“Anonymization”: How Urban Sprawl Created a Homogenous and Hostile World, for Hyperallergic.

Dubai, UAE, 2009. Robert Harding Pittman

Dubai, UAE, 2009. Robert Harding Pittman

LOS ANGELES — The list of ways the US has negatively influenced the rest of the world is long and shameful: unnecessary, interminable wars, nutritionally inane fast-food chains, a habit of wasteful consumption based on instant obsolescence. The list goes on, and one can see why at least some of our exports caught on. The notion of urban sprawl is not one of them. Surely, you’d think, a glance through snapshots of any one of our thousands of forbiddingly bland suburban communities would make a country accustomed to walkable cities, villages, and farms, architectural diversity, and efficient public transportation, politely decline. But the US has successfully exported not only the idea of sprawl, but the look of it as well, and there are communities (for a more appropriate word does not exist to describe something so decidedly anti-community) in South Korea, Greece, Spain, the UAE, France, and Germany, that no longer resemble their native cultures and could easily be mistaken for Walnut Creek.

When photographer Robert Harding Pittman was studying at the California Institute of the Arts, these developments were metastasizing all over Los Angeles; when he moved on to study in Spain, identical developments were creeping into view there. After years of photographing the preparation of the land, the erection of prefab boxes, the laying down of miles of asphalt, and the half-formed structures and detritus left when building was halted in the wake of the economic collapse, Pittman published Anonymization (Kehrer Verlag 2012). A showing of the series is up at Spot Photo Works in Los Angeles through June 16.

Pittman wisely chose to group the photographs by stages of development rather than by location, preventing the reader from picking up on the distinctive features of each place and instead paying attention to the processes that render those locations indistinguishable from each other: Sacred Ground (first stages of ground preparation), Conversion, Prefabricated, and Aftermath. Fouled soil and gravel piles look the same in Dubai and Seoul; this or that tract housing complex could be in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Murcia, Spain. Abandoned structures look sad and effete in the Peloponnese Peninsula or in Alamogordo. In deliberately confusing the locales and effacing their individual characteristics, the work communicates the ruthless ideology behind developmental sprawl. The peculiarities of place — the natural environment and topography, the architectural styles, anthropological elements such as how the people of a given place have historically lived and socialized, even the local availability and sustainability of necessary resources — none of that matters. If developers seek to make their constructions attractive to an affluent clientele, one that might require access to clichéd Western one percenter hobbies like golf, they’ll make that golf course, dammit, and pump in the water for the buzz cut grass lawn whether it’s in Benidorm, Spain, or the middle of the Arabian Desert. When the money dries up or the global economy implodes, developers all abandon the projects at whatever stages they have reached with equal disregard for the desecrated landscapes. These ruins do not turn into Ostia Antica. Spilled nails stain Spanish pavements with rust, skeletons of single-family homes perch atop Grecian hillsides, palm trees planted ready-grown into Emirati yards dry out and die in the absence of the high-maintenance irrigation systems necessary to sustain them where nothing was ever meant to live.

Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, UAE. Robert Harding Pittman.

Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, UAE. Robert Harding Pittman.

Yet what no doubt appears as a shameful blight on the natural world makes for elegant, even beautiful photographs, and probably more so for those whose tastes lean towards the stark and geometric. Minimalists who want to prove they have a sense of humor should buy these prints. It’s hard to believe that anything aesthetically pleasing could be found in the parking lot of Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates. But Pittman found a pristine patch in the lot where the lilac pavement is still unmarred by tread marks, where the angles of the painted white stripes and the concrete stoppers create an immaculate, yet dynamic composition — the stoppers somehow conveying speed despite their stillness, like lined-up torpedoes. A line of spookily identical houses looks like one house, seeing its own reflection in a pair of infinity mirrors. A lone, intrepid weed has sprouted against all odds in the front, or back, “lawn” or driveway (it is unclear which, as it is just sand) of one of the houses. In a vista of beiges that even bleed into the blue of the sky, this spot of green is like a rebellion; the starburst pattern of its stems and leaves look as if the plant burst out of the ground in glee, unaware of the crushing, unnatural hostility of its new surroundings. (continue reading)

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I Modeled for Todd Hido

#10967-2498 © Todd Hido 2012

#10967-2498 © Todd Hido 2012

A woman clasps her hand to her mouth. Visible in her eyes could be fear, horror, grief, or even just acute worry.

The image described is not the one above, but one similar sent to me by a friend, who in the Spring of 2012 was assistant to photographer Todd Hido. Hido was working on a shot for which he felt he needed an actress and my friend knew I had theatre training. I stared at the example image, intrigued, flattered, and not a little curious.

Hido is one of the biggest names in photography today. There are two best-known branches of his oeuvre, one involving suburban houses and landscapes, and the other, women.

