Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ain't We Got Fun: 112 Greene Street

Telling people unfamiliar with New York City about the chronic intensity of real estate upheavals in the city sounds like madness. I try to emphasize to these strangers that it is a shared madness and as such engages or even mobilizes, in part, a community, although it is likely that means little for those unfamiliar with the fray of the day-to-day of NYC. 

Along with the endless morphing of New York City dwellings, which in our day exceeds the bright cynicism of "where the rich get rich and the poor get laid off"another curiosity is in the changes in art discourse over the past decades, much of it in reference to the work of the creative classes in NYC.

In contrast to the ersatz academics of much of the contemporary art press, there's a considerable contrast in reading old issues of Avalanche magazine, for example, which was published in 1970-1976 by Willloughby Sharp and Liza Bear. It was a forum for artists by artists, who refer to to one another as "Bob" and "Jim" and use language in a plain, jocular tone, throughout. If there's a model for "the artist" in these pages it's as someone who is more of a working class hero than part of a global elite. Artists then could occupy the residue of a bankrupt city's shrinking industries, where fabric scrap warehouses and sweatshops had filled nineteenth century lofts that were more David Copperfield than Williams-Sonoma, more Ms. 45 than Architectural Record. 

In an interview for the catalog of Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 held at MOCA, Willoughby Sharp discusses the founding of Avalanche in relation to the 1969 show Earth Art that Sharp curated for the A.D. White Museum at Cornell University. The catalog for Earth Art was published a year after the exhibit, and it offers a very slim view of the scope of the exhibit. The first issue of Avalanche ends with "Discussions with Heizer, Oppenheim, Smithson" which are also part of a symposium that was held for the exhibit. Without belaboring the history of the Earth Art exhibit, the frustration of a group of young artists in relation to the slow machinations of a large research university which played a reluctant host to them led to the renegade pages of Avalanche

In concert with a magazine like Avalanche there was the founding of an artist-run space in Soho, 112 Greene Street, run by Jeffrey Lew, which was the subject of a recent exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery and an accompanying catalog, curated by Jessamyn Fiore

The catalog for 112 Greene Street is another amazing telescope view into another New York City, so different from the one we live in now. 112 Greene Street operated from 1970-1976 as an artist run space. The "end" for it occurred in an oblique way: it began to receive government grant money and as the recipient of these funds a more business like bureaucratic structure became necessary. 112 Greene St morphed into the non-profit White Columns which still exists. 

Many of the artists involved with 112 Greene Street moved on to other things in their lives. The most well-known of the artists involved with it was Gordon Matta-Clark, who by coincidence, had been an assistant to Dennis Oppenheim in Ithaca for Oppenheim's projects for the Earth Art  Show. Matta-Clark's migration from Ithaca to the then wild streets of Soho was a trajectory for many, as can be seen in the profiles of the other participants. Vito Acconci and Richard Serra had some involvement with the space as well, which surprised me. There is a hippie-ish cast to a lot of the projects which is overlooked somewhat in the retrospective surveys of Matta-Clark and others. Words such as alchemy and magic are invoked, instead of entropy and dystopia. It leads me to wonder how much that work would look if it were made now. The scale is also localized: there was no active market for these people the way that the market exists now, as a barometer of failure or success. Nor was it meant to travel the world as part of a global network. 

A great companion to the 112 Greene Street catalog is Gordon Matta-Clark's film Food, of the restaurant he founded with Carol Goodden and Tina Girouard, who were both involved with 112 Greene as well. Food also functioned as a kitchen for the artists of 112 Greene Street in a then underpopulated and service-deprived lower Manhattan. In reading the bios of many of the participants there are a lot of trajectories outside of NYC: upstate, New Mexico, California, and so on. It makes one realize that the upheavals of living in New York City are part of its psyche as well as its leases. 
The other night I walked by the address to see what it had become. In November 2014 it is the site of a Stella McCartney boutique. What next?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Garry Winogrand and Instagram

The recent exhibition of photographs by Garry Winogrand at the Metropolitan Museum was a pleasant, fairly dense show, arranged chronologically from Winogrand's early forays in magazine and commercial work, through his later projects which were done as books and exhibitions, along with archival ephemera. Winogrand, along with Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, was part of the Museum of Modern Art 1967 exhibition New Documents put together by John Szarkowski. Szarkowski worked with Winogrand through Winogrand's lifetime, to the extent that Szarkowski edited Winogrand's hitherto unprocessed rolls of film and created a posthumous exhibition with them after Winogrand's death in 1984.

