Category Archives: Exhibitions

Amsterdam/Museums

iamsterdamThe Rijksmuseum seen through “iamsterdam” promotional sculpture — © Brian Rose

After almost two weeks of superb weather on Texel, the North Sea Dutch island, we headed for Amsterdam for two days before returning to New York. For many years, both the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum have been undergoing extensive renovations and were closed. Imagine if the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art were closed at the same time for the better part of a decade. This was not a good thing for a city trying to promote itself as a cultural capital — well, at least they had Van Gogh. But the good news is that both museums have reopened.

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New entry courtyard in Rijksmuseum — © Brian Rose

The Rijksmuseum desperately needed upgrading. It occupied a decorative 19th century building by Pierre Cuypers, in the same style as his Central Station at the foot of the Damrak. It was a worthy home for the superb collection of Rembrandts and Vermeers, among others, but it was hopelessly outmoded as a contemporary museum, and could scarcely handle the ever increasing hordes of tourists hell bent on seeing the Nightwatch and checking it off on their to do list.

The reconstruction of the museum was delayed for years by a controversy involving bicycles — I kid you not. For decades one of the main bike routes through the center of the city passed directly through a passage in the Rijksmuseum. When the architects of the renovation proposed rerouting the bikes, they were met by the fury of the Amsterdam bicycle lobby, a group comparable in power to the military industrial complex in the United States. The solution was elegant — tunneling under the passage — but cost time and an ungodly amount of money. In the photo above, you can see visitors entering the museum through one of the impressive glass enclosed courtyards created by the Spanish firm Cruz y Ortiz Arquitectos.

nightwatchRembrandt’s Nightwatch — © Brian Rose

Once inside, the galleries have been beautifully refurbished by French interior architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. The art mobs gravitate to Rembrandt’s Nightwatch — seen above — and press in relentlessly to see the relatively tiny Vermeers. But the museum is pretty big, so there are lots of galleries that are not crowded.

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Jocob Saenredam — © Brian Rose

Here I am looking at one Saenredam’s architectural paintings made as if he were using a view camera.

ruisdaelJacob Ruisdael — © Brian Rose

And Ruisdael, who in this painting framed the endlessly horizontal Dutch landscape near Haarlem with a near square, the sky taking up 3/4 of the composition.

smuseumpleinThe Stedelijk Museum seen from Museumplein — © Brian Rose

The first time I visited Amsterdam was in 1985 when I was just beginning my photographic journeys along the former Iron Curtain. The Stedelijk made a major impression on me in that it presented a view of modern art history that differed greatly from the linear narrative of MoMA in New York. It was all over the map, and challenged the idea that art develops as some kind of grand procession, one thing leading to the next, as if it were all inevitable. That said, I’ve come to appreciate the Modern’s effort to organize and make sense of things chronologically and stylistically.

Unlike MoMA, which was housed in a modernist collection of buildings, the Stedelijk was confined to a 19th century art palace with a grand staircase and comfortable, but inflexible, galleries. Like the Rijksmuseum nearby, it had inadequate accommodation for large crowds of visitors and little space for a shop and cafe. With one of the best collections of modern art in the world, it was obvious that something needed to be done.

smuseumpanoThe Stedelijk Museum from the Van Baerlestraat — © Brian Rose

And here begins a sad tale of political and organizational dysfunction terminating in the “the bathtub” seen above in my quickly stitched together panorama. Read Michael Kimmelman’s Times article for the full story. The new wing of the museum faces the Museumplein, a desultory sward of grass punctuated by paved vectors and shapes, including the infamous “donkey’s ear,” a peeled up corner of the park serving as the entrance to underground parking and an Albert Heijn supermarket —  the perfect location for groceries — smack dab between the stately Concertgebouw concert hall and the Stedelijk.

The new wing is mostly diffuse empty space, which will allow the museum to mount the kind of installation art now in favor around the globe. Such an installation was on view in the enormous basement space — a windowless art dungeon — where multiple videos by Aernout Mik were on display set among an intentionally disorienting maze of passageways and spaces. The show was appropriately sponsored by Ahold, the company that owns the Albert Heijn supermarket just out the front door of the museum. See Times review of Mik’s work here.

There are lots of wonderful things to see in the Stedelijk, regardless of the new building. But after everything, the architectural confection of the Rijksmuseum and the empty calories of the Stedelijk, all the hundreds of millions of dollars, coming back home to New York, the one thing that made the most impression on me, was that little Ruisdael painting, just over a foot square, sunlight breaking through the clouds.

 

 

New York/Lower East Side

Join me for the opening of The Yard, a new co-working space on the Lower East Side. I will be showing a large portion of the work exhibited in March at Dillon Gallery. If you missed the show at Dillon, this is your second chance. The 4×5 foot prints look spectacular. I’ll be there with books to sign.

