The concept and even the title sound hopelessly gimmicky: "A Show of Hands," as in an exhibition consisting solely of works featuring human hands and other reasonable facsimiles. And yet the show itself succeeds despite the gimmick, simply because the content is so strong.
As indicated by the subtitle, "Photographs and Sculpture From the Buhl Collection," these works — 120 of them, by 110 artists and photographers — are from a private collection, and what a collection it must be. A biographical statement is so brief as to be enigmatic. It reads, almost in its entirety: "For almost 30 years [Henry] Buhl worked in New York City's financial world, then as a free-lance photographer. Now, Buhl's two passions are collecting art and his work with New York City's homeless population." Elsewhere, the press materials include the tidbit that Buhl is a "part-time Palm Beach resident."
That's about it. When a friend and I visited, we speculated on how Buhl might have arrived at such a specific collection. Did he one day suddenly realize that he was unwittingly accumulating photographs prominently featuring hands? Or did he set out with the goal of becoming a collector of hand photography? Inquiring minds wanted to know.
An answer, of sorts, comes in the hefty exhibition catalog, which originated when another, much larger version of this show, called "Speaking With Hands: Photographs from the Buhl Collection," had a run at New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2004. Buhl, it turns out, started buying the occasional photograph when he was a photographer in the late 1980s. Despite a mentor's advice to find a focus, however, he didn't settle on one until a fateful encounter in 1993. That's when he met Georgia O'Keeffe's longtime secretary and bought from her a 1920 Alfred Stieglitz gelatin silver print of the artist's called Hands With Thimble.
"The picture was one of the most beautiful images I had ever seen — and still is," Buhl recalls in his preface to the catalog. "It motivated me to look at other photographers' images of hands, which ultimately inspired the theme of The Buhl Collection." Other hand shots soon followed, including works by such historically and artistically significant photographers as Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Imogen Cunningham, Robert Mapplethorpe, Irving Penn, Man Ray, Paul Strand, and Andy Warhol.
Buhl went on to add photos by lesser-known and sometimes anonymous artists. And in 1995, when he bought Flor de Manita, Tina Modotti's 1925 platinum print of a cactus with a startling resemblance to a human hand, he expanded his definition of hand to include more abstract representations. The earliest shot in the show, which is organized more or less chronologically, is an extraordinary 1840 work by William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the pioneers of the medium. Identified as "a photogenic drawing negative, from an original ink-on-paper manuscript," it captures, in reverse, a handwritten stanza from Lord Byron's "Ode to Napoleon" from an 1811 manuscript. "With no hands visible," Buhl writes, "this picture still honors the spirit of the theme through handwriting."
Other more indirect evocations of hands are Robert Doisneau's famous 1952 portrait of Picasso that uses some little finger-like loaves of bread on a table for a trompe l'oeil effect and Lee Friedlander's Boston (1994), in which a tree trunk gives way to branches that bring to mind long, gnarly fingers. In French Hospital, Sarajevo, August-September, 1993, Gilles Peress conveys the horrors of war through an emotionally devastating image of a man whose hands have been cut off.
In just over a decade, the Buhl collection grew to an amazing 1,000-plus photographs. (Buhl has a private curator.) Along the way, the collector further refined his approach so that he now has representative examples of the different types of photographic processes: gelatin silver, platinum, chromogenic, lithograph, daguerreotype, tintype, ink jet, and others. The exhibition includes a series of wall-text panels that describe, in fascinating detail, how these processes work. Far from detracting from photography's mystique, the descriptions make the art seem even more like some magical form of alchemy.
The result of Buhl's admirable obsessiveness is an idiosyncratic collection that encompasses the history and development of photography as an art form. Along with the names I mentioned earlier, there's a virtual roll call of who's who in photography: Edward Muybridge, Edward Weston, Berenice Abbott, Robert Capa, Walker Evans, Brassaï, Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Gordon Parks, Robert Frank, Robert Doisneau, Peter Hujar, Richard Prince, Gregory Crewdson, and Nan Goldin. Some artists with a more photojournalistic bent — Elliott Erwitt, Garry Winogrand, Mary Ellen Mark, Lee Friedlander — are also included, as are such provocateurs as Vito Acconci, Lucas Samaras, and Andres Serrano.
One of the most intriguing subsets of the Buhl collection consists of photographs of famous hands. Just as Stieglitz offered muse Georgia O'Keeffe in Hands With Thimble, Berenice Abbott gives us the Hands of Jean Cocteau (1927) in a stunning gelatin silver print. Gordon Coster provides the hands of blues legend Leadbelly (c. 1940), while Mary Ellen Mark captures Mother Teresa, Meerut (1981). Richard Avedon is represented with two beautifully straightforward shots of Joe Louis, Prize Fighter, New York City, October 3, 1963 (1964) and Henry Moore, Sculptor (1963). From Irving Penn, there's The Hand of Miles Davis, New York (1986), and Peter Hujar records a fellow artist with the portrait David Wojnarowicz (1981). The Guggenheim incarnation of the exhibition, as the catalog demonstrates, featured an even greater, richer abundance of such images.
It was with these "hands of the famous" shots that the significance of the collection's subject matter really began to register for me. Looking at the hands of Henry Moore, for example, inevitably suggests the great sculptures that came to life in those hands, just as Miles Davis' hand brings to mind the trumpet it held and the magnificent sounds that emanated from it. Seen in this light, the hands, almost as much as the eyes, become fleshy links to the souls of their subjects. Ordinary acts such as shaking hands or holding hands take on a new level of intimacy. Surely it's not meaningless coincidence that no two sets of fingerprints are identical.
The photographs in the Norton version of the show are supplemented by a small batch of sculptures that weren't present at the Guggenheim. They're scattered judiciously through the galleries, and they add a lot to the presentation by bringing the subject matter into three dimensions. The standouts are George Segal's sensuous bronze with white patina Fragment: Venus Gesture (1986); Louise Bourgeois' Give or Take (1902), which puts a pair of bronze hands at either end of the same arm; and Slaughter (1997), in which Ann Hamilton belies her violent title by placing a delicate glove made of silk organza and cotton in a glass display case.
I wish the Norton had been able to snag at least a few more of the photographs that were part of the Guggenheim's staging of the exhibition, which included more than 170 works. I also wish the catalog essay, by original project curator Jennifer Blessing, were a little less academic, not to mention a little less fond of tossing around words like indexical. (Sample sentence: "It is through the logic of the fetish that the fragmentation of the hand, like collecting itself and like photography, also suggests a kind of obsessional denial of death.") Even so, "A Show of Hands" is not only artistically satisfying but also a great deal of fun.