PRINT December 2001

Vince Aletti


1 Philip-Lorca diCorcia (PaceWildenstein, New York) Because the subjects of diCorcia’s larger-than-life head shots are unaware that their pictures are being taken, they exist in a weird state of grace. Hyperalert urban radar temporarily down, these pedestrians look touchingly vulnerable: alone and adrift. The photographer “cringes” at the idea that his work is humanistic and insists he’s “not the slightest bit sympathetic” toward his subjects, yet he never thwarts our sympathy for them. DiCorcia’s people are ordinary citizens of the twenty-first century, and that’s exactly why they’re so compelling right now. After September 11, Manhattan was flooded with posters of the “missing,” and diCorcia’s anonymous New Yorkers suddenly had a host of companions whose ghostly presence grounded the show in grief and tenderness.

2 Andreas Gursky (Museum of Modern Art, New York) Even if you hate the all-but-irresistible temptation that Gursky’s massive scale offers to other ambitious photographers, you’ve got to admire what he accomplishes with it. Like Warhol, he has a nearly unerring ability to turn the dumb document—a picture of a river, a racetrack, a dirt road, an industrial carpet—into something momentous, even marvelous. Forget digital erasure and computer enhancement: This is your life. Get used to it.

3 The New Photojournalism/“Here Is New York” (116 Prince Street, New York) Admittedly, Gursky doesn’t look quite so authoritative since the attack on the World Trade Center, when photographers like Gilles Peress, James Nachtwey, and Susan Meiselas brought the devastation home. These artists, and photographers like Jeff Mermelstein and Joel Meyerowitz who straddle the gap between reportage and art, made pictures of this blasted new world that were among the most indelible images of the year. They looked shockingly beautiful in magazines but even more powerful displayed anonymously alongside pictures by countless other professionals and amateurs at this show in an empty SoHo storefront—a model of immediacy and accessibility.

4 Street Market (Venice Biennale) Venice was short on excitement this year, but at the end of the Arsenale’s mind-numbing video arcade, Barry McGee, Stephen Powers, and Todd James—whose East Coast-West Coast collaboration brings the postgraffiti aesthetic into sharper focus-threw a wild party they called Street Market. Their overturned trucks, grungy storefronts, and overlapping wall drawings made a big impression at Deitch Projects last fall, but in Venice ths sprawling installation felt like the real American Pavilion: funky, witty, audacious, and a little dangerous.

5 “Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972” (Tate Modem, London) This elegantly installed, smartly timed show was the place to be for funk of a more refined sort: Call it dirty minimalism or conceptualism with a human face. Arte povera’s back-to-basics use of raw materials—Alighiero Boetti’s wooden sticks, Luciano Fabro’s crumpled lead, Giuseppe Penone’s paraffin, Jannis Kounellis’s coal, wool, and rocks—was as playful as it was brainy, and the radical simplicity of many of the pieces seemed more avant-garde than ever. Against all odds, the work has retained its revolutionary zeal, its spirit of spontaneity, and its capacity to startle and delight. Bonus: one of the year’s best-designed catalogues.

6 David Goldblatt (AXA Gallery, New York) Perhaps because so little of his work has been seen in America, this South African photographer’s fifty-one-year retrospective had the power of revelation. At once evenhanded and complex, Goldblatt’s pictures touch on every aspect of South African society with remarkable clarity and understanding. His style is wonderfully flexible—recalling Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Leon Levinstein—but always tough, alert, and emotionally engaged; though he exposes the mundane brutality of the apartheid system, Goldblatt allows its architects and its victims the same righteous dignity.

7 Dave Heath (Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York) Originally published in 1965, Heath’s A Dialogue with Solitude as a counterculture Family of Man—a dark, despairing exploration of what the photographer couldn’t help but call “the human condition.” Although Heath’s unabashed earnestness dates the work, his pictures combine genuine anguish with a fierce yearning for connection. Greenberg’s show coincided with the book’s reissue, signaling a tentative revival of sincerity that by year’s end was more alarming than refreshing.

8 Irving Penn in Vogue In September, the eighty-four-year-old Penn put out a book of his still lifes, recapitulating sixty years of flawless disarray. But regular readers of Vogue didn’t need to be reminded of the master’s touch. In a year when fashion photography seemed to be at a virtual standstill, Penn’s pictures of food, clothes, and beauty products were touchstones of inventiveness and verve. October’s scattering of sweets, June’s meatlike makeup mask, July’s frighteningly bloodshot eye—when it comes to turning out a reliably brilliant magazine page, Penn has no competition.

9 “Dear Friends” (Internationd Center of Photography, New York) David Deitcher found a context for primarily nineteenth-century formal portraits of men holding hands, linking legs, or otherwise affectionately intertwined that went beyond the rigors of queer theory to get at something more subtle and elusive. The sheer number of examples might persuade us that homosexuality was once openly celebrated in America, but even if these photos commemorated nothing more than sweet camaraderie, their rescue from obscurity—and their lovely installation at ICP—was welcome.

10 Hiroshi Suglmoto (Sonnabend, New York) Like Gursky, Sugimoto makes scale work for him, and his virtually life-size images of wax-museum statuary force us to confront the uncanny eye to eye. The Guggenheim SoHo’s installation was deadening, but at Sonnabend the work came to life, its layers of illusion alternately seductive and repellent, ripe and rotten.

Vince Aletti, art editor and photography critic of the Village Voice, contributed fifty essays to The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century (Roth Horowitz/D.A.P., 2001).