There is a strange opposition in Hido’s vision. His unpeopled scenes are gravid with unarticulated emotion and withheld answers to unformed questions — houses with their interior lights shining almost too-brightly in the night, grimly beautiful barren landscapes shot through sun-spotted windshields, fog hanging heavy like a psychic pestilence. Suburbia was never as innocent as we told ourselves. He imbues these familiar subjects with a low-flame drama that makes you suspect you’ve never noticed their quiet, sad, and sometimes threatening beauty or perceived their fugitive secrets.

#10845-7 © Todd Hido 2012

#10845-7 © Todd Hido 2012

Hido’s photographs of women — well, I had been more ambivalent about them. Where he finds an unexpected richness in the familiar when photographing inanimate objects, he rehashes regrettable and outmoded cultural cliches when he trains his lens on human beings.

Women slouch on seedy bedspreads or lie slumped in the backseat of a car, sucking a liquor bottle. They’re most often represented in their underwear or fully nude, although occasional nods to other eras appear in vintage costuming and coiffure. They stare through glazed eyes over cheeks stained with mascara tears, or cower in ripped stockings as some unseen menace approaches. Some of the characters appear drugged. These women seem like passive bit players in other people’s dramas, their main function is sexual, they’re victims of their own, if not someone else’s, bad decisions.

The drama in Hido’s photos of women is still there, but its nature is not quite so unusual or revelatory as that in his images of houses or trees. We are all unfortunately habituated to seeing women portrayed in this way. Hido tends to sequence his photographs as part of larger projects like exhibits and books. What gets a reluctant pass upon assessing the images individually, is more troubling when examining them as a group. It’s hard not to wonder why women occupy such limited roles in his imagined dramas. The repetitive tokenism of Casting Call Woe comes to mind.

Untitled #10474-a © Todd Hido, 2011.

Untitled #10474-a © Todd Hido, 2011.

BUT THIS SEEMED DIFFERENT

For my modeling session, I would not be asked to take my clothes off. I was invited to invest a character with more, or at least a different kind of, humanity usually conveyed by “Hido girls.” My sexuality would be left ambiguous and there would be nothing suggesting I was or wasn’t a victim. The drama would be in my face and whatever I was able to project through my eyes, not the situation my body was shown in, what carpet shag I was sprawled out on or what kind of underwear or runny tights I was wearing. As far as I could tell, this image could represent an intriguing departure for Hido, and I was curious to see what he would do. For sure, art history (and literary history, and music history, and history) is full of men comprehending and depicting women within similarly narrow parameters to Hido’s. But an artist with talent can evolve.

My portrait was to be a part of a project called Silver Meadows. Hido exhibited “Excerpts from Silver Meadows,” an early incarnation of the series, at Wirtz Gallery in 2012. I had actually reviewed the show (by the way, I am an art critic), extrapolating on my unease with his portrayals of women. In a magnificently awkward coincidence, the article went live the day I was scheduled to model. If he was irked by the review when it appeared that morning, by evening, when we were to meet, he seemed to have forgiven me, and was receptive to the notion that my criticism was valid.

For convenience, Hido, his assistant and I met at a gallery opening. We grabbed takeout from Tu Lan, and on the drive to his Oakland home and studio chatted about TV shows and Obama’s rendition of “Let’s Stay Together.” Over spring rolls and beef salad we talked about whether it was possible to portray a woman in the sort of fraught situations he imagined, but in a way that still afforded her some power, and some agency. I knew it was possible; I had spent too much time studying IbsenWilliams, even Sarah Kane, for it to be a question. But it seemed like a new concept to Hido — or the notion that his photographs did not suggest that a woman could be seen this way seemed like a new concept to him. Could a frightened woman still be powerful? Could she be sexual without being a sex object in a scenario rendered by a male artist?

Hido suggested that in this and future shoots we could experiment with this different kind of portrayal of women, one in which she existed in his famously sinister, lurid, carnal world but with an inner will pushing back against passivity, complicating her character into something more than victim or vamp. While I was excited to witness and possibly participate in what might be an expansion of his work, I wondered why the idea was new to him, why no one in his network of friends and supporters had broached the topic to him before. It was not a new or obscure idea, and I knew from many conversations I had had with others that my reaction to his work was not unique, though as far as I knew, I was the only one who had said anything publicly. He was thoughtful, even humble, and it seemed my review had troubled his mind but hadn’t offended his ego. He spoke with both me and his assistant as equals, and by the time we were finished with our meal I was relaxed and excited to work.

IN THE STUDIO

I’ve been a performer of one kind or another most of my life, and know well that the scrutiny of an audience, that army of eyes in the dark, can draw strange new inner personae to life and move you to give over more than you knew you had. But the weight of an artist’s stare is something different, freighted with bigger, heavier, more unknowable expectations than those of a passive audience. He means to create something out of the material that is you, your physical appearance as well as the visible manifestations of your thoughts and the feelings that emerge, sometimes unbidden, under his direction. It’s hard not to suspect that the artist is searching your visage for something you will surely fail to give him, and that he is nevertheless finding more than you ever meant to disclose. It’s rather like the gaze of someone who thinks they are in love with you but who in fact doesn’t know you very well at all: for them you are an amalgam of projections and desires, and the intensity of their stare will yield something false and foreign — but weirdly intimate all the same, and possibly a beautiful creation in its own right, however forced, and however much unlike you it is in the end. Modeling feels like not so much a performance as a sort of painless vivisection.

