by Heather Diack. University of Minnesota Press, May 2020. 296 p. ill. ISBN 9781517907570 (pbk.), $30.00.
Reviewed November 2020
Ian McDermott, Coordinator of Library Instruction, Associate Professor, LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, firstname.lastname@example.org
Documents of Doubt is a theoretically dense account of photography’s relationship to conceptual art in the late 1960s. Heather Diack (associate professor of art history, University of Miami) closely examines the photographs of conceptual art as artworks, and not as mere documentation or evidence. These photographs, she argues, are not subordinate to the ideas foregrounded in most studies of conceptual art. Nor are they autonomous, modernist art objects. Rather, her study focuses on artists’ use of photography to destabilize meaning through photographic investigations. In her excellent introduction, Diack stresses photography’s contingent, unstable qualities as central to conceptualism. Robert Barry’s Inert Gas Series of 1969 exemplifies the approach; Barry photographed remote desert locations where he released specified amounts of invisible gases into the air. The photographs are “evidence” of the performance but prove nothing.
The book comprises four case studies: Mel Bochner, Bruce Nauman, Douglas Huebler, and John Baldessari. In addition to a deep engagement with art history, Diack argues each artist wrestles with complex social and political issues from oblique angles. A strong example is Diack’s analysis of Bochner, especially his Measurement series. Bochner photographed objects like spray paint cans in banal settings with their dimensions marked in tape on the floor and walls. She argues these photographs are, “...a test of the immeasurable flux between reality, representation, and perception.” Diack locates these works within the tumult of the era by comparing them to the relentless analysis, and conspiratorial thinking, of Abraham Zapruder’s infamous 8mm film of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Bochner confirms this connection and, in 1967, published an article about the media circus surrounding the Warren Report.
Diack acknowledges that her focus on white, male artists appears retrograde. Female artists and artists of color are mentioned in the book (e.g. Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper), yet her justification is not convincing. Diack’s shortcomings echo issues faced by libraries and archives. As with photography in conceptual art, what initially appeared neutral is contingent and subjective. Library collection building has privileged white, male artists and authors. A more inclusive book, or library collection, requires a purposeful dismantling of biased narratives. Diack’s book expands the dialog on conceptualism within art history’s pre-existing biases.
The book is meticulously researched, has over twenty-five pages of endnotes, and includes a helpful index. Many black and white figures illustrate each chapter, and a section of color plates documents key artworks and photographs. Documents of Doubt is recommended, with the above caveat, for libraries supporting upper-level undergraduates and graduate students, curators of contemporary art, or faculty with similar research interests.