Sunday, May 8, 2011

A day of art galleries

Today was a gallery day.  We began at the International Center for Photography, where four exhibitions illustrated the range of what photography can do.  On the main floor there were contact strips and photographs taken by a group of photographers documenting the Spanish Civil War, Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim.  While much of their photojournalism appeared in German, British, French, and American magazines and newspapers, it has long been believed that there was an archive of all their photographs that had been stored in a suitcase.  This archive surfaced in Mexico in 2007, not in a suitcase but in cardboard boxes that had been handed from person to person  for safekeeping.  The International Centre printed some of the more startling photographs, but put most of the archive on their walls in contact sheets, offering viewers utterly inadequate large plastic magnifiers to deal with the small sizes of the images.  Unfortunately, these wouldn’t rotate the images 90%, so the challenge was often to study a small photograph sideways to your line of sight.   Despite these frustrations, this was a remarkable exhibition.  First, it demonstrates the enormous range of photojournalism.  This loosely-knit group took pictures of textile workers and peasants at a land reform meeting; an outdoor mass on the Basque front, the necessities for a mass sitting on a broken cane chair; civilians leaving Tereul in the cold, many of them old and struggling to make their way through the snow; Republican soldiers moving art in Madrid to protect it from Franco’s forces; a woman selling cabbages and eggs; children finding a way to play in the war‘s rubble.  The viewer is made aware of how much framing matters:  close-ups capture the individual in pain or attempting with a cigarette and something to drink to create a calm, almost domestic moment.  Longer shots instead speak of the collective experience of marchers in a demonstration or bodies on a battlefield.  Many of these images are aesthetically striking compositions, balances of high-lights and low-lights, posing the question of what happens when we aesthetisize horror.  But if the aesthetics of the image cause us to look more closely at subjects we might ordinarily ignore, perhaps the result is that our sense of the range of human experiences is expanded.

I wish I’d have had an archive like this for my Britain in the Sixties class this winter term because the variety of photographs representing the factories, the streets, the battlefields, the emptying art galleries makes it clear how many places history unfolds.

The second exhibition of post-Mao photographs by Chinese photographer Wang Quingsong  were very carefully staged on a movie set to represent elements of Chinese culture and mythology “updated” by the cultural revolution.  These are developed on a huge scale (3 feet high and perhaps 10 feet long), many of which have cultural allusions that are largely “in” jokes.  They remind us of photography’s ability to reach for a monumental scale both in terms of the size of the photograph in in terms of the image’s ability to bear symbolic weight.  Yet probably because of my cultural ignorance, I found this the least successful exhibition.

Alonzo Jordan was the community photographer in Jasper Texas, a small African-American town.  He photographed high school graduates, prom queens posed on the hoods of the huge cars of the fifties and sixties, weddings, a neighbour mowing the lawn, family reunions.  I very much doubt Jordan would have expected his well-composed images to reach a New York City museum, but they’re  undoubtedly a valuable and evocative record of what his community chose to celebrate.

The final exhibition was of postcards of enormous baptisms in rivers, streams, lakes.  The didactic panel pointed out that photographs could be developed onto a card stock whose obverse identified it as a postcard and provided space for a message and an address.  This information helps me to make sense of some of the photographs in my mother’s box of family memorabilia.  Baptisms provided an intriguing spectacle--who knew there was such a genre of photograph/postcard?--to be both celebrated and, in the event of African-American communities, to mock for their enthusiasm.  Racist postcards of baptisms?  What won’t we do with images?

We took a break in Bryant Park, watching young men play ping pong, noting the shelves of books left out for anyone to borrow and the signs giving times for yoga classes,  laughing at children on the merry-go-round, feeding the sparrows.  We didn’t arrive until well after 1 p.m., but there were very few free seats.  Sitting in one of the tippy slatted chairs, you’re aware of being in the midst of theatre, but you’re not quite certain whether you’re a member of the audience or an inadvertent actor.  You catch fragments of conversations as people pass you by.  One friend tells another that she has a short attention….and then the wind takes her words.  A thirty-something man is talking rather loudly, one suspects, to his wife:  “Oh, that’s right.  Then I’ll come home.  No, I’m totally okay with that.”  Then he takes his story out of range.

MoMA filled the second half of our day.  I’m dismayed that I simply don’t know how to read some contemporary art, so I didn’t really understand the “language” until we came to an entire and large exhibition of Picasso guitars.  You can see Picasso using this familiar instrument to work out the language of cubism and abstraction, but no one answered my rather basic question: why the guitar?  Was it primarily a Spanish folk instrument that could be played by anyone with a little training?  He probes the very terms of representation:  what does it mean to paint on  your canvas a slice of, of something--you‘re not quite sure how it contributes to our sense of what‘s being represented--and make it look like fake wood?  Why does a representation need only two planes?  How many lines do we really need to recognize an icon like the guitar?  Can we add a few more lines that will provoke us to see that this is a conflation of several images?  This was an intriguing exhibit. 

The fifth floor might be loosely titled “Impressionism and After.”  I’ll admit that as a little old lady I was beginning to feel rather frustrated with MoMA’s failure to provide any benches in the galleries.  There is neither any space for us to rest our weary backs and feet nor to simply contemplate a sequence of paintings--of guitars, say--to consider their relationship to one another.   Or to sit staring at three serene Seurat landscapes (though I understand why there’s no bench in front of the very popular version of “Starry Night”).  There is no time for reflection; yet what are art galleries for? Nevertheless, this was like coming home to old friends who spoke at least one of your languages--the surrealists, de Chirico’s nightmare landscapes, Rousseau’s calmly curious lion.  But for me--and judging by the benches that were entirely full, for others as well--one of the magical rooms held a Monet Water Lily painting that he worked on for the 12 years between 1914 and 1926.  Three enormous canvases, each about four metres long, cover an entirely wall.  Cezanne, I believe, said Monet was only an eye--but what an eye!  These are about the miracle of vision, a feast for our eyes.  While we sat there just remembering what the magic of seeing was like, allowing our eyes to simply play over the enormous canvases, several people performed what I called “the Monet shuffle.”  They’d use their cell phone camera to phone one segment, shuffle down the room to keep their camera the same distance from the floor, take another picture, shuffle some more and take a third, then a fourth.  This made me sad:  here were these enormous inflected, textured, subtle canvases of deep water and translucent light, and people were looking at them primarily through their cell phone cameras.

In spite of not entirely understanding some of the work in a display of printing making in South America, I can see that modern art--maybe all art--wants to do a number of things.  There is the art of witness--of posters calling the violence of apartheid into question.  And there is the art of  Matisse, Bonnard, and Monet that is visionary in its own way, reminding us of the power of beauty to assuage and to envision a frame of mind that is peaceful in its own moment.  And there is art that engages with the ideas of the time and takes them further, always probing, never settling--just as we should never settle.  We need all of these.

The photograph at the top of the post was taken by Veronica Geminder; reflections of the New York skyline are captured in the glass of MoMA.

1 comment:

  1. Very envious that you got to visit MoMA! There is some interesting work there right now and by the sounds of it, some interesting photography. Have you read Susan Sontag's On Photography? If you haven't you may want to since she addresses some of the issues you bring up.

    I have no idea if this is of interest to you but "Savage Beauty", the retrospective of Alexander McQueen's career in fashion, just opened at the Met this past week. Just an fyi, but obviously there's so much to do/see in NYC so I'm sure your days are already filled.

    Enjoy and keep blogging!