Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina CollectionJune 27, 2012
Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection is flush with recognizable images, and for those who have only seen reproductions of them in books or online, the show is a necessary pilgrimage. In fact the exhibit can at times feel like a greatest-hits survey of the past eighty-odd years of photography, filled with works by such giants as Diane Arbus, Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Paul Graham, Nan Goldin, Larry Sultan, Cindy Sherman, Alec Soth, and many others.
Images of tract housing and vast, sunbaked landscapes by Garry Winogrand, Robert Adams, and Joel Meyerowitz capture a peculiarly American sense of loneliness that we associate with space and sprawl. Several huge Andreas Gurskys must indeed be viewed in person and preferably with a stepladder and magnifying glass. Two of them, Dortmund (2008) and Union Rave (1995), display multitudes of people reproduced at a large enough size and with enough detail that one can actually examine their faces. Particularly compelling is Union Rave. At first, one sees a forest of flailing arms, but out of this mob emerge individuals whose faces telegraph all sorts of states that invite a viewer’s curiosity and even empathy: perplexed, sad, ecstatic, contemplative, giddy, nervous, stoned. It’s a reminder that “mass of humanity” is a lazy, meaningless phrase.
Such a varied collection filled with so much star power raises two interrelated questions: Does the way the photographs are grouped illuminate or obscure their riches, and how well is Trevor Traina’s private taste translated to a public venue? The curators Julian Cox and Kevin Moore (who is also Traina’s art adviser) have attempted to create a sense of cohesion by grouping works in separate rooms and cataloguing sections according to categories that combine conceptual themes and areas of technical experimentation: “Everyday,” “Excesses,” “Spectacular,” and “Losses.” But these categories—and why certain photographs were placed into each one—could be confusing to anyone not schooled in both the history of the medium and the received critical interpretations of the artists’ works, and possibly to those who are schooled, as well.
For example, a visitor entering a room with Excesses emblazoned above the door, seeing a Cindy Sherman circa 2002 staring from the opposite wall and placed next to Gursky’s Dubai World 1 (2010)—knowing that, until recently ousted by Gursky, Sherman held the world record as the photographer whose work had sold for the most money—and seeing Bette Davis (Pictures of Diamonds) (2004), Vik Muniz's image of Bette Davis made from diamonds, close by, might assume that the selection is a topical grouping that addresses themes concerning money and extravagance. But here, excesses refers to the abundance of experimentation within the medium. Rather than empirical representation, these images are of self-consciously staged, altered, and/or manipulated pictures.
But even after grasping this theme, a viewer then becomes confused about why certain images are placed where they are, a slipperiness that extends across the exhibition’s categories. For instance, why are Larry Clark’s documentary images of teen addicts from his Tulsa series grouped with John Baldessari’s more abstract Cutting Ribbon, Man in Wheelchair, Paintings (1988), which features photographs of said subjects with the faces and paintings blanked out? True, Clark’s work represented a new kind of documentary form, in which the documenter did not just observe but presumably lived the wretched life he documented, and so both artists technically count as having experimented with the medium.
However, manipulated, innovative, and repurposed uses of the medium are evident in each of the four categories, as in Jeff Wall’s backlit Church, Carolina St., Vancouver (2006), which falls under “Losses,” and in Gursky’s Dortmund, which, it was noted, was the first single photograph to depict so many identifiable faces and falls under “Spectacular.” And if Soth’s iconic Charles, Vasa, Minnesota (2002)—a portrait of an apparently ordinary man displaying an eccentric hobby involving toy planes—can be categorized under “Everyday,” then shouldn’t Warhol’s photographs of celebrities in unexpectedly ordinary situations be there, too, rather than under “Excesses”?
Then again, it’s not important that the categories have logical integrity. One could easily wander through the halls, approaching each photograph as an object that took Traina’s fancy, and then wonder if that criterion alone should justify the exhibition. But the divisions imply more than some order that one might scratch one’s head at. They also color one’s interpretation of the photographs with generalizations that seem manufactured to create a cohesive presentation of a collection that is arguably defined not by any particular theme or aesthetic but by the subjective, multifarious tastes of an enthusiast who likely kept one eye cocked on the ebb and flow of the market.
A major museum’s motivations should be questioned when it throws its resources behind a hodgepodge of better- and lesser-known artworks that are neither comprehensive as an archive nor narrowed to any identifiable theme. Real to Real skims the surface of many of photography’s revelations without elucidating any of them, leaving the de Young open to the criticism that their choice to display the collection of the son of the museum’s board chair is at best self-serving and at worst nepotistic. This is, of course, unfair to Trevor Traina himself. It was never his job to amass a collection that justifies a museum exhibition; he simply collected the work he loved, directly or indirectly supporting the artists he admired.
Listening to him speak at the show’s preview, it became clear that Traina has pursued his interest with alacrity, intelligence, and commitment. But there is a difference between how a private collection should be judged (if at all) and how a museum exhibition should be evaluated. Featuring the collection in the context of a public institution creates the uneasy sense that not only does Real to Real present a rather bald-faced conflict of interests but also that it is exemplary of the increasing privatization of the public display of art. In this era of cuts and more cuts to public arts funding, our dependence on the affluent to support artists and to prop-up art institutions has become more transparent. Deference to the purchasing power of the wealthy has increasingly resulted in plum appointments and obligatory displays of gratitude for their philanthropy, factors that should be noted and considered in the ongoing discussion of what and who should be responsible for protecting and enriching our society’s cultural institutions: the many or the few.
Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection is on view at the de Young Museum, in San Francisco, through September 16, 2012.