Taking It From the Streets

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The New York Sun

As we enter the last days of summer, life in the big city begins its seasonal retreat from the sidewalk to the interior spaces. That the Bronx Museum of the Arts should choose this moment to open a new exhibition, “Street Art, Street Life From the 1950s to Now,” is, then, perhaps fitting.

Curated by Lydia Yee, from London’s Barbican Art Gallery, this exhibition casts a wide net, aspiring as it does to account for a variety of practices that differently engage the life of the street, often but not always in New York. In practice, this means candid photographs of pedestrians who are not engaged consciously or unconsciously in any sort of artistic act. But it also seeks to account for art that is actually carried out on the street. Because these are two very different propositions, the show lacks a certain focus.

Almost from the inception of photography, the street has been an object of fascination to the practitioners of the art. But the first scenes of London, Paris, and New York are weirdly devoid of human beings, except as wraithlike traces registered as little more than a vital blur upon the negative, having passed too quickly to be captured by the slow exposures of the time.


It would take 100 years and the radical cultural transformation of the postwar period to introduce the first true street photography, that of photojournalists such as Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, with which the present exhibition begins. Both of these photographers displayed what would now be called “attitude.” They did not seek to discover any impersonal truth about the humanity they depicted, nor were they interested in universalizing and ennobling that humanity as some, such as André Kertész, had done so notably in Paris before the war. Rather, a subtle or not so subtle undertone of mockery can be heard throughout their work. You see this in Lee Friedlander’s stunning image, “New York City” (1962), in which a dapper, extroverted businessman stands in the street, under a massive question mark. A similar subversion informs Robert Frank’s “Political Rally, Chicago”: Under the Stars and Stripes, a musician’s head is concealed behind the brassy orifice of a tuba that swallows up his identity. But Frank achieved a far higher artistry in “Canal Street, New Orleans” (1955), an astonishingly textured tableau of humans passing in either direction before his all-seeing lens.

These two men may have been journalists among photographers, but they were undoubtedly photographers first and foremost. For Fluxus artists such as George Maciunas and Yoko Ono, not to mention Josef Beuys, photography was nothing more than an instrument to document and immortalize their fleeting Dadaist antics. And so we see images at the Bronx Museum, of Beuys sweeping the streets of Dusseldorf while Maciunas appears in a rain-soaked view of Canal Street (the one in Manhattan, this time), where you can just make out the Lithuanian-born artist climbing and descending a fire escape.

Other examples of performance art in the show include an early work from 1978-79, “Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” by David Wojnarowicz. He has depicted himself walking around a seedy, pre-Disney Times Square, his face concealed behind a cutout mask consisting of a photograph of Arthur Rimbaud. Meanwhile, David Hammons is represented by video stills of a performance piece in which he kicks a can down a city street.


A third component of the Bronx Museum’s exhibition takes the detritus of the city street and attempts to turn it into abstract art. Jacques de la Villeglé has achieved stunning and colorful results with his full-frontal depictions of exterior walls of buildings that have been plastered with years of posters whose layers have been variously ripped away. The short-lived Gordon Matta-Clark achieves a similar effect by framing a gray concrete wall covered in graffiti.

One of the most forceful works in the show is also one of the most recent, Zoe Leonard’s “Bubblegum (No. 5),” from 2003. It is nothing more than the image of a square meter or so of a New York sidewalk, arrayed with aged traces of gum. At one level, of course, the subject is not only base and abject, but downright disgusting. And the effect is that — at first glance — the eye that is familiar with the language and tactics of recent high art reads this textured surface as an expensive example of abstract painting, the sort that you might find not on the street, but far above it, hanging in a Park Avenue apartment.

Until January 25 (1040 Grand Concourse # 2 at 165th Street, 718-681-6000).

The New York Sun

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