The Museum of Modern Art's exceptional new show, The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today (through November 1), chronicles how photography all but vanquished sculpture. Or, at the very least, chipped away at the definition of sculpture so that since the 60s (if not sooner) almost anything, frozen in a static pose by the lens of a camera, could be considered a sculpture. Though the thematic exhibition, from the mind of MoMA photography curator Roxana Marcoci, doesn't follow a strict chronological timeline, it does unfold in a fairly linear trajectory from pre-Modern to Postmodern art. This allows for fruitful archives-combing and some superb groupings, a few of which could encompass entire exhibitions unto themselves.
Here, though, rare and popular gems provide incredibly rich variety and opportunities for irresistible juxtapositions—in the first room, a Brassaï shot of a 1932 Parisian sculpture class, followed by the oldest piece in the exhibition, Alphonse Eugène Hubert's 1839 daguerreotype of the "Venus de Milo," gives way to a six-feet-tall Barbara Kruger piece from 1981 and a tiny 1979 Cindy Sherman where she sits bewigged in the foreground, a nondescript tribal artifact looming in a darkened corner. This is the type of mixing and matching that makes art nerds giddy, but Marcoci contextualizes it all with succinctly summarized sections setting out photography's gradual reduction of sculpture to its malleable core. Turns out a sculpture can be anything—maybe even nothing.
And some works even test that boundary, especially as later rooms venture into land and performance art, picturing pieces that no longer exist, and in fact may never have in the first place. The only constant categories amid all the shape-shifting become the distinction between found objects, and deliberately crafted artworks. Sculptures of the most traditional sort fill the first three rooms, which are dominated by shots of museum pieces, artist studios and historical sites. Some pieces are cropped purposefully or framed unconventionally, others shot as objectively as possible. Not surprisingly, this reflects the booming popular press of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, suddenly capable of bringing distant artifacts into readers' hands.
But Marcoci makes the additional point that photography also transformed the way that museums keep inventory; every artwork ever bought, collected or donated has now been photographed. Eugène Druet's series following Auguste Rodin's "The Kiss" and "Eve" from marble depot to museum via the sculptor's studio illustrate how photography accentuates the variable of time for previously slow-aging media like bronze and marble. His photos are very much inventory, however, images of works of great consequence that strive to be transparent and unobtrusive. Beginning just two decades later, Constantin Brancusi's photographs of his own sculptures in rotating installations in his studio—what he called "groupes mobile"—underline the temporal nature of sculpture. Pretty impressive for a Modernist who made some of the most perfect and permanence-oozing sculptures ever.
The next room, devoted to public sculptures and monuments, features photographs of works whose aspirations to permanence are more ideologically charged, and consequently more volatile. Symbols of Soviet might and European colonialism throughout Africa list, crumble and collapse. The exhibition's most productive cross-contextual combinations occur in its biggest room, walls lined with excerpts from series like Robert Frank's The Americans (1958), Lee Friedlander's The American Monument (1976), David Goldblatt's The Structure of Things Then (1998), Cyprien Gaillard's Geographical Analogies (2006-09) polaroid grids, and delightfully punctuated by pieces like Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1958 Paris Match photo-essay "What Are the Americans Up To?" or Berenice Abbott's "Father Duffy, Times Square" (1937), with the iconic statue shrouded under a trap, Christo-like. (Christo, incidentally, appears in an adjacent room with a plan for a wall of barrels just outside MoMA that was never created, a photographic rendering of an immaterial sculpture.)
Taken outside the museum, sculpture is even more at the mercy of photography; Ai Weiwei gives San Marco a blurry middle finger in his "Study of Perspective-San Marco" (1995-2003), one of Goldblatt's 1990 photos captures a monument in a South African military cemetery vandalized by black vigilantes. These works as well as those by land and installation artists like Christo, Robert Smithson and Rachel Whiteread activate photography's documentary capabilities. But the exhibition's final rooms topple contingent assumptions of photographic truth.
Here, the simple act of photographing an object, or a person holding a pose, makes it a sculpture. Through some magical inversion, photography no longer just produces images, it turns things and gestures, whether deliberate or accidental, into aesthetic objects that are inseparable from, indeed nonexistent without their image. Early experiments like Brassaï's Involuntary Sculptures (1932) series of close-ups on dust and lint, lead to Alina Szapocznikow's minimalist chewing gum formations in Photosculptures (1971) and Erwin Wurm's hilarious One Minute Sculptures (1997-98), pushing this capacity to absurdly fleeting proportions.
Such radically unstable works appear weightless compared to the centuries-old stones photographed in the exhibition's first rooms. Photography dissolved those rigid forms of traditional sculpture by introducing a more fluid sense of time. From studio to street, museum to mall, pedestal to performance, The Original Copy follows what might be the most productive relationship between two media in the history of art. In this sense Marcoci's title is misleading. It should be: "The Original Couple: Photography and Sculpture, 1839 to Today."
(images courtesy the artists, Museum of Modern Art)