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    Complete archive, 1999-present


      Hands With Thimble by Alfred Stieglitz in Speaking With Hands
      "Hands With Thimble" by Alfred Stieglitz
    A show of hands

    Images of hands are the subject of "Speaking With Hands," a show of photographic treasures at the Guggenheim.


    The imaginative and varied Speaking With Hands should not be missed. Despite the name, it is not an exhibition about sign language, although it does draw upon our skills in visual literacy. From a small print made directly from Lord Byron's handwriting in 1840 to large cibachrome portraits favored by contemporary artists, images of hands can be seen traversing a wide range of changes in photographic technologies and sensibilities that developed from about 1840 through 2002.

    Exhibition: Speaking With Hands.
    June 4 - September 8, 2004

    Gallery: Guggenheim Museum
    1071 5th Av
    New York NY
    Hours: Sa-W 10-5:45; F 10-8; closed Th.
    Phone: (212) 423-3500

    The exhibition was conceived and organized by Jennifer Blessing, curator of Henry Buhl's collection of some 1000 images. Her selection of 175 of them for the Guggenheim show highlights the collection's best assets: chronological depth, conceptual breadth, and stylistic diversity.

    Speaking With Hands is held in the Annex Level galleries that spin off from the Rotunda's spiral ramp. The suggested itinerary is to begin on Annex Level 4, where the visitor will find such treasures as Alfred Stieglitz's portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe's hands from 1920, "Hands with Thimble"; Eve Arnold's portrait of Malcolm X, a Claude Cahun self portrait, and Peter Hujar's portrait of David Wojnarowicz.

    Annex Level 3 displays fascinating examples of photography from the 19th and 20th centuries that favor experimentation over representation. Ideologies clash and contrast as late 19th century psycho-scientific notions of "ectoplasm" or the human aura are displayed side by side "cameraless" photograms, where the intention was to analyze the properties of photography as a new technology for the modern world. A good example of the latter is a photogram by László Moholy-Nagy, an artist who taught principles of constructivism at The Bauhaus in Germany before emigrating to the US in the late 1930s.

      Ingrown by Janine Antoni in Speaking With Hands
      "Ingrown" by Janine Antoni
    The High Gallery on level 2 holds contemporary photo-based works centered on the human body from the 1970s to the present. Amid large works in color by Cindy Sherman, Andres Serrano and others, Giuseppe Penone's black and white mosaic of small prints entitled "To Unwrap One's Skin" is poetic and understated. Janine Antoni's "Ingrown" turns a cosmetic enhancement into a daydream of noirish beauty. On Annex Level 5, the visitor will find other contemporary works that highlight contradictions inherent in photographic representation. See for yourself whether they succeed in challenging your expectations of photographs....

    The Guggenheim show highlights the collection's best assets: chronological depth, conceptual breadth, and stylistic diversity.  

    Who is Henry Buhl, anyway? The New York philanthropist, social activist, former investment broker and mutual funds manager collected more than 1,000 photographic images of hands. It began with the acquisition of the Stieglitz photograph of O'Keeffe's hands, mentioned above. Buhl found it to be one of the most beautiful photographs ever made; he is not alone. For a time he served as chairman of photography at the Guggenheim, and advocated for the museum to accept a large gift from the Mapplethorpe Foundation in 1992. Since then, the Guggenheim has mounted several exhibitions critically examining photography as an art form.

      Photogram by László Moholy-Nagy in Speaking With Hands
      "Photogram" by László Moholy-Nagy
    In the Guggenheim Rotunda the visitor to Speaking With Hands cannot and should not avoid Brancusi: The Essence of Things and Mondrian to Ryman: The Abstract Impulse. These two beautiful shows distill a tidy but rich vein of sculpture and painting that began in the early 20th century and continues today. Notice how the Brancusi show, an oasis of cool marble and aerodynamic form, proceeds smoothly, rationally, logically up the ramp, while the "stepchild" of art (so photography was once called) runs riot in the annex galleries. Whether this was intentional or not, the physical separation of modernist art from photography provides a rare opportunity to see one of the most divisive battles in recent art history played out in museological pantomime. The fact is that for most of the 20th century, not much thought was given to photography in fine art circles. As Speaking With Hands makes abundantly clear, there was a whole lot going on, and the story of modern art is incomplete without it.

    AUGUST 18, 2004

    Reader comments on Speaking With Hands:

  • speaking with hands exhibition   from katherine greene, Jun 21, 2005
  • Awsome   from Alisha, Jan 10, 2006

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