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What are we to make of posthumous art?

25 August 2014

This article first appeared on Culture House Daily

What does an artist do with work that isn’t quite up to his or her standards? Throw it out? Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg both tried that, putting artworks they didn’t like out with the trash, only to find them on sale in galleries a few years later. Some artists preemptively destroy works they don’t like. ‘There’s enough bad art in the world,’ Indiana painter Charles Mundy said. ‘I want to spare the public bad art, especially if it’s mine.’ The solution for most artists is just to keep their misfires in storage, which only postpones a decision.

The question becomes trickier when the artists are dead, and a current exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art of images by street photographer Garry Winogrand (1928–84) offers a real poser. Perhaps one quarter of the images on view were developed from rolls of film that Winogrand used but never developed. They just sat in storage until curators going through the artist’s archives decided to develop a portion of them (there were 2,500 undeveloped rolls of film), and the curator of this exhibition, Leo Rubinfien, chose to exhibit quite a few. Rubinfien’s intention, as he described in the catalogue essay, was to make a case that Winogrand’s late work did not represent a precipitous drop in quality (as a number of scholars claim) but are in many instances equal to his more celebrated works of the 1960s. Lost in this debate is Winogrand’s own view, which he offered only by omission.

What are we to make of the work that wasn’t put on exhibit during their lifetimes (and artists always produce more than they show and sell)? One has to assume that the artists knew best what they wanted presented to the public, and those pieces that didn’t make the cut may be kept around for any number of reasons. Scholars certainly appreciate the opportunity to examine artworks that reveal less well-known aspects of an artist’s thought process.

There are numerous instances in the literary world of putting out for the public works that writers chose for one reason or another not to publish. There have been more posthumous Ernest Hemingway novels – Islands of the StreamThe Dangerous SummerTrue at First Light and The Garden of Eden, not to mention works of nonfiction – than many writers produce during their lifetimes. And we are seeing more and more of this in the fine arts.

This past spring, New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery presented an exhibit of newly created posthumous metal sculptures by Constantin Brancusi that were produced using molds that were found in the artist’s studio. The Kasmin Gallery represents the Brancusi estate and was involved in the decision to create posthumous pieces. These new sculpture editions looked lovely, but perhaps too lovely, since Brancusi tended to work over each cast piece – polishing here, roughing the surface there – in order to make every one unique. Are these real Brancusi’s or just objects that look like Brancusi’s but aren’t?

There are other examples. The United States pavillion at the 2007 Venice Biennale consisted of an untitled sculpture by the artist Félix González-Torres, who had died 11 years earlier and had only made rough sketches of what he wanted the final artwork to look like. Unfazed, Guggenheim Museum curator Nancy Spector organized the creation of this work based on those sketches for this important international exhibition. No one faults Spector, but what we are getting is her best guess.

Last fall, a posthumous 30-foot tall artist’s proof of Roy Lichtenstein’s 1988 Coups de Pincea was produced by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation and installed on the grounds of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. The sculpture probably would have suited the artist, better known for his paintings (‘Coups de Pinceau’ means ‘brushstrokes’) – but it was the foundation’s language-defying designation of this piece as a ‘posthumous artist’s proof’ that suggests someone felt a bit awkward when describing it.

Back to Garry Winogrand and the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. There are two concerns, one immediate and one for the future. In the exhibition and catalogue (far more of them are included in the catalogue), these images are identified as the work of this artist. They are and they aren’t. Winogrand focused his camera and snapped the shutter, but much of the work of a traditional, film-based photographer takes place in the darkroom, where images are cropped, tones are enhanced or lightened and decisions are made about the developing process that will be used (silver prints, sepia tones, platinum, dye transfer – lots of options). For photography collectors, there also is a worry that these newly made images will be released as editions for buyers, muddying both the appreciation of Winogrand’s body of work and the understanding of what the artist produced and what others produced on his behalf.

Certainly, posthumously produced photographs do appear on the market from time to time. The children and grandchildren of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston regularly sell newly printed versions of older, well-known images by these artists. However, these heirs identify on the back of each print when the images were produced and who did the actual printing, and the prices of these works are a few hundred dollars, not the five and six-figure amounts that the ones made by these artists (or under their supervision) sell for in high-end galleries and at auction. Think of these prints as high-end souvenirs.

When artists (and writers) don’t choose to make public their creations, it is legitimate to wonder why, because understanding an artist’s editing process is valuable, although perhaps not quite as valuable as what they add to the world. Garry Winogrand died young – he was only 56 – and may well have revisited his undeveloped rolls of film had he lived, selecting certain images for printing – possibly the very same images that Rubinfien selected, we will never know. Art is difficult enough to understand without adding the confusion of works that artists did not complete, may not have liked or were undecided about. The tribute to his achievement at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ends up second-guessing the artist, which diminishes Winogrand and maybe all those who visit the exhibit or purchase his work.

‘Garry Winogrand’ is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 21 September.

Daniel Grant is the author of The Business of Being an Artist (Allworth Press) and other books