Jonathan Blaustein reports on a visit to several blockbuster photo exhibits during his trip to NYC.
I went to see Gregory Crewdson’s show on a Friday, the day before it closed at the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue. It was an imposing, New York City-gray-type-building, with an express elevator to the 6th Floor gallery. The aura of money and power was intimidating, and I couldn’t help smacking myself with the front door in full view of the slinky gallerina sitting at the front desk. Suave, I was not.
For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Crewdson is one of the foremost art-star photographers on the planet, and a professor at Yale as well. He rose to acclaim a while back for innovating the cinematic, labor-intensive-faux-reality picture style, alongside Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. His most famous images are large scale, well lit moments observing people’s introspective silence, or overturned buses in the pavement, or women on the front lawn at night. The images were revolutionary, as he hired film crews, set up huge lights and directed the action to get photographs that appear “real,” but are not. The movement of which he was a part shattered the expectation of veracity in photography, and then buried the notion of “truth,” and then spit on the grave.
The new show, called “Sanctuary, ” was a departure. The photographs are more traditionally sized black and white inkjet prints. They are somewhat flat, and and lack the snap of a good gelatin silver print. But I suspect that’s intentional. The series functions as a narrative, shot on location at Cinecittá Studios in Rome, the famous Mussolini-built film lot where Fellini worked back in the day. (And Scorcese shot the flawed but greuesome “Gangs of New York” there as well. Yes, Bill the Butcher still gives me the heebiegeebies…)
Anyway, I thought it was a pretty smart move to go from cinematic photographs to photographs in a cinematic parallel universe. And that’s where this project really stands out: on the symbolic level. The show begins in a small room with two photographs in it. One on the outside of the fence, looking at the wall that delineates the studio from the outside world. The next faces the security gate, at night, a lone woman working in the guard booth. She’s the only human in the series, and a nod to Crewdson’s previous imagery.
The rest of the images navigate a tour around the abandoned studio lot. The photographs are bleak, with a beautiful decrepitude. Here a lone tree, there a Roman arch, here a puddle of water, there a solitary bedsheet on the cobblestones. There is an undeniable post-apocalyptic sensibility, and it builds as one moves from picture to picture. Occasionally, we can see a block of utilitarian apartment buildings outside the walls, but aside from one image with some Italian text, there is no specific sense of place outside the Roman ruins. And plenty of scaffolding has been left to rot. References to Lewis Baltz, Thomas Struth and the Bechers are pretty evident, but not heavy-handed. Everyone loves a good shout out.
The photographs are quiet, lonely, sad, graceful, and specifically composed. The craftsmanship is evident, which is why the subtle prints hint at aging, lending meaning to the work. (And I did learn a bit about his process, by good fortune. A Yale photography professor was lecturing in the gallery alongside one of her graduate students. Apparently, the digital images are a composite of photos shot at different focal distances to create maximum sharpness and image clarity.)
The show ends with a path to the exit gate. We approach this little world, we circumnavigate, then we leave. Mr. Crewdson has prepared a journey for his viewers, with symbols to spare. I was moved. To be fair, a few days later a smart photographer friend asked whether I’d have taken the time to delve into the work if it had been done by an “unfamous” artist. Would I have had the patience to parse the meaning? Good question. If I’d seen it in some random gallery in Chelsea, I probably would have done a glance and go. But that’s not how we engage with art. Context is important. So in the temple of Gagosian, with knowledge of Mr. Crewdson’s previous work, he had earned my patience.
From there, I walked South two blocks to the Whitney to see Lee Friedlander’s “America by Car.” At least three people went out of their way to say “Don’t miss it,” so my expectations were pretty high. I got there less than an hour before the pay-what-you-want program kicked off, but decided to pony up the cash so that I wouldn’t be crushed by the onslaught of bargain-hunting art patrons. I knew I had to report back to you, the APE audience, and thought that I owed it to you to get a clear look at the work, instead of having to bob and weave all night.
The show is great. Consider it reviewed. Now can someone get me a cup of coffee? Just kidding. But it is superb; the equivalent of getting a big bowl of wisdom soup from a master at the tail end of his artistic journey. I’m not saying Mr. Friedlander is going to kick it any day now, but he’s coming from a place of age and experience, and it shows. Cindy Sherman, he’s not.