He told me where to look, where to place my hand, and switched cameras, many of which looked to me like toys, numerous times. His assistant rapidly changed lenses and film and manipulated the hot white light. It was an impeccably choreographed display of efficiency between the two of them, so practiced and finessed that they could frequently make hilarious jokes at each other without missing a beat. I appreciated their levity and humor, as the whir of activity, the attention, the streamlined unrelenting professionalism of their process was bearing down on me in a way I found difficult to justify. I hadn’t even taken off my coat, and my hand was covering half my face, but I felt exposed to a degree I hadn’t anticipated, like a small naked child waking up in a room full of adults speaking a foreign language. Hido’s directions were banal and unobtrusive: “Look up.” “Think of something terrible.”

Nothing inappropriate was done or said throughout the sitting. That I felt like Hido was plumbing my inner life was due entirely to, as Alexander Nemerov puts it, the photographers’ fanatical quality of attention, and I emerged from the shoot with a new respect for anyone who doesn’t wilt under it.

The resulting portrait seemed to satisfy Hido’s hopes for what it would be, and I was up for continuing our exploration of the more complex and counterintuitive ways he might portray the women populating his artistic imagination. But we never did schedule another sitting.

#10967-2498 © Todd Hido 2012

#10967-2498 © Todd Hido 2012

The photograph of me was used as the penultimate image in the book Silver Meadows (Nazraeli Press, 2013) in which, with the exception of this one portrait, everything I had originally objected to in his portrayals of women was repeated and even exaggerated. I reviewed the book in a manner that probably shut the door on any future collaborations.

A NEW DIRECTION

I recently went to Paris Photo LA and saw the exhibit Selections from a Survey, a series by Hido, combining new and old work, focusing on his primary model, a blonde chameleon named Khrystyna. I don’t know if the concept for the show was Hido’s or that of his new Bay Area gallerists Casemore/Kirkeby. Whoever is owed credit, the show is an example of the power of curation.

Hido’s preoccupations have not changed. Khrystyna appeared in various wigs and states of dress and undress, sensuously inviting, sexually prone, crying, pouting, cowering, apparently frightened of or tearfully recovering from some violence wrought by an unseen antagonist. Adding to the menacing atmosphere in which she lived were malevolently glowing interiors, Poltergeist televisions, landscapes of glowering skies and roads perilously slickened with rain, as well as additional found photographs of hulking footballers and wrecked cars. But it’s the fact that one followed just one woman through these scenes and incarnations that made a big difference. In other series of Hido’s, many women appear in these contexts, their number and similar roles implying interchangeability and reducing them to anonymity — footnotes and pattern-fillers in a man’s drama.

Cached in a tiny fake storefront occupied by the gallery on the fair’s Paramount Studios backlot, Selections was more like a character study of Hido’s subject: an impetuous, bewildered, and reactive tragic heroine, magnetic but doomed, blessed and abandoned by Luck. Though the series was conceived by Hido, the drama belonged to Khrystyna and hers was the world into which gallery-goers were immersed. It doesn’t matter that Selections’ scenes were “drawn from Hido’s own biography” and “imperfect memory” as the press release states; it was, in fact, curiosity toward Khrystyna’s psyche and experience that came to dominate. In a break from his usual practice of using women as one-dimensional extras and walk-ons, Hido made this one the “star” and managed to preserve her humanity.

I wouldn’t presume to have had any influence on Hido’s work, but it seems it is changing, slowly. I’m glad I had the experience of existing in front of his lens, and I’m happy to cede the modeling field to those who, like the “shape-shifter” Khrystyna, aren’t catapulted into psychic apoplexy by it. I remain curious to observe where Hido’s art goes, what the next focus will be, whether he will discover any new and unorthodox women populating his imperfect memory.

This article originally appeared in Vantage.

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J.M.W. Turner, the Sublime, and Me. For Hyperallergic

Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” (exhibited 1842), oil on canvas, (Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856) (all images courtesy Getty Museum)

“You don’t experience the sublime looking through double glazing, or at a distant electric storm, or watching a sea rage on TV,” wrote AA Gill in The Golden Door: Letters to America.

