Friday, March 13, 2009

when artists are collectors...



drug store


i'm thinking that once in awhile i should draw some necessary attention towards new publications that might be of interest to those of us who to get lost in older ones. anyone interested in postcards, photography, or artist's collections should definitely check out the recent publication from the metropolitan museum in ny called "walker evans and the picture postcard" (if you are in NY you must go see the exhibition as well, which is up until may 25th!).

the catalog is a whopping 408 pages and features beautiful full color reproductions, mostly actual size, from evans' collection of mostly color litho type postcards - as well as all of the RPPC postcard photographs he made of his own work. the essay by jeff rosenheim, who is the foremost scholar of evans' work, is quite wonderful - speaking more about evans as a collector and treating his collection as something much more than source material. collecting, like artmaking, is a very complex activity, and the building of a real collection is no less passionate, convoluted, conceptual, meandering, than making art. rather than looking at a collection as evidence of specific artmaking decisons, the connections between one's work and a really obsessively built collection tend to be messy, complex and conversational. rosenheim definitely gets this.

the text focuses on evans both as a collector and a photographer, but only points to specific connections, or moments, when there is a clarity of back and forth. the good news is that it never suggests that one should view evans' entire photographic life through the things he collected, which allows both his work and his collection to maintain their own individuality. obviously, there are serious overriding senses of vision to both of evans' lives (or loves), which relate to both benjamin's idea about a collection being a self portrait, as well as arthur dove's statement that everything an artist makes is a self portrait. clearly evans' is completely immersed in both ventures, and both photography and his postcard collection point back towards evans' vision in different ways.

obviously, it is mostly the subject matter that tends to tie things together - the vernacular images and languages; but it is in the text of evans' own writings about postcards - and indeed all of his writings on the subject are included in the catalog! - that one gets a chance to see these postcards through the eyes of both a collector and a photographer (and at times, with the collector at the forefront of the discussion.)

as you can see above, the book does show a few examples of locations evans had seen in a card and then photographed later, but it doesn't hammer this home as the thesis of the show, in fact far from it. the comparison of the images is certainly interesting, but the discussion surrounding the re-shoots takes on a much more compelling story once one reads the transcription of a talk evans' gave at yale in 1964 about his postcard collection. in the talk, evans shows a number of postcards where certain things were added later (people pasted in, clouds added to the sky, etc.). he also discusses the appearance of things that the photographer probably didn't want in the shot, such as a horse and buggy in the middle of the frame that the photographer wasn't able to move. in these incidents, evans sees the collected images made by someone else, through the critical eyes of a photographer, and so one begins to think that when evans did make a photograph of a previously viewed location from a postcard, it wasn't because he wanted to replicate it, as much as he wanted to kind of see how to frame it, and to empty it of artifice.

in the yale talk one also gets to see other sides of evans' view of these objects, speaking with humor as well as a very obsessive and deep collector's knowledge of their history.

along with images of many of evans' postcards, the book contains images of evans' category dividers (you can see envelope he used for "madness" above), which gives the reader the experience of moving through the book as if wandering through evans' collection, leaving the categories to read like chapters, and seeing the contents within evans' own contexts.

the biggest surprise was to discover a category evans called "messages", and to see images of cards evans collected not for the image as much as for the writing on the front and/or back. rosenheim's take on this is beautifully stated: "he (evans)also became extremely entranced by the cursory messages written on the cards, which he regarded as a kind of found poetry - allusive, egalitarian, and vernacular."

anyone who reads the blog regularly would understand why i found this aspect of evans' collection in sympathy with my own love of certain objects not for what they are, but for the life they have lived, and more specifically for the evidence of that life that now exists upon their surface - the written word as a kind of patina, as well as found poetry of course...

the book is available through the museum bookstore here, as well as i'm sure via various web outlets. it's a bit pricey but highly recommended.

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