John Szarkowski's presence in the reception of all three photographers is still strong, but as Szarkowski's directorial command recedes into the past, unmoored from his long ago curatorial dominance, looking at this work is akin to unpacking a box that has been in storage for so long that it looks different to see again.

For Szarkowski, the artistic modernism of photography was removed from its social practices, even as the work referenced what was then the strong twentieth century culture of picture magazines, which by the late 1960s were waning as influential visual information, eclipsed by television.

In the introduction to New Documents, Szarkowski writes:

"In the past decade this new generation of photographers has redirected the techniques and aesthetic of documentary photography to more personal ends.  .  . Their aim has not been to reform life but to know it, not to persuade but to understand. The world, in spite of its terrors, is approached as the ultimate source of wonder and fascination, no less precious for being irrational and incoherent . . ."

Szarkowski distinguishes the work of Winogrand, Arbus, and Friedlander from one another with the qualifier:

"What is held in common is the belief that the world is worth looking at, and the courage to look at it without theorizing. . ."

What is the photography Szarkowski promotes? For anyone who has been in an art school critique, the use of the word "personal" is recognizable as a defense mechanism: who can argue with it? It means to stop with any further interrogation. It's akin to the language of Human Resources: you begin your complaint with the phrase "I feel . . ." as a feeling cannot be disputed. "Personal" is now the lame, general rebuttal to the routine bureaucracy of our lives, a little rock to hide under.

Likewise all political awareness is rendered moot: it is smothered by the vague notion of trying "to understand." The photograph floats in its own formal photographic-ness even when it entails "that the world is worth looking at" without any "theorizing."

Szarkowski's platitudes are so frustratingly vague. Anything outside of "photography" is a kind of pollution, an interference. Szarkowski insists on the retinal aspects of photography to carry meaning, rather than any social, conceptual or linguistic settings which would be part of the image. We are left with the model of the photographer as the mute visionary, which in its time was a radical and sophisticated position in relation to the low esteem that photography was held in relation to the Fine Arts, but now it is creaky and antiquated.

This isn't meant to dismiss Szarkowski, but to ask that discussions continue beyond the white box of his writing, publishing and exhibitions, and to keep that museum-comfort in mind. The new exhibition reminds us that any story out there for Winogrand, Arbus, whomever is not finished.
The formalism of Winogrand's books Public Relations and Women Are Beautiful, partially shield the images from their social aspects by drawing attention to the process of photographing, as an illustration of the myth generated by bald statements by Winogrand such as "I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed." 

While Winogrand's turf is the social world, and his alienated relationship to it, any agency (critical, political, emotional) is flattened in the clinical, macho, photography-for-photography's sake policies at work in its presentation. Winogrand is like some manic medium, channeling a torrent of images of a post-WWII America of highways, strips, banal prosperity and expansion, all of it as a downer rather than a protest.

There is a junk food level consumption of film and exposure in Winogrand's practice that now looks nostalgic in our even more hyper electronic world of social media. What seemed manic for Winogrand looks slow in contrast to the average Instagram user.

Seeing marathon runners carrying sticks with cameras at the end, to record their feats, brings Winogrand to mind, to the weird capitulation to camera technology as a timepiece in one's life. In our latter days of "selfies" and social media which ostensibly put the "we of me" out there for the world to see  - perhaps in contemplating the frenetic exposures of Winogrand we can understand our own manias and illusions of sociability, which are intended for a global club of general acceptance and shared experience.

The coldness of Winogrand's vision, with its ambiguous sense of common experience - something that is seen in some sort of constant motion, whether on foot or by car, with so little apparent connection beyond a quick motion of a finger to the camera shutter, now looks like the real thing in terms of understanding a camera in our late capitalist world.

