Zoe Leonard at the Whitney: Artist as Anthropologist

Sandra Bertrand


When you enter the Whitney’s retrospective, Zoe Leonard: Survey, you step inside a puzzling and prolific universe.  Expect to be a bit startled.  Isn’t this, after all, a revered American art museum and not the New York Historical Society? 

It’s all right to be confused.  Because Leonard’s panoply of artifacts, and that’s largely what they are, force us to look at where we’ve been in this human experiment and maybe even where we’re going.  This photographer and installation artist is really an anthropologist at heart and if you pay close attention, you’re sure to be rewarded for your efforts. 

Consider:  A row of 56 blue suitcases, one for each year of the artist’s life—she was born in 1961 in upstate New York; a long wall plastered with almost 4,000 souvenir postcards of Niagara Falls over many decades; a room of dried hand-sewn fruit scattered across the gallery floor as a graveyard memorial to her artist friend David Wojnarowicz who died of AIDS; a documentation of still photos featuring the film and domestic life in the 1940s of a fictional Fae Richards, a black lesbian actress.  And there’s more, much more. 

The eye moves warily over images that at first feel disjointed, even disorienting. The black and white photos are intentionally left uncropped, their black borders adding to their mystery and power.  Even the dates the shots were taken and produced are a noteworthy item of interest to the artist.  A series of clouds seen from a plane window; aerial images of a New York City landscape, somehow make the grid of buildings below appear removed and anonymous from the life that you know pulsates below. Single images hypnotize—a wax anatomical model photographed with the bodily organs in full view, a preserved head of a bearded woman from the Musee Orfila, a metal chastity belt that may have been mundane in its time but for the contemporary viewer an instrument of torture.  Images like these could parallel the morbid peculiarity of a Diane Arbus monograph but Leonard’s genius is of another sort.  Whatever shock value one feels is quickly offset by a larger subject—time.



Take, for instance, Leonard’s landmark series, The Analogue Portfolio (1998-2009). The sad decline of small mom-and-pop businesses, storefronts and vacant marquees that speak loudly of time’s ravages, confront us with the deep saturation that dye transfer prints allow.  (This process is now obsolete but provided a richness of color and tone for the photographer.)  Objects, not people, hold their sway over us:  An abandoned TV in a wheelbarrow, boxed shoes, suit jackets, teasing the viewer with the poignancy of personal belongings found at the side of a road.   

Cultural signposts are everywhere.  This is an exhibit that urges one to slow down at every juncture.  The Tipping Point, a sculpture comprised of a stack of books, seems hardly memorable until you see it’s 53 copies of the same book: James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time from 1963.  The room that serves as a testament to the tragedy of AIDS victims, Strange Fruit, is particularly haunting for those who remember Billie Holiday’s mournful song of the same name was about the lynching of a Black man and not just an exhibit of dried fruit bits. The decaying fruit also reflects the art-historical tradition of the vanitas still-life, in which ephemeral objects such as flowers, flickering candles, and skulls symbolized human mortality. 

The exhaustive grid of Niagara Falls postcards mentioned earlier nags us with its title: “You see I am here after all.”  Thousands of visitors wanting to attest to their presence at a natural wonder bought a postcard to send home.  Leonard has made the personal need for visibility universal, leaving us with the transitory nature of time. 

Time and again, her images call for us to pause and reflect.  Even personal snapshots are here to discover:  Leonard’s mother and grandmother in the 1940s, leaving Poland for America, then posed under the Statue of Liberty.  Holland Carter, in his recent New York Times review of the exhibit, considers just how meaningful (or meaningless) the recording of the moment can be in the era of smartphones:  “For increasing numbers of digital shutterbugs, reality is not real unless it is photographed…we shoot, send, or store, and move on, rarely revisiting, never mind lingering over, the images we’ve made.”



The need for an existential awareness of time and place comes through in Leonard’s 2016 conversation with Molly Prentiss from Interview Magazine: “Making work for me is being in the world, but it’s also being specific about being in the world. I’m interested in this increasingly rare space of contemplation and taking the time and energy to be thoughtful. We’re all busy. It’s a very fast-paced world. And art—and by that, I mean culture in a wider sense—is one of the few spaces where we’re allowed to look and think without an immediate response or reaction.”

The natural world is given a nod as well.  A “reconstructed tree” was shown in Vienna’s Secession exhibit in 1997 as well as here in photographs of an urban tree mangled in chain link and razor wire fencing.  She is a social activist at the core.  We only need to look at her prose poem, “I want a president”, appearing online a few weeks before the 2016 presidential election. Her message is loud and clear and now stands as a giant installation on New York’s High Line walkway.

The show, curated by Bennett Simpson and Rebecca Matalon from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Elisabeth Sherman from the Whitney, covers the entirety of Leonard’s works, from the late 1980s to the present.  This is the first large-scale overview by a major museum, but the artist has a long history with the Whitney. The museum first purchased her work 25 years ago, and she appeared in three Whitney Biennials in 1993, 1997, and in 2014 when she won the Bucksbaum Award.

Concurrent with Survey is the Whitney’s expansive exhibit, Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables.  It may be surprising for visitors to discover that, not unlike Zoe Leonard, an iconic American artist like Wood managed to address the isolation and desolation inherent in much of modern life.  Leonard is part of that tradition but her passion for finding meaning and permanence is just what we need now.


'Zoe Leonard: Survey' runs June 10, 2018 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY  10014, 212 570-3600.


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief arts critic.


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All photos courtesy of the Whitney Museum
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