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  • Out of the Picture
  • Erin Bell (bio)
Martha Rosler: The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems by Steve Edwards. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012. Pp. 122, 32 color illustrations. $35.00 cloth, $16.00 paper.

Even though the term postmodern remains a contested category of periodization, aspects of its theoretical parameters appear fixed in myriad texts. While scholars may grapple with the terms of an era that remains indeterminate in certain purviews, ironically, it seems an established enumeration of artists exists that exemplify the mood and aesthetic of the postmodern. Indeed, whether neophyte or experienced scholar, if one surveys texts pertaining to postmodernism, one can readily establish a short list of artists considered canonical to the period.

So while the demarcation between modern and postmodern may remain elusive to some, most accounts of feminism and postmodern art, for example, cite the resonance of Cindy Sherman’s photo stills and self-portraits, Mary Kelly’s Post-partum Document (1973–79), and Barbara Kruger’s photo collage Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face (1981), though, invariably, texts will also include citations of additional artists.1 Likewise, studies relating to photography and postmodernism typically contain a decisive list of artists within their pages. Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings (1971), Victor Burgin’s Between (1986), and Sherrie Levine’s photographs of the work of male “masters” are often referenced in survey texts to explicate the qualities of postmodern photography.2 [End Page 849]

As a photographer, filmmaker, and author whose work is typified as postmodern, Martha Rosler is usually mentioned in these volumes. Her installation, The Bowery in two Inadequate Systems, 1974–75, which is comprised of a series of forty-five gelatin silver prints of text and images on twenty-four backing boards, is usually considered Rosler’s pièce de résistance indicative of the postmodern aesthetic. The Bowery is described in many critiques as subjectless, stark, or cool, and the subjects, if there were any, would be the Bowery bums who are indexed only by their empty bottles and smashed cigarette packages—the detritus working in tandem (or against) the images of the text. Rosler’s Bowery is often cited in monographs on postmodernism for shattering notions of representation and/or for Rosler’s consideration of the tension between text and image. As such, The Bowery is frequently named as a “significant work of the 1970s,” according to Steve Edwards, yet “it has received no sustained gaze” (6).

At issue, then for Edwards, whom readers might recognize from his work as an editor at both the Oxford Art Journal and Historical Materialism, or his books The Making of English Photography: Allegories (2006)3 and Photography: A Very Short Introduction (2006),4 is that analyses of Rosler’s work are inadequate themselves. Not only are they typically limited in their explanation of the project’s theoretical resonance, but The Bowery’s inclusion in said surveys “usually functions . . . as a marker of the shift from one paradigm to another, warranting a couple of sentences, a paragraph at most—just enough to make the point—before moving on to the next object and the next topic” (6).

It is not difficult to locate evidence to back this particular claim. In Linda Hutcheon’s The Politics of Postmodernism (1989), for example, Rosler and The Bowery receive many quick, one-line mentions, as well as one “longer” analysis that is approximately three paragraphs. Likewise, Rosler’s body of work warrants two separate, one-line mentions in Jacques Rancière’s The Future of the Image (2007),5 but these relate to her photomontages and not The Bowery. Neither Rosler nor The Bowery are cited once in the 350-page “authoritative guide” of postmodernism titled The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (2001),6 nor is Rosler’s body of work mentioned in Postmodernism (2001) by Eleanor Heartney.

Part of the import, then, of Edwards’s analysis of The Bowery is that his book performs a sustained read of the installation; one that is complemented by biographical information about Rosler, such as her association with the San Diego group, her knowledge of language poetry, her familiarity with the [End Page 850] work of...


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