8.2.17 — Uncritical Theory

Teju Cole does not settle for photographs. He makes magazine spreads, with or without the magazine.

Cole’s closeness to magazine spreads shows in the bright colors and perfect stillness—even with a woman walking the street or boats headed every which way at sea. It shows in clear skies and sunlit vistas, the kind you know even before you have seen them, perhaps from last weekend’s travel section. It shows in the certainty that each scene, however marvelous or however ordinary, is where you want to be. Teju Cole's Capri, June 2015 (Steven Kasher gallery, 2015)It shows, too, in the text facing each and every one, at Steven Kasher through August 11.

A pairing of photos and text has another history as well, in conceptual art, and Cole has big ideas. The woman and the boats make him think of sailing for Troy in the Iliad. (He leaves unsaid whether Agamemnon will have to sacrifice this young woman first, which is just as well.) This is not, though, the pairing in Barbara Kruger and the “Pictures generation,” with their insistence on politics and gender. Rather, it takes the critical out of critical theory. It leaves only the comforting certainty that something profound is going on.

Cole has made that certainty the subject of his essays for the Sunday New York Times Magazine. They deal in generalities, to reassure readers that this is serious art and that these are these are indeed universal truths. So, too, does the text accompanying his photos. “Regularity becomes invisible.” “Color is the sound an object makes in response to light.” “A stone contemplates a stone.”

A vent on shipboard makes him think of “the alphorn at the beginning of the final movement of Brahms’s First Symphony.” A ladder and its shadow are “crossing each other on the way to heaven.” No, make that “a shadow and its ladder,” as duly ineffable. “I think the Annunciation must have happened on a day like this one.” (And no, that fabric hanging from a ship’s railing is not the Virgin Mary’s robe or someone else’s exposed underwear.) “Photography means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Well, I made up that last one, but you get the picture. In at least one respect, Cole’s prominence is a triumph. He shows that an African American artist has every right not to speak to racism or identity, just as he has every right to speak frankly about them. Recent years have had major exhibitions of Alma Thomas, Jack Whitten, William T. Williams, and black abstraction, with much the same insistence. When they bring their experience to their art, they may well speak to racism and identity after all—and Cole’s Times essays insist that photography must not paper over real lives. Yet he carries a far less provocative message as well.

It may sound odd to speak of his art as middlebrow. Surely that label belongs to a distant past, before Pop Art and street art, when highbrow art and popular culture faced off rather than intermingled, making even some with a college education feel left out. Back when, they found Modernism puzzling, the movies a guilty pleasure, and both as soulless as the threats from fascism and communism. Cole, though, is a throwback—just as he can photograph a woman from behind without anyone, including me, thinking of sexism. He still believes that Homer, the Bible, Capri, St. Moritz, and Brooklyn occupy the same space outside of time. Maybe it is about time that he all left that space behind him.

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