– Spring 2013

Welling’s ‘Wyeth’

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith

Tags: Barbara Kruger, James Welling, Michael Fried

‘I gave up painting like Andrew Wyeth in the first month of undergraduate art school’. James Welling’s deceptively offhand remark appears in parentheses in an interview with Lyle Rexer from 2010, as he recalls how, as a student in the 1970s, he ‘came to photography through the eye of Minimalism and post-Minimalism’.1 The previous year Rexer had published The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, a coat-trailing account of the long history of photography. In the book Rexer attempts to redress the marginalisation of diverse strains of photographic abstraction in the canonical version of that history, which is epitomised by the writings of John Szarkowski and was enshrined at the institution where Szarkowski held sway from the early 1960s to the early 90s, New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Welling is one of a brisk succession of figures, from Henry Fox Talbot on, whose work is marshalled to illustrate Rexer’s revisionist narrative, and four of his photographs are reproduced in the book. Two of these are early gelatin-silver prints from well-known series: the first a 1981 photograph of scattered shards of white pastry dough nestling in dark folds of velvet drapery, and the second an image of an irregular pattern of geometrically shaped black tiles against a white ground, from 1985. The other two images are from the past decade: one of Welling’s colour photograms of flowers, dated 2005, and one of his Degradés (1986—2006), a series of cameraless exposures, titled I12N and dated 2002. Though typically modest in scale, I12N all but dares one to describe it without recourse to a roll call of post-War US abstract painters, featuring

  1. Lyle Rexer and James Welling, ‘How to Skin a Cat: A Conversation on Photography’, in Shane Lavalette and Michael Bühler-Rose (ed.), Lay Flat 02: Meta, New York: Lay Flat, 2010, pp.20—21.

  2. L. Rexer, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, New York: Aperture, 2009. The quotation is from the book’s flyleaf.

  3. Ibid., p.145.

  4. See ‘James Welling Talks to Jan Tumlir’, Artforum, vol.42, no.8, April 2004, p.216. Abigail Solomon-
    Godeau, ‘Playing in the Fields of the Image’, Afterimage, vol.10, no.1—2, Summer 1982; reprinted in
    A. Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions and Practices,
    Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994, pp.86—102.

  5. Rosalind E. Krauss, ‘Photography and Abstraction’, in A Debate on Abstraction: Photography and Abstraction (exh. cat.), New York: The Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery, Hunter College, 1989, p.66; quoted in Rosalyn Deutsche, ‘Darkness: The Emergence of James Welling’, in James Welling: Abstract (exh. cat.), Brussels and Toronto: Palais des Beaux-Arts and Art Gallery of York University, 2002, p.12.

  6. ‘A Conversation with Sylvia Lavin, Los Angeles, February 28, 2010’, James Welling: Glass House (exh. cat.), Bologna: Damiani, p.27.

  7. A. Solomon-Godeau, ‘Playing in the Fields of the Image’, op. cit., p.100.

  8. Welling also, it should be noted, made photographs of unadorned drapery at this time.

  9. A. Solomon-Godeau, ‘Playing in the Fields of the Image’, op. cit., p.97.

  10. For Welling on Strand and Stieglitz, see ‘James Welling Talks to Jan Tumlir’, op. cit., p.216. A notable example of such reconsideration is Jeff Wall’s reading of Sherrie Levine’s appropriations of midcentury ‘masters’ of photography in terms of identification rather than criticality. See J. Wall, ‘Frames of Reference’, Artforum, vol.42, no.1, September 2003, pp.188—92.

  11. See R. Deutsche, ‘Darkness: The Emergence of James Welling’, op. cit., for objections on such grounds
    to readings of Welling’s work by Walter Benn Michaels as well as Michael Fried.

  12. Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Never Before, New Haven and London: Yale University
    Press, 2008, p.304.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid., p.303.

  15. J. Welling, Wyeth (exh. brochure), Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, unpaginated.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid.

  18. For an elaboration on this point, see R. Deutsche, ‘Darkness: The Emergence of James Welling’, op. cit.,

  19. A. Solomon-Godeau, ‘Playing in the Fields of the Image’, op. cit., p.100.

  20. L. Rexer, ‘James Welling: Wyeth’, Photograph, July/August 2012, p.32.

  21. Wyeth: James Welling (exh. cat.), Tokyo: Wako Works of Art, unpaginated.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Ibid.

  25. A. Solomon-Godeau, ‘Playing in the Fields of the Image’, op. cit., p.100.

  26. ‘James Welling Talks to Jan Tumlir’, op cit., p.217.