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March 30th, 2011
Philadelphia Museum of Art Presents Unsettled: Photography and Politics in Contemporary Art

(April 9 – August 21, 2011)

Exhibition takes a fresh look at photography’s importance to socially challenging art of the past thirty years.

A new exhibition, entitled Unsettled: Photography and Politics in Contemporary Art, in the Julien Levy Gallery in the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art presents work by nine artists who used photography to address some of the most salient political and social issues of the late 1970s through the early 1990s, including feminism, racism, the AIDS crisis, and gay activism.

Activist and political art of the 1980s was not limited to photography, but photographs were nearly always at the center of discussion because of the medium’s direct connection to real-world things, bodies, and events. Artists who embraced photography’s singular capacity to unsettle the viewer did so through a broad range of techniques. Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Lorna Simpson, and Carrie Mae Weems based their work on, and often subverted, the tradition of studio portraiture. Hujar, Nan Goldin, and Zoe Leonard shot seemingly candid pictures, often of subjects found on the street. Barbra Kruger and David Wojnarowicz created montages with appropriated imagery lifted from advertising and other pop-culture sources. Kruger, Simpson, and Weems put words in their pictures, deploying language to give political meaning to otherwise neutral images. Wojnarowicz used text in yet another way in his Sex Series, mixing images with news stories, government reports, and diary entries about homosexuality and AIDS.

Unsettled is intended to place into a historical context the recent controversy surrounding the removal of a film by David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) from the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Spurred by activists, members of Congress objected to the film’s imagery, and museum officials reacted by removing it from view. That action and the resulting public outcry were reminiscent of the culture wars of the 1980s, when some political and religious leaders denounced art they found offensive and called for the elimination of public arts funding.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition will include eight newly acquired photographs by Wojnarowicz, from his Sex Series (1988-89). In these works, much discussed in the 1980s, Wojnarowicz employed stock images of an ocean liner, a train, an aerial view of New York City, and comparable motifs, insetting small, circular images depicting intimate encounters within each photograph. Each scene was then printed in negative (reversed tones). Several of the prints include text addressing the American government’s management of the growing AIDS crisis.

Around the time Wojnarowicz made Sex Series, Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) had become the subject of one of the contemporary art world’s most notable censorship storms. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., in 1989, canceled a Mapplethorpe retrospective that was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, fearing political backlash because of the exhibition’s frank depictions of homosexual behavior. Unsettled will include three photographs by Mapplethorpe: Larry and Bobby Kissing (1979), Dan S. (1980), and Tulips (1984).

Peter Hujar (1934-1987) was Wojnarowicz’s friend and mentor, a leading figure in New York City’s downtown cultural scene in the 1970s and ’80s who used black-and-white photography to record the city and its inhabitants. Unsettled includes Paul Thek Nude on a Zebra (1965); Loading Dock at Night (1976); DOA, Halloween (1978); Daniel Schook Sucking Toe (1981); and Richie (1985), depictions of male nudes and gay cruising in New York City.

Based in New York City, Zoe Leonard (b. 1961) is a multi-media artist and photographer, as well as an activist, and was also a friend of Wojnarowicz. Leonard’s landscapes, urban scenes, and details of the human anatomy address death, beauty, femininity, and sexuality in the ten small prints featured in the exhibition: Babunia in the Front Seat (1979-95); Effigy (1995); False Tooth (1993-94); I Love You (1994-97); Laundry, Portugal (1994-95); Mari, I'm Sorry (1995); Misia's Scar (1995); Untitled (Tree) (1995); Wig (1990-1995); and Male Fashion Doll #2 (1995).

With a background in graphic design, Barbra Kruger (b. 1945) composed photographs using appropriated images overlaid with black text and glimpses of red. Untitled (We are your circumstantial evidence) (1983) and Untitled (We will no longer be seen and not heard) (1985) have become iconic symbols of the feminist politics of the 1980s as women were negotiating a growing female work force and reproductive rights in the post-Roe v. Wade era.

The photographs of Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) investigate family relationships, gender roles, racism, sexism, class, and political systems. Unsettled will feature Black Woman with Chicken (1987-88) from the series Ain't Jokin', as well as Honey Colored Boy (1989-1990) and Golden Yella Girl (1997), which are part of Weems’s Colored People series in which the color is hand-tinted on the prints and the descriptive titles printed on the mat address the connotations of the word “colored.”

Including works by Nan Goldin, Andres Serrano, and Lorna Simpson, the photographs in the exhibition “compel us to ask what is still unsettling about them today and how much of our culture and politics have changed as we look at them now,” says Peter Barberie, the Museum’s Brodsky Curator of Photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center. “Photography remains a medium that incites and enrages and sparks open debate.”

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