The Yard is located on the corner directly opposite the Tenement Museum shop, and across Delancey Street from the corner that I photographed in 1980 and 2010. Hope to see you there.

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then/now

THE YARD: LAUNCH PARTY
www.workattheyard.com
THURSDAY JUNE 20
6:00PM – 8:00PM
85 DELANCEY AT ORCHARD

RSVP@WORKATTHEYARD.COM

The Lower East Side’s new space to work presents celebrates the history and future of one of New York’s most vibrant neighborhoods. Enjoy food, drinks, music, and art representing the best of yesterday and today.

Featuring the photography of Brian Rose from his book Time and Space on the Lower East Side.

Ice Cream Sandwiches by Melt Bakery
Photobooth by The Majestic Photobooth Company
Beer by Brooklyn Brewery
Wine by September Wines
Music by Mr. Gibbons



Special thanks to Lower East Side BID, Motivated Foods, and Pressler Collaborative

New York/Art School/Protest

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Step Down, Cooper Union, with student leader Victoria Sobel seated on floor
© Brian Rose

Art school, protest, and how I got to Cooper Union

Before transferring to Cooper Union in 1977 I was attending MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). It was an expensive private art school — tuition is now just over $39,000 per year. I remember the college president telling the incoming class in a welcoming speech what percentage of students would complete their degrees and go on to find careers in art. It was a discouragingly low number.

Previously, I had studied urban planning and architecture at the University of Virginia, and art school was difficult step for me. But my interest in photography had blossomed, and I saw myself becoming a fine art photographer down the road. At first, the diverse course offerings for obtaining a BFA were daunting — I hadn’t done any drawing or painting before — but I became increasingly appreciative of the interconnectedness of the different media, and as I became more confident in my abilities, I began to evaluate the students around me as well as the quality of the professors I was studying with.

It was a mixed bag. Many of the students seemed more enamored of the art lifestyle than the actual practice of art. And many of the professors, especially the entrenched tenured ones, seemed to be coasting as artists. There seemed a lack of ambitiousness all round. A large faculty art show in the college gallery confirmed my suspicions. The work was weak and directionless, and to me, it was insulting to those of us paying a ton of money to attend the school. So, a friend of mine and I engaged in a little guerrilla action, creating a flyer printed in black courier type that panned the faculty show and suggested that our tuition money was going to waste. We taped these flyers up everywhere on the campus — on walls, doors, in classrooms, restrooms, inside drawers and underneath desks. It caused quite a sensation.

I should say here, however, that some of my motivation was simply unearned hubris, and that some of my professors were excellent. Furthermore, not knowing what things are like at MICA in these days, this should not be construed as criticism of the present school. However, I was right about needing a more challenging environment, and as a result, began looking into exchange programs with other art schools. Above all, I wanted to explore color photography. It was 1976, and color was just becoming a viable medium outside of advertising and magazines, and seeing that Joel Meyerowitz, one of the pioneers of color photography was teaching at Cooper Union, I knew where I should go. I did my one semester exchange, hung around unofficially for another semester auditing classes, using my student ID good for a year, and eventually got in as a transfer student. The dean of the art school later told me they accepted four out of 450 applicants for transfer that year.

It had to be Cooper. My parents had pretty much given up on me and my educational wanderings, and had cut off my funding. Cooper, of course, was tuition free, making it possible for me to continue my dream even without parental support. A full telling of the story would describe in detail how life-changing the experience of attending Cooper was. How terrific the teachers were. How brilliant the students were. How it was understood without questioning that we were artists, and would go on to be artists in the real world, in New York City just outside the door, our campus and hometown. And that’s what happened for me. I was able to immediately begin an extended photography project upon graduation, and have been pursuing my dream for 30 years since.

Art School, protest, and (the end?) of Cooper Union

On Saturday I attended both Show Up, the annual end-of-year student show at Cooper Union, and Step Down, the renegade art show on the 7th floor of the Foundation Building just outside the office of Jamshed Bharucha, the college president. As those of you following the news already know, the president’s office has been occupied by students demanding that he and the chairman of the board of trustees resign. The sit-in was precipitated by the decision to begin charging tuition to close a budget gap brought on by financial mismanagement and the lack of imagination and leadership required to fix the problem. This alteration of Cooper’s central mission of providing free education to all, regardless of economic status, threatens to destroy the egalitarian meritocracy that has made this place a unique treasure.

Step Down is an openly polemical show full of anger and biting humor. The work was provided by students, alumni, and friends. I donated my book Time and Space on the Lower East Side with a letter to the students who are leading the effort to save Cooper Union. The letter explains that Time and Space would not have happened without Cooper, and that it reconnects, for me, the gap between the present and that time when I first arrived in New York City. The student protest at Cooper goes far beyond my modest flyer of 1976, but both actions, on different levels, are about the quality and the value of education.

