“Coming into Brancusi’s studio was like entering another world.” – Man Ray, 1963This short but evocative quote currently appears high on the wall just inside the entrance to The Edward Steichen Photography Galleries, on MoMA’s third floor. One artist—the Philadelphia-born, Paris-based Man Ray—describes what it was like to cross the threshold of the studio of another—the Romanian-born, Paris-based Constantin Brancusi. Within his studio, Brancusi arranged and rearranged his sculptures; the Fish and the Bird in Space, among others, resided with one another in this space. The shape of one object created a shadow across the next, multiple forms working in dialogue. Brancusi’s studio itself was such an integral part of his artistic practice that, when he died in 1957, the artist left the space and its contents to the state, and it is now reconstructed at the Centre Pompidou. Indeed, Brancusi composed the environment of the studio with such intention that the artist felt that it couldn’t be adequately depicted by just any photographic reproduction. Only he understood the way that his sculptures should be presented in photographs, and that they should always be pictured within his studio. In fact, Man Ray provided integral advice to Brancusi about his photography, helping him construct a darkroom within the studio.
Two photographs by these artists are currently exhibited together in the first gallery of A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio (on view through October 5), which was organized by Quentin Bajac, The Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of Photography, with my assistance. In a small grouping of works, next to a shadowy image in which Brancusi himself can be seen in the darkness among sculptures in his studio, hangs Man Ray’s beguiling Laboratory of the Future (1935). In this picture, the artist’s studio—including the walls and the ceiling—is reflected upon the surface of a shining orb. In what is otherwise a simple still life picture, the physical space of the studio is present, albeit surreally distorted, in the photographic image. These two photographs are joined on the gallery wall by a third studio scene photographed by the American artist Charles Sheeler, who, besides Man Ray, was one of the few other photographers that Brancusi allowed to photograph his sculptures.
In many ways, this first gallery serves as a platform for the rest of the exhibition. Multiple photographic works, from the early 20th century to the present, are brought together in a constellation around the space of the artist’s studio. The exhibition, which includes works compiled from the Museum’s collection, is not arranged chronologically, but rather unfolds in thematic chapters, in which different aspects of studio practice are explored. In the first gallery, the physical space of the studio itself is surveyed. From the floor (seen in Bruce Nauman’s Composite Photo of Two Messes on the Studio Floor, 1967), across the walls and ceiling (in a group of works from the 1970s by Geta Brătescu, in which the artist carries us through her Bucharest studio and the objects therein), and finally to the windows (the subject of an extended study by Josef Sudek entitled The Window of My Studio), we are steered throughout and across every feature of the studio space. In some of these works we are able to conjure a sense of the artist’s practice within that space: in Nauman’s Composite Photo, for example, we encounter piles of material, including the leftover debris from some of the artist’s other artworks, such as Flour Arrangements (1967), all photographed from above like a topographic map. The exhibition also includes photographs that have not been on view in some time, as well as recent acquisitions, such as the trio of works by Brătescu, in which the artist utilized multiple mediums (film, photography, and lithography, among others) to reflect upon the subject of the artist’s studio—the studio being one of the few places in which artists felt free to engage in open expression and exploration during the Ceausescu regime in Romania.
The path around the room (both the gallery at MoMA and the room that is the depicted studio) ends at Uta Barth’s Sundial (07.13) (2007). In this color triptych, a vase of flowers and a few objects set along a shelf cast a shadow against a blank white wall in what appears to be a kitchen (we can make out the corner of a table and a wedge of a cabinet). Barth photographs her own home, and thus the home becomes a studio space in which the artist observes how the light changes across multiple days (and even seasons) in the same environment. Each panel of this work represents a similar scene, except that in the second and third image the squares reflected on the wall are a deep black, and the flowers exist as negative space—lightness—within the dark shape. In this way, the panels serve as an initial image together with its afterimages. Through Barth’s work, we get a sense of how a physical space can be reflective or meditative: the studio as a space for contemplation of one’s surroundings.