An Exhibition Worth Thousands of Words

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One of the savviest, wisest, most revealing museum exhibitions of the summer may not have much actual art in it. But it circles the subject relentlessly like a satellite around a planet, wobbling in and out of art’s force field. We’re along for the ride, courtesy of a series of often riveting, mostly wordless visual dialogues between artists, conducted entirely by cellphone.

In each of these dozen pictorial tête-à-têtes, two artists share images — scores, sometimes hundreds — and the occasional brief video. They tap moments of beauty or strangeness; of everyday life or travel; of buildings, streets and weather. We see flashes of wit, poetry and even genius and observe momentous events, both private and presidential. Everywhere puzzles are set in motion for us to contemplate and parse, making our own meaning.

As museum shows go, “Talking Pictures: Camera-Phone Conversations Between Artists” was a relatively loose, even risky, proposition undertaken where you might least expect it: the august Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Fifth Avenue building, even). It was cooked up by Mia Fineman, associate curator of the Met’s photography department, who was intrigued by how the camera phone had transformed photography, giving it a diaristic, real-time intimacy and turning it, she says in a wall text, into “a fluid, instantaneous, ephemeral medium, closer to speaking than to writing.”

Ms. Fineman wanted to examine the speechlike nature of cellphone photo-chat through a finer lens: artists’ longstanding habit of communing with others of their kind. So last fall she selected a dozen artists of varying ages, origins and sensibilities, working in photography, painting, illustration or multimedia. Each was asked to invite another artist to communicate through a shared iCloud album for several months, however often they liked but without typed messages. (Ms. Fineman could check in, taking the project’s pulse, but not comment.) The museum would exhibit each exchange unabridged; images would be labeled with only the sender’s name and the date sent.

Ms. Fineman had little sense of how her recipe might work, but in April she lifted the lid to find the makings of this marvelous exhibition nearly done: some 1,822 images, including 183 videos. Two conversations are displayed as photographic prints on the gallery’s walls; four are slide (and video) shows on digital monitors. Six are on iPads or printed in books stationed at tables with seating. An inviting, plain-spoken ambience prevails — part gallery, part archive.

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