Skip to main content

Unsettled: Photography and Politics in Contemporary Art

April 9–September 19, 2011

Unsettled: Photography and Politics in Contemporary Art presents work by nine artists who used photography to address some of the most controversial political and social issues of the late 1970s through the early 1990s, including feminism, racism, the AIDS crisis, and gay activism. Looking at a diverse range of pictorial strategies, and at works that are by turns confrontational and contemplative, Unsettled examines the historical reasons why many artists made provocative photo-based works in the 1980s, and invites viewers to consider why some of this art still causes controversy, twenty or thirty years after it was made.

Activist and political art of the 1980s was not limited to photography, but photographs—whether activist or not—were nearly always at the center of controversies, because of the medium's direct connection to real-world things, bodies, and events. Artists who embraced photography's singular capacity to unsettle the viewer did so with a broad range of photographic techniques. Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Lorna Simpson, and Carrie Mae Weems based their work in—and often subverted—the tradition of studio portraiture. Hujar, Nan Goldin, and Zoe Leonard shot seemingly candid pictures, often of subjects found on the street. Kruger and David Wojnarowicz created montages with appropriated imagery lifted from advertising and other pop-culture sources. Kruger, Simpson and Weems put words in their pictures, deploying language to give political meaning to otherwise neutral images. Wojnarowicz used text in yet another way in his Sex Series, overlaying a complicated mix of images with news stories, government reports, and diary entries about homosexuality and AIDS.

The exhibition was prompted by the recent removal of a 1987 David Wojnarowicz film from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C., the latest of a series of controversies involving the public display of "unsettling" photographic works. In December 2010, members of Congress, spurred by conservative activists, objected to the film's imagery of ants crawling over a crucifix, and museum officials quickly decided to take the film off view. That action and the resulting public outcry were reminiscent of the culture wars of the 1980s, when politicians and religious leaders frequently denounced art they found offensive, and called for the elimination of public arts funding.

As its title, Unsettled, suggests, some of the images in this exhibition are "unsettling" and may elicit strong reactions in viewers. With this in mind, parents may want to preview the exhibition before deciding whether to introduce it to their children.

Perelman Building


Peter Barberie, The Brodsky Curator of Photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center

Check out other exhibitions

View full calendar