Jørn Utzon, Sydney Opera House, 1973, Sydney. Photo: Balthazar Korab, 1988.
WITH THE PASSING of Balthazar Korab earlier this year, we have lost one of our most sensitive and acute chroniclers of our designed environments. I had the honor of conducting almost thirty-six hours of interviews with Balthazar over the past fifteen years, as I worked on my monograph about his work. Our conversations often wandered through the extraordinary experiences underlying each of the images we discussed. “The story” he would often say, “prevails in my approach to photography; the feelings, responses to a place, the message… Photography is a very important way of creating a record of the transformations experienced throughout the cultural life of a place.”
Having experienced powerful transformation firsthand during his formative years, in the form of the devastating effects of war on his home city of Budapest, Korab understood both the power and fragility of architecture. These early experiences, along with his later travels through war-torn Europe in the mid- and late-1940s, heightened his sensitivity to the complex lives of buildings and compelled him to include (where others might omit) the fullest range of expressive, atmospheric, and even melancholic qualities in his imaging of architecture.
His work is thus full of intriguing contradictions—perhaps appropriate for a photographer with no formal training, who in fact studied architecture, and who, when once asked to characterize his work in a single sentence, simply responded “soft-spoken with a bite.” His professional images of architecture are recognized for displaying a precision befitting their Modernist subjects, but they are often layered with the idiosyncrasies of atmosphere, weathering, and activity that confound an otherwise “disciplined” picture. And while he has been widely celebrated for a career producing images of iconic Modern architecture, he often preferred to photograph vernacular buildings and anonymous industrial sites. This preference seems to have stemmed at least in part from the exuberance that he experienced when emigrating to what he called the “unique cultural timezone” of the postwar United States in 1955. Landing a job in the office of Eero Saarinen, Korab joined an exceptional team of designers from around the world and began working as the in-house photographer for the firm, a role that ultimately helped him launch his own studio as a professional photographer of architecture in 1958. There, his work quickly expanded beyond the outstanding modern architecture that he was charged to document. As Monica Korab, his wife and studio partner, noted: “Balthazar, a perpetual foreigner in a strange land, was often more enthusiastic exploring vernacular subjects than many of his other projects, because they offered a much broader expression of a particular culture. Everything was new and worth examining to him, and I think he saw something in America—an explosive push to build differently from his European roots—that was fascinating and yet unsettling in some respects.”
We are fortunate that Balthazar’s entire photographic archive was acquired by the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division in 2011. His adopted nation (Korab became a US citizen in 1964) has thus secured his contributions to the disciplines of both architecture and photography. I will miss him and our meandering conversations dearly, but I find solace in the fact that the treasure trove of images housed within his archive—beautiful, heroic, complicated, and often contradictory—will continue to offer a compassionate portrait of our cultural heritage while also provoking us to reflect on ourselves, a fitting legacy for work that is indeed “soft-spoken with a bite.”
THE ACT OF ART-MAKING IS MESSY AND DIFFICULT. People are much more complicated than materials.
Most artists can close their studio doors and hide their struggles. But Daniel worked every day in an atmosphere filled with personalities to whom he chose to expose his own complexities.
Daniel was an artist with a vision driven firstly by Love. This was most evident in his expansive writings and prescient, crystalline curating. When I look at this still-working list of artists he exhibited over the years, his vision, at times seemingly fragmented, becomes instantly, plainly clear.
Christian Holstad is an artist living in New York.
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Daniel Reich was also my first encounter with New York. In January 2003, I came to the city with a small folder of drawings in hand; a friend made a phone call, and suddenly I was in Daniel’s apartment/gallery amid Christian Holstad’s beautiful Life is a Gift installation. We knelt on the floor to lay out the works. I remember him wiry and fresh, pulling out a few hundred-dollar bills from his jeans pocket and buying all of the works I’d come with. Those crumpled bills meant more to me than any subsequent payment I’ve ever received, and on the Greyhound back to Toronto I knew my fortune had changed.
Then there was silence, and I didn’t hear from him for a month. I later learned that this was when Colin de Land had died. Daniel started at Pat Hearn’s gallery; he sought her out specifically because she showed Mark Morrisroe. It was from these two dealers, Pat and Colin, that Daniel found the value system that came to define his métier: a belief in Art above all things, and in its confluence with personality. This wisdom included giving to those special people who gravitated toward him as many big opportunities as possible. I didn’t live in New York and could only witness his small gang periodically, but I remember Nick Mauss and Ken Okiishi stuffing envelopes and hanging paintings not as artists or staff, but as believers in something extraordinary at work.
