For artist Marcia Resnick, a photograph is not a static thing—it’s an exchange, a performance, a selectively rendered reality. Her pictures tell a tightly choreographed story, revealing a worldview centered on exposing and poking fun at life’s absurdities. “The art I make is a reflection of what I want to see,” Resnick said in a recent interview.
Last month, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, opened a traveling survey of images made by Resnick, now 71, decades ago. Running until June before it heads to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, “Marcia Resnick: As It Is or Could Be” marks the first-ever institutional survey of the renegade artist.
Made between 1973 and 1982, the 83 pieces on view come from a prolific period in Resnick’s life, stretching from when she moved back to New York after getting an MFA at the California Institute of the Arts and the folding of the short-lived alt newspaper SoHo Weekly News, where Resnick was a staff photographer. (The early ’80s also marked a confluence of personal setbacks, including drug use, the death of friends, and the end of her marriage that led to a pause in making creative work.)
During the time explored in the show, Resnick experimented with conceptual photography, produced four art books, and took portraits of the punky creative class of the era’s Downtown scene, including the likes of David Byrne, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kathy Acker, Allen Ginsberg, and John Belushi.
Resnick’s ambitious, stylized photographs could be considered part of the Pictures Generation—a group of artists in the 1970s and ’80s known for appropriating mass-media images as commentary on popular culture and commodification—though she is rarely, if ever, represented in any scholarship on the era. Her 1976–77 photograph She imagined herself a starlet, for example, shows a model representing Resnick’s adolescent self dressed glamorously in a fur coat and heart-shaped sunglasses smoking a cigarette, evoking the 1962 film Lolita.
“Everything they say about the Pictures Generation applies to me too, but I’m never included,” Resnick said. “I like to say I was ahead of my time and no one understood me.”
Frank Goodyear, one of the show’s co-curators, agreed: “Marcia and her work is a challenge to photographic history.” Goodyear, a co-director at Bowdoin’s museum, worked with Minneapolis Institute of Art curator Casey Riley, and Lisa Hostetler, a former curator at the George Eastman Museum, to organize the show. Each had developed a recent interest in Resnick’s work—and in shining a light on her overlooked career—and joined forces about four years ago to curate this survey. The trio also produced an accompanying catalogue published by Yale University Press that is a comprehensive excavation of Resnick’s output during those formative ten years.
In researching Resnick’s career, and through multiple marathon interviews conducted over Zoom with the other curators, Goodyear realized just how trailblazing of an artist Resnick was. “She was doing all sorts of things that broke from what a successful photograph was supposed to be,” he said. In all her work, from the celebrity shots to the conceptual frames, she didn’t take it too seriously. “She embraced humor. She saw photography as a performative act—you could add text, or draw on it, or cut it up,” he added. “It is kind of remarkable that she has never really had a museum retrospective before.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1950, Resnick took to drawing and painting from a young age. (“I was in my first art show when I was five at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum,” she said.) When she first tried photography, she felt it too hasty. Painting took days and days before a completed project emerged, but, initially, she questioned how a photograph was finished with just the swish of a shutter. She wanted more thought and production to go into her art-making, with more theoretical backing.
“I started doing portraits of people looking at themselves in the mirror, and then I took a photo of them looking at the painting of themselves looking in the mirror,” Resnick said. Fun and meta, sure, but too time consuming, so she thought about how else she could push the medium to its boundaries.
In 1973, Resnick took what she learned at CalArts, where she studied with the renowned conceptual artist John Baldessari, to the East Coast. After a cross-country roadtrip she returned to New York and settled into a petite apartment in the Lower East Side, near the Bowery. There, she began to layer paint onto her photographs. Mom and Dad (1974) makes use of vivid oil paint to color her parental subjects in an otherwise black-and-white photograph, while The Glory of North Wales (1974) shows a page from a travel book that she mostly painted over with heavy black brushstrokes, save a few lonely items like a bank of rocks or a tiny house, now void of context.
In “See,” a series made in 1974–75 that eventually became her first self-published art book, Resnick took photographs of subjects from behind as they gazed out over landscapes. In one, See #34, the artist James Welling looks out at the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon. See #34 led to another, more conceptual series of 12 works called “See Changes.” See Changes #8 shows that same photograph of Welling, now drawn over with spare crayon-like markings around his body; other passages are painted over or cut into. The new remixed versions hint at a through line in Resnick’s work: that a picture never totally represents a true reality. It’s always open to interpretation.
Resnick’s work, however, soon took a turn inward following a car accident that left her in the hospital for two weeks when she was 26. Her earlier series, she said, came from a place of “looking at people and places outside of me, but the car accident made me examine me. I was the person that I knew least about. I wanted to understand myself,” she said.
The resulting work would be published in 1978 as a book, titled Re-visions. Using younger women she knew as her models, Resnick staged and photographed close-cropped scenes from her own adolescence, all imbued with her signature irreverent wink, accomplished by adding handwritten text (which become the work’s title) to the bottom of the work. In She enjoyed making loud noises (1978), we see a cherubic set of hands holding a balloon with the point of a needle nestled at its surface. She became an expert shoplifter (1978) shows cat-eye sunglasses clutched by fingers peeking through a coat, suggesting they had been lifted off a display case and quickly pocketed.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Resnick financed her art practice through teaching positions and, starting in 1979, her staff-photographer job at the SoHo Weekly News, where her striking black-and-white portraits of the artists, filmmakers, punks, and poets—some women but mostly men—who made up the countercultural Downtown scene at the time found a captive readership. Many of those portraits for the SoHo Weekly News were also a part of her “Bad Boys” series, in which Resnick sought to flip the typical power dynamic of men photographing women by being the one in control.
“I was so incensed by that whole thing of men dominating women and women having no say, and women being put on a pedestal, like the way so many male photographs at the time in magazines like Playboy exalted women as objects,” Resnick said. She asserted her power by hosting these portrait sessions in her own home studio, where she could create a relaxed, candid atmosphere of mutual respect. As the 10 portraits from her “Bad Boys” and SoHo Weekly News days in the Bowdoin exhibition show (like those of Fab 5 Freddy, Mick Jagger, Peter Tosh, and Belushi), these images are chock-full of personality and verve, like scenes from a party you wish you’d been at.
Resnick also had her own satirical column for the paper, “Resnick’s Believe-It-or-Not” (eventually shortened to “Resnick’s Believe It,” thanks to multiple cease-and-desist threats from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!), in which the artist paired images of street scenes or random objects (like a tarp-covered car parked on a city block) with a corresponding story that was completely made up, to hilarious effect. (The car photograph claimed to represent a hot new trend for dodging parking tickets she called “car camouflage.”)
“Some of the things were totally ludicrous,” Resnick recalled, with a grin. “People would ask, ‘Is that true?’” She’d just shrug.
That deadpan humor is also key to other Resnick works. In her “Landscape” series from 1974–75, of which six are included in the Bowdoin show, she presents photographs of empty skies and latent horizons that intentionally lack much interest by way of a subject. It’s a send-up to the texturally rich large-scale outdoor photography by the likes of Ansel Adams. “I wanted to do landscapes that were antithetical to Ansel Adams,” she remembered thinking at the time.
Though Resnick would have received assignments from her editors at SoHo News or given assignments to her students, she thinks of these various bodies of work as assignments she gave herself. “Each piece has a very strong conceptual spine to it,” Goodyear said, reflecting on the exhibition’s breadth. “The men have historically taken a leading seat, and we’re really proud to do this show because we are bringing forward an extraordinary woman who has flown under the radar for far too long.”