The Museum of Modern Art
June 5 – August 29, 2005
“No presentation of Friedlander’s work is more effective than that of his books…” writes James Enyeart in the essay that accompanies Lee Friedlander’s new book of photographs, Sticks and Stones: Architectural America. Friedlander “has said he now understands that books are truly his medium.” Lee Friedlander has published more than two-dozen books and portfolios—most sequenced and edited by the artist himself. Twenty-five such publications are displayed throughout his current retrospective of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Encased in glass and cracked to reveal only a page or two of their contents, the books are, for all the usual, intimate intents and purposes, unavailable; despite a reading room halfway through the show, visitors cannot really rely on this vehicle to formulate our cumulative impression of Friedlander’s career.
Instead, we turn away from the leather snaps and bows, the carefully crafted paper mats and cases of velvet and leatherette and back to the walls where Friedlander’s photographs fend for themselves in the thicket of Peter Galassi’s curatorial project. The exhibit contends with both the vast photographic output of this inspired artist, as well as the history of his inclination to group his photographs according to theme—which is to say, the history of his inclination to make books. This contention results in what the museum calls a “rigorous” organization of sixty to eighty groups of almost five hundred photographs, rather than in a singular perspective on how the last fifty years of photographs cohere into a developing body of work. In fact, a retrospective exhibition is an opportunity to read Friedlander’s work outside of the context of books and themes—a real opportunity to read a life’s body of work as such.
On the other side of the automatic glass doors that open the exhibit is a yellow painted wall that introduces Friedlander with color portraits of jazz musicians, taken between 1956 and 1969. It’s a good introduction, and a good place for the only color photographs in the show. Most of all, it establishes the dynamics of the next fifty years. These compositions aren’t as tricky as they will become, nor as subtle in flavor as their black and white contemporaries, but they communicate the real bulk of Friedlander’s aesthetic. They exactly prefigure the pictures of switchboard operators from Nebraska in the 1990s, and their full, fleshy sensuality frankly states Friedlander’s aesthetic case.
That yellow wall temporarily obstructs the rest of the exhibit; like one of Friedlander’s famous telephone poles or chain link fences, we encounter it, move into it, and move on. Friedlander has said “while somebody else could walk two feet away to get those poles and trees and other stuff out of the way, I almost walk two feet to get into it, because it is part of the game that I play. It isn’t even conscious; I probably just drift into it… It’s like a found pleasure.” In a Friedlander picture, the encounter with such obstructions is a friendly one, and getting around them, visually, is a graceful game. If he sticks a lady’s feathered wig or a man’s foot, blown-out by a flash, into the center of his frame, he’ll always provide you with a way around it. There will always be some electrical cord leading up towards the right, something weighty in the bottom left. Nothing in the frame may be important, per se, in terms of its role outside the frame, but within the frame, everything plays a crucial role. The pictures prize life’s distractions and revel in even the most mundane, inanimate relationships.
Over the course of his life in pictures, the artist indulges more and more in this social instinct, wedding elements within each photograph and between the photographs that make up a series. In 1980 in Canton, Ohio, a young African American woman sits absorbed in her work despite the antics of a huge rubber tube that swoops in and around her head. By 1995, when we see another body of photographs shaped around the context of Work, that tube has multiplied, and some sector of Cleveland’s industrial landscape is overrun by its offspring. In each of eight frames, eight steady employees go about their business amongst a veritable nest of cords and wires. Now these fat plastic lines not only dominate the individual pictures, but they breed across the space of the pages they’re printed on.
Hung in a similar grid on a wall, these pictures could interact with one another in the same way, but a book allows for simple miracles of sequencing. The books that Friedlander put together himself are full of these. He is a master of visual alliteration: when a series of words all start with the same letter, the words become increasingly exciting to pronounce. Likewise, when Lee Friedlander starts a sequence of images with a texture or a line, he repeats that texture, that line, over a series of pages, with slight alterations. In his book Self-Portrait, for example, his shadow falls first over a big bush in “Southern United States 1966,” then over a vast lawn in “Palisades Parkway New York 1966,” and finally across the rocky pavement of “Grant’s Tomb, New York City 1965.” It is both Friedlander’s strange, intrusive shadow that unites the pictures and the sensual scrims onto which they fall.
Even when his gangly shadow is far from the frame, Friedlander’s particular physical presence exists in the tubes and trees that complicate his picture plane. His Stems make limbs out of flower stalks: headless limbs, impersonal and wet. His Nudes make putty out of ladies: their bodies contorted in the kind of weird way that might happen in a fuck, but certainly not intentionally. He fills his frames with these people and plants, as though more and more body might describe more and more of more. In The Desert Seen, a book he published in 1996, Friedlander included an epigraph from Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons: “You see what I am doing: there was an empty space left in the trunk which I am filling with hay; that’s how it is in our life’s baggage; no matter what we stuff it with, it’s better than having empty space.”
This sensual horror vacuui runs throughout Friedlander’s work, but less so within the series American Monuments and Letters From the People. These seem less like individualized encounters that turned into series by mistake, and more like deliberate projects. They lack the sex of Stems, the delirium of the latest landscapes, the animist instinct that enlivens Staglieno. (When have you ever seen stone sculptures more precocious and alert?) In the opening statement he published in Self-Portrait: Photographs by Lee Friedlander (1970), Friedlander wrote, “These self-portraits span a period of six years and were not done as a specific preoccupation, but rather, they happened as a peripheral extension of my work… At any rate, they came about slowly and not with plan but more as another discovery each time.” Making a series of pictures is as plastic a process as picture-making itself, but keeping the themes intact for the retrospective makes it hard to see the thread that runs through the show as a whole. Small quibbles with individual series should be irrelevant in this context. We should be able to trace the filling of Friedlander’s frame, the evolving means by which his pictures accommodate mess.
Not everyone is capable of building disorder into systems. Lee Friedlander is. That is the essential story of his photographs. That is the story of his books. It should have been the story of his retrospective. Peter Galassi writes in his catalogue essay, Friedlander’s “...best pictures are better still in the company of their kissing cousins. This book and the exhibition it accompanies have been organized to test that perception by presenting Friedlander’s photography as an unfolding sequence of family groups. Some of these are simply compact versions of his books and other projects.” Indeed, many of the show’s groups were basically drawn from Friedlander’s books: “Self-portrait, Published 1970”, reads one wall. Pictures from Stems (2003) are hung together too, and Letters from the People are scattered opposite images from Nudes. Publication dates are written on the wall. Repeating the structure of the books on the walls is like saying that the thematic projects are the only ties that bind the work together, which is obviously untrue. “Themes” are not the point for Friedlander; they are not even the point of his books. The point is always the whole picture, the whole book, and the point of this retrospective should have been the long song of the show, the whole show.
Writes Galassi: “Anyone willing to forgo some other modest indulgence from time to time could possess on a single shelf just about all Friedlander’s work to date, in the thoughtful and handsome form given to it by the photographer himself.” So what could a retrospective exhibition do for Lee Friedlander’s work that a shelf of every book he’s made would not? It should have constructed a sentence out of the work that was impossible in the context of the books. It should have shaken off the little themes that compartmentalize this work, that have for so long helped the artist to think about his work, and used the opportunity of the context of New York’s Museum of Modern Art to yawn into the larger potential of one long string of forms, related by their dynamics, their increasing confidence, their wild finish in the present day.