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The Introspection of Frank Ockenfels 3

At Fotografiska, the photographer goes on a personal journey through his career.

Seeing the Frank Ockenfels 3 exhibition at  Fotografiska New York’s feels like being in on a secret. In the exhibition, “Introspection,” we’re invited into corners of the photographer’s mind, these private and personal moments often reserved only for the artist himself, in addition to the portraiture he has become known for in his career of over three decades, as well as his longstanding photographic relationship with David Bowie. This is the first U.S. stop on the exhibition’s tour, which started at Fotografiska’s original Stockholm location in 2021 and will make its way to all the museum’s international locations by 2026.   

The intimate nature of the show is largely due to the presence of selections from Ockenfels’s  journals, enlarged and scanned and framed on the wall, an act that’s both vulnerable and confrontational. In the course of his 30+ year career, Ockenfels has taken to large leatherbound sketchbooks and produced work that, as the artist says, allows him to sort out his own thoughts. The result is often a collage of images, text, and paint all formed from the rivers coursing through his brain. But it exists, too, in the printed darkroom test images of David Bowie, in the hand painted work on view in one of the galleries, in the portraiture he chooses to show versus those he chooses not to show.  “My wife says it’s like being in my head because everything in my house, my life is complete chaos,” he laughs.

“There’s nothing new that I’m doing. It’s just that it’s a different brain doing it.”

“Introspection” is as visceral as it is inspirational. I see myself in the work, finding communion in Ockenfels’s visual language, which he says is inspired by the likes of Ralph Steadman, Francis Bacon, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It’s work touched by alternative culture and a perpetual thirst for what’s next in creation and experimentation, though for him it’s nothing new. “I look back on Sigmar Polke, where he would punch holes in things and then use the dots or Peter Beard, where he would photograph his journals and then draw back onto them or [put] bloody handprints up,” he says. “There’s nothing new that I’m doing. It’s just that it’s a different brain doing it.”

© Frank Ockenfels 3, 42-43, 2019, Courtesy FaheyaKlein Gallery
© Frank Ockenfels 3, 42-43, 2019, Courtesy FaheyaKlein Gallery

“To inspire people is so much more interesting to me”

Despite now being in the middle of his five-year tour, Ockenfels didn’t always think galleries and museums were in his future. In fact, when Los Angeles’s Fahey/Klein Gallery approached Ockenfels about doing a book of his journals–Volume 3, released in October 2019–he didn’t quite know what to say. “I’d had a couple exhibitions of different things in different parts of the world at that point, but not really taking it [too] seriously. It wasn’t really what I was thinking of,” he said. “I kept journals not really thinking I was ever going to really share them with anybody. It was just me kind of making stuff to kind of clear my head.” 

© Frank Ockenfels 3, TRAIT POR 2020, Courtesy FaheyaKlein Gallery
© Frank Ockenfels 3, TRAIT POR 2020, Courtesy FaheyaKlein Gallery

Still, Ockenfels thought it would be at least another 10 years for a show like this. “I don’t know how you’d ever do a book in your 30s or your 40s in my world because I hadn’t said enough yet. I hadn’t done enough…I mean, I can show you a bunch of great pictures, but I think my favorite exhibitions are when you are shown an arc of where someone’s gone,” he says. 

As an exhibition, “Introspection” does do that, though, and it was important to him that the show wasn’t just a collection of celebrity portraiture. Even though it makes up a large (and beautiful) portion of his work, he wanted to be able to share a larger story about his career in hopes of inspiring others. “I​​t’s very important to me [that] the show is not about ego…” he says. “To inspire people is so much more interesting to me, to get people [to] start opening up their minds and expressing what’s in them through art is unbelievable.” 

One of the biggest things Ockenfels notices about his own arc is the way he cares less now about pleasing others. “That’s the thing about artists, like if you truly decide to basically make something for yourself, you have to not care what anyone’s gonna say about it,” he says. “Even now when I make things, I don’t really think of how people are going to react to them. I’m shocked that people are reacting to certain things that I would have been like, well, that was just in my head one day and I did it.”

© Frank Ockenfels 3, GEORGE CLOONEY 2005, Courtesy Fahey Klein Gallery
© Frank Ockenfels 3, GEORGE CLOONEY 2005, Courtesy Fahey Klein Gallery

Artwork first

Ockenfels began his career in New York City, and by the late 1980s his photo of Tracy Chapman for Rolling Stone, originally meant as a quarter-page, became a full page. Spin followed, as did collaborations with artists like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Alicia Keys, Jay Z, and countless others of stage, screen, and studio. He began directing music videos and creating key art for film and television, most notably Breaking Bad, The Bear, and American Horror Story.

To walk through the exhibition is to see work that feels much closer to him, however; there are test strips and self-portraits and collages and hand-painted skateboards alongside images of some of the biggest names in Hollywood and music–George Clooney, Moby, Iggy Pop, Angelina Jolie among them. But the latter become artwork first, mere figures dancing in chiaroscuro. 

It’s a deeply powerful prospect, to have the strength of artistic vision that allows one’s signature as an artist to appear boldly in an industry where the face is the moneymaker. But, in what seems to be a pattern, Ockenfels never really saw himself doing that, either. To him, more people know his images than that he took them, but he prefers it that way. “It’s not like ‘Frank Ockenfels shots,’” he says. “It’s an after point. It shouldn’t be that important. It should be that it’s interesting and it stops you and you wanted to look at it. And you don’t look at it because of me.” 

© Frank Ockenfels 3, CENIT #2 2016, Courtesy FaheyaKlein Gallery
© Frank Ockenfels 3, CENIT #2 2016, Courtesy FaheyaKlein Gallery
© Frank Ockenfels 3, OBAMA 2008, Courtesy FaheyaKlein Gallery
© Frank Ockenfels 3, OBAMA 2008, Courtesy FaheyaKlein Gallery

Frank Ockenfels 3 – Introspection, Fotografiska New York. The exhibition runs through March 2024.

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