PRINT December 2015

Vince Aletti

Willi Ruge, Sekunden vor der Landung Sekunden vor der Landung (Seconds Before Landing Seconds Before Landing), 1931, gelatin silver print, 8 1/8 × 5 5/8". From the series “Ich fotografiere mich beim Absturz mit dem Fallschirm” (I Photograph Myself During a Parachute Jump), 1931. From “Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909–1949.”

1 “MODERN PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE THOMAS WALTHER COLLECTION, 1909–1949” (MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK; CURATED BY QUENTIN BAJAC AND SARAH HERMANSON MEISTER) It takes a sophisticated, headstrong collector—an eccentric connoisseur—to save a show of twentieth-century avant-garde photography from predictability. In the collection that he has built over almost half a century, Walther has not avoided the obvious icons; László Moholy-Nagy, André Kertész, Karl Blossfeldt, and Florence Henri were here, but they were hung alongside equally inventive and audacious work by a host of photographers who never made the pantheon. The result was a show that crackled with the same sense of discovery and excitement the work must have inspired when it was first seen.

2 WOLFGANG TILLMANS (DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK) Tillmans has always been an installation artist, designing his exhibitions both to inhabit and to redefine the space he’s given. For “PCR,” his first show with Zwirner, he created a space that felt thoroughly lived in, at once private and public, much like the work itself. At a time when so many photographers have turned their backs on the world, Tillmans is wide-open to it. In his best New York show yet, he was a photojournalist, a portraitist, a master of the still life, a conceptualist, and, above all, a sensualist. His huge close-up picture of a hairy ass and balls is a declaration, a celebration, a coup.

3 CHRIS OFILI (NEW MUSEUM, NEW YORK; CURATED BY MASSIMILIANO GIONI AND GARY CARRION-MURAYARI WITH MARGOT NORTON) Beautifully installed, brilliantly conceived, Ofili’s midcareer survey was a model of excess and restraint. The artist’s wit and theatricality, his densely decorated surfaces, the affection and bite of his caricatures, his pointed Afrocentricity—everything came together in a perfectly balanced show. Ofili isn’t afraid to be an entertainer, to dazzle and delight, but his subtlety is just as seductive, as he proved with a dimly lit floor of big, richly colored canvases that nearly disappeared into tropical darkness. Standing in that room, waiting for my eyes to adjust, was one of the year’s most transporting and memorable experiences.

4 TOM OF FINLAND (ARTISTS SPACE, NEW YORK) The year’s sexiest show was also one of its smartest. In the gallery’s main space, Tom’s meticulously refined drawings—as elegant as they are erotic—were installed in a series of parallel corridors, offering viewers a series of intimate encounters with the works and engendering an excitement not unlike that of cruising. Even when they’re not designed as storyboard sequences, his pictures have a terrific narrative compression—an energy straining for the inevitable climax. His pumped-up supermen are ready for anything, often in full view of voyeurs who act as stand-ins for an avid audience. At the satellite gallery on Walker Street, the annex show of densely collaged scrapbook pages—faces, physiques, fetish wear—was a fascinating glimpse into Tom’s private library of sources and inspirations.

5 “BASQUIAT: THE UNKNOWN NOTEBOOKS” (BROOKLYN MUSEUM, NEW YORK; CURATED BY DIETER BUCHHART WITH TRICIA LAUGHLIN BLOOM) Fragments of narrative crop up here and there in Basquiat’s notebooks, but he wasn’t a storyteller or a poet. He treated words and phrases like splinters that got under his skin—random shards of history, lyrics, headlines, and conversation that would later turn up in the paintings and drawings that punctuate the show. Post-SAMO©, he wasn’t sending a message; he wasn’t even writing—he was conjuring, casting a spell. His composition books contain more blank space than text, but here even empty pages read like drawings.

Hedi Slimane, Pete Doherty, The Libertines, London, 2004, gelatin silver print, 22 1/4 × 18 1/4".

6 HEDI SLIMANE (FONDATION PIERRE BERGÉ—YVES SAINT LAURENT, PARIS) Long before he became the creative director of Saint Laurent, Slimane was a music fan and a regular on the rock circuit, and his photographs of musicians and their audiences are some of that scene’s most vivid and knowing documents. His show “Sonic” included portraits of Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, and Keith Richards alongside young performers, some so new they’re still virtually unknown—all in inky black-and-white, cool and classic. The show heated up in an alcove where projected photographs of bands and fans flashed by on opposite walls, immersing viewers in Slimane’s hectic version of a music festival.

7 SAINT LAURENT (BERTRAND BONELLO) I’m not sure why this film continues to haunt me, but it might have something to do with the work’s episodic, dreamlike quality, and the sense of experiencing a life from within and without. Gaspard Ulliel is utterly convincing in the title role—driven, reckless, fastidious, fucked-up—and the settings, from the discos to the ateliers, always feel spot-on. In between more and more desperate debauches, Yves works furiously, and Bonello never loses track of the designer’s all-consuming dedication to art and commerce. His film peaks in a triumphant runway show—a thrilling split-frame sequence that sums up Saint Laurent’s mad genius.

8 THE WEEKND, BEAUTY BEHIND THE MADNESS (XO/REPUBLIC RECORDS) Smokey Robinson saw me through my late adolescence, but the voices I listened to from then on were mostly women’s: Aretha Franklin, Mary Wells, Diana Ross, Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Mary J. Blige. This year, though, I’ve been spending time with soulful, conflicted guys again: Drake, Miguel, Shamir, and especially the Weeknd, the stage name of Canadian singer-songwriter Abel Tesfaye, whose plaintive, insinuating voice is like quicksand for me. Behind the bottomless darkness of his lyrics there’s real heat and bristling intelligence. Singing, “When I’m fucked-up, that’s the real me,” he sounds both cold- and brokenhearted.

9 “FATAL ATTRACTION: PIOTR UKLAŃSKI SELECTS FROM THE MET COLLECTION” (METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK) Organized as a sidebar to a show of his own photography, Uklański’s salon-style hanging of painting, photography, and objects from the museum’s collection proved much more engaging than the exhibition it was meant to complement. His theme was Eros and Thanatos, fleshed out with work that hadn’t been out of the vaults in years, including a startlingly lovely little watercolor-on-ivory study of a woman’s breasts from 1828, a Larry Clark gang bang, a Weegee corpse, and Modigliani’s death mask. Uklański’s choices were perverse and unsettling—an unexpected peek into the museum’s heart of darkness.

10 PAUL STRAND (PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART; CURATED BY PETER BARBERIE WITH AMANDA BOCK) This definitive retrospective of the key American modernist rounds up all the photographs that secured his place in the history of the medium, then digs much deeper. Wall Street, New York, 1915, with its monumental facade and faceless workers, is an anomaly in a career full of nature studies, probing portraits, architectural details, and travel stories. Strand may be hopelessly old-school, but he’s rock solid; in the extraordinary vintage prints gathered here, he nails it, picture after picture.

Co-organized with the Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid.

Vince Aletti reviews photography exhibitions for the New Yorker and photography books for Photograph magazine. He contributes regularly to Aperture, W, and Document. Untitled Anonymous, a book featuring found photographs from his collection of male images, was published in September by Andrew Roth’s PPP Editions.