Left: Weegee, Their First Murder, 1941, gelatin silver print, 10 1/8 x 11". © International Center of Photography. Right: Cover of William Chapman Sharpe's New York Nocturne (2008).
William Chapman Sharpe, professor of English at Barnard College in New York City, is the author of Unreal Cities (1990) and coeditor of Visions of the Modern City (1983). His new book, New York Nocturne (2008), examines images of the city after dark in literature, painting, and photography from 1850 to 1950.
I’VE SPENT MY ENTIRE PROFESSIONAL LIFE engaged with the modern city’s representation in art and literature. Unreal Cities discussed poetry about the metropolis by Wordsworth, Whitman, Baudelaire, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and others. I’ve always straddled the Atlantic, surveying not only New York but also London and Paris. This book germinated when I looked at works by James McNeill Whistler and realized that his art must have influenced the way people imagined the city at that time. My original effort was an attempt to understand how Whistler’s vision of the Thames, which is mostly represented horizontally in his paintings, was translated into representations of the vertical reach of New York City. The darkness and mist that covers the bridges and the far shore of the Thames revealed to Whistler an abstract and elemental formal quality that was instrumental in making his art so revolutionary—a deliberate arrangement of colors and shapes on a flat surface. As soon as photographers began looking at the vertical geography of New York, they began to see ways they could capture the unusual forms by covering details in the same cloak of darkness.
Whistler wasn’t afraid to make enemies or to go to court (as in the famous lawsuit against John Ruskin) to demand that he be recognized as a revolutionary artist who had showed urban citizens something they had never seen before. He even compiled his rebuttals to his critics in a book called The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. His influence extended beyond the realm of the visual arts; for example, when Ezra Pound was trying to promote Imagism in London in the second decade of the twentieth century, he cited Whistler’s courageous artwork in support of his ideas. Returning to the visual arts, even so brash and semiabstract a painter as Joseph Stella, whose sharp angles seem distinct from Whistler’s delicacy of touch, also began his career as a maker of Whistleresque nocturnes.
It can be said that Whistler showed people how to paint a “moonlight” (his original term for what he later called nocturnes) without ever depicting the moon. This, coupled with the increasing ubiquity of artificial light, helped liberate the representation of night from a number of qualities that had become clichéd, most notably that it was a time of reflection and pastoral repose that would carry us back to childlike innocence.
But of course the book is not all about Whistler. The motif of the flaneur runs throughout. I try to show that Edgar Allan Poe had partly celebrated and partly parodied this figure in his story “The Man of the Crowd.” What he notices is that the flaneur can’t really make anything happen; his whole job is to observe and comment. But beginning in the late nineteenth century, the flaneur becomes an investigator. Think of Jacob Riis, who was dedicated not just to observing the world but also to changing what he saw.
The book shows that we have a number of ways of looking at the night—from seeing it as a gaslit immoral Babylon to wondering at the skyscraper fantasia. We alternate between fear of what might be out there and absolute delight in the way it looks. We’re beguiled and discomposed at the same time that we wander down the streets. Such fluctuation is an omnipresent quality in the nocturnal city. While I try to tease out separate strands of it, any time we regard the city at night we do so with a bundle of ideas and emotions that range from fear and dismay to sexual excitement to a sense of being both voyeur and victim. The word voyeur seems key to understanding an artist like Weegee, who tried to bring us a flash-lit consciousness of the city. In his clever comments on the staginess of city life, he became a producer and director of the night. But he was a producer who urged us to indulge ourselves in the thrill of watching somebody else suffer, and for this reason I ultimately found him less honest and compelling than Riis. Weegee was more enamored of himself than anything he depicted. While he shows us the worst about the night, he also shows how the night can bring out the worst in ourselves.
In the book’s epilogue, I discuss various attempts to reconnect the human species to the full range of natural experience, including natural night. If for no other reason than economic reality, people will gradually change the way they light up the night. We may see a more consciously managed image of the sparkling city. The classic views of the skyline offered a totally unplanned panopoly of light. But perhaps greater patches of darkness, and the understanding that when it’s dark it’s not necessarily as unsafe as we fear, will intrude on this vision of the city. We will gain a lot as human beings if we can look up once again and see the stars.
David Hammons has been making art and challenging the conditions of artmaking for nearly forty years. In 1991, Hammons was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his work in the field. Recently, the artist was invited by the nonprofit multidisciplinary arts initiative Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum to realize a project in Egypt, which opens on November 24. Here he discusses his artistic intervention, called “Six Sites in Alexandria.”
LAST YEAR, Salah Hassan, the curator of this project, went to Egypt to take part in the Alexandria Biennale. I said, “Let me tag along and see what’s happening.” I hung out in the city while he was doing his thing. He showed me this small gallery of young people—the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum—and I told him to ask if I could do something there. They agreed, and here I am.
