“For every photographer who clamors to make it as an artist, there is an artist running a grave risk of turning into a photographer.”–Artforum, 1976
A comet sculpted from a series of photos, an absurd fashion show constructed entirely of sausages, pictures of other famous pictures, a whip made out of passport photos of an artist making faces–what makes these photographic presentations works of art? How is the unique gesture of the artist communicated through the mechanical practice of photography? How have artists transformed our understanding of photography through their experimental uses of the medium? These are just a few of the questions explored in the exhibition The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography, 1960-1982.
While artists today feel just as comfortable picking up a camera as they do a paintbrush, this has not always been the case. How did photography become an increasingly popular medium of choice among artists who may or may not consider themselves to be photographers? Focusing on a roughly 20-year period of history, The Last Picture Show addresses this question as well by bringing together more than 200 photographic works by 57 international artists. Each took up the camera as a tool in pursuit of a diverse range of artistic experiments that provocatively intersected with the realms of sculpture, painting, and performance.
Cutting a historical swath across a wide range of art practices and movements such as Conceptual Art, Minimalism, Arte Povera, and strategies of image appropriation, The Last Picture Show traces the development of conceptual uses of this medium. The exhibition encompasses photography’s first glimmerings in the 1960s in the work of artists such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Bruce Nauman, and Edward Ruscha to its rise to art-world prominence in the work of the photo-based artists of the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman. The scope of their subjects is diverse and each has used the camera to frame critical explorations of a range of issues. These include the tradition of self-portraiture, the body, landscape, the architecture of the built environment, photography’s relationship to painting and sculpture, the intersection of language and vision, and the impact of advertising and mass media.
By the end of the 1980s, it had become clear that experimental uses of photography were gaining both momentum and validity within the international art world and helping to reshape the possibilities of contemporary artistic expression. It is this legacy that continues to find its descendants in a new generation of artists using this medium today.