PRINT December 2016

Vince Aletti

Diane Arbus, Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun, N.Y.C. 1957, gelatin silver print, 8 1/2 × 5". © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

1 DIANE ARBUS (MET BREUER, NEW YORK; CURATED BY JEFF ROSENHEIM) This trove of more than one hundred small, often grainy photographs fills in a key gap in Arbus’s early history. Made between 1956 and 1962, the year she switched from 35-mm cameras to a more substantial Rolleiflex and the black-banded square image that became her signature, these pictures prove that Arbus found her subject long before she settled on a format. And it wasn’t just freaks and outsiders, it was the whole crazy world: rowdy teens, society ladies, a boy with a toy gun, a scrap of newspaper on the sidewalk. Rosenheim’s innovative exhibition design hung every photograph on an individual freestanding panel, where even the least of Arbus’s works effortlessly held its own, and the best stopped you dead.

2 BRUCE CONNER (MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK; CURATED BY STUART COMER, LAURA HOPTMAN, RUDOLF FRIELING, AND GARY GARRELS, WITH RACHEL FEDERMAN) I can’t say I saw everything in Conner’s astonishing retrospective. I always OD’d at some point, usually while peering into one of his meticulously constructed cut-and-paste collages or swooning over the even more intricate Rorschach inkblot drawings. It was all too much—but I kept going back for more. The show hit a high point immediately with a series of alarming witch’s-brew assemblages, barely held together behind torn stockings. But Conner, who clearly blissed out more than once, never let up, ricocheting between the many media (film, photography, drawing, construction) that the exhibition allowed to bleed into one another. The result was overwhelming and deserves to be on permanent display.

Co-organized with the San Francisco Museum of Art, where it is on view through January 22, 2017.

3 LÁSZLÓ MOHOLY-NAGY (SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM, NEW YORK; CURATED BY KAROLE P. B. VAIL) Moholy-Nagy believed that art had the power to transform society, and he was relentless in his pursuit of that goal, producing a remarkable number of paintings, photographs, constructions, posters, publications, and even ad campaigns that are both uniquely of their time and eternally avant-garde. I had previously seen only a fraction of this work, so “Future Present” was a knockout and a revelation, all the more so because the Guggenheim’s sweeping ramps might have been designed for it. Moholy’s spare, elegant abstractions were happily at home in Frank Lloyd Wright’s whitewashed bays, and I was ready to move in, too.

Co-organized with the Art Institute of Chicago, where it is on view through January 3, 2017, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

4 DANNY LYON (WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK; CURATED BY JULIAN COX) Although Lyon comes out of a tradition of “concerned” photography that includes Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, he has always made his own path: joining civil rights demonstrations in the South, riding with a Chicago motorcycle gang, talking his way into Texas prisons. He’s been an activist and an adventurer, and this terrific exhibition tracked him from Mississippi to Colombia to China, with stops along the way for glimpses of friends and family including Robert Frank and Mark di Suvero. At a time when personal photojournalism has been pushed to the margins, Lyon’s work has never looked more relevant.

Co-organized with the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, where it is on view through April 30, 2017.

5 “JAMES BALDWIN/JIM BROWN AND THE CHILDREN” (ARTIST’S INSTITUTE, NEW YORK; CURATED BY HILTON ALS) “Part of what’s great about making things,” Als writes in the catalogue for this exhibition, “is that you live for a time in a world of intense associations.” Such associations sparked his show, the centerpiece of three consecutive sprawling, brilliantly idiosyncratic visual essays on themes of difference, desire, death, and fame, all curated by Als at this venue. Photographs by Carl Van Vechten, James Van Der Zee, Richard Avedon, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya were installed alongside dental molds, photo-booth strips, video monitors, and a huge blow-up of Jim Brown naked—a sequence so dense with allusions that it looped back on itself several times and followed you out the gallery door.

Henri Gervex, Rolla, 1878, oil on canvas, 68 7/8 × 86 5/8".

