For more than a century the camera has had an apparent stranglehold on Realism. As early as 1840, photography had become a public craze and almost simultaneously academic conceptions of painting were vigorously challenged. The camera jolted centuries of tradition and thoroughly undermined the very essence of painting even though Delacroix, Corot, Manet, and Cezanne often made use of photographs in their works. Serious representational painters in each succeeding generation managed to ride out a continuous barrage of abstractions, but nonetheless, the omnipresent camera was a nagging reminder that it could record likenesses faster and with much greater fidelity.
It is now clear that the camera, so often associated with the virtual demise of Realism, is, a century later, offering this diffuse, but continuing movement a whole new impetus.1 Moreover, a rash of recent exhibitions2 indicate that photography will ultimately share a strong position in the arts, a position long denied in the past. They also clarify with new intensity photography's importance in all the visual arts. A multitude of processes such as photo-intaglios, photo-engravings, and photo-lithographs, commercial silkscreens, verifax copies, films, slides, three-dimensional photography, videotapes, holographs, and photographs which constitute themselves as works of art are now commonplace. In addition, the continual development of art works modified by time—Happenings, Events, Kinetic and Light Art, Environments, Earthworks, Conceptual Art and Process Pieces—have all required documentation in one form or another.3
Chuck Close is one of several young American photo-realists working from slides or photographs, but unlike many, Close does not rely on the convenience of commercial processing. His portraits are painstakingly executed with the aid of air brushes,4 each work requiring little more than two tablespoons of black acrylic. The paint is sprayed on the canvas in gradual layers of light to dark, neither white nor color is added, brush strokes and surface textures are avoided and details are scratched through with razor blades.
Close's paintings are purposely ambiguous. Various areas in his portraits are intentionally blurred as they might appear in our peripheral vision when viewing the face from a distance. Yet, these same areas remain indistinct when they are inspected at close range. Contrary to traditional portraiture or still life painting, Close seldom sharpens up areas as his eye concentrates on them separately.
Admittedly, Frank5 is not a pretty picture. Little effort has been made to please the view or the sitter, and Close firmly denies any concern for literal or aesthetic content. He usually works from snapshots of friends and is faithful to every surface detail. Hair, pores, eye glasses, and acne are amplified with such fidelity that they take on personalities of their own. The direct frontal view of the face, hypnotic glare, blemishes, and the deliberate, no-nonsense attitude of Frank recall the similar brutal reality found in the photomatic snapshot and the compelling mug shot.
Unlike Close, Robert Rauschenberg actually uses photographic processes in his work. Since 1964, lithography has occupied most of his energies, and in fact, graphics provide the central record of his artistic growth from 1964 to the present. Rauschenberg's immense output and innovation in all media, perhaps more than the work of any artist in the past decade, has required a continual readjustment of prevailing notions about art.
In 1965 Rauschenberg began working on Shades, a series of five transparent glass plates which were lithographed directly from the stone and which are meant to be arranged by the spectator at will. Just as the silkscreen prints led to the lithographed paintings, so the images on the transparent pages in Shades clearly anticipate Rauschenberg's recent sculptural objects, the Revolvers, Soundings, his large Soltice, designed for the 1968 Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and the Carnal Clock Series.
Acre6 consists of a square, shallow box in which plexiglass panels hide a clock that contains lights. These lights are activated by time: one light indicates the minute hand and changes every two and a half minutes; the other light represents the hour hand and changes every half hour. The plexiglass panels are printed with silkscreened images that can only be seen when the light in back of a particular image lights up. By reading the positioning of the two lights, one can not only tell the time, but read whichever of the two images happens to be lit up at the moment. At both noon and midnight the entire surface lights up for two-and-a-half minutes.
The images on the surfaces are screened in Rauschenberg's usual manner and include such figurative items as breasts, buttocks, and sexual organs offered in a variety of postures. Most of the images are disembodied and although undeniably provocative, they are too detached to be pornographic.
Referenced Works of Art
- It is curious that another art form, cinema, suffered an identical paralysis in the fifties from television. But again, threatening as it may have seemed then, television has given cinema a renewed vitality.
- Plans and Projects as Art (Kunsthalle, Bern, 1969); Documents As Art (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1969); Paintings From The Photo (Riverside Museum, New York, 1969); Artists Photographs (Multiples, Inc., New York, 1970); Photography Into Sculpture (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970); Evidence on the Flight of Six Fugitives (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1970); Information (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970).
- Regrettably, few museums have met these needs by preserving similar works either in sequential photographs or on film, and the development of the videotape is as important for the historian as it is for the artist.
- Man Ray, a painter who supported himself by photography (Rayograph), is generally recognized as the first to use an air brush in painting.
- 69.137. The John R. Van Derlip Fund. Acrylic on canvas, 9' x 7' x 3”.
- 69.134. Gift of Mr. Robert Rauschenberg. Silkscreen ink on mirrored plexiglass with electronic equipment, 60” x 60” x 10”.
- Charles Close. American (1940 - ). Frank, 1969. Acrylic on canvas, 9' x 7' x 3”. The John R. Van Derlip Fund, 69.137.
- Robert Rauschenberg. American (1925 - ). Acre (from the Carnal Clock Series), 1969. Silkscreen ink on mirrored plexiglass with electronic equipment, 60” x 60” x 10”. Gift of Mr. Robert Rauschenberg, 69.134.