… and yet you can, when viewing a painting. How is that? Something strange came over me while wandering the exhibition halls of the Getty Museum’s show J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free. I found myself dangerously close to experiencing an embarrassing eruption of feelings, and not just one or two feelings, but all of them, All of The Feelings, all at once and at full volume. Without knowing why, without even being able to identify any single work that could have this effect, I willed back tears and held my hand to my breast, surprised and abashed at the cliched dramatics of my gesture, the histrionics roiling within me, my very own internal “Snow Storm” tossing up my waters.
What was going on? Turner’s prolific, no-fucks-given output in the last 16 years of his life, the focus of this exhibition, garnered mockery and accusations of blindness and mental illness from collectors and critics, even formerly devoted ones like John Ruskin. Both the oil paintings and the watercolors on view flaunt those freedoms he took that triggered the outrage of his detractors and presaged later movements that in their own time were considered revolutionary. His canvases are a rough topography of thick impasto, sometimes smeared on with a palette knife. His watercolors, conversely, seem barely touched, as faint as afterimages and as immaterial as memories. Turner’s highly personal use of color extends across media: hues can denote either time of day and weather or emotional timbre or both. His penchant for yellow appears as shimmering sunshine reflecting off golden-hued scenes out of classical mythology, the sun itself boring a hot, dry hole through a damp, limpid dawn, and hellish flames consuming the Houses of Lords and Commons. Blue ranges from the cool placidity of a Swiss lake and the fog floating above it to laden storm clouds hanging heavy over an obscure landscape, to the storm itself, obliterating the moonlight over a sea in tumult, and darkening to suggest the depths below. Red is used as punctuation, clarifying a burning tower here, a lone cow there, or a blood-soaked imaginary ground at has-been Napoleon’s feet, which he stares at, newly contemplative in exile. (Continue reading)

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Strange Developments: Alternative Process Photography in the Bay Area, a panel discussion

If you can stand the sound of my speaking voice, which I cannot, here is a panel discussion I recently did with the amazing photographers Chris McCaw, John Chiara, and Niniane Kelley at SF Camerawork. This was the first (wildly successful, sold-out) event in a series I have started with Alexis Gordan of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, of discussions, studio visits, and salons focusing on the arts in the Bay Area.

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The Sibling Rivalry that Shaped Arbus’s Vision: Alexander Nemerov’s Silent Dialogues, in Hyperallergic.

Diane Arbus, “Untitled (7) 1970–71″ (1970–71) © The Estate of Diane Arbus LLC

Diane Arbus, “Untitled (7) 1970–71″ (1970–71) © The Estate of Diane Arbus LLC

The camera … may want to know, to develop, to expose, but what it can also do, if pressed, is reveal the flowered vacancy of the invisibilities, the mixed-up motivations, that only a wise author could portray.” — Alexander Nemerov, Silent Dialogues

In Silent Dialogues, art historian Alexander Nemerov, son of former US Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov and nephew of Diane Arbus, traces his father’s evolving attitudes toward photography and his sister’s work in particular. Identifying parallels between the two, Nemerov concludes that Arbus’s art ultimately surpassed that of her poet brother, and justifies the comparison by pointing out that each sought a kind of mystical revelation through their practice. Both, he writes, wanted to discover and reveal the people who “know the utmost we can know,” something beyond the explicitly documentable, close to a spiritual revelation. While this might be the natural pursuit of a certain kind of poet, it was an unprecedented quest for a photographer, for at the time, most of the art world embraced Nemerov’s limited view of the medium.

Prejudiced against photography as “part of a journalistic disenchantment with the world,” bearing “the creepiest relation to past-ness … the freezing of life,” Howard Nemerov found his sister’s images particularly ghastly, alienated as they were from his poetry of “flitting things, of dragonflies and cinnamon moths, of falling leaves and swimming koi.” Revealingly, when Nemerov was asked to show a visitor what became one of his sister’s most iconic works, “Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1966,” he took the print from where it was kept loose in a drawer and held it by one corner “as if it were … a wet rag fished out of the trash.” Alexander Nemerov insinuates that it was ultimately professional rivalry that caused Howard to reevaluate his response to his sister’s work and field.

If H. Nemerov came around to Arbus’s work reluctantly, it was his initial dismissiveness that had informed her work, if only to show her the kind of photographs she did not want to take, and propelled her to “push down on this (medium’s) extraordinary literalness, until it yields something like …. ‘a hallucination that was really there.’” As Arbus sought out the mystics and prophets directly, those who “believe in the imminent end of the world” or can see when “the Messiah comes wandering out of the woods,” H. Nemerov was arriving at the realization that his own oeuvre was closer kin to that of nature poet William Wordsworththan that of the poet of mystics and prophets, William Blake — a disappointing realization, no doubt, for someone of his esoteric ambitions. He began to see that Arbus’s photographs were not “grotesque oddities but, rather … visions of the way we are,” and this revelation jettisoned his own practice into a two-year long writer’s block, while his sister’s reputation grew and photography itself enjoyed burgeoning respect as an art.

