Reflections from a Discerning Eye

In the film “Wall Street,” Michael Douglas misguidedly observed “greed is good” with dire results. However, if greed also means grasping every opportunity to create a world-class photography collection at the Cincinnati Art Museum James Crump is committing no aesthetic trespass.
“I was asked to kick start a relatively dormant program in terms of audience development, annual exhibitions, special programming and collecting said Crump in email responses to questions for this interview.
Crump, who has been photography curator at the Mount Adams art museum since 2008 and recently was appointed chief curator of collections, already has put a focus on postwar American photography.
To date, he has mounted three such exhibitions including Garry Winogrand ( candid street photos capturing the women of the 1960s), color photography from the 1970s and ’80s and a decade by decade retrospective on the social photography of Walker Evans that closed Sept. 5.
His expansive plans include a range of shows on photographers of historical, contemporary works of emerging artists and Cincinnati area photographers but offered no specifics on upcoming shows.
Crump also indicates he wouldn’t shrink from displaying erotic art on museum walls despite the city’s turbulent history involving the Robert Mapplethorpe obscenity trial.
Crump directed, wrote and produced “Black White + Gray,” a 2007 documentary on the relationship between Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff who was Mapplethorpe’s lover and promoted his career.
Video will not be neglected.
“Video art will comprise an increasingly important role in the matrix of exhibitions.” said Crump.
When Crump arrived in Cincinnati in 2008, he found a collection of nearly 3,000 images. This collection dates from the advent of photography in 1838 or 1839 when Louis Daguerre shot the first picture of a person on a Paris street to the present.
The museum collection includes work by Julia Margaret Cameron, Matthew Brady, Herbert Greer French, Man Ray, Ansel Adams and Cindy Sherman.
“The Cincinnati Art Museum began exhibiting photography relatively early in 1896,” Crump said.
It was an epoch in which there was great bias against photography and “the medium’s viability as an art form” Crump said.
When photography finally won recognition as an art form in the 1970s and ’80s, the Cincinnati museum lagged in developing its collection.
“The collecting strategy was for a long time encyclopedic, which is not unusual for art museums this size,”Crump said. “That is to say, examples by well-known and leading artists were acquired but rarely in depth with only one or a handful of prints representing each artist. Of course, there are exceptions.
“There are many gaps to fill. We are opportunistic in our acquisitions with emphasis on long-term value. It is a matter of weighing resources against the secondary market (prices asked when art is resold after a previous purchase) and also having one’s finger on the pulse of the contemporary art market where there is a great deal of opportunity.
“During my tenure, we have been fortunate to be able to collect forcefully in postwar American photography and contemporary works by mid- and late-career artists.”
In addition to three postwar photography exhibitions already mounted, the overall thrust for shows Crump said will be “to install photo-based art…in all genres, from contemporary works by emerging artists to later career masters and historic figures in the medium.
“Of course, we will originate major exhibitions, but we also seek collaborative partnerships with those museums and individuals who share our intensity and our interest in creative or experimental joint ventures.”
This month, on Oct. 5, to be exact, it will be 20 years since the acquittal of the Contemporary Arts Center and its then-director Dennis Barrie on charges of pandering obscenity and the illegal use of a child in nudity-related material alleged to have been part of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, “The Perfect Moment.”
“From my perspective, in the two years that I’ve been here, Cincinnati seems to more broadly embrace diversity and the notion of tolerance,” Crump said.
“Audiences have an appetite for all types of art, including erotic art, if it is intelligently presented and contexualized.”
Another exhibition form that has become popular is the work of performance celebrities who cross-over to make visual art.
Tony Bennett gets big bucks for his watercolors and oils. Tony Curtis , whose paintings look like homages to Matisse, works in a colorful palette of acrylics. John Mellenkamp does surreal portraitures in oil.
Joel Grey is into photography. For his New York City show in July he used the 1.3 megapixel camera in his cell phone to shoot his pictures.
Yet, Crump is wary of showcasing celebrity-produced art as a means to jack up public interest in museums.
“Joel Grey is a known quantity in the art world; he has published books and exhibited his work for many years, ” Crump said.
“There is a genuine connection that cuts across celebrity and art making.
“Celebrity connections can be useful in promotion and raising awareness about photography, but celebrity alone is not an antidote for increasing attendance.”
Under Crump there also have been organizational changes. The photography division has been separated out from what was the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Department of Prints, Drawings and Photography. Kristin Spangenberg continues to be curator of prints and drawings.
“This change reflects a trend in museums that began 20 years ago acknowledging that photography is an ever growing field in need of its own publications, exhibitions and programming,” Crump said.