What also stands out in this hideous pre-Photoshop world of cars, suburbia, demonstrations, parties, etc is a sense of racial upheavals:

In the exhibition Only Skin Deep at the International Center of Photography, curators Brian Wallis and Coco Fusco included the Winogrand image of the interracial couple in Central Park who carry chimpanzees in their arms like babies. This relates to the highly charged racial issues that marked the 1960s: Along with the social strife related to integration and political visibility of the time, it also touches on historical fears generated by medicalized racial theories and the potentials of miscegenation. The Winogrand image has an editorial photo humor to it that takes nanoseconds to take in. The couple are both groomed and gorgeous, and the image looks potentially set up, whether from a commercial project, or publicity stunt. The chaotic social relations that were kept in check by its High Modernist Czar John Szarkowski now spill out into the unruly afterlife of the images.

At least in the Met exhibition, which given the potential number of images in the estate, is still a small, potentially inconclusive fragment, there were other images in which there are less charged but still noticeable indications of a racialized social space.

Winogrand's politics are opaque: The demonstrations in Central Park, the bloodied protesters, the provocative nudists look awkward or ungainly, no different from the hideous charity balls and glamorous events also included in Public Relations. No one looks all that good, ever, the camera frame is a routinely unpleasant and unflattering. The women in Women Are Beautiful are not photographed beautifully. The book functions as a paean to stalking, to "creeping" as my younger friends term it. The camera reveals itself as an apparatus of aggression, of entrapment, and neurotic loss: what we see is an endless stream of shoulda, woulda, coulda, passing us by on the street, at the mall, in a park, wherever. The images are a litany of the horrors of others and other lives, floating out of reach but elevated to an eternity of regret as a photograph.

Winogrand's lack of felicity, while macho, anti-social, and potentially rude, in his automatic dismissal of the world as a house of cruddiness, is what now separates his work from our immediate continuum of Facebook, Instagram and other social media that amplify our needs to flatter and succor the world, to better fit in it. The crudeness of Winogrand's images help us in recognizing the polished electronic fantasies of Facebook and Instagram as false community, false culture, false history, as an artificial paradise of would-be shiny optimism in the face of the daily disasters at hand.

Considering that we live in a world of sharp contrasts, between a disintegrating economy and ecological disaster on one hand, and an electronic never-never land of boosterism and conviviality on the other, we should recall that in the time Winogrand was working, a potential for global annihilation was also a principle of the everyday vis-a-vis "The Bomb" - another fly in the ointment of Cold War optimism. Winogrand's gift for us is his unhappiness.

from Garry Winogrand's 1963 application for a Guggenheim Fellowship:

I look at pictures I have done up to now and they make me feel that who we are and what is to become of us just doesn't matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books, I look at some magazines (our press). They all deal in illusions and fantasies. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn't matter, we have not loved life. I cannot accept my conclusions and so I must continue this photographic investigation further and deeper. This is my project. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Bill Cunningham New York

After moving to New York City in 1981, one of the first people I began to recognize with frequency was a slim man on a bicycle, with a camera who would seem to be just about anywhere at any given time, transversing downtown, Midtown, the Upper East Side, etc.

I don't know when I became aware that this fellow, looking boyish and agile, with fine bones & smooth hair, was Bill Cunningham; nor do I remember when I became aware of his photo spreads in the New York Times. In those lean pre-internet days, the hefty Sunday edition would be a weekly weekend ritual: going out to get the paper to go with my morning coffee;  and when I lived in the Lower East Side, picking up a bagel with cream cheese at a place nearby on Essex Street, to eat while looking through it. Bill Cunningham's spreads would be about fashion trends, although identifying them strictly as fashion does not really describe them at all: there's an anthropological delight at work in finding commonalities in the chaos of urban crowds, making structural comparisons. In the numbing din of an urban setting there is great attention and focus, and a sense of life in movement.

Cunningham worked elsewhere too: in the Annie Flanders iteration of Details, for Women's Wear Daily - all of that was off my radar, although I did look at Details in those days, which was like a report from the then edgy East Village.

