King Tut is back at the Metropolitan Museum -- in a very 21st-century, Postmodernist show of photographs of Howard Carter's excavation of the young king's 3,500-year-old tomb some 75 years ago. Dubbed "The Pharoah's Photographer: Harry Burton , Tutankhamun and the Metropolitan's Egyptian Expedition," Sept. 11-Dec. 30, 2001, the exhibition occupies one small gallery opposite the Rainey Auditorium in the museum's Egyptian wing.
Some 60 photographs are arranged as if to chart the operation from beginning to end, starting with views of the Valley of the Kings and moving ever closer: the treasure-packed tomb antechamber, King Tut's golden coffin and the careful unwrapping of Tut's mummy to reveal his shrunken, embalmed body -- an experience that is savored for its shameless frisson of the macabre more than anything else, according to the two curators, Malcolm Daniel from the museum's photography department and Egyptian Art curator Catherine Roehrig.
The English photographer Harry Burton (1879-1940), the preeminent archeological photographer of his time, was working on the Met's Egyptian expedition when Carter discovered Tut's tomb in 1922. Carter sought the loan of Burton's services, and for the next eight years he divided his time between the two excavations. Between 1914 and 1940, Burton produced and printed more than 14,000 glass negatives, the majority of which are in the Met's archive -- now shown publicly for the first time.
It's worth noting that for his photographs, Burton illuminated the tomb interiors with reflected light shining from mirrors and silver-paper-covered reflectors. Even more remarkable is the eight-minute film loop that plays in a small theater in the gallery, a cinematic record of Carter and the King Tut expedition distilled from over 13 hours of film shot with a hand-cranked movie camera.
Unfortunately, the museum has provided only the most meager of press photos, and the exhibition is not accompanied by a catalogue -- it would be great to reproduce, for instance, Burton's photo of Tut's desiccated toes, still wearing their golden "toe-stalls." One can only hope that this raw material is put to further public use in the future.
Upstairs, the Met has unveiled an additional pair of gem-like exhibitions. A pendant show to "The Pharoah's Photographer" called "Along the Nile: Early Photographs of Egypt," Sept. 11-Dec. 30, 2001, includes 43 photographs by Francis Frith, Ernest Benecke and others, including the Parisian journalist Maxime Du Camp in 1849-51 on a trip up the Nile with Gustave Flaubert. The selection, some from the Met's collection and the rest from the Gilman Paper Company trove, include romantic portraits of everything from a Nubian girl to Egyptian monuments buried in the desert sand. The selection also includes an exceptionally early photograph of Egyptian children, and a picture of an Egyptian master and his Nubian slave.
A one-room exhibition opposite the drawings galleries showcases the Met's recent acquisition, Caspar David Friedrich's Two Men Contemplating the Moon (ca. 1830). The small, exquisitely done emblem of German Romanticism is displayed side-by-side with two other versions of the same composition, one from 1819 that is in the collection of the Dresden Gemäldegalerie and another, in which the second man is replaced by a woman (the primary male figure is Friedrich himself) from the Berlin Nationalgalerie.
The show of 18 works is rounded out by paintings of towering trees, moonlit landscapes and tossed seas by Friedrich, Johan Christian Dahl, Carl Gustav Carus and several other artists. In a smaller, introductory gallery are some scientific depictions of the moon from about 1850, including a mapping of its visible features done in notable detail.
The exhibition's curators -- the formidable team of Gary Tinterow and Sabine Rewald -- remind us that the moon was an object of cult-like veneration in the poetry of Goethe and in the Romantic imagination. Little of this sense of magic is now evident in the pictures themselves; in fact, almost the opposite is true, as the paintings seem to testify to the way that pop culture has made these kinds of symbols so familiar that they are drained of anything other than esthetic impact.
* * *
Downtown, during a weekend of conscientious gallery-going in West Chelsea and elsewhere, this hard-working critic managed to find little of note. Sitting at the keyboard today, this bad luck of the draw translates into broad evidence of the collapse of serious meaning in contemporary avant-garde practice. Which isn't to say there weren't plenty of things of interest.
At least two artists seemed to anticipate the general anomie by providing musical accompaniment for their openings. Down on 20th Street, a deejay was working a turntable on the floor at Hiroshi Sunairi's installation at Andrew Kreps. The pleasant tunes complemented the casualness of Sunairi's esthetic -- the gallery was filled with large wooden curlicue sculptures painted in bright enamel colors, their surfaces dotted with torn pieces of magazine-page collage. The card for the show is a notably ugly drawing of a man who was said to be the emperor of Japan. Or was it the prime minister?
Up a few blocks on 22nd Street, the headline player was Richard Phillips at Friedrich Petzel, where the large, concrete-floored space was quickly cleared out once a noise band began to play at the opening. Phillips' photorealist paintings are getting bigger than ever, and where they once seemed very retro (Twiggy-era Vogue, say) now he seems to be grasping for the contemporary with images of George W. and a shot of a woman peeing, or perhaps squirting -- both fairly up-to-the-minute porn fetishes.
Catch of the day was the exhibition poster, a newsprint version of the painting that has two topless babes bumping breasts. Images of sex cut right to the root of the scopic regime -- if any part of the esthetic experience is hard-wired, this is it -- but things this current are also resolutely ordinary. Or at least so it seems now; once the music started, I only managed to stay in the crowded gallery for a few moments.
Across the street, at Sandra Gering's new ground-floor space, "the visual" was very much in evidence. For one thing, her storefront is practically all window, putting the entirety of the compact space on public view. For another, everyone was raving over the horizontal mirror crafted by RADI, a group of four French designers. Thanks to an invisible, computer-age film applied to its back, the mirror reflects only an inconsequential, blurring image to those looking straight ahead at their own visage, while it supplies a clear reflection when viewed at an angle, as if to spy on someone standing to the side. It can be yours for $1,000. Another work is a ribbed, modular plastic form called Do Cut. It comes with a hacksaw, all the better to halve the thing into a matching lamp and stool. The show also features an assortment of tableware, tables and a couch made in the shape of a hound. Business seemed to be brisk.
* * *
Meanwhile, a messenger brings us a colorful new coffee-table book from Abrams called Harry Benson: Fifty Years in Pictures. Its publication coincides with a show at Staley-Wise Gallery in New York, Nov. 2-Dec. 1, 2001. Born in Glasgow, Benson got his big boost in the '60s when he accompanied the Beatles on their tour to America. Benson next worked for Life, and then moved to People magazine, shooting over 100 of its covers, and has since done work for Vanity Fair and other top mags.
He is the celebrity photographer par excellence -- the book's cover features an incredible snap of Muhammad Ali playfully tossing a punch at George Harrison. But he's also a serious photojournalist -- and one of primary points of interest in this book is the way the boundary between the two types of pictures blurs and disappears. Merv Griffin vamps in guru robes with palm trees and poodles outside his mansion, while unreformed Southerners heckle Civil Rights marchers in 1965 in Meredith, Miss. An IRA gang pretends to execute Prince Charles in 1985, while Michael Jackson gives a nuptial kiss to Lisa Marie Presley in 1995. One of my favorites is the shot of Christy Turlington, her beautiful if harried face wreathed in smoke in 1994, before she was diagnosed with emphysema.