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Martha Rosler

The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems



Martha Rosler (1943-)


The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems




Forty-five gelatin silver prints of text and image mounted on twenty-four backing boards


Dimensions variable

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Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase, with funds from John L. Steffens

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In her work, Martha Rosler has often employed—and deconstructed—photographic conventions in ways that examine the authenticity associated with documentary photography and the unbalanced relationship between disenfranchised communities and their visual representations. Here, Rosler uses a combination of images and texts to respond to earlier documentary photographs of vagrants and alcoholics in Manhattan’s run-down Bowery neighborhood. Criticizing what she regards as documentary photography’s diminished power to motivate change, Rosler juxtaposed photographs of Bowery storefronts with shots of typewritten words associated with drunkenness. The resulting disjunction—between words that refer to an all-too-human state and images devoid of people—suggests the inherent limitations of both photography and language as “descriptive systems” to address a complex social problem. By arranging the work’s component parts in a grid, Rosler disrupts the traditional idea that a work of art, hanging by itself in a museum, is to be approached simply as an object of beauty.