New York

“NY NY: City of Ambition”

Whitney Museum of American Art

Someone forgot to tell the curators that this exhibition’s subject was twentieth-century New York, not Belle Époque Paris, and that it was to be installed at the Whitney Museum, not the New York Historical Society. The city of ambition never looked so cute. Ultimately, I’m not sure what’s more embarrassing: “NY NY: City of Ambition” or the critics who ooohed and aaahed over its daring juxtaposition of painting and photography. For me, that juxtaposition was the only redeeming aspect—not for the works themselves but for raising the important question of which cultural medium is privileged to represent the city at a given moment. As I passed through the decades depicted in “NY NY” the paintings began to look sicker and sicker next to the photographs—less and less ambitious in their painterly forms and more and more sentimental in their effect. Consider George C. Ault’s Hudson Street, 1932, a folksy painting that did little more than represent its subject, placed adjacent to three miniature, close-cropped Walker Evans photographs (New York City (Sign), Architectural Study with Crane, and Construction of Building [all 1928–29]), which drained the city’s infrastructure of its referents, pushing it toward formal abstraction. (The catalogue, meanwhile, divides the exhibition thematically rather than by decade. Drawings and paintings are the preferred medium in the section entitled “Life in the Metropolis” while photographs dominate “Reaching for the Sky.” As a result, the exhibition’s messy, but revealing juxtapositions were lost.)

In an effort to provide “context” for each of the seven decades presented in this show’s chronological sweep, unforgivably vague quotations stenciled on the walls informed visitors that artists could no longer afford Greenwich Village in the ’30s, while canonic poems like Langston Hughes’ “The Heart of Harlem” captured that neighborhood at its most optimistic, though no other representations of Harlem as the national symbol and symptom of urban decline found their way onto the walls. Too busy celebrating the city of ambition, this show never gained a critical edge on why New York has sustained so many vague but powerful projections or how those fantasies have so often masked uneven and unequal social conditions.

Combine these shortcomings with the most mawkish photographs of Lou Stettner’s otherwise stunning Penn Station series from the late ’50s, the obligatory selection of New York school paintings, the bizarre decision to drape a gown (it should have been a cocktail dress) over a model of the Seagram Building, a row of potted trees simulating a park to give visitors a breather between the ’30s and ’40s, and a roomful of Andy Warhols and Diane Arbuses to round out the ’60s and what you get is an exhibition that doesn’t even succeed at the level of urban mythology. This alternately lazy, alternately precious presentation style unfortunately detracted from the show’s smarter curatorial choices, such as the screening of short experimental films (notably Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manhatta, 1921; Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee’s In the Street, 1952; and William Klein’s Broadway by Light, 1958) on monitors placed throughout the exhibition space. A show that had the good sense to add anonymous police photographs of murder victims into its otherwise predictable canon (Walker Evans, William Klein, Berenice Abbot, etc.) lacked the foresight to include television. For those of us who spent the greater part of the ’70s viewing the city of ambition through Marlo Thomas’ wide eyes in reruns of That Girl, a cross-disciplinary show of urban representations in the postwar years that ignores television registers as a missed opportunity, nothing more.

Ernest Pascucci