The hotel I’m staying in, the Windsor Palace, is about twenty minutes from the gallery. Walking the streets between the gallery and the hotel, I found five separate sites; I was looking for abstract things that normal people don’t look at. I found a wooden chair chained to a pole—I guess some security guards use this chair to sit in. There’s a puddle of water in the street; a piece of cardboard caught on a light fixture, hanging on a wire. There’s an appliance store filled with televisions and refrigerators and stoves—the music was so loud at this place that I decided to call it a sound installation. There’s also a tree painted green. It’s so green I decided to call it the Pink Tree. The sixth site was Sight Unseen—I leave the audience to find their own.
At first, the sites were further stretched out, but there’s no way people could have gone to see them all. So I narrowed it down to sites between the hotel and the gallery. I only had forty-eight hours in which to do it, and this factor helped to quicken the pace. I had to think spontaneously as opposed to intellectually. It’s like being on a boat that’s going down—you just grab on to whatever’s at hand to stay afloat. There wasn’t time to overthink anything.
I had to explain that it wasn’t going to be in their gallery. They had hoped it would be—it’s a very nice space, a marvelous, beautiful restoration of an apartment. As beautiful as the space was, that was too easy to do. I don’t particularly care for galleries. I’d rather walk through the city and find my own spaces.
I do that a lot in New York. I’ll find something and call people up with the address and tell people to go look at it. It could be a stack of wood in the subway or something that looks like a Joseph Beuys or something lying around.
We made a little sketch of each piece with the address and the title. The gallery director said that if there wasn’t a visual clue, then the people wouldn’t even go to look for them. I don’t really care much if they go to see them. The concept is more interesting than the actual objects, because the concept is invisible while the objects are visible. Except for the sixth site—there they have to use the mind’s eye.
The adventure of coming here is more important to me than the exhibition—to get to faraway places is more exciting than to do something in a normal space. Have you heard of the White Night in Paris? It is cosponsored by Fondation Cartier and the City of Paris. I think it’s been going on for some time. Each year, they invite thirteen artists to do installations around the city, and everyone stays up from 7 PM to 7 AM. I was invited to participate this year. For my piece, I predicted that a double rainbow would appear over the city at night on the fourth of October. Actually, I saw a double rainbow about just two days before I met with representatives from the Fondation Cartier and the City of Paris about the project. Both agreed, but then approximately three days beforehand, the City of Paris removed my name from the exhibition. I think they canceled it because they couldn’t explain it to anyone. But how do you stop or remove the rainbow from happening?
For a piece at Skulptur Projekte Münster 2007, I predicted rain on the eighteenth of August. It didn’t rain. However, I wanted them to follow the concept more than the act. I was more interested in shifting the idea of how artists think about producing art. Artists are often more interested in the act itself. I choose artworks that are ephemeral because, well, life is that. It’s such a temporary journey.
I was watching a video on YouTube in which Ornette Coleman presents a tune called “Spring” in Germany; he tells the audience, “Follow the idea of the song, not the song itself.” He also said, “Follow the idea, not the sound.” I was impressed with that. Follow how my ideas are put together, as opposed to whether the rainbow appears or the rain comes. I use this logic a lot. It moves in the realm of poetry as opposed to the actuality that people are used to or expect.
Los Angeles–based artist Frances Stark is widely known for combining text, image, and literary sources in her collages, which often include thoughtful though tenuous self-referential links to her roles as artist, mother, woman, and professor. “The New Vision,” an exhibition of new work, opens on November 22 at Portikus in Frankfurt.
THIS EXHIBITION WAS quite a surprise. Although I had been planning to do it for at least a year, before I was able to start on my original plans an opportunity arose for another show, which took up a tremendous amount of energy. That large-scale exhibition, at the Secession [“A Torment of Follies,” April 26–June 22, 2008], was organized around an excerpt from a novel that I was “putting to music,” so to speak. There I used text in a rhythmic way and choreographed graphic figures around the room almost as if they were performing the text. This show is nearly the opposite of that one.
I had a conversation with a curator from the Hammer Museum, which has an extensive print collection, about the form of “the folly” and more specifically about Goya’s follies, or Caprichos [caprices]. I began to look at these more, and one image in particular really hit me, a print titled They Already Have a Seat . It depicts two women with chairs on their heads and skirts pulled up to their faces. This particularly ridiculous image struck me.
