Focal Points: American Photography Since 1950
May 18, 2013 – September 1, 2013
Focal Points: American Photography Since 1950 examines how fine art photography has visualized and expressed American identity since the middle of the last century. Playing on strengths of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s permanent collection and displaying a number of photographs that have not been on public view for some time, the exhibition is organized thematically, interweaving the traditions of both modern and contemporary photography.
Just as a “focal point” in photography indicates an area of sharp focus, Focal Points: American Photography Since 1950 concentrates on important thematic interests of American photographers over the last six decades. These themes—The American Road, City and Suburb, Fantasy, Nature, The Body, Rural America, and We the People—cut across the years and are not limited by school, formal styles, technique, or critical discourse. Together they begin to answer the question, “What is American about American photography?”
Among the photographers represented in the exhibition, Aaron Siskind is one of several who explored the city street, as did many avant-garde American artists from the postwar period. In an untitled photograph from the 1950s, Siskind composed an enigmatic image of a blistered brick wall with a stenciled number “3” and the shadow of a street lamp. In doing so, he captured the mystery of the commonplace, which was then also being explored by Jasper Johns in his numeral paintings and Robert Rauschenberg in his “Combine” works that brought together everyday objects and painting.
The unusual as subject, a deep vein in American photography, is evident in Whoosis (1975), a vibrant, hand-colored black-and-white photograph by Karen Truax. A young woman masks her face with a large heart-shaped leaf from a Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree. With one eye peering through a hole in the leaf, she is transformed into a leaf creature—the metamorphosis all the more arresting with Truax’s vivid coloration of green leaf, blue eye, and scarlet red lips and nail polish. Concocting a surrealist riddle out of ordinary things, the photographer has created a fantastical “whoosis,” someone whose name one does not know or cannot recall.
Henry Wessel, Jr., like other photographers, as well as filmmakers and writers, was drawn to the theme of the “American Road” as a metaphor for personal freedom and encounters with the unfamiliar. His Tucson, Arizona, from the American Roads portfolio of 1974, was taken from a car as it paused before a one-story adobe bungalow. Seemingly overwhelmed by tall plant life, the house is set in landscaping typical of southern Arizona, where native species, rather than well-kempt grass lawns, are encouraged. Whether this house is abandoned or not remains ambiguous in Wessel’s ghostly portrait.
More down to earth than the Wessel photograph—or, rather, up in the air—is Martin Kersel’s color triptych, Tossing a Friend (Melinda) (1, 2, and 3), created in 1996. Kersels is a Los Angeles-based artist who applies the principles of performance to his photography, audio works, and sculpture. With great abandon, and against a background of blossoming lilacs, he appears both to catapult a young girl away from himself and to catch her. His actions, caught time-lapse-style in three nonconsecutive moments, celebrate the joy of being temporarily free from all physical constraint. In keeping with aspects of contemporary art since the 1980s, Kersels explores the body as an emblem of personal identity—here with typically American high spirits.
In addition to photographs by Siskind, Truax, Wessel, and Kersels, Focal Points: American Photography Since 1950 presents over 100 works from the museum’s permanent collection by American photographers with regional, national, and international reputations. Among the artists represented are Michael Abramson, Diane Arbus, Cecilia Condit, John Coplans, Vernon Fisher, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, O. Winston Link, Robert Mapplethorpe, Duane Michaels, Eva Rubinstein, Cindy Sherman, Alec Soth, Minor White, Garry Winogrand, and Ida Wyman.
Generous support for Focal Points: American Photography Since 1950 has been provided by The DeAtley Family Foundation, Perkins Coie LLP, MillerCoors, a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts, and MMoCA Volunteers.