Video didn’t kill the radio star, nor did the photograph kill the painter. It’s moot now, but there was a time when photography was going to obviate painting (because a painting’s purpose was merely to depict) and when photos had yet to scale the tall walls of fine art.
Shared Intelligence: American Painting and the Photograph explores that time and travels to the present when the two media share space in the sun, by showcasing (mostly) 20th century photography and painting that rely on each other.
It’s fascinating to see how these works of art were created, how photography took painting as its muse and vice versa, but the exhibition is needlessly defensive.
The accompanying literature discusses the “fraught but highly productive relationship” between painting and photography. “Unlike traditional ways of addressing this issue,” it reads, “which sought to separate and establish the autonomy of either photography or painting as being superior or more important than the other, this exhibition offers a new approach.”
Perhaps that’s the case, but the issue was settled long ago.
From the dozens of paintings, photographs, paintings of photographs, photographs of paintings and amalgams of intersections in between, no clear causal relationship arises between the two arts. Rather, they populate an ongoing, mutually informing conversation.
As such, some artists openly acknowledge photos in their work.
John F Peto paints a picture of a photo in “Toms River Yacht Club.” In “Cactus,” Charles Sheeler encapsulates both of his artistic pursuits by rendering a photo shoot in paint. Man Ray forgoes the camera—and the paint—with assemblages on photosensitive paper.
Other artists use photography behind the scenes with varying intentions: from Henry Koerner’s incorporation of photographic elements to Norman Rockwell’s nostalgic photo-shoots-turned-Saturday Evening Post covers, from Richard Estes’ arresting photorealism to the abstract cells rendered by Chuck Close from blown-up, gridded photos.
The show protests too much that neither medium be overlooked.
After all, Andy Warhol made iconic images more iconic through silk screen, and no number of Polaroids could recreate David Hockney’s “California” (though his “Gregory Swimming,” a collage of 120 pictures shaped like the pool it depicts, is close).
Then there’s the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s namesake, whose relationship with photography—and a certain photographer—factors in multifariously throughout her corpus. She works from Alfred Stieglitz’ photos. He works from her image, etc.
The exhibition places paintings side-by-side with the photos that informed them, undermining (for good measure) passé postulations about the supremacy of either. The juxtaposition demonstrates the artists’ narrative leaps and compositional tactics, lest someone accuse them of cheating.
To fortify its point, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum flashes its institutional clout with a lineup of artists that would make any art collection envious. The bounty is unnecessary but, if you’ve got it, shake it.
If the exhibition’s concept is simplistic, its upshot is subtler and more illuminating: Art evolves along with people’s perceptions. The forgone conflict brings to mind seismic shifts in the art world—abstraction, graffiti, found—that both change and require change in opinion.
Shared Intelligence deftly executes its conceit, avoiding a tone too strict or pedantic. But we already knew that photography and painting were inextricable.