Back in 1989, when SoHo was still a booming
contemporary-art center, Barbara Bloom produced a memorably trenchant
installation called "The Reign of Narcissism" at Jay Gorney Modern Art
on Greene Street. It was in the form of a neo-Classical period room in
an imaginary museum dedicated to one Barbara Bloom. There were
faux-antique marble busts portraying Ms. Bloom; fine teacups watermarked
with her image; a 38-volume set of "The Complete Works of Barbara
Bloom"; a tombstone with a carved epitaph that said, "She traveled the
world to seek beauty" and many more artifacts testifying to the
transcendent qualities of a great artist.
Coming at a time when monsters of ambition like
Julian Schnabel, Anselm Kiefer and Jeff Koons roamed the artscape, Ms.
Bloom's construction nicely skewered the cult of genius, the triumph of
moneyed taste and the vanity of the excessively privileged.
It's too bad the International Center of Photography did not recreate
"The Reign of Narcissism" for its disappointing survey of Ms. Bloom's
career. It would have been wonderfully apposite for today's
Chelsea-centered art world.
Instead of the walk-in theatrical installations for which Ms. Bloom is
best known, "The Collections of Barbara Bloom" displays pieces from
different phases of her career as discrete works of sculpture,
assemblage, collage, photography and design. Despite its ironic,
overarching concept of the artist as an eccentric, narcissistic
collector and curator of her own history, the show is confusingly
fragmentary. It feels like a selection of outtakes for the big show that
would have done full justice to Ms. Bloom's mercurial talent.
Not that the exhibition is devoid of resonant objects. A headless
mannequin in a slinky white dress with buttons down one side bearing
photographs of this artist's mother, a Hollywood actress in the 1940s,
'50s and '60s, is a marvel of autobiographical condensation. The framed
photograph of a chicken viewing itself in a mirror placed in a corner
next to an actual mirror is funny and philosophically provocative. The
sheets of fake postage stamps bearing reproductions of artworks by Ed
Ruscha, Allan McCollum and Harold Edgerton suggest that Ms. Bloom has
the soul of a great art director.
Many pieces, however, are not so interesting on their own. Butterfly
cases with small, found printed items pinned inside like specimens
reveal too little about Ms. Bloom's interest in the novelist and
lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov. Some items are irritatingly clever — a
Braille edition of Playboy magazine as a found object, for example. A
set of unremarkable photographs hanging behind sheer curtains that you
have to draw aside to see is a dull play on photography and voyeurism.
One set of works from 2001, called "Broken," would have been more
effective sequestered in its own more intimate space. Each work is
composed of a piece of Japanese ceramic ware that was repaired with gold
lacquer, an X-ray of that object, a found photograph of a performing
acrobat in a frame with shattered glazing, and a beautiful
Japanese-style paper container for the ceramic piece. What the wall
label does not explain is that Ms. Bloom created the series after
falling out of a window and breaking many bones. In the overly busy
context of the show, that poignant, personal dimension is lost.
What is also likely to escape viewers is the exhibition's overall
concept. According to the catalog essay by Dave Hickey, Ms. Bloom's
vision for the show was inspired by the auction catalog for the estate
of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. So a semi-fictive, subtly mocking overlay
projects the artist as an exquisitely tasteful and erudite collector.
Sections with enigmatic titles like "Innuendo," "Blushing," "Charms" and
"Stand Ins" add to the idea, but in ways more often mystifying than
The show's catalog, which mimics an auction catalog, realizes the
concept more clearly. Along with numbered images of everything in the
exhibition, it includes pictures of many objects not in the show —
eye-test charts from around the world that Ms. Bloom has collected, for
example. It is annotated by the art historian Susan Tallman in an
entertaining, novelistic style that subtly ridicules the idea of the
great lady artist-aesthete and satirizes the commodification of art and
As installed in the center's insufficiently luxurious and
architecturally amorphous galleries, however, the idea of the high-end
estate sale and the implied socio-cultural critique lose all traction.
Still, there is the prevailing effect of an intriguing, divided
sensibility, one that combines effete, ultra-refined romanticism and
tart, gimlet-eyed skepticism.
Ms. Bloom, who was born in 1951, belongs to a generation of artists,
including Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, who shared a
mission to expose the subliminal ideologies of modern visual culture.
They were ambivalent about both high and low art, but they produced
works of impressive visual glamour.
That Ms. Bloom, unlike those artists, did not forge a singular,
brandable style, may be to her credit. But when her oeuvre is displayed
in the scattershot way it is here, the core purpose underlying her
insouciant diversity is regrettably obscured. Sometimes you wish an
artist could have a do-over.
"The Collections of Barbara Bloom" is on view through May 4 at the
International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, at
43rd Street, (212) 857-0000, icp.org.
By Ken Johnson
For The New York Times