The book is displayed on a table, and you can read my letter below. (Click on the letter for an easier to read view)

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Time and Space on the Lower East Side at Step Down — © Brian Rose

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Letter accompanying my book at Step Down 

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Step Down, Cooper Union — © Brian Rose

The art blog Hyperallergic wrote about Step Down:

…the exhibition Free Cooper Union put together, in only a week’s time, is probably one of the most significant and symbolic shows of the year. …this is an important exhibition, singular in capturing a raw provocation to authority. It’s an endeavor as worthwhile as it is rare.

And another article from ArtInfo.
More photos of Step Down here.

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The New Academic Building, Cooper Union — © Brian Rose

As I was leaving the 7th floor, I pointed my camera out the window and made the photograph above across Cooper Square. Normally, when a university constructs a major new building it gets named for a prominent donor who helped make it possible. At Cooper the NAB, or New Academic Building, is a grand architectural statement bereft of a benefactor’s name. A large part of Cooper Union’s financial woes are connected to that fact. It was a complex real estate deal so they say, but, in a nutshell, the trustees chose to borrow the entire cost of construction, and now find they are unable to make the mortgage payments. As a result, they have shifted the debt to the students and abandoned the mission as expressed by Peter Cooper that education should be as “free as water and air.”

 

New York/Dillon Gallery Opening

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Time and Space on the Lower East Side at Dillon Gallery — © Brian Rose

It took much of the afternoon Wednesday to lay out the show and get the frames up, but I already had a pretty good idea where I wanted things to go. The opening Thursday evening was well attended, despite wintry weather, and it was great to see lots of old friends and meet new people. Ed Fausty who collaborated on the 1980 pictures was there as was Suzanne Vega, who wrote the foreword of Time and Space along with music friends, Frank Mazzetti and Norman Salant. Bill Diodato, my publisher, was there along with Warren Mason, who designed Time and Space.On the photography side, my friend and mentor, architectural photographer Cervin Robinson was there, and Mark Jenkinson, fellow Cooper Union grad, and Jan Staller, another color photographer who goes back to the late 70s and is still doing strong new work. Very pleased to see Sean Corcoran, the photography curator from the Museum of the City of New York. And it was particularly nice to have my painter friend Tim Raymond down from Buffalo.

I’m leaving out lots of people, but I’m appreciative of everyone who made this a festive occasion on an otherwise “dark and stormy night.” And thanks especially to Valerie Dillon for making it all possible.

Did anyone take pictures? I don’t have a single image from the opening.

 

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Time and Space on the Lower East Side at Dillon Gallery — © Brian Rose

 

 

 

New York/New York Times

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Time and Space on the Lower East Side featured in the New York Times. It will run in the print edition of the Metropolitan section of the Sunday Times and online.

Exhibition opens this Thursday:

Dillon Gallery
555 W25th Street
New York, NY 10001

March 7 – April 9
Opening Reception, Thursday 6-8pm

 

 

 

New York/Exhibition

Time and Space on the Lower East Side will be exhibited at Dillon Gallery from March 7 to April 9. Dillon is on West 25th Street in the gallery district of Chelsea on the same block as Pace Gallery and the Tesla electric car showroom. Like most of the galleries in Chelsea, it was originally in Soho. Although they are known mostly for paintings–and even an artist who works in scents–the owner Valerie Dillon was open to considering photography, and decided a few months ago to take me on as one of her artists.

The gallery is quite large, easily accessible on the ground floor, and will provide plenty of  wall space to present my Lower East Side pictures at a scale that is impressive, but appropriate for view camera images. There will be 26 images all together, and twelve will be printed 4×5 feet, enough images to present an overview of the whole project with the focus slightly skewed toward the 1980 images made with Edward Fausty, which may have the most sales potential.

The opening is March 7 from 6 to 8pm, and everyone is invited.

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New York/East Village/Lower East Side

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Broadway and East 9th Street — © Brian Rose

 

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Ridge Street — © Brian Rose

A few random pictures and random thoughts. As my Lower East Side show approaches I wonder how (or if) the work will be put in context with the photography being made back in the late 70s, and the way in which I connect the work to the present. One of the important points I have tried to make in the book is that the past and present are intertwined, and not neatly separated into before and after as is the usual practice. That said, the photographs I did with Edward Fausty were made as color photography was just beginning to enter the mainstream of art photography. The way we used color and the view camera to describe the streets and architecture of the LES at a particular moment in history had not been done before–at least to my knowledge–and has only been done rarely since. I think of recent work by Robert Polidori in Havana or Andrew Moore in Detroit as examples of the latter. But in 1979 I was thinking about the steady gaze of Atget and Evans with the view camera, and the kinetic energy of Frank and Friedlander  with the 35mm.

There’s a book coming out soon called Color Rush by Katherine A. Bussard and Lisa Hostetler that tells the story of color photography from its inception to the early ’80s. The website blurb says: The book begins with the 1907 unveiling of autochrome, the first commercially available color process, and continues up through the 1981 landmark survey show and book The New Color Photography, which hailed the widespread acceptance of color photography in contemporary art.