There were a few other Caprichos that inspired some of the pieces in this new body of work. I did a version of the most famous, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters , with the flurry of bats and monsters behind the figure, as an exhibition poster for a gigantic summer group show I was in, “Pretty Ugly” at Gavin Brown and Maccarone. Instead of Goya’s slumping, somewhat gentle figure, mine is more exasperated. Each of these Caprichos has a text that Goya has written, a little snippet or a comment that isn’t part of the title but is somehow associated with that particular print. I liked how this text exists in a no-man’s-land. About the image of the women and chairs, Goya writes, “If conceited girls want to show they have a seat, the best thing is for them to put it on their head.” That really egged me on.
I really felt, when I started to make this show, that it would end up being an exhibition of paintings—despite the fact that I really don’t make paintings per se. I hate that I keep having to offer this caveat, but honestly, one could actually call this a figurative painting show—but not entirely, of course.
In a way, the work has more of a “trashy collage” aesthetic. But the images are also more solid and singular and depict bodies in subtly ridiculous, exhausted, or slightly compromising positions, and there is a lot of play with black-and-white versus color. One of my favorites is a foreshortened figure seen from above with a kind of giant head weighing down the image, and her feet kind of just floating at the top of the canvas. In her hands is a sheet of paper, which reads: “Why should you not be able to assemble yourself and write?” This text comes from a letter I received from a very smart and sympathetic friend, who, in asking me for a contribution to a publication, lamented the fact that I have been writing less and less to focus on making “work.” It asks a lot of difficult questions about appropriating text in artworks versus producing original texts for publication. An abridged version of this letter appears in the exhibition in one of the few nonfigurative works, on a painted music stand, next to another letter received from an artist friend who strikes a completely different tone. The juxtaposition becomes a kind of score for the possibility of what I can or will perform.
The Asian- and European-based photographer Michael Wolf is known for his fine-art and editorial photographs depicting rapid growth in Asian cities. A new series of photographs made in Chicago, “Transparent City,” goes on view this week at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and is collected in a book just published by Aperture.
THE EXPERIENCE OF PHOTOGRAPHING in America was not much different from photographing in Asia, really. The challenge was more conceptual: After working so long in Hong Kong and China, I wasn’t sure I was capable of working somewhere else. I feel in tune with what is happening in the East, and am so inspired by the architecture, food, people, and flux of life there, that I was afraid I’d feel disconnected from an urban landscape in another part of the world. Luckily, when I came to Chicago in 2006 to install some photographs, I rode an elevated train into downtown from the airport. It was a wonderful visual experience, looking out and seeing everyone through the office windows. I remember arriving at the museum and meeting the curator, and by my third or fourth sentence they asked whether they could arrange an artist residency for me. A year later, the deal was done.
I had thought about working in New York, in part because I’ve worked so long with what I call “architecture of density” in Hong Kong. But there are logistic problems in New York that don’t arise in Chicago. In Chicago, the buildings are spread out, they’re more loosely structured, and ten- or twelve-story parking garages are interspersed between them. From the garages, you can look into buildings. I would go up onto the twelfth floor of a parking structure and get a nice view into the neighboring building. To prepare, I went onto Flickr and printed out every photo of the city’s downtown Loop, then drew red arrows pointing to all of the roofs to which I wanted access. In Hong Kong, every building has guards and you must apply for permission to get onto the roof, but researchers at US Equities, who supported my residency, were able to get me access to 99 percent of the rooftops from which I wanted to photograph.
I began my series “Architecture of Density” by photographing close-ups of vernacular subjects in the back alleys of Hong Kong’s downtown high-rises. I enjoyed the photographs but thought the series of seventy or so images was conceptually one-dimensional. I felt the series would be enriched if I could bring in another layer of meaning, so I began to take photographs of the buildings from a distance. In Chicago, I worked in the opposite direction, beginning with the architecture. I felt, however, that I was bumping up against the same problem. Then one evening I was looking at a photograph I had shot and I saw in it a man giving me the middle finger. In the exact moment he made that gesture I pressed the shutter, even though I had probably been standing there for twenty minutes.
It set off a chain reaction in me, and I began to look through every file at 200 percent magnification to see what else was going on in those windows. I saw hands on computer mice and family photographs on the desks of CEOs; I saw people watching flat-screen TVs in the evening. It was a bit lonely, particularly when I was photographing corporate office towers during the first banking crisis in November–December 2007—I could see through my telephoto lens the tension and stress those bankers were feeling. By zooming in on details, I manage to introduce a certain vernacular visual language as well as balance the faraway with the up close.