To me, Daniel always appeared a slightly mystical creature. Yet he possessed, perhaps to a stronger degree, a great number of human frailties: giddy indulgence, obstinate faith, consuming worry. He swanned and he sweated. There are lines we all skirt which Daniel—a symptom of his genius—continually trespassed. Nothing was average or passable in his world, nor was he a perfectionist; things were lost, destroyed—things languished. And yet it was the labor, the ebullience of his rich, deadly smart, radically free-associating mind that made something remarkable out of each and every show. Daniel was a born dealer, not just because he, like most good artists, was otherwise unemployable, but because his eccentricity was alchemy in the gallery. He took risks with his money and with the money of others, and I think he always sincerely believed it would all work out. Spending was like making a wish or saying a prayer; new shoes, or capriciously rebooking airfare was a type of strange magic to augur success.
I remember another conjuring, a performance almost, as we installed my show in fall 2008. Amid the unsettling quiet brought on by the worsening recession, Daniel devised a strategy for painting the gallery—one that was all but invisible to everyone but himself. An assistant went over the gallery walls, already painted in their typical white, with two other hues of white, a “yellow” and a “green.” Daniel conducted the painting with precision, so that narrow swaths were applied here and there, like highlights and shadows, taking up several days of our time in an imperceptible aesthetic labor which I could only understand as wizardry meant to invoke the old rush of collectors who weren’t coming through. On opening night the gallery had its aura, and it worked.
But despite all of his surreptitious magic, it ultimately wasn’t enough. There was a breach in the hull and the part of Daniel that understood the usefulness of life began to ebb when he had to close his gallery, forced out by his own amazing folly and by a world that demanded something more practical. Daniel enjoyed scrappily going up against the hegemony of Chelsea. An inscrutable David, what he proposed was soft, slight, and upset by masculinity. Daniel knew the legacy and aesthetics of the strengths and frailties of homosexuality. We would talk about Tennessee Williams, Denham Fouts, and King Ludwig. He knew the course of lives lived and lost.
Anyone who has had a telephone conversation with Daniel will remember that the sign-off was the hardest part for him. There were various long pauses and rapidly repeated “okays” before the final, hesitant, goodbye. I feel very much like this now, so I want to add two more little remembrances. I’m brought back to one of our earliest emails where he said, “Yes, of course I’m interested in handling the work long-term. In a way it is perfect for me.” Daniel tried to engender his artists with his own delicate gestures of rebellion, and a spirited, cerebral pleasure in beauty. It’s an imbued force, something that will continue to manifest in our best work, which will in turn always be perfect for him. Finally, the last time I saw Daniel was in August. He invited me to the Russian Tea Room and implored me to order the cheapest drink on the menu so he could treat me. I had a peppermint tea and he had several Ivan the Terribles. His conversation frothed with wicked intelligence, jokes, and glumness. I left him with an electric buzz in my gut; I felt happy and proud. I knew that Daniel was one of the last of a kind of rare bird, and I couldn’t believe my luck at having him for a friend. I know that I will miss him for the whole of my life.
Paul P. is an artist living in New York.
I FIRST MET BURHAN DOĞANÇAY when I was assigned by his publisher, Hudson Hills Press, to write the introductory essay to his book of photographs, Bridge of Dreams: The Rebirth of the Brooklyn Bridge (1999). I was happy to write about the Brooklyn Bridge, as it dovetailed with a project of my own on the Manhattan shoreline, which became the book Waterfront (2004). Doğançay invited me to his studio on Broadway and we felt each other out during that first meeting, to see if we could trust each other, as writers and artists do when the former are called upon to portray or promote the latter. He was a burly man, very masculine, with broad shoulders and a thin mustache, one drooping eyelid and a very fierce stare. He carried himself with the casual, denim-clad, working-class air of a downtown artist, and I soon came to associate that proletarian vibe with the fact that he spent considerable time around iron-workers and other blue-collar types on his photographic jaunts. We discovered we had in common a love of walking, particularly around old New York City, but also any metropolis. In his indefatigable world travels, compiling his encyclopedic photographic project of walls and graffiti, he took various risks, and in ascending skyscraper construction sites and the Brooklyn Bridge to snap the iron-workers at their jobs he exhibited a good amount of physical courage as well as stamina. In short, I (who lean toward the cowardly persuasion) was well on my way to being intimidated by this he-man, but he assured me with his gentle, upper-middle-class manners (he’d come from a refined Turkish family and was on the road to a diplomatic career when the urge to make art beckoned) that I had nothing to fear from him. Doğançay lived in two worlds: the workaday downtown studio, where he carried himself as a humble proletarian, and the apartment uptown where he retreated after hours with his wife for a more comfortable bourgeois existence.
