Spring Break in New York City

A guest post by Robin Tierney

Here’s a cure for cabin fever: a recession-priced escape to Manhattan.

If you’re around the Mid Atlantic area, look for a discount fare on the Amtrak Acela (tip: board the no-cellphone “Quiet Car”). Rate-surf for the New Yorker Hotel, an architectural classic one block from Penn Station. It completed a massive renovation in time for the economic bust, so you can get a bargain and colossal views. Next, buy a $74 CityPass that gets you VIP admission at a bunch of iconic venues, and a $7.50 FunPass for 24 hours of unlimited subway riding on days you don’t feel like walking, although walking’s easy from this central location.

Now, some quick takes from my long weekend of art-spotting.

Big venues are scrambling more than ever to lure more visitors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art hit the bell with its new “It’s Time We Met” ad campaign built on photos submitted by museum-goers. Winners got a couple hundred bucks and an annual pass. So if you dream of having work shown at the Met, instead of slaving over a hot canvas just click some whimsical scenes with your cellphone.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when security sentry Guy Anglade told me that visitors have asked which way to the “We Met at the Met” exhibition. Anglade shook his head: “Forget Carravaggio, where are the Flickr photos?”

Six-year-old emulating Edward Hopper! His own choice, said his mother
“Six-year-old emulating Edward Hopper! His own choice, said his mother.”
By Robin Tierney

The supersized images are plastered on billboards, buses and fencing in front of the museum. Evidently in the social media age, there’s an unquenchable thirst for acts of cuteness executed against fine art. Imagine your life’s work functioning as a background for goof-shots.

One special exhibition revisited the debate that won’t die: “is photography art?” “Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard” arrested scores of onlookers during my visit with its documents of Americana arcana culled from the photographer’s collection of 9,000 postcards. For most of the cards, the photographers remain unknown, but several of Walker’s own postcard creations are on view. Through his 1936 experiments, he taught himself to crop for maximum clarity and intensity. Walker then worked decades to free this humble genre from the pigeon-hole of nostalgia and get respect as an art form.

View of Easton, Pennsylvania

Walker Evans (American, 1903–1975) View of Easton, Pennsylvania (variant), 1935 Postcard format gelatin silver print 8.6 x 13.7 cm (3 3/8 x 5 3/8 in.)

Whatever you call them, their allure overpowers: viewers studied b&w and hand-colored portraits of beach towns, main streets, train depots, river ports, windswept cliffs, hometown jubilees, fan-dancers, sanitarium patients. The alchemy of documentary and lyricism includes original Coney Island amusements (“Atlantis, the Sunken City”), San Francisco’s Valencia Hotel vaulted out into the street by an earthquake, even an electric chair at Sing Sing prison.

The postcard exhibition closes May 25; check out curator Jeff Rosenheim’s terrific catalog.

Across the hall, I caught the final day of “Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography.” Interesting selections included faux-to-journalist David Levinthal’s staged battle using toy soldiers, flour and plastic bags shot using a very narrow depth of field. Mark Wyse documents a squirrel ignored in the road after falling to his death in his “Marks of Indifference” series.

Downstairs, “Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors” offered an opportunity to observe the graphic shorthand of dots, dashes, loops, spirals and zigzags the modernist used to record images and to compose paintings.

Make time to meander in Central Park.

Just south of the park you can overdose on eccentricities all day at MoMA (AKA the Museum of Modern Art). Sleep-deprived, I lacked the patience to mine for meaning in the temporary exhibitions that left me plagued by an earworm of “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” (from “Gypsy”). Such as Klara Liden’s projects, partly due to the medium designation of “interventions.” And a performance artist’s self-imposed year-long confinement to a cell. “Four Decades of Contemporary Art” felt like a Target commercial on drugs.

The ennui evaporated once I remembered to fetch my MoMA audio tour.

It’s worth scaling the steps for the survey spotlighting Martin Kippenberger, who has lambasted the vagaries of modern culture in nearly every medium. Consider “Psycho buildings” and the sprawling recession-ready installation presenting job interview as sporting event, complete with bleachers and cheerleaders.

MoMA admission gets you a free all-day ticket to use when you wish at P.S.1, the contemporary/indie art haven two subway stops east in Queens.

Cheerful New York Graffiti in Building near P.S. 1

“Cheerful New York Graffiti in Building near P.S. 1″
By Robin Tierney

Speaking of gimmicks, even art-grumps might crack a smile at the swimming pool that mixes false bottom with false illusions. Darker spectacles play out on dual-sided screens showing Kenneth Anger’s surrealistic brain dumps. His lyrical 40s-style b&w “Faux D’Artifice” held me spellbound while others crowded before flickering frames of Coney Island biker escapades in “Scorpio Rising.”