“Most major art museums now have dedicated departments with curators that have earned advance degrees specializing in the history of the medium.”
Crump comes to CAM with dense credentials. He has a doctorate from the University of New Mexico. His bachelor and master’s degrees are from Indiana University at Bloomington.
Prior to the doctorate, Crump was associate curator of photography at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. The Kinsey has a massive collection of over 50,000 prints.
“My time spent at the Kinsey Institute was formative in many regards,” Crump said. “With a collection that large, one was able to evolve one’s aesthetic over a spectrum of eras, photographic processes and materials.”
In later years, Crump has become a widely published author of photography literature. He has authored nearly 100 articles. His most recent books are “Variety: Photographs by Nan Goldin” (2009) and “Walker Evans: Decade by Decade” (2010).
This panoply of exposure to photography has brought Crump an appreciation of the technical processes that have helped make photography an art form.
In regard to the ongoing debate of film photography vs. digital photography, especially in regard to the manipulation of the image and the effects of two processes, Crump straddles the wide divide.
“Since its inception, photography has been the medium that more than any other was continually evolving technologically as it does today, changing and facilitating the very means of producing images.
“There are some today who don’t consider ‘digital’ a medium at all, and the term ‘digital media’ an oxymoron.
” ‘Is photography over?’ Some historians ask. (It is) a question around which more than one symposium has been organized recently.
“Personally, I view these changes as presenting myriad options and new opportunities to artists. Just as there was ‘something lost’ with the decline of platinum printing (a process achieving beautiful tonal range) in favor of gelatin silver in the last century, there is something lost with the decline of analogue film.
“We are at a juncture in still photography when culture producers and artists are still absorbing the gains from these changes, attempting to understand what they mean long term, and how they will impact their respective practices.”
On the aesthetic side, Crump shows a varied taste in photography.
When asked to select five photographs that have impacted Crump personally, his eclectic choices range from Man Ray’s picture of the curious visual configurations of dust on Marcel Duchamp’s glass panel (1920) to Leigh Ledare’s photographs of his mother engaged in provocative sex acts (2002).

Here are Crump’s selections and accompanying commentary:

* Dust Breeding (1920) Man Ray in collaboration with Marcel Duchamp: “This photograph has resonated with me for a very long time,” Crump said. “It’s inscrutable. It is a dreamy picture that conjures some ancient landscape or a landing strip for the gods.”
“And, yet, it shares strong affinities with Brassai’s ‘Sculptures Involontaires’ (shots of mundane objects of “‘unmonumental” size but photographed in such a way as to give them monumental scale), which I have always found quite magical.”
* Rhine II (1999) (click here to see it on the MOMA site) by Andreas Gursky: Shot in color, this stretch of the Rhine River near Dusseldorf is a landscape that becomes an abstract squeezing sky, river and stretches of green grass into formal, almost geometric bands of color.
“Gursky is perhaps the most dominant artist to have emerged from the Dusseldorf school, the artists who exerted enormous influence on contemporary photo-based art,” Crump said.
“Standing before this monumental picture, one loses oneself in the scale, the saturation of color and the obvious technical virtuosity. It’s a sexy picture, for sure.”
* Seven Last Words of Christ (1898) by Fred Holland Day: Day, who was part of the late 19th century pictorialist movement that attempted to apply the characteristics of painting to the photograph, donned a crown of thorns and played the crucified Christ for his camera. He appears in a series of photographs inspired by the last utterances of Christ on the cross.
Crump said, “I became interested in Day when I viewed Robert Mapplethorpe’s Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective in 1988. This series of pictures, which certainly influenced Mapplethorpe, inspired the subject of my second book, ‘F. Holland Day: Suffering the Ideal.’ ”

* Hotlicks (2002) by Leigh Ledare: (click here to see this image on another journal site; Warning! Explicit) This explicit color shot was part of a series in which Ledare used his mother as a subject and posed her in a series of sexual situations.
“Hotlicks” shows Ledare’s mother lying languidly on a bed nonchalantly exposing her genitalia while a long-haired man sits on her bed in boxers playing an electric guitar.
This series often juxtaposes less heated pictures such as Ledare and his mother in a thrift shop and framed letters sent between mother and son.
“Ledare is among the most interesting young artists stretching photography today,” Crump said. “In this disturbing, taboo series, the artist photographed his mother nude, having sex with male prostitutes and behaving naughtily for the camera.
“It takes more than guts to make these photographs. Whether one appreciates them as much as I do, or considers them pornographic or incestuous, they certainly raise unsettling questions about desire…and universal themes in art.
“Therein lies the power of ‘Hotlicks’ for me.”

* A Child Crying, New Jersey (1967) by Diane Arbus: This black and white closeup of a sobbing child, with droplets of tears on the face serving as products of some undisclosed agony, makes the phrase “heartbroken” seem an inadequate of what is ensuing here.
The direct full front angle of this shot is characteristic of the style of the photographer who showed a preference for New Jersey locations.
But it was not so much Jersey geography that fascinated Arbus. It was people she found in New Jersey—carnival performers, nudists, again shot full frontal; and the controversial series of the mentally ill also likely shot in New Jersey institutions.
Assessing “A Child Crying, Crump said, “This picture for years hung over my bed in Santa Fe. I always found something new in it and it seemed to encompass so many themes and emotions.
“Although it was among the images included in her posthumous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972, today it seems overshadowed by more infamous pictures.
“I still dream about it.”

– Jerry Stein


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