His studio was filled with large abstract paintings and door constructions, photographs and found objects. The canvases’ artistic energy seemed to derive from Abstract Expressionism, or from what has also been labeled the New York School of painting: a gestural, body-projecting process of art-making. The work was very accomplished, each carried to the finish line, nothing half-baked. He seemed confident about his place in the art world, and I felt guilty that I had never heard of him before. I wondered how many such international artists of sophistication, skill and dedication—who had moved to this cruel, indifferent city from their far-flung native realms and toiled for a lifetime, creating satisfying if largely unsung work—New York was hiding like secrets in its loft buildings. Doğançay was not exactly unknown: He gave me documentation showing he was in many museum collections, and had been the subject of monographs, catalogues, and stacks of newspaper clippings. But I had the feeling that he was still waiting for his big break, and hoped that in some magical way I, the verbal hired hand, might be an instrument of its occurrence. What could I do? I wrote my introduction, the book was published, and life went on as before.
Some time later, perhaps a year or two, Doğançay got in touch with me again to tell me that he was going to have a big retrospective in Istanbul, and would I like to contribute an essay to the catalogue and attend the opening? I was thrilled to accept, having always dreamed of seeing Istanbul (and indeed it proved a marvelous city). I arrived as part of a group of international press who had been flown in to witness the retrospective and allegedly spread the word. At the opening I saw that Doğançay was treated as a modernist giant in the Turkish art world. Would he have been happier never having left, or was his stature there contingent on being ensconced abroad, in New York? I couldn’t tell. All I could see was that he was relaxed and gracious, accepting compliments in his native tongue. I wandered through the exhibit, with its room after room of the artist’s work, a truly comprehensive culmination, an act of justice.
Phillip Lopate’s most recent books are Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell.
DONALD RICHIE was best known for introducing Western readers to Japan. A pioneer in the study of Japanese cinema, he also wrote about many other features of his adopted country, from Zen Buddhism to ancient phallic symbols to the art of the full body tattoo. Richie’s experience of Japan was intimate; he lived there most of his life since 1947; his closest romantic attachments were with Japanese; and even though he prided himself on his permanent outsider status, Japan was his only home.
But Richie’s Japan was in many respects a place in his imagination. Japan was the land of the perfect Other, everything that his native town, Lima, Ohio, was not. Ever since he read the story of Aladdin’s lamp as a boy, he knew that he had to get out. Japan was about the farthest he could go, and once he got there, he knew he never wished to turn back.
The Japanese, in his imagination, were a people unburdened (unlike the good people of Lima) by the curse of original sin—Japan is a country of many social taboos, but sexual pleasure is part of nature, and so it cannot be sinful. Richie often talked about Japan, as though the fall of man and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden had never taken place there.
Eden could be found in the strangest places. Richie was a great flâneur, prowling the streets and alleys of his beloved Tokyo. Nothing human was strange to him. I would sometimes accompany him on his nocturnal wanderings. At one point we found ourselves in an underground cinema, a dank and rather disreputable place specializing in pornographic movies, which few in the audience appeared to be watching; they were too busy with other things.
Richie was in his element. Stepping out from the cinema into the hall, where the public lavatories were, and where several men dressed as women hovered, we suddenly heard a voice calling out: “Sensei!”— a term of great esteem, accorded to artists, professors, or religious teachers. A middle-aged man made a deep bow. Richie had never met him before, but was recognized by someone who knew how to pay his respects to a gentleman and a scholar. A similar scene would have been unthinkable in Lima, or perhaps even in New York City.
The cinema is where Richie often observed the people among whom he had chosen to live. During the Allied Occupation of Japan in the 1940s, Japanese cinemas were officially “off limits.” But Richie spent much of his spare time in Japanese cinemas. He didn’t yet understand any Japanese. But he felt the warmth of his fellow human beings, smelled the cheap pomade in their hair, and tried to piece the stories on the screen together as best he could simply by watching.
He never stopped watching and piecing together the land of his imagination. That was his life’s work, and a great work it is.
Ian Buruma is the Paul W. William’s Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.