Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Vitality Amidst the Ruins: Lower Manhattan’s gritty golden age

Mixed Use, Manhattan: Photography and Related Practices, 1970s to the Present at the Reina Sofia

June 10 – September 2, 2010
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

Barbara Probst, Exposure #18: NYC, 498 7th Avenue, 2003.  Ultrachrome ink on cotton paper, 44 x 29-1/2 inches each.  Courtesy Murray Guy, New York.
Barbara Probst, Exposure #18: NYC, 498 7th Avenue, 2003. Ultrachrome ink on cotton paper, 44 x 29-1/2 inches each. Courtesy Murray Guy, New York.

New York City endured a near-death experience during the 1960s, and the steep decline of lower Manhattan precipitated the rise of a vibrant underground culture. The City began to acknowledge the pioneering efforts of artists to create live-work spaces or lofts within this wasteland of residential and commercial buildings in the 1970s by rezoning them as “mixed use”, albeit in piecemeal fashion and with much rancor. Within a decade, the empty lots and ruined real estate property that had incubated a wealth of sinewy conceptual art were transmuted into Soho gold.

If “mixed use” as a real estate term inspires this show’s outward theme, it implicitly applies to “artistic practices and strategies” in transition over a four decade period, as well. Curators Lynne Cooke and Douglas Crimp present a considerable array of films, photographs, texts, and sound installations by 40 artists spanning several generations. The city as performance space or experiential sphere of creativity becomes the unifying frame around projects of wildly differing intention, and the show often suggests links between specific works by artists who might otherwise appear to have little in common.

For example, several of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills from 1978 (#25, #60, #83, #63), hang near Barbara Probst’s Exposure #9, New York City, Grand Central Station, 12.18.01, 1:21 pm from 2001. Probst’s six-part work features a female model, photographed simultaneously from six distinct points of view. Clearly, Sherman’s and Probst’s concerns, conveyed through distinct conceptual and technical approaches to picture-taking and picture-making, are strikingly different and decades apart. Yet the juxtaposition of these selected works highlights a common interest in the instability of photographic verity, set right in the midst of some of New York’s most familiar public spaces.

By contrast, photography as a straightforward accomplice to performance pertains in Babette Mangolte’s Woman Walking Down a Ladder from 1973. The ladder in question is that of a rooftop water tower. Contact sheets reveal a figure descending perpendicular to the ladder with no visible sign of a harness or guide wire. At close range, we see that she wears a nondescript blouse and skirt, while her face is obscured by her hair. At medium distance in profile, her descent appears even more precarious against the void of sky; and she is a mere speck when the photographer pulls back to reveal the full height and might of the building on which the water tower is delicately perched.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, New York Water Towers, 1988.  15 black and white photographs.  Courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid).
Bernd and Hilla Becher, New York Water Towers, 1988. 15 black and white photographs. Courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid).

New York City’s rooftop water towers are also featured in Bernd and Hilla Becher’s 15-part array of fine black and white photographs from 1988. Echoing a 19th century trend to assemble photographic archives of like things for civic records, the Bechers adopted a similar methodology in the 1960s to make comparative studies of decaying industrial architecture in Europe and the US. Their systematic approach dovetailed with strategies of conceptual art being forged in that era, and the Bechers’ typological studies of water towers, gas tanks, blast furnaces, and other industrial relics have been highly influential.

Typologies abound in Mixed Use, Manhattan. From John Miller’s enigmantic series Clubs for America (1993) to Moyra Davey’s Newstands (1994), the streets of New York are teeming with similar things made unique by happenstance and style as much as wear and tear. The windows of urban buildings are the common denominator for Jennifer Bolande’s Globe series, which features blue metallic orbs with maps that are forever out of date. In a different key, Gordon Matta-Clark’s deadpan, black and white Window Blow-Out from 1973 depicts an abandoned building whose grid of broken windows is animated by a lone dog’s vigil.

The line between typology and series is porous. They synchronize neatly in William Gedney’s 1960s views from his apartment window. Entertaining a play between the static camera and everyday movement in the world beyond, his window is the theme for a set of variations. James Welling employs much the same strategy in Eastern Window #1-24 (1997-2000) except #8, 11, 12, 23. A chair on the neighboring rooftop changes position; light alters the buildings’ forms; the moon changes phase and disappears. Welling’s introduction of occasional color in this black and white world of ideas is mildly startling.

