New York

Babette Mangolte

BROADWAY 1602 | Uptown

For more than three decades filmmaker Babette Mangolte has documented, in still and moving images, the performances of artists and dancers, from her early chronicling of the work of Yvonne Rainer to her recording of Marina Abramović’s Seven Easy Pieces at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2005. Considering that she is esteemed as a director of splintered, nonnarrative, highly subjective experimental films and of equally exploratory documentaries (about Robert Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket, for example), it is a wonder that this was Mangolte’s first US solo exhibition. Forty-five black-and-white photographs, most from the mid to late ’70s, inhabited a room, a hallway, and an office in this apartment gallery.

Yvonne Rainer, Cape Cod 1972, one of the earliest images in the show, is a head shot of the choreographer facing away from the camera. Rainer’s dark bob sways in a slight breeze, wisps of cloud scud across the sky, and a small patch of distant land is discernible over her right shoulder. It is a striking image that refuses to conform to the conventions of portraiture. The photograph was commissioned by the editors of Avalanche magazine, a bible of postminimalism and Conceptual art, for a cover story on the dancer, yet for reasons left unexplained was never used—an exclusion that resonates with Mangolte’s own marginalization in the canon of 1970s art. Hung nearby was a production still, titled Roof, 1974, from Mangolte’s film What Maisie Knew (1975) that reprises the pose. Here, Rainer stands, again facing away from the viewer, on a rooftop alongside seven other figures, who outline a rectangle as they face each other.

These are two among several photographs populated by legends of the downtown scene, from Philip Glass to Trisha Brown, Simone Forti to Robert Whitman. Richard Serra, crowned by an eccentric shock of hair, stares down the lens. Many images show bodies in motion across the clearing made by an audience hunkered on the floor; all the shots are gracefully composed and highly evocative of their milieus. Mangolte, whose photographs have often been included in museum surveys of performance art and dance, is here shown once again to have played a major role in determining how we visualize the period, her modest reputation as an artist in her own right notwithstanding.

The exhibition also included “Composite Buildings,” 1978, a series of collages using multiple photographs depicting the same building or streetscape. These works, exhibited individually or in small groups, evidence Mangolte’s preoccupation with the artistic concerns prevalent in the late ’70s: seriality, logical permutation, documentary candor, the infrastructure of the urban environment, even metatextual commentary, as in a picture of “Composite Buildings” photographs scattered on the artist’s P.S. 1 studio floor. By seamlessly hinging two prints of a photo of one loft building; by running side by side minutely varied double portraits of the Western Union Building’s facade, sometimes creating an urban herringbone pattern; and by adjusting slightly the frame of her picture of some Canal Street buildings, Mangolte cleverly confuses positive and negative space, undermines the stolidity of the squat brick structures, and generally presents as strange that which is familiar.

As such, the appeal of these images is great, even without taking into consideration the nostalgia induced by looking at buildings that are no longer extant in a newly moneyed Tribeca. This cannily staged exhibition, presenting first a context in which to place the artist, then an introductory taste of her work, whetted the appetite for further material from this longtime downtown denizen.

Brian Sholis