"That is the charm about Christ," Oscar Wilde wrote, "when all is said, he is just like a piece of art the beautiful white Christ."
"Photography and the Self: The Legacy of F. Holland Day" showcases "The Seven Words" (1898) by Fred Holland Day (1864-1933), a devotee of Wilde and his circle. Juxtaposed are photographs by 13 contemporary artists in the Whitney's collection who use their own bodies as raw material. "The Seven Words," on loan from photographer and dealer Barry Silverstein, is less an examination of Day's legacy than a fulcrum for airing items in the museum's attic.
The assertion of legacy is facile. Contemporary works on view, dating from the 1960s, are alien to Day in substance and intention. Day aspired to the reverence of traditional Renaissance crucifixion scenes. "The Seven Words" evidences no hint of irony or double entendre. By contrast, the shock of the pose is the point of the 13 contemporary works by Robert Mapplethorpe, Mark Morrisroe, Chris Burden, and others.
Day was the son of a wealthy Boston merchant family. He founded the publishing house Copeland & Day, which pioneered the union of contemporary art and printing. The imprint became the American patron of Aubrey Beardsley and Wilde's publisher in the United States. As a photographer, Day was in the leading ranks of those who approached photography as a fine art.
At the turn of the century, that meant making photos look like paintings. As much a technical innovator as Alfred Stieglitz, Day experimented with lighting and special filters to create Whistlerian blurs. In varying degrees, his fin de si่cle sensibilities the costumes and picturesque tableaux were those of his age. He epitomized the Decadent phase of an aestheticism that began with the neoclassical revival of the 1830s, the archaisms of the Pre-Raphaelites and, on the Continent, the religious preoccupations of the Nazarenes.
But his photographs of nude males in Orphic poses were suspect. No hint of discredit ever attached to Day. Nevertheless, Wilde's trial and imprisonment cast a lurid light on his work, for which he used young boys from Boston's tenements as models. These, plus his self-portraits as Christ and the professional rivalry of Stieglitz, wrecked his career. He died a recluse, having abandoned photography two decades earlier.
Dressing up for the camera, or undressing for it, has accompanied photography since its invention. Hippolyte Bayard (18071887), who preceded Daguerre and was the first recorded artist to hold a photography exhibition, photographed himself as a corpse in 1840. Then there was Countess de Castiglione, a 19th-century herald of Cindy Sherman. She commissioned 400 to 500 photographs of herself in a slew of guises from French court photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson.
While Day did not originate faked self-portraiture, he was the first photographer to play dead on a cross. Yet even there he had precedent: Thomas Eakins's life-size, naturalistic "The Crucifixion" (1880). Prior to painting, Eakins built a cross, placed it outdoors in strong sunlight, posed a student on it, and photographed the composition.
The controversial painting, finished in the studio with the student still suspended from the cross, was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1892. "The Seven Words" was exhibited there six years later. Any serious inquiry into influences would ask whether Day was familiar with the painting and its preliminary photographs.
But the exhibition is not interested in Day or in legacies. Tucked into the fifthfloor mezzanine, it offers no background on Day. Not one of his 250 fulllength crucifixions are included though they provide useful context for "The Seven Words." Day's name is a hook, a cursory excuse to refresh the r้sum้s and exchange value of a handful of artists in the Whitney's portfolio.
None of the featured legatees are cited as knowing Day's work, nor did they have to. The culture of narcissism, in full throttle from the 1960s onward, is progenitor enough. Add Duchamp if you need another.
Hannah Wilkes, hair in rollers, dots her face with chewing gum clitorises. Mapplethorpe and Morrisroe, both now dead of AIDS, dress as transvestites. Nan Goldin exhibits herself in bed kissing Brian. Carrie Mae Weems preens as a swivel-chair revolutionary. Ms. Sherman is in drag as the clown Emmett Kelly. Lyle Ashton Harris does Billie Holiday. Jane Hammond plays the tattooed lady. Adrian Piper plays peek-a-boo in the buff. Francesca Woodman seems to hatch from an egg in a Boschian hell, a morbid omen of her own suicide at age 22.
On it goes. The allegorists of amour propre on show are united by what the Whitney terms "an underlying notion of the self." But Day's own self is merely the agent, never the subject, of his evocations of Christ's passion.
It is an easy bet that the Whitney chose "The Seven Words" for the flutter it produced in its time. But the Incarnation has been a scandal for two millennia. Day's photos disconcert because they make vivid the particularity of Christ. The intimacy of a photograph emphasizes the concrete humanity of a specific Gallilean Jew who is more familiar as a pious abstraction. It is the orthodoxy of Day's work that startles. "The Seven Words" invests typical Sainte-Sulpice Christs (still reproduced on plaques and prayer cards) with a proximity that offends against the distancing effects of stock sentimentality Wilde's beautiful white Christ.
When all is said, Christ was more to Wilde than a piece of art. Dying, he was baptized a Catholic and received absolution and the last rites. And behind Day's mask of the Wildean aesthete, dwelled a religious impulse that bodied forth in images of the Crucified. For the Whitney's contemporary roster, however, the mask is all there is.
"Photography and the Self: The Legacy of F. Holland Day" at the Whitney Museum of Fine Art until March 11 (945 Madison Ave. at 75th Street, 212-570-3633).
Correction from January 9, 2007:
Bruce Silverstein is the name of the photographer-dealer who lent Fred Holland Day's "The Seven Words" to the Whitney Museum of American Art. He was referred to incorrectly in an article on page 11 of the December 28 New York Sun.