Labeltalk: Professors offer insights on famous photographs

Largely ignorable to all but art historians and Rauschenberg fans, the label is one of the art museum’s most overlooked mechanisms, a place to stick all the dry semantic information that necessarily accompanies the work of art itself. Once a year, though, the Williams College Museum of Art inverts this equation, giving the labels center stage and bringing their function into clearer focus.

Labeltalk 1999 is the fourth installation in a WCMA series dedicated to exploring the museum’s role as a tool for education and interpretation. The premise is simple: take a bunch of works of art from the permanent collection and recruit three professors – from a broad range of disciplines – to create their own labels, adding relevant commentary drawn from their unique perspectives.

This year the formula has been tweaked a bit. The artworks are all photographs that, according to WCMA Director Linda Shearer, “are somehow famous or iconic: works that are well known. . .or works that have a famous subject.” A Philippe Halsman photograph of Marilyn Monroe, then, brushes up against an Ansel Adams landscape and Harold Edgerton’s famous shot capturing a fired bullet breaking through a bar of Ivory soap. The images chosen are, with the exception of E.J. Bellocq’s photograph of a prostitute entitled Storyville Portrait, crisp, accessible, and full of grist for labelmakers.

The other new policy instituted in Labeltalk 1999 is more organizational, but perhaps more fundamentally important. In the past, WCMA has asked three professors to create labels for each work; this year the museum asked one professor to invite two colleagues of his own choice to comment on each piece. The result is interesting on levels both analytical and interpersonal.

But how interesting? Does the execution live up to the concept? More often than not, it does, as a February 5 gala reception open to students proved. Labeltalk 1999 is at its best when it takes full advantage of its own interdisciplinary nature. Take, for example, the thoroughly well-rounded discussion of Harold Edgerton’s Bullet Through Ivory Soap. Assistant Professor of Physics Protik Majumder provides technical insight, noting the remarkable precision it took to capture such an image so perfectly. Assistant Professor of English John Kleiner points out “the splendid goofiness of shooting holes through soap in the name of art and science.” Professor of History of Science Donald Beaver offers historical parallels ranging from the atom bomb to the Bhagavad-Gita and a surprisingly telling anecdote about Ivory soap. Taken as a trio of loosely related interpretations, the labels provide a singularly compelling perspective on a piece that otherwise might be nothing more than a visceral amusement.

Although the set of Edgerton labels might serve as the strongest example of interdisciplinary discourse, it is by no means the only example. Ansel Adams’ Winter Sunrise draws commentary from two art historians (from a field not necessarily accustomed to analyzing Adams’ “low art”) and a biology professor. An extreme closeup of Marilyn Monroe allows analysis from the standpoints of political science, philosophy and English.

Perhaps the most compelling trio of labels comes not from discipline per se but from experience. Professor of Political Science and Director of the Multicultural Center Alex Willingham not only frames the implications of James Karales’ Selma Marchers Approaching Montgomery, Alabama, but he also draws on the respective viewpoints of Director of Athletics Bob Peck and Professor of History Dennis Dickerson. Balancing the insight of Peck, a marcher and, therefore, first-hand witness, against Dickerson’s sense of the event’s historical import is a brilliant and elucidating move.

Information, however, is not Labeltalk’s only purpose or strength. The labels themselves often feature elegant prose. Assistant Professor of Art Michael Lewis observes that Adams’ landscape is “as laconic as a haiku,” while Class of 1956 Professor of Sociology and Social Thought Robert Jackall points out in his analysis of Diane Arbus’ Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, NYC that “intellectuals’ struggles with their own demons. . .help accelerate the social and experiential centrifugality of our times.”

And the photographs themselves are nothing to scoff at. In addition to Karales’ and Arbus’ excellently crafted social commentaries and Edgerton’s great technical precision, Walker Evans’ Bud Fields and His Family, Hale County, Alabama and Bellocq’s Storyville Portrait deal with uncomfortable earthen subjects – extreme indigence and prostitution – are frank yet crucially ambivalent. In a way, those pieces which are less impressive are benefit from discussion of their more arguable merits: by addressing (and in certain cases supporting) claims that Halsman’s Portrait of Marilyn or Adams’ Winter Sunrise fall back on simple cliché, the labels change the viewer’s focus from dismissal to discussion.

Discussion is Labeltalk’s means and its end. As Shearer notes, “The idea of ‘multiple voices’ in labels not only allows museums to engage wider audiences but also serves to personalize the language used to interpret works of art.” In this vein, Labeltalk is a success, the rare museum event that is indisputably engaging and personal. The exhibit runs at WCMA through April 25.

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