The exhibition contains 192 square photographs; a succession of vertical diptychs. Each image in the pair was taken in a different part of the US, though there were a few from Canada thrown in for who-knows-why. My natural inclination was to compare and contrast each image, then move down the line. Two photos. Two Americas. (Sorry, John Edwards.) Red State or Blue. Republican or Democrat. Urban or Rural. This or that.
That’s how we process information when it’s presented as such. We compare and contrast. If we’re given a line, we follow it. But after 25 or so diptychs, my head began to hurt. And then I looked down the room and into the next, and thought: I’ll never make it. No one was meant to play this game 96 times. That’s not what he wants. It’s not what he’s trying to say.
So then, I stepped back. I began to look at the exhibition in it’s entirety. Each photo was shot from inside a car, some with flash, and the shapes of the windowpanes and the dash boards were interesting as visual structure, for sure. They create a uniformity of language that delivers the message well. But the message was enticing to me. America. By car. One country, not two. Mr. Friedlander did an admirable job of collecting symbols of the once-and-perhaps-again-great nation of ours. Churches and Bars, Horses and Semi-Trucks, Factories and Gas Stations, Snowmen and Skyscrapers…
I started to look at the entire vision, and it began to make sense. A few urban enclaves aside, America is a nation defined by the car. (Just ask Robert Frank.) It’s a big place, and beyond diverse. But Mr. Friedlander was presenting one vision, not two. He was profiling one country, with his requisite humor and penchant for chaotic compositions. I came away inspired. It’s easy to divide and deliniate, and of course easier to decontruct than construct. As a viewer, albiet one intent on finding something interesting to say, I felt like this was an art show wrapped around a philosophical statement. A photo exhibit that presaged Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity.” A group of new pictures that belied a well-worn attitude: Enough already. Get over it. We’re one country, whether we like it or not, so let’s find some common ground, in this case a perfect encapsulation of an American symbology, and move along. Lee Friedlander channeling Rodney King.
By Tuesday, six days into my couch surf, I was done and ready to go home. I rewarded myself by spending the day looking at art. Yes, I had to take notes to write this piece, but all that was required was to look and think. And while some might disagree, I think the best thing about New York is the vast array of brilliant, epic and historically important things to see. Especially art.
I headed to the Metropolitan Museum, which is my favorite building in the world. I had two and a half hours, which forces one to be targeted and tactical. After hitting up the Chinese wing, which always inspires, I went to see the John Baldessari retrospective. My good friend Scott B. Davis, a photographer from San Diego, saw the show at LACMA earlier this year and told me it was the best thing he’d seen in years. Scott is not given to hyperbole, unlike, say, me, so I took him seriously. And I made sure to allow a good 45 minutes, which was not enough. But one can’t have everything.
I’d seen a few original pieces by the artist in LA, and photos in books through the years. I came into the show more aware of his reputation than his brilliance. I left feeling that Mr. Baldessari was as good as Andy Warhol. There. I said it. Now Andy’s ghost will smite me where I sit.
The best I can tell you about this exhibition, beyond “Go See It,” is that Mr. Baldessari figured out how to incorporate his curiosity, humor, irreverance, and intelligence into a broad and surprisingly relevant mega-collection of great work, across a spectrum of media. Albert Brooks once said that they don’t have a special line at the bank for being ahead of your time. I doubt Mr. Baldessari is hurting, but he definitely got there before everybody else.
Encoding, interactive gaming, implied/manipulated narrative, identity, the myth of California, the culture of beauty and retouching, so many 21st Century ideas seemed embedded in work that was made in the 60’s and 70’s. The pictures were direct, but funny. Original. Profound and silly, which is an almost impossible concept to imagine, much less pull off. I’m reticent to describe some of the pieces, as they just have to be seen. (The artist singing a Sol LeWitt art manifesto? Yeah, it’s that funny.)
Art is meant to be seen. Though it’s a JPG world and we’re just living in it, sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes, you’ve got to get off the couch, or step away from the Crackberry, find half a day, and go feed your brain. I’m intentionally lacking specificity about the Baldessari show for this reason. It’s genius: the real deal. But I can’t narrate it for you. It’s not that kind of art experience. It’s not meant to be compressed by an algorithm. Just go see for yourself.