The photographs themselves are deceivingly artless: done with a telephoto lens, or cropped to emphasize a particular item, there's no apparent photographer directing the images. These are not quite surveillance photographs, what we see are an archive of fragments of life passing on the streets, from an ambiguously neutral position, fashion-reportage from the "field." There is a sense of the street as a living theater of display.

This idea of the street as shared theater came out of the industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century, in the revocation of sumptuary laws, and the blurring of social positions in the upheavals of modernity.  The invention of photography offered a scientific mirror of resemblances which could also, in apparent paradox, conceal meaning too. In the Poe story The Man of the Crowd,  the narrator, seeing a stranger, shadowing the stranger as if to unpack his secret (what secret?), leads to no conclusions except exhaustion and an uneasy truce with un-knowing.

Bill Cunningham's photos could be seen as our equivalent of Baudelaire's distinctions about the temporal beauty that comprises the work of Constantin Guys: a delight in the moment which has no shelf life in itself, transposed into the frieze of modern life. In the case of Cunningham and the New York Times, in the modernist layouts of the newspaper, this also touches on scrapbooking, motion studies, and collage.

The idea of being in public also seems in eclipse in the world we live in. Is Bill Cunningham a valiant knight of modernity in this sense? Holding up a collage of dandyism that is for both ourselves and others? Do people feel like they are even outside anymore or is the street simply a movement from one inside to another?

The Richard Press film Bill Cunningham New York is an amazing window into the milieu of Bill Cunningham, his daily work, and the range of his world, from photo lab to diner to New York Times to  rarified social orbits to his studio in Carnegie Hall.

In his ubiquity on the streets, on his bicycle, looking refined yet never imposing, Bill Cunningham is able to render himself more or less invisible. This lack of aggression is the opposite of classic street photography, in which there is a downright macho approach to the idea of being outside, among others, with an individual, alienated, abstracted camera frame at the foreground. Bill Cunningham comes off as a Fred Astaire figure - graceful, charming, humorous, attentive. The gestures and postures of those photographed are rendered with as close a photographic objectivity as possible. What keeps this from being machine-like is Cunningham's sensitivity to fashion, to display, and attraction.

The film is also a great document of the kinds of lives which could be lived in New York City that are now becoming obsolete in the harsh economic shifts of our present day, whether as an artist or "jobber" in the Fashion District. Seeing the studios of both Cunningham and Editta Sherman in Carnegie Hall should remind everyone that we are living in a shrinking, regulated world of less in our daily lives. Cunningham exemplifies thrift in some respects - the uniform-like nature of his clothes, his basic cot surrounded by file cabinets and books, his diner and take-out meals - he also has a measure of freedom which he attributes to living without money, which in so many ways seems impossible now except in terms of being homeless.

In the tapestry of dandyism, high society, and journalism detailed in the film, at the onset Cunningham mentions the work of Japanese designers in the 1980s, in particular Rei Kawakubo, looking at the homeless as inspiration for her work. This is also mentioned in one of the essays in John Waters' Role Models. Cunningham's mention is a weird flash, as it were, in what seems a fairly stable social fabric, even if Cunningham's eviction from Carnegie Hall is part of the narrative, which when mentioned in the film Cunningham responds with stoic indifference. Cunningham is a figure of constant paradox: a shy person who lives entirely in public events; a very sharp observant person who has little to say for himself. The difference may be partially generational, but I think we also live in a culture wherein disclosure of the self can lead to as much as "smokescreen" of concealment as saying little or nothing. The words we use enclose a subject rather than liberate it.

Beyond the interest in Cunningham that drives the film, I want to point out some of the virtues of the film itself, primarily its simplicity and its discretion.