Alas, my LES work will not be included. It was shown in 1981 in a large exhibition, reviewed in the Times, but then went underground not to be seen again until now with Time and Space on the Lower East Side. I’m not going to go into the reasons why that happened–for the moment–but what I feel good about is that the re-emergence of this work is not primarily a nostalgia trip back to the ruins of the past. It is presented as a fresh portrayal of a place, one that challenges easy assumptions about how to look at the past and how to look at photographs of different eras juxtaposed as they are in Time and Space.

Joerg Colberg on his blog Conscientious recently reviewed the reissue of the book American Prospects by Joel Sternfeld. He states: As a photographer, Sternfeld has certainly had enormous influence on a whole generation of American photographers. For example, it is not hard to see Alec Soth’s Sleeping By The Mississippi follow some of the traces laid out in Sternfeld’s travels and book. The American large-format photography craze might be on the way out now, though – just like its German (Düsseldorf) counterpart it simply appears to have run its course. 

I guess there was a craze at some point, but I hate to see things discussed in this off-hand way, that a certain popular style has just run its course, and we can now move on. I’m picking on Joerg here, a thoughtful writer about photography who was writing a positive review of Sternfeld’s book, but for me, my work has little to do with any kind of craze or particular attachment to the influence of contemporary photographers. It has been a long hard slog stretching over decades.

Critics, curators, and the art market are, of course, fond of defining movements and putting things into convenient boxes. A photographer does something innovative, which is then shown in the galleries, the critics jump, and then the art students follow en masse. This is an obvious scenario, but it goes on and on. At any rate, I am proud to be one of the early adopters of color photography dedicated to a descriptive exploration of the landscape. And as I continue to extend my long term projects and begin new ones, I will not accept the notion that looking at the visually tangible world with a critical eye has lost its relevance to contemporary art and culture.

If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.
–Henry David Thoreau, Walden

 

 

 

New York/Art Miami

Art Miami installation, the Dillon Gallery

Three of my Lower East Side photographs from 1980 (made with Ed Fausty) are being exhibited at Art Miami, one of the big art fairs presently going on in the Miami area. I am being represented by the Dillon Gallery, a New York, Chelsea gallery. I just heard that we sold a print of East 4th Street, the image on the left, above. It’s hard to tell from the snapshot, but the prints are approximately 50×62 inches, and look really terrific at that size. Very pleased, and hoping this leads to more good things.

 

 

 

New York/Guggenheim

Guggenheim Museum lounge — © Brian Rose

A few thoughts on the Rineke Dijkstra retrospective that closes today at the Guggenheim. I’ve seen enough, or rather, I’ve seen too much. I’m not sure whose fault this is: the art market, the art media, or our cultural obsession with celebrity. At some point the person and their work becomes objectified to such an extent that whatever originality there was, whatever spark of discovery was once seized upon, now seems static and neutered.

Part of the problem for me may be the inherently totemic nature of Dijktra’s portraits along with the serial nature of much of her work. They are a bit like the Bechers’ images of building types in their frontal, decontextualized isolation of the subject. Like the Bechers work, however brilliant, I yearn to be set free. To return to the world with all its messiness, it’s complexity, it’s overlapping chaotic craziness, a world to be navigated through, a world comprised of multiple view-points.

I was happy to see Dijkstra’s video piece made in two techno clubs in the 1990s. I hadn’t seen it before, which helped, and I like the slightly less hermetic representation of the infinitely awkward young people thrust before the camera. They are human specimens, momentarily plucked from their environment, still squirming, alive. Am I comfortable with this kind of biology experiment? No. But comfort is, perhaps, beside the point, whether we’re talking about Arbus, Mapplethorpe, Ruff, Dijkstra, or a host of other photographers.

But I can’t look at Dijkstra any more. Maybe it’s my fault, and I will get over it. There was a time I couldn’t listen to Bob Dylan any more, but that passed. Do I care any longer that her portraits look like Botticelli or Dutch masters? No. Everyone from Sherman to Goldin  to Wall seem to be obsessed with making photography look more like art–real art–than the recalcitrant stepchild photography has always been. There’s something tiresome going on here, no matter how talented these artist/photographers are.

So, I’ve seen the Dijkstra (mid-career) retrospective–she’s only 53 with lots more to do I’m sure–and have the book. But I’ll be taking a break from this work for a while.

 

 

 

 

 

 

New York/The Low Line

The Lowline exhibition

Underneath the street at the foot of the Williamsburg bridge is an abandoned underground trolley storage facility. Until recently, few knew about this hidden space.

From the New York Times:
James Ramsey and Dan Barasch, come to the project with prestigious résumés (Yale and NASA in Mr. Ramsey’s case, Cornell and Google for Mr. Barasch). They want to convert the space into a subterranean park, using fiber-optic technology to channel in natural light — enough light, in fact, to allow photosynthesis to occur and, as a result, for plants to thrive.