While the connections Alexander Nemerov draws between his father’s and sister’s canons are fascinating, it is his tour de force interpretation of Arbus’s School series, and his explication of its significance in demonstrating photography’s potential, that is Silent Dialogues’ revelation. It’s not necessarily an easy read, and his interpretations sometimes seem to stretch into Hineininterpretierung. For instance, in his discussion of “Untitled (62) 1970-71,” he describes the girl pictured, “Hand to head, absorbed in her own world, the girl seems to have forgotten something, or to be holding a thought inside her head before it should escape …” but then somehow lands on: “Hers is not a reverie but a dullness and a blankness. But in that vacancy the world discloses itself.” Ascribing dullness, blankness, and vacancy to the expression on the face of a mentally handicapped child reflects an attitude rather than an insight, and the same sort of attitude as those of previous eras that accepted the colloquial use of the word “retarded,” a word Arbus used in her own writings (see Chronologies, Aperture) and which he still uses in this book. But beyond that, how he finds that “the world discloses itself” in that vacancy is unclear, or at least not a persuasively objective, and therefore communicable, reading. Of “Masked woman in a wheelchair, Pa. 1970,” he says, “Although we know that the old woman is just pretending to be a witch, there is a strange sense that she is a witch.” Nemerov’s ensuing discussion of the image, incorporating Don Quixote as an example of one who (like a photographer) can “will” a fantasy (such as a witch) out of the banal, and likening the photographer’s practice to a kind of necromancy, is elegant, probing, formidably erudite. But his claim nevertheless hinges upon the conviction he starts the discussion with — that the image conveys the “sense” that the woman pictured is a witch. If one does not get that sense from the photograph, then the explication might leave one feeling cowed rather than guided, overpowered into a sort of mental submission to Nemerov’s reading not only of the photograph itself but of what it says about the photographer’s art.

More convincing, or at least more grounded in the images themselves and their elements (and therefore easier to trust) are Nemerov’s discussions of other photographs within the School series. Of the four women in masks holding fairy wands in “Untitled (49) 1970-71,” he says that they “raise those wands, like the witch does her mask, as if in sympathetic mimicry of the photographer’s stare into her camera …. Photography is a beguilement rather than a record, or only a record.” Without the photographer, they were four residents of a home for the mentally handicapped, wandering the grounds of their school in construction paper and glitter glue costumes. As the photographer raises her camera, they ready themselves to “become” what the release of the shutter will fix them as: fairies in a “weirdly light-struck world,” with fallen stars on their fairy slippers. The intimation that the act of photographing can make something come into being, rather than merely record what’s there (which was Howard Nemerov’s narrow view), points to Nemerov’s ultimate assessment of his aunt’s photography, that it was a kind of visual fiction-writing. (continue reading)

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Mapplethorpe’s Other Man: On Philip Gefter’s Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, for Hyperallergic

Self-Portraits, Sam Wagstaff, 1973 (The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2005.M.46)

Self-Portraits, Sam Wagstaff, 1973 (The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2005.M.46)

In Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, Philip Gefter’s new biography of collector, curator, and market force Sam Wagstaff, the author argues that it was not only his subject’s life that was transformed by his relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Before Mapplethorpe, Gefter writes, photography was “an art world bastard, a utilitarian medium” and an inconsequentiality in the market. According to Gefter, the photography world today, its revered place within the art world, and the photography market as we know it is due at least as much to Wagstaff’s efforts as to those of his contemporary, the more known and lauded John Szarkowski, writer, curator, and Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art.

Before and After Mapplethorpe portrays a single love affair in a way that invites and rewards both an uplifting, romantic view of love and a cynical, near-infuriating view of the art world. Before meeting Mapplethorpe, Sam Wagstaff was already respected as a curator and collector, after tenures at the Wadsworth Atheneum and Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). He had achieved notoriety for a groundbreaking exhibit at the former (“Black, White, and Gray,” the very first museum show of Minimalist art) and an ambitious failure at the latter (“Dragged Mass Displacement,” Michael Heizer’s 30-ton granite block installation intended to sink into the DIA’s front lawn but which merely sat atop it). But for all his prescience and independence of thought, which “Black, White, and Gray,” especially, had testified to, Wagstaff disdained photography, like most of the art world at the time. What little attention he gave to the medium — for instance, his first purchase of a photographic work of art, Andy Warhol’s “Race Riot” — was motivated by the new ways in which the medium riffed on painting and conceptual art, and not by any virtues unique to the medium itself. Indeed, Wagstaff described himself as a “loather of photography, sui generis” in his recommendation letter for Enrico Natali’s Guggenheim Fellowship (for photography) in 1971.

It was only when Wagstaff began his relationship with unknown photographer Robert Mapplethorpe that he started to regard photography as a worthy art in its own right. Wagstaff’s fascination with the young artist spread to the artist’s field, and, galvanized by passion, he applied his habitual scholarly diligence, his lordly confidence in “the essential rightness of his eye,” and his wealth not only toward the advancement of his protégé’s career but, successfully, toward the elevation of photography as an art form worthy of veneration equal to any in the canon, as well as a market force. Love, as all its platitudes have taught us, alters us, opens our eyes to new possibilities, expands our worlds, and propels us to great achievements.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1980 (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1980 (courtesy of Wikipedia)

