Gagosian is pleased to announce 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.
976 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10075
Hours: Monday–Friday 10–6
The New York Public Library’s Picture Collection
Joshua Chuang, the Robert B. Menschel Senior Curator of Photography at the New York Public Library, discusses the institution’s singular Picture Collection, the artist Taryn Simon’s rigorous engagement with it, and four instances of its little-known role in the history of art making.
Taryn Simon and Teju Cole
This spring, as part of the Lambert Family Lecture Series at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Taryn Simon joined Teju Cole for an online conversation about her artistic practice and creative process.
Taryn Simon: An Occupation of Loss
In Taryn Simon’s performance work An Occupation of Loss (2016), professional mourners enact rituals of grief, simultaneously broadcasting their lamentations from within a sculptural installation. This video by filmmaker Boris B. Bertram documents the April 2018 performance of this work with Artangel in Islington, London.
Cast of Characters
James Lawrence explores how contemporary artists have grappled with the subject of the library.
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019
The Summer 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a detail from Afrylic by Ellen Gallagher on its cover.
From Mortal Bodies to Immortal Crowds
Two immersive installations by Taryn Simon presented at MASS MoCA in 2018–19 examined the rituals of cold-water plunges and applause. Text by Angela Brown.
June 23–29, 2021
A storyteller and researcher driven by the mutability of fact and the documentary potential of fiction, Taryn Simon directs our attention to systems of organization—bloodlines, circulating picture collections, mourning rituals, ceremonial flower arrangements—revealing the structures of power and authority hidden within. Working in photography, sculpture, text, sound, performance, and installation, she traces lineages of objects, families, nations, and histories.
Photo: Brigitte Lacombe
Extended through May 19, 2018
Paperwork and the Will of Capital
February 27–May 19, 2018
Merlin Street, Athens