Looking back on Professor Linn’s work

Kai Speirs/The Miscellany News.

“I knew I didn’t want to teach,” Professor of Art and acclaimed photographer Judy Linn told me as we discussed her upcoming retirement from Vassar, her curation of a new exhibit in the Loeb and her own photographic practice. Linn has been a professor at Vassar since 1999, a position she secured after exhibiting at the Palmer Gallery. Prior to Vassar, she also taught at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Cooper Union and Sarah Lawrence College. Her photographs are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Detroit Art Institute, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Getty Collection, among others.

Taking a cue from an interview of Linn in The New York Times, I first asked about her love of fashion magazines. “Fashion magazines were female, and they were different,” she explained. When photographing Patti Smith in the ’70s, the two would conspire on the clothes and props Smith would use. They met in 1968 and quickly became close, eventually publishing a collection of photographs in a book entitled “Patti Smith 1969–1976.” Linn also photographed numerous fashion shows in the ’80s. There’s a photo entitled “Leg” (1990), taken at a Williwear show, that I found perplexing. The plastic-like leg is cut from the rest of the figure by black curtains, which suspends the viewer in a state of apprehension—what is to follow? (Williwear was an explosive project by the famous Black fashion designer Willi Smith. The line ended three years after Willi Smith’s sudden death in 1987.) 

Before our chat, I looked through Linn’s own work and was hooked by a couple of photos involving slight tilts: a picture of a car coming up a road with a telephone pole that leans a bit far into traffic; a strange house that looks like it was built to rest on a hill, now teleported into an empty, flat landscape; the iconic photograph “213,” depicting three little boys standing on a podium, captured at an odd angle as though Lin was shooting the room from one of the top corners. The figures in “213” are hilarious: the second place looks to the first place winner with a sideways growl, first place smiles awkwardly with his long arms hanging down, and third place sulks and hides under his baseball cap. 

Linn also has an eye for the odd and unexpected placement of things. “dendur” (2001) depicts a bright yellow bucket next to a tall Pharaonic figure encased in gray stone. The two objects awkwardly stand side by side and refuse to acknowledge each other. Linn gives us a great view of something oddly comical, and perhaps familiar. “pinhole” (2008) is also charming—a pack of Camel cigarettes and a plastic film canister lie on a wall-to-wall carpeted floor in a manner that is somehow landscape-like. A landscape for a little bug, perhaps.

Regarding curating “The Hairy Leg or What to do Wrong” for the Loeb’s Hoy Gallery, Linn was given access to the entirety of the Loeb’s online archives, basically everything that’s been digitized. “I got to go shopping,” she said. “Things would stop me in my tracks and I would respond to them.” If curating was like shopping, the exhibition is the result of an extensive grocery list that gives viewers enough to chew on for an entire hibernation period (though I wouldn’t call the photographs sleepy). There’s even a photograph by Peter Hujar entitled “Skippy on a Chair (I)” that could punish a sleepy, unsuspecting person. It’s a picture of a snake coiled on a chair that hangs low and in the corner on the first wall of the exhibition—you don’t notice it at first, then it seems to leap at you. “Oh yeah, that was intentional,” Linn admitted, “though maybe it would have been even scarier higher up.” 

If the snake was too much, one could retreat into Rosalie Thorne McKenna’s “Plantation house, Windsor, Mississippi.” I found a great sense of calm in the photo with its neoclassical proportionality and little of cows roaming amidst stoic Corinthian pillars. But amidst the stiff-lip proportionality of the Corinthian pillars, the cows and their carefree attitude give us a little comic relief; it’s like they never noticed that the building had disappeared. Linn’s theory on columns around buildings has to do with their similarity to sacred groves of trees arranged in circles found in nature; the groves often became ritual spaces for humans. If tree circles became the columns in ancient Greek architecture, then the columns of the house in “Plantation house, Windsor, Mississippi” seem to be evolving back into tree-like forms populated by grazing cows. There’s another picture of cows photographed by an anonymous photographer that nonetheless placed (perhaps unintentionally) their own long, protruding shadow, which bleeds across the whole picture. “Now that’s a genuine mistake, but it’s quite beautiful because it makes the whole foreground,” Linn explained.

Another favorite of Linn and I’s was a photograph by Robert Frank of his wife, “Mary.” “There’s a huge scratch across the surface of that photograph,” Linn told me. “It makes me so happy precisely because it’s a disaster!” Meanwhile, I sounded like a disaster while trying to explain why I liked it so much; even now I still can’t put my finger on it. It’s dreamy but not surreal; it’s soft and mystical, but with a huge gash across the surface. I can stand behind what art critic Hilton Als said about good photographs in a piece on Linn for BOMB magazine: “Good photographs generally deny verbalization; verbalization generally leads to sarcasm.” 

It was only at the end of our chat that I brought up Linn’s connection to Patti Smith. I didn’t really need the origin story; I could find it in any one of the countless interviews of Linn on her friendship with the rockstar. Instead, I just wanted to know if the two still hang out. “We speak on the phone and it’s always ‘we should get together!’ but both of us are relieved we don’t do it,” Linn admitted. It’s like getting to plan a whole get-together—going over what you plan to do, affirming that you both still like each other—without the real effort of actually getting together. Sounds pretty familiar to me. 

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