Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art / Reviewed by Daniel Pateman / 22.05.18
A dazzling, considered and expansive offering, Tate Modern’s latest show explores abstraction’s pervasive influence in both modern art and the field of photography. Leading the viewer through a history of this development, from early 20th century works by Wyndham Lewis and Alvin Langdon Coburn to the contemporary, multi-media work of Maya Rochat, it is an in-depth depiction of the increasingly reciprocal relationship between art forms and their progressive merging. Juxtaposing experiments in the world of painting with their photographic equivalents, the Tate Modern curators have assembled a plethora of exceptional work that offers the viewer new eyes with which to see the world.
Shape of Light elucidates the technical variety and broad scope of abstraction through twelve separate sections, comprehensively dissembling the term and providing a historical grounding in which to situate these striking but enigmatic photographs. Consisting of over three hundred and fifty works and including more than a hundred artists, the exhibition includes examples from minimalism, surrealism, conceptual and optical art which have been variously subsumed under the abstract umbrella. It also critically investigates the definition of this nebulous category. John Suler’s comments provide a broad but astute rationale for identifying the abstract: “if you look at a photo and there’s a voice inside you that says, ‘What is it?’…well, there you go. It’s an abstract photograph.”
Moving through rooms entitled “Objects and Construction” and “Finding Form” we soon notice a recurring focus on unusual combinations of geometrical shapes and lines. Visual compositions are created that have little or no referent in daily life, and ordinary objects and landscapes are (re)presented in unfamiliar ways. A departure from the realist perspective of Renaissance Art typical up until the mid-nineteenth century, abstraction reflects a rapidly modernising world – an increasingly vibrant arena of technological spectacle and scientific discovery. The manifestation of modernity in these works is evident in their non-representational forms and geometries, suggestive of industry and machines, while their busy and disordered contents mirror the fast-paced rhythm of twentieth century life.
Illustrating abstraction’s experimental use of the basic components of photography are Man Ray’s Rayographs. He usurps the camera to place random objects directly onto the photographic paper; exposing them to light to create photograms that appear like blurry, surrealist x-rays. Rather than nurturing the illusion of objective reality, these works show the playful, constructed nature of the photographic process. Alternatively, Brassaï’s Involuntary Sculptures elevate the usually overlooked detritus of life (a rolled up bus ticket, a leaf) to monumental levels, using a macro lens to elucidate structure and shape above contextual detail, transforming the trivial object into art. László Moholy-Nagy meanwhile – his work pervading the first half of the exhibition – adopts the opposite approach, his distanced aerial shots flattening the photo’s conventional perspectival depth. View from Berlin Radio Tower depicts a snow-covered landscape whose functional structures are transformed into white rectangular blocks or circles, while a cleared path appears like a sweep of black paint on a canvas. Extracting pure aesthetic pleasure from these transformed scenes, Moholy-Nagy emphasises the compelling juxtaposition of colour, lines and form.
While people are typically the amorous subjects of a photographer’s lens, they are largely de-privileged in abstraction; when they are photographed they are often fragmented or made malleable. Kertész’s infamous Distortion series bends and stretches the human form with the aid of mirrors, destroying the integrity of its boundaries to grotesque effect, while Bill Brandt de-contextualises the body through close-ups and extreme cropping. Focusing on bare knees, elbows or arms, he makes analogous their textual and formal qualities – their smooth, rounded, shiny surface –with pebbles and boulders. His shots perceive in a peculiar rock formation the human body, or conversely, show the body as an inorganic landscape, thus blurring the line between object and subject.
The content of many of the works included here underscore an anti-humanistic component of abstraction; an increasing belief in man’s relative lack of autonomy. While order and logic are visible in works such as Gottfried Jäger’s Pinhole Structures, which leans on “the logic of machines”, there is a greater focus on randomness, the unconscious and spontaneity. Man Ray’s Unconcerned Photographs – exhibited here for the first time in nearly sixty years – play with “chance, gesture, and the absurd”, their blurry compositions the result of the artist swinging his camera around by its strap. The organic, creative powers of nature are documented in Guy Bourdin and Aaron Siskind’s found abstractions, where pictures of cracked walls and rust flecked metals show nature’s flair for pattern making and acknowledge the authorial prowess of non-human agencies. A contemporary evocation of this is Sigmar Polke’s luminous emerald images, in which traces of radioactive material are captured on photosensitive paper. In this instance it is the material that guides the somewhat unpredictable result, rather than it being an individual, consciously executed vision.
A corridor linking both sides of the gallery offers a partial reconstruction of MoMA’s 1960 exhibition The Sense of Abstraction, as well as critical insight into this artistic category. A glass case containing articles, pictures and letters includes some enlightening correspondence between artist Minor White and curator Grace Mayer. Contesting the label of abstraction, White argues that, like Alfred Stieglitz, her photos should be viewed as “equivalents” of inner states. Her photography, she implies, is a means of elucidation – a moment of revelation of the self to oneself – rather than obfuscation. Reiterating her disdain of the term, she offers Newhall’s view that “either all photographs are abstractions, or none are.”
Bringing us into the digital era is a room dedicated to “Optical Effects” in photography; an essential inclusion but one whose reliance on perfectly ordered grids, repetition and computer-enacted rules lacks the suggestive, imaginative or mysterious qualities so attractive previously. However, the last room of the show brings us into the contemporary moment, exploding in a riot of colour with the post-modern collision of artistic disciplines. Maya Rochat’s specially commissioned A Rock is a River shows the artist’s layering of photographs of geological and organic matter, which she then distresses with bleach, paint, soap or glue. Placed against her vinyl wall design Rochat’s works create a whole of molten forms, further unified by the shifting projection of light across them. Not only does this emphasise the work’s fluidity as it interacts with the images, but it activates its different qualities, making for example a silver and black landscape shimmer iridescently. Transience is also expressed through Daisuke Yokota’s practice of visual degradation in Inversion, where he methodically re-processes his images; scanning, re-copying and further exposing them to darkroom chemicals to create layers of “visual noise”, until the original image is effaced in an evocation of “time and multiple possibilities”.
Both Rochat and Yokota offer the perfect punctuation mark to the exhibition’s assured exploration of abstraction, their work underlining the dissolution of categorical boundaries and focusing on creative process rather than hermetic stasis. Abstraction is shown here to be an exciting and richly diverse movement; a celebration of the ephemeral and a diligent questing after existential truths.
– reviewed by Daniel Pateman
Shape of Light – 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art, continues at Tate Modern, London, until 14th October 2018.
Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1