6 LOUIS DRAPER (STEVEN KASHER GALLERY, NEW YORK) Draper is here in part as a representative of New York’s Kamoinge Workshop, the collective of African American photographers he helped found in 1963; Roy DeCarava was the group’s first director. A book and an East Village group show focused timely new attention on Kamoinge this year, but Draper’s expansive, engaging retrospective was the most effective argument for the workshop’s continuing importance. Working in black-and-white, usually on the streets of Harlem, the photographer sized up his follow citizens with an incisiveness that allowed for sympathy but was not clouded by it. He was even better with streetscapes and interiors, their missing inhabitants hauntingly present. Gathering years of work, the show made Draper one of the year’s most surprising and substantial rediscoveries.

7 SPLENDEURS ET MISÈRES: IMAGES DE LA PROSTITUTION, 1850–1910” (MUSÉE D’ORSAY, PARIS; CURATED BY MARIE ROBERT, ISOLDE PLUDERMACHER, RICHARD THOMSON, AND NIENKE BAKKER) It comes as no surprise that Degas, Manet, van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec painted prostitutes, but this sly, ravishing show suggests that women of easy virtue were such popular subjects at the turn of the century that the art world had room for little else. Professionals and amateurs, including shopgirls, waitresses, and the youngest members of the corps de ballet, gave themselves away with an indiscreet smile or a disarmingly direct stare. The show was packed with brothel scenes and portraits of stylish courtesans, but any woman making eye contact with an artist seems to have been suspect as well and, consequently, is rounded up here. Apparently, these were the only truly modern women around.

Co-organized with the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

8 ANTONIO LOPEZ (MUSEO DEL BARRIO, NEW YORK; CURATED BY ROCÍO ARANDA-ALVARADO AND AMELIA MALAGAMBA-ANSÓTEGUI) Lopez didn’t just reenergize the nearly obsolete practice of fashion illustration in the 1970s and ’80s—his dashing, fluid line projected it into the future. In a big, overstuffed show of drawings, paintings, Polaroids, and ephemera, that future—home to a culture that celebrates black, brown, and queer expression, whether coming from the runway model or the graffiti artist—is now. And its arrival is all the more vivid for its we-are-the-world idealism. A great fashion figure defines and transcends his time; Lopez did so with dazzling spirit, audacity, and wit.

9 “THE THRILL OF THE CHASE: THE WAGSTAFF COLLECTION OF PHOTOGRAPHS” (GETTY MUSEUM, LOS ANGELES; CURATED BY PAUL MARTINEAU) The Robert Mapplethorpe shows at the Getty and LACMA were excellent, if predictable; this sidebar show of work from the collection of the artist’s mentor, Sam Wagstaff, was what stuck in my mind. Wagstaff was one of the great collectors, open-minded, driven, and adventurous—always alert to an extraordinary image, whether its maker was celebrated or anonymous. His Steichen, Sander, Horst, and de Meyer prints surely influenced Mapplethorpe’s classic modernist bent. But the vernacular oddities—the 1886 portrait of a horse thief, the sepia-toned panorama of a circus tent—were what gave the show its singular depth and soul.

10 “WALLACE BERMAN: AMERICAN ALEPH” (KOHN GALLERY, LOS ANGELES; CURATED BY CLAUDIA BOHN-SPECTOR AND SAM MELLON) An artist I’d always associated with the Left Coast, post-Beat avant-garde, Berman hooked me with his verifax grids of hands gripping tiny transistor radios, their speaker panels replaced with appropriated images of a snake, a gun, a cross, an astronaut, a Buddha, or Janis Joplin. There was something at once antic and anxious about these graphics, which wallpapered the late 1960s and had lost none of their subversive kick in this compact retrospective. But Berman’s other work—including collages, constructions, and combines as resonant as Rauschenberg’s—was even more jolting. The ideal chaser to Conner’s heady MoMA cocktail.

Vince Aletti, a regular contributor to the New Yorker, Photograph, and Aperture, is currently writing a book on photography in fashion magazines for Phaidon.