I don’t consider these works portraits; I’m not doing a portrait of Chicago. In fact, the city’s characteristics don’t really figure into my discussions of the series. It could be any large urban city. I simply proceeded by answering the question, Which vantage point gives me the ability to look into a building? One building that fascinated me was the very big courthouse downtown. The judge’s rooms are in the corners of the building, and I wanted to catch a moment when lawyers were standing in the hallways of seven or eight consecutive floors so that the image would depict them locked into little cells, like a Robert Wilson stage design. Despite the unpredictability of my process, I have very specific images in mind as I work. Edward Hopper was a particular inspiration for this series, and I was looking for the types of images he specialized in. I was trying to translate an idea—or, rather, to find it in reality.
“Oranges and Sardines,” which opened at the Hammer Museum on November 9, is one of the two final shows curator Gary Garrels organized for the museum before his departure to SF MoMA. Drawing the exhibition’s title from a poem by Frank O’Hara, Garrels invited six abstract painters—Mark Grotjahn, Wade Guyton, Mary Heilmann, Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl, and Christopher Wool—to select works by others that had influenced their thinking and practice, to be shown alongside the six artists’ own pieces. Here, Garrels talks about the conversations that shaped the exhibition.
“ORANGES AND SARDINES” came out of a conversation I had with the artist Mark Grotjahn. I’ve followed Mark’s work for the past seven or eight years, and I admire it greatly. I had been a strong advocate of Mark’s works at MoMA, so when I moved to Los Angeles it was an opportunity to get to know his art better.
We started a conversation about Yayoi Kusama and her net paintings and discussed how important they had been for him, how he’d seen the Kusama retrospective at LACMA in 1988. I had never thought about Kusama in relationship to Mark’s work, so I asked him, “If I could hang one of your paintings with a Kusama, what else would be interesting to see at the same time?” He told me Paul Klee. Afterward, I went home and took down my MoMA catalogue from Klee’s retrospective, and it was one of those “Aha!” moments. I just saw Mark’s work in such a different way—it made so much sense, and it also refreshed Klee for me; sometimes it can feel as though you have cataracts on your eyes, looking at things you’ve seen too many times.
A few weeks later, I set up a studio visit with Amy Sillman, whom at the time I didn’t know. I’d been watching her work over the years, and I’d seen an exhibition in Berlin a couple years ago where the work had gone another step toward being fully abstract, and I was very interested in watching her move away from the figurative. I asked Amy the same question I’d asked Mark: “Are there other artists you’d be interested in seeing your work with, who’ve somehow been important in your work?” It was just like setting off firecrackers, and she told me Hesse, Chamberlain, and de Kooning. As I was coming back on the plane, I thought, “This could be a really interesting show.”
I’ve always been interested in abstract painting—that’s where I entered the art world—so I thought about other painters in this vein and winnowed it down to a group of six who represent a diversity of generations and approaches to the field. Another part of the show is about the situation of abstract painting today and how it remains a vibrant and vital form. It’s something that’s often written off.
Each of the artists could have included more objects or artists that have had significance to them, but really the exhibition was an attempt to make a definitive summary of influences. This is the tip of the iceberg—and in the catalogue, we’ve tried to make some of those other influences more salient. I told the artists that for the show we had to pick things from the twentieth century, noting that it was probably better to start from midcentury on, the 1930s and ’40s to the present. But aside from that, I didn’t try to establish any parameters. I told them, “Think about things that are really most important to you, and I will try my best to find those things for you.” It’s hard to say how different their final selections would have been without me. Each case would have been a little different; sometimes I nudged, I enticed, I pleaded.
With Mary Heilmann, I was astonished when she mentioned Francis Bacon. It just would never occur to me, but then again, as I looked at Bacon, and as she was talking about how he structures space, it just made so much sense. The Joseph Beuys piece presents an existential condition: what an artist is, and also the way his work and thought engage a kind of dark history from Europe. It’s so different from what she grew up with in California.
In terms of choices, I was open to whatever the artist was interested in. In some cases, they specified the exact work. Charlene von Heyl said, “I want this Malcolm Morley; I want the School of Athens.” It was that precise painting for very precise reasons. The work is Morley repainting Raphael’s School of Athens. But he had gridded it off and later got so involved in the act of painting that he lost track of the grid; one row of the heads of the figures are off, so they’re no longer connected to their bodies. Charlene just loved that. She had never seen the painting; she only knew it from reproduction.
Amy Sillman said, “I have to have a Hesse relief,” and I think there are twelve of those. And we looked at them together, and she said, “This would be my first choice, this would be my second choice,” and so on. And I miraculously located her first choice, and the person who owned it agreed to lend it. But again, the selection was very specific.
There are multiple plots organizing the exhibition. One is to look at contemporary artists and understand the complexity and depth of thinking that go into their work, to realize that there are underlying things that may not immediately be apparent. I also wanted to reengage the specificity of art objects, to take the work of art out of the service of art history or theory and focus on its idiosyncratic and obdurate presence.