Steve Kahn: The Hollywood Suites

By James A. Ganz, Jodi Throckmorton, Matthew Simms, and Constance M. Lewallen

Los Angeles in the early 1970s was a place of economic, cultural, and social turbulence, and many artists responded by experimenting with non-traditional approaches to art making. Within this atmosphere of creative investigation, the photographer Steve Kahn began to work on a project that would become The Hollywood Suites. In 1974, he rented out rooms in a motel on Melrose Avenue and started to photograph professional bondage models posed within. However, his attention was quickly drawn away from the women and toward the mundane rooms in which they worked. He began to focus on the dilapidated interiors, including uneven curtains hanging askew from windows and doors that seemed to both offer and deny passage. His endeavor grew into a multifaceted conceptual series that used the motel’s physical features to adroitly explore ideas of psychological bondage and containment.

The essays in this catalogue excavate Kahn’s work from a range of technical, feminist, associative, and art historical perspectives. James A. Ganz analyzes the project’s chronology and material elements, reconstructing its progression and the artist’s working methods. Jodi Throckmorton considers The Hollywood Suites in dialogue with artworks by feminist artists working in Southern California during the same period. Matthew Simms elucidates the visual language animating the project, highlighting the poetic fluidity that allowed Kahn to move easily between photographing women and photographing objects. And, lastly, Constance M. Lewallen discusses Kahn’s large photo collages in the context of such Conceptual artists as John Baldessari and Bruce Nauman, who employed similar formats.

The first scholarly publication to document Kahn’s incredible artistic legacy, this handsomely produced volume accompanies a groundbreaking exhibition of his photographs at the de Young museum in San Francisco. Featuring 59 gelatin silver prints from The Hollywood Suites, it also includes the previously unpublished full set of 110 Polaroids that Kahn used as source material along with numerous outtakes and variants. Together with extracts from his journals and an unpublished interview from 1977, they create a comprehensive portrait of a photographic project that is simultaneously enigmatic, evocative, seductive, and surreal.


James A. Ganz, former curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is senior curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. His recent publications include Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition (2015); Portals of the Past: The Photographs of Willard Worden (2015); Rembrandt’s Century (2013); and Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964 (2012).

Jodi Throckmorton is curator of contemporary art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. She has organized numerous exhibitions including Melt/Carve/Forge: Embodied Sculptures by Cassils (2016); Postdate: Photography and Inherited History in India (2015); Bruce Conner: Somebody Else’s Prints (2014); and This Kind of Bird Flies Backward: Paintings by Joan Brown (2011).

Matthew Simms is professor of art history at California State University, Long Beach, and the Gerald and Bente Buck West Coast collector for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. He is the author of Robert Irwin: A Conditional Art (2016) and the curator of Robert Irwin: Site Determined (2018).

Constance M. Lewallen is adjunct curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. She has curated numerous exhibitions, and is the author of many books. She is co-author of the forthcoming Bruce Nauman: Spatial Encounters.

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