Robert Bergman, Untitled, 1987
> Read the review Robert Bergman: Portraits, 1986-1995, by Andy Grundberg from Aperture magazine Issue 199.
The current (Summer 2010) issue of Aperture magazine contains a curious “review” written by Andy Grundberg, former photography critic for the New York Times and now Associate Dean and Chair of Photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. Ostensibly a review of Robert Bergman’s recent solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Grundberg’s piece says little of substance about the work itself, and is remarkably noncommittal about its particular qualities. Instead, Grundberg uses the occasion of Bergman’s show to attempt to prop up a defensive power structure within the old photographic establishment that I had hoped we were well rid of.
Grundberg’s main complaint is a bureaucratic one—that this artist should not be recognized because he was not vetted by the proper authorities. If Bergman was really any good, Grundberg implies, the recognized arbiters in the field (like Grundberg) would have chosen him before and given him their blessing. Since Bergman did not receive this blessing, his work should never have come to light.
Grundberg begins by comparing Bergman (who is sixty-six years old and has been making photographs seriously for half a century) to the “untrained and unsung” eighteen-year-old street photographer in John Waters’s 1998 film Pecker, who is “discovered by a savvy New York dealer and becomes the toast of the art world,” causing problems for the subjects of his photographs back in Baltimore and raising troubling questions about “exploitation.” The film also features an officious New York Times critic getting “teabagged” in a Baltimore bar, marking the entrance of that recently politicized term into common usage, and a fictional curator at the Whitney toasting “the end of irony,” three years before 9/11. But Waters’s good-natured, prescient, and wise satire is lost on Grundberg, who finds Bergman’s artistic rags-to-riches story unsavory and vaguely sinister. “It seems a tad curious,” he writes, “that scarcely anyone had heard of Bergman before this show, much less seen one of his pictures.”
Obviously, many people have seen Bergman’s work over the past fifty years, and his book A Kind of Rapture, published by Random House in 1998, with an introduction by Toni Morrison and an afterword by Meyer Schapiro, wasn’t exactly a secret. Grundberg’s category of “scarcely anyone” includes Morrison and Schapiro; Robert Frank and Danny Seymour; critics A. D. Coleman, Vicki Goldberg, John Russell, Paul Mattick, Katy Siegel, and John Yau; Sarah Greenough (who has championed the work for the past fourteen years) and the entire exhibition committee of the National Gallery; Phong Bui, who curated the concurrent show at P.S.1 and edited the catalog of that show; Yossi Milo, who has shown the work in his gallery in Chelsea; and many, many others.
To malign this work as “latter-day Bowery Bum photography,” as Grundberg does here, is a pointed inversion. Anyone who actually looks at these images will see that they are the opposite of what Grundberg claims that they are. But by mischaracterizing them in this way, and using the tired old (now entirely institutionalized) tropes of “the aestheticization of suffering” critique to buttress his weak and cynical gesture, he can dismiss them as retrograde (appearing “a half-century too late”), and hopefully restore order to the canon. God forbid work should appear “out of order,” and be judged on its own merits.
In truth, the history of photography is full of examples of work that was misjudged and maligned according to the prejudices of the time it was made, and then eventually rediscovered and celebrated. Bergman’s portraits could not be sanctioned or exhibited before this because the institutional arbiters that Andy Grundberg represents did not approve of them. They did not fit in to the then reigning formalist orthodoxy about what this kind of image could or should be. They were too subjective, too raw, too much about portrayal rather than mimesis or typology. Now those old institutional aesthetic regimes have lost some of their power to control what is seen, and Grundberg is left holding the bag. Bergman’s extraordinary portraits are not arriving fifty years too late, but right on time, when they can be seen for what they are. What is late, and ineffectual, is Grundberg’s official censure.
Andy Grundberg responds:
I’ve been called plenty of things in my time, but never (at least to my face) a formalist or a canonizer. David Levi Strauss, who runs a graduate program in criticism at the School of Visual Arts in New York, presumably knows what the task of a review is, or in his case a “review” of a “review,” and taking work at face value, or sui generis, isn’t it. On this score I admire his willingness to take my analysis of Robert Bergman’s work to the woodshed, where my tongue can deftly be removed from my cheek.
On the other hand: Strauss’s suggestion that I am bent on defending a canon of artistic practice against the likes of the National Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art/ P.S. 1, Robert Frank, and Meyer Schapiro makes me feel rather like Alice in a rabbit hole. Since I’d neither heard of nor seen Robert Bergman’s work before it appeared in simultaneous exhibitions at the National Gallery and MOMA/ P.S. 1 (my oversight, apparently), how is it that I’m party to keeping his work from being shown or sanctioned lo these many years? What old institutional aesthetic regime do I represent to Strauss – versus, say, a museum that shows Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Andre Kertesz, and another that currently is exhibiting Henri Cartier-Bresson?
What really confounds me is Strauss’s assertion that I represent some formalist orthodoxy, when what I found disingenuous about Bergman’s work was his erasure of social and cultural context in the name of having his pictures seen as formalist images. The people in his portraits not only have no names, they have no personal, social, or cultural identities outside of the viewer’s imagination. Bergman may intend this as an antidote to stereotyping, but the effect is that all we can do is appreciate his use of color, composition, and other authorial touches. Strauss says that “Anyone who actually looks at these images will see that they are the opposite of what Grundberg claims that they are,” which may be true for him, but I would contend that there is plenty of room for viewers to make claims for any number of degrees of meaning between my 0 and Strauss’s 180. All that’s certain in the work is the photographer’s claim to an exalted subjectivity.
To purchase Aperture 199, Summer 2010, click here.