Saturday, March 3, 2018

Stephen Shore @ MoMA

As I get older, the more and more fascinated I am about what artist do in the period after making their most well-known work. When I was younger, the idea that an artist would make a derivative of their work, over and over again, seemed to be a betrayal, a forsaking of the inherent modernist pact with the viewer to always move forward instead of pleasing an unseen market for the work. But as actually becoming old ever approaches, it does occur to me that at a certain point an artist doesn’t owe us anything. If they make something great that they are known for and would like to spend a lot of time after that working in a similar vein because they enjoy working that way, then all the power to them. But the modernist narrative is always present in the back of my head whispering: have they sold out to make a living? Have they run out of ideas? Are they oblivious to their artistic rut?

This idea hangs heavy over the rather impressive Stephen Shore retrospective at MOMA. The retrospective does bring out all the work one might want to see from Stephen Shore. It starts with early street work that lays bare the influence of Robert Frank and continues into his experimental film work that led to meeting of Andy Warhol and Shore becoming part of the scene around Warhol’s factory. That leads to a run of avant-garde conceptualism that underlies his famous large format work on 70’s America. The show does a wonderful job of displaying those early attempts, even including a complete reinstallation of a show of vernacular photographs Shore curated along with a reinstallation of American Surfaces as it was shown at Light Gallery in the 70’s. As a Shore geek, the reinstallations are pretty thrilling. Hell, so is getting to see his first experimental film in its entirety.

Which all leads to his rapturous 70’s travels across the US, making perfect formal pictures that illustrate a bohemian experience of the world akin to Richard Linklater at his finest. But once you’ve familiarize yourself with the work that Shore is most known for, you are face to face with everything that comes after it, and it is hard not to be struck by the starts and stops, that never get going, where he takes on being a street photographer or traditional landscape photographer, but neither produces much in the way of a compelling body of work, just the occasional excellent picture. The only revelation from the show about the later work is how much of it was done on commissions. This later work is matched up with what feels like attempt to recapture his avant-garde youth. Cut off from being part of the forefront of an artistic movement, you get Shore seems to be awkwardly wading into self-publishing with small bodies of repetitive work that felt dated when they first started appearing in the early 2000’s. This continues into his current practice of taking Instagram pictures. Both touch on American Surfaces without any of the subject matter of more youthful adventures in the early 70’s travels.

But it occurs to me, while staring down the Mick-o-Matic that he used to make some American Surfaces pictures, that it is hard to ask more from Shore than what he produced in the 70’s. If he finds fulfillment in conceptual book projects or his passable return to large format work in the Ukraine and Israel, more power to him and especially with the Israel work, I am not above enjoying a master covering his own hits.

Through May 28th


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