The proposal is called the Lowline, named  to echo the High Line, the elevated park built on the old rail viaduct slicing through Manhattan’s westside. Ramsey and Barasch and a host of other supporters and collaborators have put together an exhibition in a disused market building adjacent to the trolley site. In it they have built a prototype of the sun collectors and created a mini landscape comprised of a tree, ferns, and moss. I had been somewhat skeptical of the concept until seeing the exhibit–I imagined the lighting being indirect and dim. But the actual impression is of a shaft of sunlight penetrating the darkness. An array of these collectors would produce an underground world brightly illuminated by daylight.

There are a lot of  reasons for the Lowline to fail–the fact that the Metropolitan Transit Authority owns the space and wants to maximize the value of this otherwise dead space. The cost of building and maintaining such an elaborate piece of infrastructure. The bureaucratic red tape inherent in any New York City project, no matter how straight forward–and this would be anything but straight forward.

On the other hand, more than 10,000 people have passed through the Low Line exhibition in two weekends, an extraordinary number. The project has clearly seized the imagination of the city and beyond.

While visiting the exhibit yesterday I met briefly with Margaret Chin, Lower East Side city councilwoman, who is supporting the project, and then spoke with Dan Barasch. He was familiar with my book Time and Space on the Lower East Side, and I suggested that there might be a way I could support their project through my photography. I would love to be involved in some way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New York/Buffalo

Manhatta Timeline, ArtSpace Buffalo — © Brian Rose

I am presently exhibiting work at ArtSpace Buffalo, a non-profit gallery, along with paintings and drawings by  J. Tim Raymond and Robert Harding. Tim, who is the organizer of the show, lives in Buffalo, and Bob Harding is a painter from New York City. The gallery is in an old factory buildings converted into artists lofts, and because of its immense size, I opted to show large pieces. The photographs are 40×50 inches and the mural, WTC, which I previously mounted on a sidewalk shed on East 4th Street in the East Village, is 4×28 feet.

 

Manhatta Timeline, ArtSpace Buffalo — © Brian Rose

The title of my part of the exhibition is Manhatta Timeline and takes its name from the short film made by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand in 1921 featuring images of New York City. The name is derived from the original Indian name for the island, Mannahatta, and the film includes quotes from the Walt Whitman poem of the same name. Timeline refers to the sequence of four images that begin at the north end of Manhattan in Inwood Park with the Hudson River and Palisades in the background. The sequence then moves down the Hudson to the World Trade Center in the 1980s, and concludes with a multi-layered urban scene from 2012 that includes a sign with the names of those killed on 9/11. The montage of WTC closeups is itself a visual yardstick with a searing strip of blue sky in the middle.

…I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,
Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb,
Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships, an
island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,
Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong,
light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies…

from Mannahatta by Walt Whitman

 

Inwood Park (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

 

Hudson Heights (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

 

World Trade Center (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

 

Washington Street (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

 

 

 

New York/Chelsea

Chelsea Market – © Brian Rose

Walking through the Chelsea Market the other day I enjoyed seeing Gregg Segal’s show Enactments, images of Civil War re-enactors and people who work as super hero characters. The images are a wry look at American culture–I particularly like the Civil War images, in which authentically uniformed soldiers seem lost in time, lost in suburbia. The Chelsea Market often has photo exhibitions, usually of middling quality, and it is a challenging environment for any sort of contemplative art. But Segal’s photos work here in the crowded hubbub with the market setting adding another layer of odd juxtapositions. Although the images are highly staged scenes–not normally my thing–photographic artifice in this case connects aptly with the staged activities of the characters in the photographs. See more Gregg Segal photos here.

 

Chelsea Market – © Brian Rose

The Chelsea Market these days is overrun by tourists. There have always been plenty of them, but now it seems, whole busloads of foreigners are milling about, blocking the way, not buying anything. I’ve also noticed that a number of retail spaces are now occupied by boutiques diluting the focus on food that has makes this a great place and the primary reason for its success. Is the Chelsea Market reaching a tipping point? Is it losing its focus as other food markets pop up around the city providing alternatives for New Yorkers?

***

I’m heading off for Amsterdam this evening, the first time I’ve been back in a number of years. I’ll be celebrating the publishing of Time and Space on the Lower East Side with some of my Dutch Kickstarter backers and friends next Thursday. Anyone who would like to join in please email me for details.

New York/Alex Harsley

Alex Harsley, self-portrait

I’ve written about Alex Harsley several times in this blog, a woefully overlooked photographer and icon of East 4th Street, where he maintains a gallery on the block pictured on the cover of Time and Space on the Lower East Side. Alex currently has a show up at the June Kelly gallery on Mercer Street, and a few days ago Holland Cotter gave it a review in the New York Times.

