Snips and Snaps: Harry Roseman’s Haircuts at Sacha & Olivier
Harry Roseman: In the Mirror, Haircuts- 1988-2014
September 6 to October 11, 2014
6 Wesst 18th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
open during salon business hours, 9.30-6, Monday to Friday, 11-4 Saturday
Modernist visual art is surprisingly selective in its choice of subjects taken from everyday life. Charles Baudelaire’s marvelously prophetic “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) describes cafés, city crowds, scenes of war and women’s fashion, but not barbershops. Indeed, so far as I know, no Impressionist ever showed men getting haircuts. (The modernist photographers Walker Evens and Robert Frank presented barbershops.) That is a surprising omission, for even those males who otherwise take no close interest in how they look attend to their appearance when getting a haircut. Just as an artist scans himself while painting a self-portrait, so men use mirrors to look at the sides and back of their head, viewing themselves as if from an external point of view before advising our barber how much hair to cut. Making a self-portrait, like getting a haircut thus makes you self-conscious by asking that you see yourself as if from an external point of view.
For many years Harry Roseman has had his hair cut by Olivier, a hairdresser who works at Sacha & Olivier’s on eighteenth street just West of Fifth Avenue. This show of forty-one color pictures, with some large photographs, many medium sized and a smaller number of snapshot sized images is installed on the front and back rooms of the barbershop, on the walls amidst advertising, and taped to the mirrors, records that history. We see Roseman when he still had long bushy brown hair; and we have before and after photographs of his haircuts. Normally the walls and floor of an art gallery are cleared so that we can focus on the art without any visual distractions. Here, however, viewing Roseman’s unframed color photographs amidst the crowded barber’s chairs, mirrors and the haircutting apparatus at Sacha & Olivier is a natural way of contextualizing these images. That it takes you a little time to concentrate on the scenes of haircutting is all to the good, for looking around in this shop enriches your experience of these dispersed, fragmentary images.
These photographs, which provide such a full record of the ongoing changes in the appearance of Roseman’s head, may not seem psychologically revealing. Whatever obsessions or fantasies preoccupied him during the past quarter century, when he went to Sacha & Olivier’s he was concerned to get his hair properly cut. As we all are when we go our own barbershop. But Roseman, who is concerned to turn “the everyday into a ritual and necessity into art” thought to turn photographic records of that banal occasion into works of art. Is it far fetched, then, to relate this small exhibition to late modernist performance art, in which the body of the artist was the medium? Or presumptuous, casting our thoughts further back historically, to relate “In the Mirror” to the traditions of genre painting, which focused attention on humble subjects? Not at all! Taken out of context, these photographs could be good illustrations of an advertisement for Sacha & Olivier, providing before and after depictions of that shop’s satisfied clients. But projected, as they are here, into the art world, inevitably they have a much larger resonance. The next time I get a haircut, I will certainly think of Roseman’s exhibition, and so understand my own experience differently.