Debate Blurs Muybridge Show

Earlier controversy over a 'peep show' exhibit detracts from Muybridge's photos

THE "Eadweard Muybridge and Contemporary American Photography" exhibit at the National Museum of American Art has kicked up nearly as much fuss and publicity as Robert Mapplethorpe's photos, which were notorious for starting a national battle over censorship vs. freedom of expression a couple of years ago.Paradoxically this incident was not about a museum or gallery defending its right to show what a few critics have deemed obscene or pornographic, as was the case with Mapplethorpe. In this situation, one work in the show was viewed as objectionable by the museum's director. Elizabeth Broun initially removed Sol Le Witt's 1963 work "Muybridge I" because as a woman she found it offensive and voyeuristic. The work, inspired by Eadweard Muybridge's early photographic studies of models walking, is an 8-foot-long black box, mounted about 5 1/2 feet high on the museum wall, and contains a row of 10 tiny holes that show a nude woman advancing in various stages of close-up. Several close-ups focus on her genital area rather than what the exhibit describes as her navel and "her womb.... bringing life into the world." The Le Witt piece was returned to the exhibit, but not before a flurry of publicity descended on Ms. Broun. It started when Broun wrote a private letter to the curators of the exhibit, saying that "peering through successive peepholes ... invokes unequivocal references to a degrading, pornographic experience. I cannot in good conscience offer this experience to our viewers as a meaningful and important one." She wrote this to Jock Reynolds, director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and James Sheldon, curator of photography at the Addison, who organized the traveling Muybridge show. The letter formed the basis for Broun's removal of the Le Witt work. Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Sheldon went public, demanding that the show be closed if Le Witt's work wasn't reinstalled, and charging censorship. They were backed by artists and curators. A few days later Broun bowed to the pressure, saying, "We believe that the public is best served by including Le Witt's work in the exhibition, so everyone can discuss the issues after having seen it." The controversy obscured the original intent of the show: to pay homage to Muybridge, the 19th-century shooter who was one of the founding fathers of modern photography through his time-and-motion studies, which prefaced the art of motion pictures. ELIZABETH Broun says, m very strongly against censorship, my record shows I've never avoided showing provocative work, work that was sexually or politically controversial in any way.... "I thought I was engaged in a private professional discussion with colleagues about the kinds of museum decisions we make all the time. Once it was recast as a public debate narrowed to a single issue of censorship, I felt it was necessary to get the work back up immediately. Censorship was never the issue."People are pouring into the show as a result of the publicity. Two scrawled notes on the visitors' books sum it up: "I can't believe all the fuss over the peep show scene. Open up people's minds. Don' t be so narrow-minded"; "Bravo, Ms. Broun! Too bad you had to bring that garbage back." The first half of the show spotlights Muybridge's own work, beautiful and rhythmic in its effort to capture motion. You see his 1887 studies of "Animal Locomotion" and "The Attitudes of Animals in Motion," including stills of a tabby cat walking, stretching, and leaping, a bison walking and charging, a mule kicking then bucking, and a man walking a boar. Further on are series of a little girl dropping a doll, picking it up, and walking, a nude mother holding a child, and a nude man lifting a railroad tie. His use of active nude subjects follows from his studies of anatomy in motion. When you view images like these through a spinning zoetrope machine, with its slits in the side to allow the image to whizz past, you are seeing a primitive form of the "persistence of vision" that creates movies. As the exhibit explains, the mind holds an image for an instant longer than the eye actually sees it. Muybridge was drawn to try to solve the question of his day: In full stride, does a trotting horse ever leave the ground? In 1872 Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific Railroad and Mail Steamship Co., hired Muybridge to photograph his famous horse Occident. As Muybridge documented, "The photographs resulting from this experiment exhibited the horse with all four of his feet clearly lifted, at the same time, above the surface of the ground." He had captured what the human eye had never seen. The section of this show which deals with artists paying tribute to Muybridge can't hold a candle to Muybridge's own impassioned work. His "Animal Locomotion" includes 20,000 images and was a watershed artistic and scientific work. But some of the Muybridge tributes are amusing: Jon Kessler's "Earthquake" shows multiple shots of a Los Angeles S&L stuck in a magazine rack which rumbles overy few minutes; in James Pomeroy's "Newt Ascends Fred Astaire's Face," twirling the zoetrope sends a little lizard rig ht up Astaire's smiling face.

The exhibit ends Sept. 8.

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