 Near the end Cunningham is asked if he ever had a love in his life. "Do you mean 'Am I gay?'" Cunningham asks back, to which he adds that that is what his family feared - beyond that Cunningham didn't answer the question. I feared the film would lapse into a sort of emotional breakdown, a la the end of Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason or any Barbara Walters interview, but it veers away from any resolution beyond that awkward moment. What we see as we saw throughout the film is the oblique independence Cunningham and his devotion to his work. That gives a moral lesson beyond our contemporary world of stage-crafted personalities. The film ends with a birthday party at the New York Times with the crew singing a parody of the song "Kids" from Bye-Bye Birdie, transposed to "Bill" which includes the refrain "and you always get your way!" Enough said there.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Watching The Clock, or Time, The Destroyer

Slouching into my middle-ages I have reverted at times to the position of an oracle of negativity, with time as my ally: When you get to be my age/When the world becomes different from what you thought it was . . .

It's tiresome & I embarrass myself much too much with this posturing. As Jed Leland says in Citizen Kane: "What a disagreeable old man I have become." But if I could chart something that seems inconsequential, but related to my bad spirits: the measuring of time in the everyday.

As someone who grew up with clocks, watches, and what now seems simple technologies that also act as timepieces such as radio and television, there was certainly consciousness about the passing of time, but it was not until the insertion of digital technologies into life: computers, cameras, and phones which give us notations down to the second, with easy access. One could potentially walk away from a clock, once upon a time,  although in our contemporary logic that was a skewed illusion. But how deadly dull is it to be faced with the horrifying precision of these passing numbers, these dark spirits of rationality in the corners of our screens.

The one possibility of sublime in this technological logic is more precision. The rapturous moment in Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure is of all the cell phone cameras used in Abu Ghraib Prison being synced together, as they were not all synced together previously (a hapless margin of error to be corrected, that also becomes forensic evidence): this allowed for the scenes enacted by the phones to have an outrageously precise timeline of what happened to whom, like frames from a film. An impressive bit of technology but for an oldster such as myself, whose early role model of a sentient machine is HAL in 2001, this is also terrifying.

There was a long prelude to this in cassette and VHS recordings, in what now seems like a primitive appropriation of the gray areas of technology: people adapting recorders for their own purposes, their own urges to collecting and retaining sounds & images. Whereas now it's as if each one of us can be the Head Scientist of our homes, with such sleek precision. Our phones, our computers - they tell us what we need to know and what we can do in a downright professional mode.

The strange monument to this sense of perfect appropriation is Christian Marclay's The Clock, which I have been watching repeatedly at the Walker Art Center.

The logic of the technique has been seen before, in other projects by Marclay, and others, such as the thematic films (Lip, Love, Other) culled from movie fragments by Tracey Moffatt, or the psychodramas  wrought out of Hollywood films (Mother+Father) by Candice Breitz, among many others. These are all montages wrought out of existent films, which act as a lingua franca, or, if not an actual language, then at least a stand-in for our shared unconscious narrative drives.

What is ambiguous and terrifying about Marclay's The Clock is its monumental scale, time-wise - that it lasts 24 hours, like Warhol's Empire, and that when it plays it is synced with the actual time zone of where it is shown. The logic of The Clock is that each vignette leads to the telling of time, which is the time in which we are also spectators.

The Walker in an admirable readjustment of its own timetable will facilitate a few screenings which will be open 24/7, as otherwise viewing The Clock can be seen only in the real time of museum hours. This touches on what is perhaps a hidden Wagnerian strain to this project, that it traffics in the monumentality of time and space conflated, in special circumstances. This leads me to the aspects of The Clock, so seemingly perfect, which surprised me and I find this troubling too: how well done it is. It's downright seamless. The research into finding the clips and relating them into a meta-narrative is as daunting to consider as the precise passage of minutes and hours. There's a thematic thread among the clips which crosses decades of filmmaking and languages into a severe totality of telling time. This could be thought of as a dystopic Family of Man in which everything everywhere leads to the same inexorable thing: 24 hours to a day.

Whereas the montages of Tracey Moffatt, for example, exist by not connecting too well, the clips veer in tone or quality in a way that emphasizes a clash, a staccato sense of disruption; what I found eerie about The Clock is how good it looks and sounds. There's a complex aural landscape supporting this too, along with the visual effort to seam together what is otherwise disparate material. Everything becomes one big movie, which is a complaint I recall from an earlier Godard project (Histoires du Cinema?). In The Clock this position (do we need a position? good? bad? right? wrong?) is truly opaque given the scale of the piece.