If still photography lends itself easily to urban typologies, photography on the move offers other possibilities. Sound and physical movement predominate in David Hammons’s video Phat Free (1995), in which a hand-held camera follows a performer kicking a can down the street. In David Wojnarowicz’s well-known series, Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978-1979), a figure wearing a crude paper mask of the poet’s face traverses Coney Island, Chinatown, and the deserted streets of the West Side, enacting the artist’s taste for romantic irony and despair. With less drama, the painter Christopher Wool would photograph streets at night while walking home from his studio, studying incidental marks.

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Images of the bygone West Side Piers stir piquant nostalgia for many New Yorkers of a certain age. In all their decrepit glory, the Piers were a magnet for aesthetic prowess as well as sexual trysts. From 1975-1986, Alvin Baltrop photographed their interiors and exteriors, observing cruisers, lovers, and yawning empty space in exquisite detail. When Gordon Matta-Clark cut an enormous, half-moon aperture at the far end of one pier, Baltrop noted its impact on the huge space as sublime cathedral or camera obscura. Peter Hujar’s haunting nocturnes of the Canal St. Piers, from 1983, submerge their secrets in velvet hues of photographic black. What’s left of them in 2010 amounts to jagged rows of decaying piles, as shown in Emily Roysdon’s gray-hued photographs, The Piers, Untitled (#2-5).

In 1971, the Piers were the site of an ambitious series of conceptual art pieces by 27 artists (all male, as it happened). Curated by Willoughby Sharp, photographed by Harry Shrunk and Janos Kender, the consistent format and high quality of the small, gelatin silver photographs establishes a collaborative framework within which each artist had his own word-and-image solo. Because the works were installed in a long corridor of the museum, viewers walking past the sequential imagery might experience it like stills from short silent movies. Vito Acconci, for example, spars with a reputed stranger who threatens to push him off the pier. Besides Acconci, the list of illustrious participants included John Baldessari, Keith Sonnier, Michael Snow, Daniel Buren, George Trakas, and others.

In quite another register, Charles Simonds, Gabriel Orozco, and Bernard Guillot found in the city places for reverie and magical thinking. Simonds, a sculptor, made a 16mm film called Dwellings in 1972. With children as his witnesses in blighted neighborhoods on the Lower East Side, Simonds uses tweezers to move tiny clay bricks into wall crevices. He explains that he’s creating miniature cities for “Little People” who will be moving in soon. (Simonds’s ephemeral archaeology eventually found its way into permanent niches, such as the stairwell of the Whitney Museum). Orozco’s color photograph, Isla en la isla (1993), also plays with changes in the cityscape’s scale. Wooden planks and other debris lean against a traffic barrier in a parking lot beside the Hudson River, mimicking the World Trade Center buildings and piers along the skyline due south. Guillot, in a series of photographs titled Orpheus and Eurydice from 1977, reinvents a mythic tale of tragic love, death, and descent into the underworld as photographic views of forlorn territory on the West Side.

David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978-79.  Black and white photograph. Collection Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid).
David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978-79. Black and white photograph. Collection Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid).

The richness and variety of these projects is daunting. They attest to the elasticity of photographic and cinematic media as co-conspirator to artistic vision, be it performance, conceptual art, architectural intervention, socio-aesthetic political commentary, memento mori, extreme ballet, found object, available view, topographic documentation, lyrical serial existentialist anarchy, rough play. Cumulatively, the show exudes an inviting sense of spontaneity and hard-won freedom. I was particularly moved by Glenn Ligon’s harrowing, 20 wall-panel narrative of his residences, from his youth in the Bronx through a series of legal and illegal sublets early in his career, to, more recently, a stable situation in a condominium. Ligon’s true story is a bracing reminder of the anarchic forces of city real estate and the crucial, double role of the home-studio environment in an artist’s life.

It should be remembered that many of the works in Mixed Use, Manhattan were not seen publicly at the time of their creation. Some of the work on view came to light only through the efforts of dedicated curators and/or the survivors of loved ones. With equanimity and to fascinating effect, the curators have conjoined informal, private, and underknown works with widely known icons. Despite the real estate theme, as I see it this exhibition primarily draws inspiration from artists of the 1960s and 1970s who intentionally kept their work out of mainstream systems, creating alternative avenues for reception and distribution. A long perspective on the sensibility they set in motion can be found here, in disparate works that embrace plurality and resist categorization, revealing quixotic and tantalizing whispers of desire.