PRINT December 2002

Vince Aletti


1 “Winogrand 1964” (International Center of Photography, New York) Working in the shadows of Robert Frank and the Kennedy assassination, Garry Winogrand spent the better part of the summer and early fall of 1964 driving cross-country, photographing the Americans. He printed only a fraction of the twenty thousand pictures he shot and showed very few of those in his lifetime. Choosing from the one thousand black-and-white images the photographer himself had culled as well as a largely unedited and never-before-exhibited archive of color slides taken on the same road trip, curator Trudy Wilner Stack put together a show of some two hundred photographs that both eclipsed and illuminated Winogrand’s previous bodies of work. Perhaps because he was determined to shake off a deep-seated pessimism about the state of the American soul, Winogrand was unusually alert to every passing flash of sweet humanity. Though the resulting photos aren’t exactly optimistic, their anxious, fragile hopefulness couldn’t be more timely.

2 Gerhard Richter (Museum of Modern Art, New York) Richter is hardly the only contemporary artist to work from photographs, but, on the evidence of this knockout painting retrospective, he’s the only one who seems to understand their power. Richter pins down a photo’s sense of impermanence, of a moment both preserved and lost. And he doesn’t just translate blur, grain, overexposure, and soft focus from one medium to the other—he recognizes beauty, terror, and a weird sort of grace in both.

3 Hans-Peter Feldmann (Centre National de la Photographie, Paris) I didn’t really get Feldmann until I saw this retrospective and immediately fell in love. Like Richter, this savvy trickster plunders our collective image bank and taunts us with its goofy, pathetic contents. Working with a dizzying range of pop detritus—postcards, snapshots, news photos, pages torn from magazines—Feldmann channels Duchamp, Warhol, and Rauschenberg, but is at once funnier than any of them and even more rigorously artless. Like any good comedian, he knows that some of the best jokes are pointed and painful.

4 Richard Avedon (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) Avedon’s portraits have had to compete for attention with the relentless inventiveness of his fashion work, but the Met’s impeccably installed retrospective allowed for no distractions. From the beginning, Avedon established a middle ground between stylization and naturalism and learned to spark encounters of such indelible intensity that the sitter’s fame was almost beside the point. Though the results are often harsh, they’re never pitiless; even when he zeroes in on their fatuousness or discomfort, Avedon lets his subjects burn incandescently bright.

5 Roger Ballen (Gagosian Gallery, New York) Ballen’s black-and-white photographs of poor South Africans in their grimy rooms are outrageously theatrical—mocking the matter-of-fact documentary mode they spring from—but no less alarming for their comic flair. The recipe: a heaping cup of Walker Evans, a sprig of Diane Arbus, some finely ground Joel-Peter Witkin, a liberal dash of coarse humor. For his part, Ballen cites Beckett and thinks of his subjects as a theater-of-the-absurd rep company, always ready for a new performance.

6 Jeff Wall (Marian Goodman Gallery, New York) For all his obsessive image manipulation, Wall manages to keep it (super)real. His latest investigations of urban scruffiness understate their narrative fictions or dispense with them altogether, leaving us with stage sets whose emptiness is all the more highly charged. A flooded suitcase, some bundled branches, and a street-corner boulder are mute markers on the road to nowhere.

7 Brice Marden (Matthew Marks Gallery, New York) My memory of Marden’s new paintings, with their earthy Indian colors and contained exuberance, is sublimely sensual, as if I’d tasted them or swam through their depths. But that memory has an ideal prompt: Bill Jacobson’s announcement photo, pinned to my wall, of a canvas in Marden’s studio captures the work’s rich physicality with a clarity, sympathy, and reserve all its own.

8 Steven Klein (at your newsstand) Klein, long one of fashion photography’s favorite also-rans, was just about unbeatable in 2002, with audaciously out-there spreads in Dutch, L’Uomo Vogue, Pop, W, and The Face, which turned his panoramic tableaux of Larry Clark and posse into the magazine cover of the year. Working on instinct and raw nerve, Klein is never merely provocative. He somehow manages to strike a balance between excess and restraint, and in his hands, restraint isn’t cool; it’s hot.

9 Matthias Vriens (The Project, New York) Vriens, the photographer most responsible for shooting Dutch into the forefront of the periodical avant-garde, filled forty-six pages of the magazine’s final issue with the year’s cleverest, sexiest men’s fashion shots, although actual clothes were little in evidence. Then he topped that by going hard-core in Harlem with enormous photos of nude black and Latin men whose penetrating gazes were almost as riveting as their full-on erections. No Mapplethorpian controversy ensued, but Vriens made his point: When you’ve got it, flaunt it.

10 Le Dernier Portrait (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) Death masks and deathbed portraits of people both famous and anonymous might excite a certain morbid fascination one by one, but gathered for this haunting show of memorial art they inspired something like wonder. Whether the subject was Robespierre, Proust, Piaf, or an unnamed newborn, the gravity of the work was both poignant and stimulating. You left the hushed galleries oddly refreshed, hungry for life.

Vince Aletti is art editor and photography critic for the Village Voice. Male, a book of photographs from his collection, is forthcoming from Scalo/D.A.P. in 2004.