The exhibition at June Kelly surveys a half-century of Mr. Harsley’s own estimable art. Born in South Carolina in 1938 and a New York resident since childhood, he has made the city a primary subject of his classical brand of “street photography,” from shots of life in Harlem in the 1950s to velvety black-and-white images of downtown, late at night and silent, under snow in the 1990s.

 The gallery exhibition presents Harsley’s work as a 50 year retrospective, and while it does cover that period of time, it does not in any way offer a definitive overview of his life’s work. There are a number of reasons for why that is a difficult task to accomplish, which I will get to in a moment. Unfortunately, the show feels thin. It seems a grab bag  of notable images rather than a carefully selected  survey suggesting the depth of Harsley’s long career. Moreover, the print quality is all over the place, and the presentation is sloppy, the cheap metal  frames not meeting at the corners.

For many years, the best way to see Harsley’s work is to go to his gallery on East 4th Street where he hangs his work salon-style all over the walls, the unframed prints clothes pinned on string, and Alex himself present to answer questions, comment, or ramble on about the state of the world. If you stay long enough, he’ll coax you into the back room of his tiny tenement gallery where he works on his videos. I haven’t figured out what I think of these, yet, but this is what Alex has focused on over the past decade.

The Barnes Collection was recently transplanted from its original mansion setting on the edge of Philadelphia to a modern museum building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the rooms of Barnes’s crazily inspired world recreated precisely in the new more accessible location. As I walked through the Harsley exhibit at the June Kelly gallery with each picture presented in a line with generous space between, I missed the unruly interior of Alex’s salon back on 4th Street, and almost wished they had done a Barnes here, and moved the whole thing including Alex into the gallery.

That said, however, I think it’s high time that Alex Harsley’s photography be presented in a way that allows individual images to be appreciated, for the various threads of his work to be explored, and for him to assume his rightful place as an important contemporary photographer, and historically, one of the most important African American photographers. Holland Cotter in his New York Times review calls for “an institutional career survey” and writes further, “And surely the time has come to put a history of that career between the covers of a book.”

Malcolm X

Jean-Michel Basquiat

A rare color image

Part of the problem, surely, is that Harsley has made himself an outsider–sometimes willfully. But to a great extent it’s simply because he has never moved among the right circles of people, pushed the right buttons, never sought out the recognition that most others naturally chase after. His archive is, from what I can tell, a mess. There are undoubtedly thousands of negatives, and perhaps, dozens of great images never seen, never printed. I have no idea whether Alex would trust the work of sifting through his life’s work to a skilled researcher or curator, but I believe it needs to be done.

I cringed the other day seeing celebrity pictures of “A Life in Pictures, the Gordon Parks Centennial Gala” at the Museum of Modern Art. Parks, who died in 2006, is hailed as one of the great Black photographers of the 20th century. He worked for Life magazine, was a fashion photographer, documented the civil right movement, and made notable portraits of famous individuals. His work expresses the concept of photography as an instrument of social justice and projects images of human dignity and nobility. For me, however, Park’s images are often clichés of the type, as much about a certain accepted style as substance. He undoubtedly has his place in the history of magazine photography, but…

From Vogue magazine:

On the ground floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at a gala celebrating the 100th anniversary of legendary African-American photographer, writer, and director Gordon Parks’s birthday, and honoring Alicia Keys, Annie Leibovitz, and HBO copresident, Richard Plepler, well-heeled guests mingled over cocktails and a series of silent-auction photographs while publicists yelled out the names of the A-list guests as they approached the red carpet. “Josh Groban‘s coming,” a girl hollered over the din, causing more than a few heads to turn toward the flurry of flashbulbs. “Josh Groban!” Despite the excitement, luminaries were not in short supply at the dinner, which boasted tables packed with names like Sarah Jessica Parker, cochair Karl Lagerfeld, Thelma Golden, and John Legend. The annual event, which raised $750,000 for The Gordon Parks Foundation, was kicked off by the evening’s host, Anderson Cooper, who recounted the life of Parks, who was born—one of fifteen children—in Kansas and rose in New York City, through hard work, to the top of his chosen field, becoming known for his photography for Life, Vogue, and many others, for directing films like Shaft, and for his humanitarian efforts. By the looks of the room, filled to capacity with his admirers and his photographs, it is a legacy well worth celebrating.

The photographic world of Alex Harsley intersects with that of Gordon Parks, but it a world portrayed in a drastically different way. He, too, photographed images that deal with racism, poverty, and even celebrity. But his images rarely strike that “family of man” chord that Parks played so well. In the image above, one of many Harsley nocturnal scenes, we are in the city, possibly the Lower East Side. The street is deserted, bedecked in steadily falling snow. A police car idles, lights on. A couple of individuals approach in the distance. There is no conventional meaning here. It is a moment of hushed solitude, of uneasy anticipation, composed without artifice, presented without statement. Only clarity of vision.
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New York/Brooklyn Museum

The Brooklyn Museum

In the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum on my way to the Keith Haring exhibition.