& in a great synchronicity given the Walker's riches, in the adjacent gallery, as part of the exhibit Art Expanded, there is a set up of a John Cage piece from 1969, 33 1/3, in which multiple turntables are set up along with milk crates of albums, in which the audience can choose whichever music to play. The selection is now tatty & old, but not particular to the piece - 33 1/3 can be set up with any number of turntables & any albums available. The clash of the sounds is predicated on what is done by those in the gallery. There's an attendant from the museum (in my multiple visits I've noticed that it seems a little more regulated as time goes by - not as irregular or slovenly as it was on my first encounters). On line there's a recording of its first performance at U-C/Davis which sounds a lot more circumspect than our own media-drenched present time. There was no vogue for music spinning at faster speeds as a kind of hipster irony which I've witnessed at parties (I recommend a speeded up version of Diana Ross's Ain't No Mountain High Enough), or as what seems as deep an acceptance of din as the norm.

The juxtaposition of the Marclay & the Cage pieces also calls into question the ostensible tabula rasa of the Cage piece: is there really a kind of directionless potential in the Cage piece, given the elaborate time-coding we now experience the world through, as seen in The Clock? Can our motions be truly random, or are we in some sort of giant Skinner Box of culture, being trained without knowing it? These are wonderful pieces too: why does it feel so ominous?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Edward Hopper

Although it was never a complete thought per se, while visiting the exhibition of Edward Hopper drawings at the Walker Art Center, that I have lived with a misapprehension that Hopper was a fellow Midwesterner. That is, I knew enough of his biography, that he was from Nyack, & that he lived on Washington Square North in Greenwich Village most of his life, yet somehow, internally I shifted him much further inland.

The palpable isolation depicted in his paintings can seem more Midwestern, where even in cities it seems rare to see others. In Hopper's paintings the few figures depicted are puppet-like, with faces like masks and bodies more akin to plastic figurines than to individuated rendering.

Hopper's scenes also waver between a plein-air rendering and images that are an amalgam of traits: the late-night diner in Nighthawks is a hybrid of places in the West Village, on Greenwich St, and the sharp north corner of the Flatiron building (now a T-Mobile store if I am remembering this correctly). While the view from the platform of the Williamsburg Bridge, at Clinton St on Delancey, is extant although the bridge platform is now rebuilt - it was still "as is" & recognizable from when I lived in the Lower East Side.

If I thought of Hopper as a Midwesterner I somehow dragged him along with me in my own youth in the Lower East Side & downtown Manhattan, & the view from the Williamsburg bridge, or the sharp light on the Doric columns of an apartment building off of Washington Square now embody my memories much more fully than any other revisitation. There's an awkward weightiness to Hopper's paintings, an inability to lapse into any sort of spatial abstraction, which brings up another displacement: how much like photographs they are. What kind of painter is Hopper? If he is a regionalist that region has been pared down to some attenuated architectural fragments; other than some vague intimations of office work, or clerks in hotels, nothing much is going on, maybe there's travel somewhere, by train or car, but what destination? Any location seems incidental. If Hopper as a painter is tied to realism, it is a realism that is stripped of signage or language, or any sense that language could potentially direct; it collapses into mute forms. There are early drawings done in Paris in the exhibition by Hopper that are pure caricature, after which all recognizable types flatten into toy figures in which the thingness of things in the scenes becomes the subject instead.

The exhibition at the Walker affected me much more than I anticipated. At the risk of reducing it all to my own neurotic tics, Hopper was a kind of ghost for me, who I had brought along with me all this while, from Michigan to New York City, & then seeing it mapped out in Minneapolis - indeed I put myself in walking distance from Hopper's studio, without knowing it, in my own youthful randomness. The view from the bridge, which I know from the painting at the Met, which is in the show too, the views around Washington Square & Greenwich Avenue - it all comes back, in a different form. It made me miss New York City so much.