Jonathan Horowitz commanded a bunch of spaces with jarring works in a range of media. Player piano playing songs from the Who’s “Tommy” paired with disturbing clips from “The Miracle Worker” and other movies. Commentary amusing and sinister about politics and celebrity, the universal appeal of violence and scandal, and imperialism as foreign policy and entertainment from the Roman Empire onward. It’s interesting. Really.

Watching Yael Bartana’s videos of vehicles eerily coming to a stop on a dark highway made me contemplate the narcotic effect of film, especially after I nodded off for an uncertain duration until a lady guard told me it was closing time.

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Everyday Monuments: The Photographs of Jerome Liebling, at Yale University Art Gallery until September 7

Yale University Art Gallery sometimes hosts exhibitions curated by students, and this is one of them, although I couldn’t find the names of the students involved. Sorry, guys!

As you likely knew, Jerome Liebling is a filmmaker, photographer and teacher. From his website:

While a professor of film and photography at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Liebling began what was to be a longtime collaborative relationship with filmmaker Allen Downs; over the following two decades, they produced several award-winning documentaries, including Pow Wow, The Tree is Dead, and The Old Men.

The only film to which I could find substantial external reference was Pow Wow, which is described on Boston Public Library’s website thusly:

Using concealed telephoto lenses, the University of Minnesota band is photographed while rehearsing. They wheel and careen to form the figures which look so effective on the playing field, but are more like a Mack Sennett comedy at close range. A film by Allen Downs and Jerome Liebling.

That, and the fact that successful documentary filmmakers such as Ken Burns have trained under Professor Liebling, suggests an interest in documenting and re-contextualizing events. It’s interesting how this interest can be seen in the images selected here.

The photographs in this exhibition seem to provide an overview of Liebling’s work, a sampler of sorts. If memory serves, they’re not arranged chronologically or by subject. As for any continuity that bridges the five decades covered in forty-plus images, the handout suggests an emphasis on surface, in a single paragraph that borders on artspeak gobbletygook. For example:

Although grounded in tactility, the rawness of Liebling’s photographs departs from mere physicality and begins to reveal the more intangible underpinnings of his artistic endeavor. As Liebling depicts (a variety of subjects), he reframes surfaces as creative spaces that reveal the range of human productivity and the depths of the human capacity for creativity itself.

The illusion of tactility is present here in abundance, but all rawness is subsumed, in my opinion, by the artist’s masterful technique and his obviously very careful selectivity. All images are plumb, posed, and, in the case of photographs documenting the homes of famous New Englanders such as Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson, they’re dusted, polished and ready for ticket-holders. As for reframing surfaces as creative spaces that reveal the range of human productivity, I suspect it may be the caffeine talking.

What interested me most about this show is the way that many images either echo or prefigure various personalities and developments in the popular and fine art of 20th century America.

The children in Liebling’s photographs from the 1940’s are well-dressed and well cared for, and remind me of Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” comedies from the 30’s and Hummel figurines, those made-in-Germany decorations common to American homes of the time.

Jerome Liebling, Butterfly Boy

Jerome Liebling, Butterfly Boy, New York City, 1949, from the artist’s website

Butterfly Boy, New York City, is adorable in every which-a-way. I want to give this dapper guy an ice cream, tell him a funny joke and make him laugh. If there’s any hint of the intricacies of growing up in the city, perhaps it’s his coat ‘wings,’ extended as if to try them out for the first time; they’re more bat than butterfly, and portend adolescent dives through the glow of streetlamps.

Some relationships between Liebling’s work and American painting are glaring. The subject of Miner’s Wife, Hibbing, Minnesota, from 1983, sits perfectly within the wooden frame of a screen door, her every feature flattened by the worn screen into a Grant Wood painting. The image seeks a worker’s socialist revival, but the woman’s expression betrays the realization that this is not forthcoming. Morning, Monessen, Pennsylvania, out-Hoppers Hopper. The shirtless Counselor, Camp Taconic, Hinsdale, Massachusetts, photographed in 1980, is an image worthy of Paul Cadmus, complete with erotic undertones.

These similarities come off almost as homage, and strike me as an interesting counterpoint to Post-Modern appropriation, particularly its photographic incarnation with its attendant cynicism, that drove the previous story of art to its end. Clearly this is a body of work that maintains a faith of pictures, and this, for me, is the one point of continuity that rides effortlessly through the five decades shown.

In spite of the exhibition’s title, Liebling’s photography, at least as represented here, hardly monumentalizes the everyday. But, much more in keeping with its small scale, this work is quiet, masterfully self-assured, and, at its best, like the small barn in Barn, Foliage, Hadley, Massachusetts, it casts a long and interesting shadow.

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