Keith Haring 1978-1982, the Brooklyn Museum — © Brian Rose

As well known as Haring is–certainly everyone has seen his highly graphic images even if only in a commercial context–but until now there hasn’t been a more serious assessment of his work. There’s always a danger when the established art world takes on a street artist by putting the work into a conventional gallery context. Haring was best seen in situ–in the wild. But that was 30 years ago, around the same time I was taking my early photographs of the Lower East Side. Since then, we have mostly experienced Haring on t-shirts and tote bags.

Keith Haring 1978-1982, the Brooklyn Museum — © Brian Rose

 This exhibition does two things–it documents through photographs, slides, and video how Haring worked and interacted with the art and music scene of the time, and it presents his work in the broader context of late 20th century art. Although he reused the same graphic elements frequently, this exhibit shows Haring to be a far more complex artist than previously assumed. He was just getting started when he was cut down by AIDS in 1989.

Keith Haring 1978-1982, the Brooklyn Museum — © Brian Rose

For me, however, Haring’s was at his best at his simplest and most spontaneous–the white chalk drawings on black paper that he did throughout the New York subway system. Back then, when ads were replaced, black paper with a toothy matte surface temporarily filled the billboard frames on the subway platforms providing an enticing canvas for Haring. I saw him once in the Bleecker Street station of the #6 train (the old IRT) sketching alone, moving rapidly from one black frame to another.

It’s not ideal putting them behind reflective plexi in the museum–though I’m sure they are fragile and have to protected. I don’t know how many actually survived, but you can see images of dozens of them– 35mm slide documents of the originals–in an adjacent gallery.

I always liked Haring’s imagery, but tended to dismiss it as commercial fluff, though I understood its relationship to earlier Pop Art. He was both commercial and an artist of substance. This exhibit helps set the record straight.

 

New York/Two Portraits

 

Lucille Ball, 1944, Harry Warnecke

This photograph of Lucille Ball made in 1944 by Harry Warnecke jumped out at me this morning while thumbing through the New York Times. It’s part of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Like most people, I think of “Lucy” in comedic settings, exaggerated facial expressions, slapstick, wonderful goofball humor. I don’t know the context of this photo shoot, but it’s clearly a carefully set up studio portrait. Makeup is perfect, a magnificently  colorful skirt overflowing in the foreground, she seems to be sitting on a stool with her legs to the side, one over the other, her left elbow resting just above her knee. It’s’ a relaxed pose, but slightly awkward at the same time. Her famous red hair is topped with an even redder headpiece, a flimsy scrim of red fabric framing her face. But there is scarcely a hint of the clownish Lucille Ball of a few years later.

Neil Genzlinger in the Times thinks she looks a little sad, and I agree, possibly. One expects Hollywood stars to project more personality, however forced. But here Lucy appears pensive, perhaps tired. Is she waiting for something? Is it a moment of boredom in the course of series of more typical mugging for the camera? She almost seems to be saying, all right, I’m ready, let’s do the next shot.  Despite all the formal portrait artifice at play, this appears an unguarded moment, a moment expressive of her unadorned self, and more naturally beautiful than ever. Warnecke didn’t do anything at that moment but click.

Of course this is all speculation. We’ll never know what was going on during that shoot, what was in her thoughts. But the enigmatic quality of that image is what brings me back to photography again and again, why I never tire of it, and why I continue to be fascinated  by the world as it presents itself to me.

 

Untitled, 2008, Cindy Sherman

The big show in town right now is Cindy Sherman at the Museum of Modern Art. She is, as the website text states, “widely recognized as one of the most important and influential artists in contemporary art.” Note, art, not photography. We are all artists, of course, but some of us, the ones who utilize photography, are more artists than others.  The curators and gallerists will never let go of this.

I don’t quarrel with Sherman’s importance, and I find her late ’70s “Untitled Film Stills” quite arresting. The references to Hollywood and TV imagery were clear, sharply realized, and there was a nifty balance between artifice and spontaneity using minimal means to evoke rather than simply mimic. In her later series, Sherman goes heavy handed, Baroque, Gothic, macabre, clownish (literally), and what have you. A grab bag of identity cliches weighed down with pounds of makeup, costuming, and prosthetics. I lost interest twenty years ago.

The photograph above shows a woman of some means sitting for a portrait, her legs to the side, her arm resting just above her knee, with a frizzy pooch, staring at the camera with a pensive, perhaps tired, look. The woman floats in a seamless environment of  muted colors and surfaces. She represents a type–maybe a Park Avenue socialite. But we are gazing at a wax figure, not a person, even though that is Cindy Sherman in there somewhere. And like visiting a wax museum, we are amazed, but unmoved.

New York/Around Town


Tenth Avenue — © Brian Rose

Odds and ends. Things to recommend. Things to dis.

