Still Pictures: Photography of Sculpture at the MoMA

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My wife laughs at my penchant for taking photographs of sculpture when we travel. It’s as if I’m trying to bring these huge stone and marble marvels home with me. In The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today at the MoMA through November 1, 2010, that same “take it home” impulse is examined from the very beginnings of photography to today. More than 100 artists—including some of the biggest names from the worlds of photography and sculpture—appear in more than 300 photographs, magazines, and journals. Together, they build a bigger picture showing just how the new medium of photography changed how we looked at the old medium of sculpture forever.

“In his 1947 book Le Musée Imaginaire,” says Roxana Marcoci, the show’s curator from the MoMA’s Department of Photography, “the novelist and politician André Malraux famously advocated for a pancultural ‘museum without walls,’ postulating that art history, and the history of sculpture in particular, had become ‘the history of that which can be photographed.’” Taking her cue from Malraux, Marcoci creates a new museum without walls through the photography of the world of sculpture. The Original Copy begins with “Sculpture in the Age of Photography,” which includes early photographs by Charles Nègre of sculptures in French cathedrals and by Roger Fenton of sculpture in the British Museum. Those pioneers were soon joined by the first “star” photographer of sculpture—Eugène Atget. While photographing Paris in the first decades of the twentieth century, Atget couldn’t help but capture some of its decorative sculpture in the background and assemble a visual catalogue of the city’s statues, reliefs, and fountains. For those who could not see Paris in person (or today cannot see the Paris of the past, two world wars ago), Atget’s photography brought it to them, framed within his own artistic vision.

The focus of the exhibition then shifts to specific sculptors—Auguste Rodin, Constantin Brancusi, and Marcel Duchamp. Rodin cooperated with photographer Edward Steichen in 1902 to create a new kind of portrait in Rodin—The Thinker, in which Steichen combined an image of Rodin in profile with another of Rodin’s own Monument to Victor Hugo. Brancusi allowed Steichen and others to photograph his studio as a symbol of the same flux found in his sculptures. Brancusi later took his own photos—photos radieuses or “radiant photos”— flashes of light that become frozen sculptures on film. Duchamp, ever the innovator, pushed the relationship of photography and sculpture by “authorizing” “original” copies of his works. Thus, the already blossoming relationship between photography and sculpture got the Duchamp treatment of postmodern analysis early in the game.

Everything in the exhibition after Duchamp reeks of this postmodern perfume. Works by American photographers Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander of the American cultural landscape become photographs of the “sculpture” of our culture itself and question the validity, if not the sanity, of our society. In a section titled “The Pygmalion Complex,” photographs of art by Man Ray, Hannah Hoch, and others blurs the line between the human body and sculpture through photography. Bruce Nauman and other modern artists close out the show in a section titled “The Performing Body as Sculptural Object,” which takes the Pygmallion idea to its logical conclusion. Nauman’s Self-Portrait as a Fountain from the portfolio Eleven Color Photographs (shown above) caps off the show beautifully by summing up the ideas of sculpture, photography, and self all in one bubbly package.

The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today takes interdisciplinary studies to a whole new level, as if the two disciplines were actually one all along—and you begin to wonder if they’re not by the end. So many artists and so many ideas fly by that your head spins at times, but that’s the beauty of the project. As Brancusi hoped, still photography of still sculptures can result in a whirlwind of motion in the human imagination. The Original Copy reaps that whirlwind, but in a good way.

[Image: Bruce Nauman. American, born 1941. Self-Portrait as a Fountain from the portfolio Eleven Color Photographs. 1966–67/1970. Inkjet print (originally chromogenic color print), 20 1/16 x 23 3/4" (50.9 x 60.3 cm). Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Gerald S. Elliott Collection. © 2010 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.]

[Many thanks to the MoMA for providing me with the image above and other press materials for The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today, which runs through November 1, 2010.]

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