Martha Rosler brings to her work in all mediums—from photomontages to performances, photographs and critical writings—a passionate, socially concerned engagement with the world, a politics shaped by the feminist movement of the 1970s, a firm belief in the power of art to effect change, and the saving grace of wit. The photographs in this exhibition, taken during a trip to Cuba organized by Ana Mendieta and Lucy Lippard in 1981 and never shown until now, shed light on her artistic evolution.
Shot in both black and white and color, and newly printed at sizes a little larger than a sheet of legal paper, the photographs document life in the communist nation. Pictures of shopwindows, walls covered with political posters and the decoration of private homes evince a particular interest in how economic and social realities are encoded in various types of display. They echo Rosler’s more formal series depicting store windows (“Transitions and Digressions,” 1981-present) and airport terminals (“In the Place of the Public,” 1979-present) begun around the same time.
A consistent theme is the lives of women: a grinning musician poses with her drum, a bored waitress stands under a kitschy painting of a nude at a restricted restaurant, two elaborately coiffed ladies preside over a busy beauty salon. A fascination with vernacular photography provides a second leitmotif, one seen in several images of photo studios, a close-up of ranked pictures of bodies at a war museum and a wonderful shot of a street photographer having his shoes shined, the view camera beside him adorned with samples of his work.
Shortly before these pictures were taken, Rosler had been giving considerable thought—in such seminal works as the text-and-photo installation The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974-75) and in the 1981 essay “In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)”—to the problems of social photography, in particular its tendency to generalize about the lives of the people depicted. The works here are self-consciously specific; in a number of cases Rosler has even printed two adjacent frames as a single image, as if to emphasize her subjects’ reality in space and time.
Although there were formally arresting photographs in this show—a street vendor’s pavement display of cheap notebooks bearing the likeness of Donna Summer; a tenebrous study of women at a sewing workshop; a blurred night picture of a hammer and sickle picked out in lights—esthetic appeal seems peripheral or even counter to Rosler’s aims. A bookend to her contemporaneous pictures of American consumer culture (one in which ad copy has been replaced by political slogans), they show an artist refining her specialty—the discovery of larger truths, not in the emblematic moment, but in the cumulative details of ordinary places and things.
Photo: Martha Rosler: Sewing Workshop, Cuba, 1981, digital C-print, 11 by 16¼ inches; at Mitchell-Innes & Nash.