematically dissected a deserted home in Englewood, N.J. At the Whitney, a series of photo collages, a film and fragments of the building itself represent the work, which was demolished two months after it was finished. This evidence of his project does little to capture the kinetic energy of a house teetering on its foundation.
Nearly 30 years after his death, the exhibition strains to evoke the electricity that surrounded the artist. Even the hand-torn edges of the wall labels miss the point. Presumably meant to evoke the artist’s raw cuts, they focus more on aesthetics than Matta-Clark’s original intent – questioning the importance of the museum.