The New York Times reports this morning that the film On the Bowery will soon be available on DVD. I saw it last year for the first time at Film Forum, and wrote about it extensively in my blog here and here. Alan Rogosin’s film is an astonishing portrayal of lost New York and lost souls, controversial then and now for its hybrid documentary/fictional format. Actual denizens of the Bowery, picked out by Rogosin, played the lead roles filmed in the streets and bars of the Bowery near Houston Street. It’s one of the great realist films ever made, a tour de force of editing and photography. The montage of grizzled faces at the end is unforgettable.


Fifth Avenue — © Brian Rose

The Radical Camera at the Jewish Museum, one of the best museum photography shows in recent years, will be up through March 25th. This show is about the New York Photo League and its community of photographers who explored the streets of the city during the 1930s and 1940s. Their work pushed aesthetic boundaries and embraced political engagement. The show is worth seeing both for its vivid depiction of New York and for illuminating the development of documentary street photography leading up to the modern era. There are a number of familiar names in the exhibition, like Berenice Abbott and Aaron Siskind, but most are lesser knowns, many who have fallen through the cracks, and are typically not included in the dominant narrative of photographic history.

From the blog DLK Collection: For me, I finally started to visually understand the small steps that made up the aesthetic and conceptual changes that took place between the 1930s and the 1950s, those missing evolutionary links between Abbott and Frank; The Americans now seems to me less like a thunder strike of genius out of nowhere and more like an innovative, original extrapolation from visual ideas that were already beginning to percolate around. This excellent show tells a uniquely New York story, and is worth a visit simply for the rich historical details of life in the city that it provides. But the reason I found this to be one of the best photography shows of the year is that it also successfully fills in an important (and largely missing) gap in the recounting of the American photographic narrative. Not only do I now have an increased appreciation for the talents of the many members of the New York Photo League (many of whom have been unjustly overlooked), I now understand much more clearly how the larger artistic puzzle fits together.

Read the whole review here.

We think of serious photography now in the context of museums and galleries, but it wasn’t really until the Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art with its “we are the world” sentimentality that the medium began to find favor in elite institutions. The Photo League embraced work that depicted gritty reality whether on the streets of the Lower East Side or the  beach at Coney Island–it did not celebrate the myth of American ascendency, and as a result, ran afoul of the anti-communist blacklisters of the early ’50s. The fact that many of its members were Jewish was also not coincidental.

Imagine. At the time of the Photo League, there was virtually no museums or art galleries that paid any attention to photography. In retrospect, it appears that the Photo League–its shows and its community of photographers–was central to the development of photography as social instrument and as an art form. And this story has not adequately been told until now. Do not miss this exhibition.


World Press winning photograph — © Samuel Aranda

There has already been lots written about this photograph, and I have no inclination to analyze something that’s not worth the effort. First of all, the premise of a grand prize for a single news photograph is wrong. The most interesting single photographs, in my opinion, are often the most open ended, often the least iconic, images that defy easy reading. That’s the opposite of what the World Press jurors usually come up with. They want a Muslim Mary cradling Jesus, or something.

This is a crappy photograph, maudlin, cliche.

New York/WTC


Park Place — © Brian Rose

Friday evening I walked down to the World Trade Center with an invitation to the 48th floor of 7 WTC, the first completed structure in the rebuilding post 9/11. Silverstein Properties, the owner, has made the 48th floor available as an artists’ studio, though soon the occupants will have to make way for a paying tenant.


7 WTC, 48th Floor, painting by Marcus Robinson — © Brian Rose

The entire floor was unpartitioned and open with raw concrete floor, exposed fire proofed steel beams, and wrap around floor to ceiling windows with stunning views. At least four artists were on display including Marcus Robinson who is a painter and videographer. His time lapse images of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center were shown on a large video screen.


Paintings by Todd Stone — © Brian Rose

Another artist, Todd Stone, had a gallery-like exhibition of his paintings on one side of the floor documenting 9/11 as seen from his Tribeca studio. I usually don’t like to see images of the horror of 9/11 itself, but these were done as a spontaneous reaction to what was happening a short distance away, the paint somehow distancing the event while at the same time heightening the attention to it in a way that photographs do not.


View of 9/11 memorial — © Brian Rose

I took a few photographs through the windows, one looking down on the memorial–glass reflections unavoidable.  Stone has been doing paintings of the rebuilding, and he was working on one of the 1 WTC while I was there. I spoke with him for several minutes, and I traded one of my WTC books for one of his exhibition catalogues.


Painting by Todd Stone

Snow scene from the 48th floor with Diebenkorn-ish colors.


1 WTC model — © Brian Rose

A model of 1 WTC stood on the south end of the 48th floor adjacent to the real thing going up outside the window. The late afternoon sun just caught the translucent plastic of the model giving it a golden glow. The actual tower will never appear so crystalline I am afraid, despite its faceted exterior. But we shall see…