“A course along the floor, of proportions 1 × 21 systems, photographed. Pictures printed to real size of items and prints attached to floor so that images are completely in agreement with their things.”
So check out a set of simple, if unclear, guidelines that Victor Burgin wrote on a single index card in 1967. When followed, the prompt yields a line of photographs that are exactingly printed to simulate the floor on which they’re installed– so much so, in fact, that it’s easy to miss them completely.
This was Photopath (1967-69), an era-defining work of mid-century photo-conceptualism that still bewilders today, even if– or, indeed, since— it leaves its viewers with more concerns than responses. Photopath is the topic of both a brand-new book and a program. The latter, a dedicated exhibit at Cristin Tierney Gallery that opens today, marks the first time in more than 50 years that the influential art work will be set up in New York.
Burgin, now 81, wasn’t a photographer when he developed Photopath 51 years ago. He didn’t own, or even actually understand how to utilize, a cam. What the technology represented to him was a way to an end– or, more accurately, the “solution to a problem,” he stated in a current interview.
The British-born artist was getting his graduate degree at Yale in the late ’60s and was hyper-conscious, as many young artists are, of his location in the iterative evolution of creative ideas and motions– that process where a generation of makers reacts to the one that preceded it, and in doing so, develops a new set of problems for the successive generation to take up.
“We felt, at that time, that our generation needed to discover the problem. When you found the problem, then you understood what your creative issue was; it was resolving that,” Burgin stated.
On the artist’s mind were the slightly older mid-century minimalists– Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and his then-teacher at Yale, Robert Morris– whose officially rigorous work often resisted close examination and instead gestured outward, to the areas in which it was set up. But Burgin was after something more evasive, something even non-material.
“It struck me then that perhaps I found the issue,” he said, recalling it in the form of a question: “What might I carry out in a gallery that would not include anything substantial to the area yet would direct the viewer’s attention to [their] existing?” It was into this context that Photopath was born.
The art work was among numerous index cards that Burgin composed after he had returned to the U.K. Developing directions for hypothetical artworks satisfied his desire “to do away with the object” in his work, however the cards, too, felt unsatisfied; he required to enact the prompts to complete them.
So he did. Photopath was initially realized on the scarred wooden floor of a friend’s apartment or condo in Nottingham in 1967, then again at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1969 and at the Guggenheim in 1971.
Though the piece was conceived as a type of sculpture– or an anti-sculpture, maybe– its effect, in retrospection, feels absolutely photographic. Like couple of art work prior to it, Photopath made use of the medium’s exceptional capability to nestle in between image and item, illusion and idea. If the artwork doesn’t compel its audiences to consider these concepts intellectually, it a minimum of makes one feel them through interaction. Do you treat it like a sculpture or a picture? Or is it not an art work at all and rather just another stretch of flooring? Do you step on Photopath‘s prints or walk them?
“It is tough to imagine an act of photography more uncomplicated and uncompromising than Photopath,” author and manager David Campany explained in his current book on the art work and its legacy, released last October by MACK.
“It intends to satisfy the basic potential of the medium, which is to copy and to put itself forward as a stand-in or replacement. Yet,” Campany went on, “in meeting this expectation so actually, it somehow separates itself.”
To date, Photopath has only been set up a handful of times, the most recent instance of which came in 2012 at the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photo, 1964-1977” exhibit, when it was laid upon the polished wood boards of the museum’s Renzo Piano-designed atrium. After the run of the program, Burgin’s prints were disposed of, leaving a dark, ghostly shape on the sun-soaked floor. He had, in a sense, developed another type of picture.
“I thought, ‘That’s simply perfect.’ It truly returns [the art work] to the origin of photography,” Burgin said, keeping in mind that the program seemed like a fitting conclusion for the art work. He thought that would be the final time Photopath would be revealed.
But that altered last year when Campany approached the artist with the concept of composing his short book about the artwork– a piece of writing that mixes analytic art theory and individual experience, typically to lyrical effect. What Campany determined in Burgin’s art work was a kind of insight for how photographic innovation is utilized today.
” [J] ust as Vermeer had actually pursued a crucial technical advancement in the visualizing of three-dimensional area, so too had actually Burgin anticipated elements of representation that are just as prevalent: the duplication of surfaces, and the unpredictable space in between images and their mental impressions. Fake leaves on plastic plants. Laminated tabletops mimicing stone or wood. Synthetic clothing pretending to be denim or leather.”
“Photographic ‘skins’ are everywhere in modern life,” Campany concluded. “They are not pictures, a minimum of not in the traditional sense, but are a reality of our contemporary material, visual, and virtual experience.”
“Victor Burgin: Photopath” is on view now through March 4, 2023 at Cristin Tierney Gallery in New York City. Victor Burgin’s Photopath by David Campany is offered now through MACK.
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