On the one hand, Gefter seems to be saying, love is a many-splendored thing. On the other, the art world is a miasma of sexual nepotism, auction rigging, cronyism, rank-pulling, and let’s not forget, sexism. Yes, Wagstaff displayed formidable knowledge, eagerness to learn, daring, and enthusiasm in every area of art he curated or collected, and towards the end of the book when one reads that he confessed to good friend Patti Smith before his death that he had loved only three things in his life, “Robert, my mother, and art,” one believes him. Yet imagine attending Photographs from the Collection of Sam Wagstaff at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1978, an exhibit of the influential figure’s collection, deemed museum-worthy for its scope, its richness in works seminal to their respective places in the history of the medium, but most of all because it includes the chosen — curated! — favorites of a mind that has husbanded photography to a position of greater importance and visibility in the public sphere than ever before. Imagine, also, that Wagstaff has implemented two shows within the same museum in tandem with the exhibit, showcasing works by his faithless boyfriend and protégé, Mapplethorpe, and by another, largely unknown artist, who is the current object of his unrequited infatuation — Gerald Incandela, and to whom Mapplethorpe has reason to worry he might lose Wagstaff’s affection and, thereby, patronage. The powerful man at the vertex of this love triangle pits his two acolytes against each other professionally in a Cain and Abel-like fashion (author’s simile). How would you feel being asked to stroke your beard cogitatively and speak in respectful tones and Artforum words about this bald-faced personal drama of low-road power plays and petty sadism?

Equally unsettling, the Berkley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, a major institution, exhibited works from Mapplethorpe’s private collection and then, later that same year, hosted “Photographs from the Collection of Sam Wagstaff.” As if the conflict of interest weren’t outrageous enough, Wagstaff had even paid for some of the works in Mapplethorpe’s collection when the photographer couldn’t afford the pieces he desired at auction. What Gefter describes as having “an air of cronyism” about it in fact appears even more lopsided than that: Wagstaff’s money and influence basically bought out a major portion of the museum’s display that year.

image002

Sam in his apartment at Lafayette Towers, Detroit, c. 1970 (photo by Enrico Natali)

Of course photography’s ascendance in the art world is both propelled by and reflected in its performance in the market, particularly as several of its advancements have come in the form of museum shows driven by collectorship rather than the other way around. As Susan Sontag described in her talk at “Photography: Where We Are Now,” a symposium organized in conjunction with Wagstaff’s Corcoran show, the active role of the market in establishing photography’s place in the art world was unlikely to leave the critical discourse around it unsullied: “Would money become a determining factor in concluding a photographer’s significance?” It seemed so, though Gefter makes a persuasive case that this should not impugn Wagstaff’s taste or intentions in his collecting habits or championing of artists. The effects of the market, particularly of auctions, determine not only the monetary but the historical value of works (as well as that of works that never make it to the market), manipulating public perception of the photographic universe and its values. However one feels about that, it was Wagstaff and a small coterie of similarly moneyed and obsessive collectors and dealers who set the photography market in motion. They used unsurprisingly self-serving tactics, even the ‘auction ring,’ a way of minimizing competition at auctions which was illegal in the market at large, but which passed under the radar at a time when the rules for the photography market in particular were still unwritten. Amongst themselves, they manufactured that worldwide marketplace in which their own collections flourished and appreciated.

But Sontag’s worry that money might have an outsized role in determining a photographer’s significance seems no less relevant today. A prestige venue like Pier 24 invites the same worry: it upholds the reputations of established artists and enhances the profiles of emerging ones, but is bankrolled by a single collector — the power to influence the public’s consciousness of the state of photography today, concentrated in an aging white man’s wallet. It is one of the least defensible aspects of Wagstaff’s legacy, as is the Pier’s focus on male artists, taking after Wagstaff’s similarly narrow exhibition forty years earlier. (continue reading)

Sam with Tony Smith at the Wadsworth Atheneum, mid-1960s (Courtesy of The Wadsworth Atheneum of Art)

Sam with Tony Smith at the Wadsworth Atheneum, mid-1960s (Courtesy of The Wadsworth Atheneum of Art)

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Arnold Newman: Masterclass at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Arnold Newman, Martha Graham, dancer, choreographer and teacher, New York, 1961, 45 1/2 x 53 1/2 in. Gelatin silver print © 1961. Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

Arnold Newman, Martha Graham, dancer, choreographer and teacher, New York, 1961, 45 1/2 x 53 1/2 in. Gelatin silver print © 1961. Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

One of my favorite photography exhibits in San Francisco last year was the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s “Arnold Newman: Masterclass.” While some of the artist’s portraits have achieved iconic status (think of the composer Igor Stravinsky. The image you have in your head is probably Newman’s), the CJM compiled over 200 photographs, including some shown publicly for the first time and lesser known works such as still lifes and architectural and geometric studies. Newman was renowned as the pioneer of “environmental portraiture,” though he resented the term, which describes a sort of “in situ” portrait made in the subject’s natural or vocational habitat. But the fruits of those geometric studies, as well as the motifs and errata of his subject’s work, is evident in the portraits. Even disregarding who the subjects are, the images are striking: Newman’s compositions are inventive and witty, he was not afraid to dwarf his subjects in darkness or set them against contrasting patterns or use lines and shapes to force the eye this way or that within the frame.

