previews

  • Danny Lyon, View west from a Washington Street rooftop, 1967, black-and-white photograph, 9 x 11 1/2". From the series “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan,” 1966–67.

    Danny Lyon, View west from a Washington Street rooftop, 1967, black-and-white photograph, 9 x 11 1/2". From the series “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan,” 1966–67.

    Mixed Use, Manhattan: Photography and Related Practices, 1970s to the Present

    Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
    Calle de Santa Isabel, 52
    June 9–September 27, 2010

    Curated by Lynne Cooke and Douglas Crimp

    “Mixed Use, Manhattan” begins with “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan”—not the city’s most infamous devastation, the fall of the World Trade Center towers in September 2001, but the vast demolition that made the twin towers possible. “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan” is the title of a series of 1966–67 photographs by Danny Lyon, taken as he raced to record the hundreds of condemned buildings being torn down in Washington Market and along West Street before they vanished. If September 11 was—or quickly became—a world historical event, the wholesale destruction of those same blocks a quarter century earlier happened far more locally. Of course, it was the view from the world as opposed to the street that had everything to do with why and how the Trade Center towers came down. Yet the worldly view was built into the towers themselves. Describing the vista from the 110th floor, with its sweep of the whole island, Michel de Certeau wondered, “[W]hat is the source of this pleasure of ‘seeing the whole,’ of looking down on, totalizing the most immoderate of human texts”? His answer: “To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp. . . . It is the analogue of the facsimile produced . . . by the space planner urbanist, city planner or cartographer.” The aerial vantage was not just a by-product of city planning—and of the sanctioned destruction of blocks of Lower Manhattan in the name of urban renewal—it was the rationalizing view the planners took to the city and those blocks from the outset.

    “Mixed use” is a developer’s term; it describes projects that combine residential and commercial spaces, like Battery Park City, built on fill from the World Trade Center excavation. But it is clear that in Cooke and Crimp’s title, the term means something else: the tactical appropriation by artists and others of the abandoned piers, neglected tenements, and industrial buildings that were slated for obliteration by those master plans of the 1960s but not leveled until the recession and New York’s near bankruptcy in the 1970s had passed. These interim, unsanctioned, and unpatrolled spaces—enlarged, lived versions of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates—became sites for a variety of art practices that took place outside the gallery but were not in any conventional sense public art, either: rooftop and vacant-lot performances by Lucinda Childs and Trisha Brown, filmed and photographed by Babette Mangolte in the early ’70s, or the twenty-seven artist projects—performances, temporary sculptures, or enacted instructions by artists from Vito Acconci and John Baldessari to Richard Serra and Lawrence Weiner—documented (and at times created) by photographers Harry Shunk and Janos Kender for Willoughby Sharp’s Projects: Pier 18, 1971.

    “Photography and Related Practices” is part of the exhibition’s subtitle, and Cooke and Crimp will pose photography as central not only to artists’ appropriation of city spaces but to activities that continue beyond and beside art into the “practice of everyday life,” to cite Certeau again. “Their story begins on ground level,” the philosopher says of the pedestrians he sets against the planners’ totalizing, disembodied view. But he could be talking about the exhibition’s featured photographers, too, as their “bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text.’” The three photographic series that form the exhibition’s core— Peter Hujar’s nighttime photographs of the West Side from Fourteenth Street south to Wall Street, Alvin Baltrop’s Hudson River pier photographs, and David Wojnarowicz’s “Rimbaud in New York” series—date from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, and they knit together photography, walking, and sexuality. Taken at night or in dangerous or prohibited spaces, the pictures are set, in Certeau’s words, “below the thresholds at which visibility begins.” Crimp refers to Hujar’s works as cruising photographs, a geography of gay male desire in the mid-’70s; Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud project, too, is a kind of affective mapping, using Rimbaud, as the artist said, “as a device to confront my own desires, experiences, biography, and to try and touch on those elusive ‘sites of attraction.’”

    To walk in the city is at once to move along public axes and to experience private observations and encounters. It is this juxtaposition that links the works in this show across three decades, from Hujar’s cruises and Roy Colmer’s Doors, N.Y.C.: Two Intersections of 1975–76 to Stefan Brecht’s “8th Avenue” of 1985 and Zoe Leonard’s “Bubblegum” series of 2002–2003. The latter two projects both perform a kind of literal street photography, presenting images of offhand individual traces left on the sidewalks they traverse. Looking down, not from on high but from the body below, is also recorded in Gabriel Orozco’s photograph Island Within an Island, 1993, in which a handmade model of Manhattan sits on the street in the Trade Center’s shadow. The economic, social, and sexual geographies of Manhattan are much different now than they were in 1970. But “Mixed Use” insists on the continuing aesthetic possibilities of the city, and of New York, in particular, and its openness to subjective transformation. It is a shame—and it may say something about the view from museums uptown—that the show is not traveling from Madrid to New York.