April 11, 2002

Spring at the Johnson

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While directing me through the Johnson Museum’s new Spring exhibits, Frank Robinson, the director of the Johnson, paused in front of a piece called Coney Island, NY, July 9, 1993. The large work presents a half-dressed girl in stark frontality, standing in front of the ocean. Robinson said, “Now this is a photograph that could never have been produced fifty years ago.” The confrontational and participatory nature of the new exhibits makes it virtually impossible for a visitor to stroll through passively. Instead, the viewing of these multi-dimensional works forces visitors to engage themselves in the Johnson’s dynamic Spring show.

Reality Imagined: Photography Since 1950

Reality Imagined: Photography Since 1950, on view through July 14, 2002, is a remarkable exhibit in several respects. Diversity resonates throughout, not only in the selection of artists, but also in subject matter and photographic medium. Spanning the last half-century, this collection draws upon a wide range of pertinent and sensitive social issues — such as racism, sexism, religion, nationalism, and environmentalism — in order to convey technical developments and the broadening of acceptable artistic content. The exhibit offers a blend of portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, documentary photographs, earth art, and appropriation art.

Equally remarkable is the fact that the show was entirely curated by the members of the Art History Majors Society. This group of twelve students researched and acquired the exhibit’s seventy-five photographs, which are a mix of items from the permanent collection and works on loan. They also wrote the commentary accompanying the photographs and the exhibition brochure. Jolie Bell ’02, an art history major, explains the value of her experience as one of the student curators: “We debated which photographs to choose and wrote the catalogues ourselves. Being at a school like this, we have the unique opportunity to curate a show.” She went on to describe the exhibit as “sensational.”

Reality Imagined is in no danger of stepping into the popular criticism of exhibitions that only include “dead white men.” The ethnic and sexual diversity includes artists such as Sebasti