Critics’ Picks

Danny Lyon, Willie, 1985, gelatin silver print from film stills, 14 x 15''.

Danny Lyon, Willie, 1985, gelatin silver print from film stills, 14 x 15''.

New York

Danny Lyon

Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
June 17–September 25, 2016

Moving deftly through all the major stages of Danny Lyon’s work to date, “Message to the Future” touches on police brutality, civil rights, sexual ambiguity, wayward masculinity, violence heaped upon immigrants and the working class, and the strange, shifting sands of democracy in the United States at a time of near-frantic discontent. It is, in other words, timely and prescient in ways that no one involved probably imagined it would be in the summer of 2016.

The artist’s emotional range here is vast and volatile: In one image, Stokely Carmichael smolders in anger. In another, James Baldwin turns up a defiantly proud nose. In another still, National Guardsmen nearly rip the photographer Clifford Vaughn to pieces. In Lyon’s longest, most trenchant film, Willie (1985), a broken man plops down on the ground in his underwear to sing old country gospels with the saddest grain of worry in his voice.

Lyon has never really been canonized because he never really played by the rules. He got too close to his subjects and strayed too far from home. He was indifferent to Susan Sontag and detested the magazine Life. Early on, Lyon named himself an heir to Walker Evans and Robert Frank. He emulated James Agee and internalized Jean Genet. “There is a job to be done and that is to continue the work of Evans and Frank in a changing and beautiful country,” Lyon wrote in 1964, at the height of an election season as alarming as our own. This exhibition gives viewers more than 175 ways to work through it—via prints, films, and collages set against a contemplative ground—and the resolve to do better.