In 1975, shortly before her twenty-fifth birthday, Marcia Resnick set out to tell the story of her life. Resnick was in the hospital, recovering from a car crash that shocked her into considering her mortality. Titled Re-visions, her book traced the series of events that had led her to that moment, each illustrated with a photograph restaging a memory described by a single line of text.
The acclaim that Resnick’s book received, including blurbs from Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol, merely hinted at the significance of her literary and artistic accomplishment. An exhibition about writing and photography currently on view at the Getty Center puts this work in historical context while simultaneously accentuating its singularity.
Like many art forms, photography took a conceptual turn in the 1970s, with a particular focus on the relationship between the image and language. For instance, the Getty exhibition includes two contemporaneous photographs by Eileen Cowan that play with the multiple meanings of words. Court is illustrated with an image of a tennis court and the hand of a man holding flowers in an act of courtship. Both definitions are inscribed beneath the diptych. With deadpan humor, Cowan evokes the arbitrariness of English and the potential for misunderstanding underlying even the simplest expressions, formalizing the wacky naïvité of Amelia Bedelia while also anticipating the semantic foibles of computer vision.
Hal Foster addresses semiotics in a different way through his decoding of sartorial signifiers of gay identity in ‘70s San Francisco. Posed photographs of gay men are annotated with callouts pointing to details such as the hippie’s long hair and pendants or the “basic gay” flannel shirt and Converse sneakers. Poking fun at common stereotypes, Foster’s photographs reveal the extent to which an image is constructed in the viewer’s mind.
Resnick’s work contributes to the conceptual discourse of the time, but also transcends it by reimagining more traditional art forms based on the formal breakthroughs of conceptualism. In many of the photographs from the series, the text and image appear redundant at first, seemingly overstating the obvious. Yet closer scrutiny of the pictures brings additional layers of meaning to mind, often psychological, sometimes sexual, evoking the limitations of both written and visual communication. What distinguishes Resnick’s work is that she takes this impasse as an opportunity, mining the gap between semantic systems with artful irony.
Dedicated to Humbert Humbert, the pedophilic narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Resnick’s book presents moments recollected from adolescence with stark emotional candor. The images in Re-visions often flirt with the viewer. Childhood toys such as a hobby horse are turned into erotic playthings, and pastimes such as pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey become games of seduction. (In one memorable picture, the girl pins the tail on the crotch of a grown man standing to the side of the target. “She had a poor sense of direction and would awkwardly miss her mark,” reads the caption.) These images alternate with confessions of childish schemes such as a habit of defrauding the tooth fairy by placing fake teeth under her pillow. In other instances, we’re given an internal view of her girlish fantasies, such as a scene in which she French kisses Howdy Doody.
Re-visions seamlessly integrates avant-garde rigor with emotional vigor, a combination that is all too uncommon in art of the ‘70s and also all too rare in the present. In their praise for Resnick, Ginsberg and Warhol paid homage to an instant classic. Re-visions has stood the test of time, and sets a bracing standard for contemporary art.