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Surface Tension

Mia Fineman, Assistant Curator, Department of Photographs

Posted: Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Christian Marclay (American, b. 1955). Memento (Soul II Soul), 2008. Cyanotype; Image: 130.8 x 251.5 cm (51 1/2 x 99 in.);  Frame: 139.7 x 259.1 cm (55 x 102 in.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2009 (2009.6). © Christian Marclay.

«Live snakes, talcum powder, cassette tapes, dust. These are a few of the unusual materials used to create the photographs currently on view in Surface Tension: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection. For many artists today, the process of making a photograph involves much more than just pointing a camera and clicking the shutter. In fact, a number of photographs in this exhibition didn't involve a camera at all.»

A photogram is a one-of-a-kind cameraless image made by placing objects directly onto photosensitized paper and exposing it to light. For the past two decades, Adam Fuss has been making photograms using living things—like mushrooms, rabbits, and even babies—allowing the chance effects of their movement to help generate the picture's design. For the untitled photogram featured in the exhibition, he let loose half a dozen snakes on a large sheet of photographic paper dusted with a fine coating of talcum powder. Over time, as the paper was exposed to light, the writhing snakes “drew” an abstract image by delicately shifting the powder into fan- and swag-shaped forms. While Fuss's picture recalls the gestural paintings of Abstract Expressionists like Pollock and De Kooning, it has an ego-less energy that's unmistakably reptillian.

Christian Marclay created his large-scale photogram Memento (Soul II Soul) by cracking open audio cassettes and scattering the unspooled tape in droopy skeins across the surface of the paper. The resulting abstract image is a glorious tribute to technological obsolence, a memento mori for the antiquated medium of cassette tape, displaced first by CDs and later by mp3s. (Marclay used tapes from his own collection to make the photograms in this series. For this one, he sacrificed his recordings of the late 1980s British dance band Soul II Soul.)

Another artist famous for his use of nontraditional materials is Vik Muniz. A virtuoso of the commonplace, Muniz uses everyday materials such as wire, thread, sugar, dirt, and chocolate syrup to create ephemeral drawings, which he then photographs. For his series Pictures of Dust, Muniz collected dust from the vacuum cleaners at the Whitney Museum of American Art and used it to draw pictures of large-scale Mininimalist and Post-Minimalist sculptures in their collection. Tony Smith, Die depicts Smith’s iconic six-foot steel cube, a masterpiece of Minimalism that has surely collected its own share of dust over the years.

Marco Breuer, whose work we acquired specifically for this exhibition, creates abstract, process-driven images without a camera, lens, film, or enlarger. Breuer’s primary medium is photographic paper itself, which he subjects to a variety of unconventional treatments like scratching, gouging, burning, and abrasion. In recent years, his tool-kit has included hot coals, sandpaper, electric drills, and a twelve-guage shotgun. To create Spin (C-823), he placed a sheet of exposed color-photographic paper on a modified phonograph and scratched through the emulsion with a stylus while spinning the turntable. Breuer’s work, like that of many of the artists featured in this exhibition, draws our attention to the physicality of the photographic surface while exploring the limits of what we think of as a photograph.

Mia Fineman is senior research associate in the Department of Photographs.

Related Exhibition
Surface Tension: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection

Through June 13, 2010
Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography, 2nd floor

Upcoming Event
Gallery Talk

Saturday, May 8, 7:00 p.m.
Free with Museum admission
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About the Author

Mia Fineman is the assistant curator in the Department of Photographs.

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