Beyond the visual trickery, yes, a bit of (what one might presume to be) his sitters’ personalities come through in each depiction, and there is a lot of challenging straight-on glaring as well as ponderous staring off-frame in this collection, a lot of sly half-smiles and mysteriously furrowed brows. I don’t think these alone would tell as much about the subjects’ personae were it not for the astute observations Newman makes about both the nature of each of their professions as well as their specific “voices” within them. How perfect to portray a sculptor, as he does Louise Nevelson, with an extra pair of hands, and to do so using collage, one way in which the two dimensional medium can subtly suggest the third dimension. A rough-edged narrow scrap of a photograph overlays the second, looking like, well, one of the rough edged narrow scraps of wood Nevelson so frequently used in her sculptures and which appear in the base photograph. Dance giant Martha Graham stands in an oversized robe that hides her instrument, her body. It seems a counterintuitive choice for a dancer, until one realizes that it in fact emphasizes how little she need do to exude her brand of monolithic gravitas, such is her formidable physical presence. Part priestess, part workman, she stands off center in the frame, dominated by the barre, the permanent workstation of the student, professional, teacher, legend, and visionary. While most of Newman’s portraits indicate a sophisticated understanding of his subjects’ work, he usually refrains from commenting on it–although it seems he sometimes cannot help himself. Pace Gallery founder Arnold Glimcher slouches louchely against a bare wall, sloppy shirt collar, fingers jammed into tight trouser pockets, sanpaku gaze. He looks like he might as soon sell you a tab of bad LSD as a piece of blue chip art. Couturier Christian Dior sits in the foreground of his portrait, holding what looks like a riding crop in his hand. In the background are his models, posing like thoroughbreds. Making rare use of color film, Newman lights and positions industrialist Alfried Krupp for maximum sinister effect, placing him front and center and flanked by columns as pockmarked and rough as the man’s cheeks. He employs the factory’s flourescent lighting to obscure Krupp’s eyes, and casts the whole scene in an unhealthy bilious green. The portrait is such an indictment of the person and system in which he thrives that it is surprising Krupp didn’t sue for defamation. It is not, however, surprising to learn that Krupp was himself tried for war crimes, including the use of slave labor.

Arnold Newman, Marilyn Monroe, actress and singer, Beverly Hills, California, 1962. Gelatin silver print © 1962, 14 ¾ x 16 ¾ in. Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

Arnold Newman, Marilyn Monroe, actress and singer, Beverly Hills, California, 1962. Gelatin silver print © 1962, 14 ¾ x 16 ¾ in. Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

The only portrait that doesn’t somehow reflect the subject’s professional persona is that of Marilyn Monroe, actually a small part of a photograph Newman cropped around after failing to get the star to sit for him, and instead resorting to photographing her at a houseparty with poet Carl Sandburg. The image conveys nothing of the erotically-charged glamour the actress was famous for; instead it hones in on the softening counterpoint to that glamour, her vulnerability. This quality is hinted at in her on-screen performances and was drawn from a well of pain and fear begat by her fraught and sometimes abusive relationships with the men in her life. But that quality has come to dominate her posthumous persona, launched by her presumed suicide. Newman saw and captured it first; in his photograph of her taken in the year of her death, it is the glamour that is only hinted at, in the sheen of frosted eyeshadow on her lids, which droop as if she is drunk or stoned, or simply exhausted.

Arnold Newman: Masterclass is at the Contemporary Jewish museum until February 1. An informative and beautiful catalogue is available in the CJM’s store.

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Tripping the Ballz Fantastic

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In case you’re wondering what I’ve been up to, amongst other things, I went to Burning Man again, and wrote about it for Art Practical:

There’s something disheartening about returning from Burning Man to resume your practice as an art critic. The “First Thursday” back, if you’ve recovered in time to attend (which I did not this year), is underwhelming. It’s not because the art on display is worse or less radical than what you’ve seen in Black Rock City. Or because you won’t find any art that you can pee or have sex or take a nap on. Or because nothing will be set on fire. Or because everyone is wearing pants.

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dawn.

As pat as it might sound, it’s because you are different. You spend a week in a physically punishing, sensorially ravishing environment where to enjoy even non-interactive art—of which there is very little—necessitates surmounting a litany of discomforts and disorienting factors. You’re hot, lashed by corrosive alkaline dust, dehydrated, underslept, and off your tits. You haven’t checked email or Facebook in days. Your breakfast was likely champagne and Emergen-C.

In such harsh, isolated conditions, anything you can’t experience in the moment is no longer important. Every performance or art installation you witness represents a sublimation of the spoiled body’s nagging, an overcoming of the niggling mundanities that usually distract and disperse your attentions. When you stand in front of one of Black Rock City’s many art projects (or crawl under it, or sleep inside it, etc.), you feel you’ve earned your place there, like you’re able to take in more of it because there is less of you in the way. The low-pitched drone of everyday concerns—career, relationships, groceries—falls silent. (continue reading)

p.s. This year I debuted a dance piece I’ve been working on at The Crossroads Live Experience stage on the Playa. I was inspired by Maurice Bejart’s ballet version of Bolero and my ongoing studies in bellydance, and I was helped with the choreo by FatChanceBellyDance pro Marsha Poulin.

