New YorkTaryn Simon: The Color of a Flea’s Eye: The Picture Collection
Gagosian presents The Color of a Flea’s Eye: The Picture Collection by Taryn Simon, an exhibition in two parts at Gagosian 976 Madison Avenue and, opening this fall, at the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.
In her work, Simon engages organizational systems—bloodlines, criminal investigations, mourning, global diplomacy—to reveal the hidden contours of authority. From photography to sculpture, text, sound, and performance, her projects involve extensive field research both on and with archives, individuals, and institutions.
Nine years in the making, The Color of a Flea’s Eye foregrounds the history of the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection, whose storied contents have been available, for more than a century, for patrons to sift through in search of visual references of every conceivable kind. In 1929, Romana Javitz became the collection’s superintendent, shaping its ethos and the processes governing its growing circulation. Among her many pioneering efforts was a campaign to pointedly diversify the collection’s offerings by preserving a wide-ranging record of the country’s overlooked subjects, including folk art, documentary photography, and portrayals of African American life.
Decades before the advent of Internet search engines, the Picture Collection’s democratic classification system was designed, under Javitz’s influence, to respond to individual users, whose daily requests and interventions created a manual algorithm by which materials were transmitted back into American culture, thereby reshaping it. Used by journalists, historians, filmmakers, designers, advertisers, and the US military, the Picture Collection has also been an especially vital resource for artists. Diego Rivera consulted it for his controversial Rockefeller Center mural, Man at the Crossroads (1932–33); Joseph Cornell drew from it to make his boxed assemblages of the 1940s; and throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Andy Warhol sourced a trove of images, many never returned, that were foundational for his illustrations and paintings.
Intrigued by the Picture Collection since childhood, in 2012 Simon began to study its underlying patterns, codes, and orders. Starting with subject folders from the collection’s open stacks—Handshaking, Police, Oxygen, Broken Objects, and Financial Panics, among others—she arranged and documented their physical contents in large-format photographs, overlapping images to reveal accidental juxtapositions that suggest abstract color fields, neural networks, or tiled search results. Simon’s photography reveals the Picture Collection to be an inadvertent recorder of changing social mores, disclosing latent fault lines of power, race, and gender. At the same time, the works point to the invisible hands behind seemingly neutral systems of image-gathering, locating an unlikely futurity in the past.
The Color of a Flea’s Eye—titled after one patron’s request from 1930—examines the forces that compel us to revise which images we value. In the Gagosian exhibition at 976 Madison Avenue, Simon’s photographs are accompanied by archival letters and objects from Romana Javitz, Dorothea Lange, Joseph Cornell, Andy Warhol, and Walker Evans, demonstrating the Picture Collection’s critical role in the history of twentieth-century image-making, and that of American photography in particular. In the fall of 2021, a special installation of Simon’s photographs will open at the New York Public Library’s flagship Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Together, these presentations focus on a forgotten period of public hunger for visual material, and in doing so provoke questions about the fate of—and our relationship with—the images we consume.
Organized by Simon with Joshua Chuang, senior curator of photography at the New York Public Library, The Color of a Flea’s Eye: The Picture Collection is accompanied by a comprehensive monograph of the same title, published by Cahiers d’Art.
all images © the gallery and the artist(s)