For artist Marcia Resnick, a photograph is not a static thing, it is an exchange, a performance, a selectively rendered reality. His images tell a tightly choreographed story, revealing a worldview centered on exposing and mocking life’s absurdities. “The art I make is a reflection of what I want to see,” Resnick said in a recent interview.
Last month, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, launched a traveling investigation into images Resnick, now 71, made decades ago. Running through June before heading to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, “Marcia Resnick: As It Is or Could Be” marks the first-ever institutional investigation into the renegade artist.
Made between 1973 and 1982, the 83 pieces on display come from a prolific period in Resnick’s life, since returning to New York after earning an MFA at the California Institute of the Arts and folding the ephemeral alternative newspaper. SoHo Weekly News, where Resnick was a staff photographer. (The early ’80s also marked a confluence of personal setbacks, including drug use, the death of friends, and the end of his marriage that led to a creative hiatus.)
During the period explored in the exhibition, Resnick experimented with conceptual photography, produced four art books and took portraits of the punk creative class of the Downtown scene at the time, including David Byrne, Jean-Michel Basquiat , Kathy Acker, Allen Ginsberg. , and John Belushi.
Resnick’s ambitious and stylized photographs could be considered part of the Pictures Generation – a group of 1970s and 1980s artists known for appropriating mass media images as commentaries on popular culture and commodification – although that she is rarely, if ever, represented in scholarship on the era. His photograph from 1976-1977 She imagined herself a starletfor example, shows a model portraying Resnick’s teenager glamorously dressed in a fur coat and heart-shaped sunglasses smoking a cigarette, evoking the 1962 film Lolita.
“Everything they say about the Pictures Generation also applies to me, but I’m never included,” Resnick said. “I like to say that I was ahead of my time and nobody understood me.”
Frank Goodyear, one of the exhibition’s co-curators, agreed: “Marcia and her work are a challenge to the history of photography. Goodyear, co-director of the Bowdoin Museum, worked with Minneapolis Institute of Art curator Casey Riley and Lisa Hostetler, a former curator at the George Eastman Museum, to organize the exhibit. Each had developed a recent interest in Resnick’s work – and in shining a light on his little-known career – and teamed up about four years ago to organize this survey. The trio also produced an accompanying catalog published by Yale University Press which is a comprehensive dig into Resnick’s output during these formative ten years.
By researching Resnick’s career and through multiple marathon Zoom interviews with fellow curators, Goodyear realized what a trailblazing artist Resnick was. “She was doing all sorts of things that broke with what successful photography was supposed to be,” he said. In all of her work, from celebrity shots to conceptual frameworks, she hasn’t taken it too seriously. “She embraced humor. She viewed photography as a performative act — you could add text, draw on it, or cut it out,” he added. “It’s quite remarkable that she never really had a museum retrospective before.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1950, Resnick took up drawing and painting at an early age. (“I was at my first art show when I was five at the Brooklyn Museum,” she said.) When she first tried photography, she felt it was too hasty. . The painting took days and days before a completed project emerged, but, initially, she wondered how a photograph was finished with just the rustle of a shutter. She wanted more thought and production to go into her artistic creation, with more theoretical support.
“I started doing portraits of people looking at themselves in the mirror, and then I took a picture of them looking at the picture of themselves looking at themselves in the mirror,” Resnick said. Fun and meta, sure, but too time-consuming, so she thought about how she could push the medium to its limits.
In 1973, Resnick took what she learned to CalArts, where she studied with famed conceptual artist John Baldessari, on the East Coast. After a cross-country roadtrip, she returned to New York and settled into a small apartment on the Lower East Side, near the Bowery. There she began applying layers of paint to her photographs. Mom and dad (1974) uses vivid oil paint to color his parent subjects in an otherwise black-and-white photograph, while The Glory of North Wales (1974) shows a page from a travel book which she painted mostly with heavy black brushstrokes, except for a few solitary elements like a bench of rocks or a small house, now devoid of context.
In “See”, a series made in 1974-1975 that eventually became his first self-published art book, Resnick shot subjects from behind as they looked at landscapes. In, See #34artist James Welling looks out over the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon. See #34 led to another more conceptual series of 12 works called “See Changes”. See changes #8 shows this same photograph of Welling, now drawn with pencil-like spare markings around his body; other passages are painted or cut out. The new remixed versions allude to a guiding principle in Resnick’s work: that an image never fully represents a true reality. It’s always open to interpretation.
Resnick’s work, however, soon took an inward turn following a car accident that left her in hospital for two weeks when she was 26. examine me. I was the person I knew the least. I wanted to understand myself,” she said.
The resulting work would be published in 1978 as a book, titled Revisions. Using younger women she knew as models, Resnick staged and photographed close-up scenes of her own adolescence, all imbued with her irreverent wink, accomplished by adding handwritten text (which becomes the title of the ‘work) at the bottom of the work. In She liked to make loud noises (1978), we see a pair of cherubic hands holding a balloon with the tip of a needle nestled on its surface. She became an expert shoplifter (1978) shows cat-eye sunglasses clutched by fingers peering through a coat, suggesting they had been lifted from a display case and quickly pocketed.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Resnick funded her artistic practice through teaching positions and, from 1979, her work as a photographer at the SoHo Weekly News, where his striking black-and-white portraits of the artists, filmmakers, punks and poets—some women but mostly men—who made up Downtown’s countercultural scene at the time, found a captive readership. Many of these portraits for the SoHo Weekly News were also part of his “Bad Boys” series, in which Resnick sought to subvert the typical power dynamic of men photographing women by being the one in control.
“I was so infuriated by this whole thing of men dominating women and women not having a say, and women being put on a pedestal, like the way so many photographs of men at the time in magazines like Playboy women exalted as objects,” Resnick said. She asserted her power by holding these portrait sessions in her own home studio, where she was able to create a relaxed and candid atmosphere of mutual respect. Like the 10 portraits of his “Bad Boys” and SoHo Weekly News days in the Bowdoin exhibit (like those of Fab 5 Freddy, Mick Jagger, Peter Tosh and Belushi), these images are full of personality and verve, like scenes from a party you wish you were at.
Resnick also had his own satirical column for the newspaper, “Resnick’s Believe-It-or-Not” (eventually shortened to “Resnick’s Believe It”, thanks to multiple threats to cease and desist from Believe it or not from Ripley!), in which the artist combined images of street scenes or random objects (such as a tarp-covered car parked in a city block) with a corresponding entirely made-up story, to hilarious effect. (Car photography claimed to represent a hot new trend for avoiding parking tickets that she called “car camouflage.”)
“Some of the stuff was totally ridiculous,” Resnick recalled, with a smile. “People were asking, ‘Is that true?'” She just shrugged.
This deadpan humor is also key to other works by Resnick. In her 1974-1975 “Landscape” series, six of which are included in the Bowdoin exhibition, she presents photographs of empty skies and latent horizons that purposefully lack interest as subject matter. It’s an ode to Ansel Adams’ large-scale, texture-rich outdoor photography. “I wanted to do landscapes that were antithetical to Ansel Adams,” she recalls thinking at the time.
Although Resnick reportedly received assignments from his editors to SoHo News or given homework to her students, she considers these different bodies of work as homework that she has given herself. “Each piece has a very strong conceptual backbone,” Goodyear said, reflecting on the scale of the exhibit. “Men have historically been in the spotlight, and we’re really proud to do this show because we’re showcasing an extraordinary woman who has flown under the radar for far too long.”