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Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa, Ponte City, for Art Practical

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, Lift Portrait, 24, Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008; Collection, Pier 24 Photography. Courtesy of the Artists and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, Lift Portrait, 24, Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008; Collection, Pier 24 Photography. Courtesy of the Artists and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.

“It was a place where the wave crashed inwards upon itself, with the seething violence of delayed hope. It was Africa coming back, but with nowhere yet to go…. It was 54 floors of people in between other places.”—Denis Hirson, Perec/Ponte

In the late ’60s, designers Mannie Feldman, Manfred Hermer, and Rodney Grosskopf began work on what was to be the tallest residential building in the Southern Hemisphere. The massive Brutalist structure was intended for the white well-heeled to live closer to the center of Johannesburg, rather than their suburban retreats. But in 1976, as the building neared completion, the Soweto uprisings brought violence and opprobrium to the region and its recalcitrant apartheid-era laws and mores. The property market tanked and the developers’ dream of affluent white South Africans living in a tower of luxury flats and duplexes vanished. Throughout the late ’70s and ’80s, Ponte City’s population went from low-income and racially mixed, to predominantly black foreigners (Nigerians, Zimbabweans, and the Congolese), while the already troubled building fell further into disrepair.1 In 2007 a new pair of developers envisioned a rebirth of the iconic building as, again, housing for the affluent. Many tenants found themselves evicted, and apartments were redesigned with décor themes like “Old Money” and “Glam Rock.” When the 2008 economic crisis hit, the banks pulled their money and the remaining tenants continued to live among the empty apartments and crumbling concrete.2
Many “voices” speak for the structure. As a provocative part of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ vast Public Intimacy, a survey of work coming out of and centered on South Africa, photographers Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse have devised an impressionistic epic about the beleaguered monolith. This includes large-scale portraits, video projections, zines, and a book dummy (forthcoming from Steidl) alongside new and found photographs, essays, and newspaper articles from various stages in Ponte’s history. Articles written in tones ranging from sangfroid to near gleeful describe the more salacious or vicious events from Ponte City’s history.3 There are photographs, found in the vacated apartments: gangly boys sitting on twin beds, living-room dance parties, abandoned ID documents. Out of context, they are typical amateur snapshots, but plucked from the rubbish and set against writings that detail the unwantedness of the subjects, the pictures are haunting. Anticipatory advertising sketches of white men in smart suits lounging in the envisioned swanky lobby appear opposite of photographs of actual tenants, large black families playing in cramped rooms as the TV blares. These and Subotzky’s elevator portraits are some of the few elements of the project wherein the black populace of Ponte’s past and present is given a “voice.” Printed large, the elevator portraits add something more than human to the subjects. They appear more solid, monumental even, than the building they occupy, which this project has in turn humanized by explicating its vulnerabilities. (continue reading)

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Sarah Christianson’s “When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: North Dakota’s Oil Boom,” Art Practical

Natural gas flare, White Earth River Valley, September 2013, by Sarah Christianson

Natural gas flare, White Earth River Valley, September 2013, by Sarah Christianson

“We all wanted this oil development. We just didn’t know what we were in for. Even half of what we got would’ve been too much.”—Carole Freed, fourth-generation rancher, Watford City, ND, May 2013

No single photograph in Sarah Christianson’s When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: North Dakota’s Oil Boom gets one’s blood boiling. Her images of her home state—which has, in several booms since the early ’50s, changed from a predominantly agrarian economy to an industrial one based around oil extraction—elicit a slower-burning experience of rage. Rather than focusing on obvious signs of destruction, Christianson’s photographs (paired here with generously informative captions) collectively emphasize the insidiousness of the waste and danger that are often hiding in plain sight.

Christianson occasionally enhances the tone of a scene through dramatic framing. A well on the border of a farmstead is shown through venetian blinds from the interior of the farmhouse, like an intruder spotted by the besieged protagonists of a horror film. In another photograph, several wells perch over a cornfield like so many robotic farmhands, while in the foreground, a tiny sign along the bank of a sludge creek warns of hazardous chemicals in the area. But in most of the other photographs, the land’s exploitation and its sinister effects are depicted even more subtly, or are invisible altogether. Christianson doesn’t overlook the abandoned wells, the disturbed earth along the pipelines, or the swirls of black oil collecting at a spill site, but this is not disaster porn. Rather, by not focusing solely on these more ostentatious (and expected) pieces of evidence, Christianson’s photographs convey something scarier about the degree to which fracking, mining, and drilling have become an irrevocable part of North Dakota’s ecosystem and its inhabitants’ way of life. (continue reading)

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