As the summer season draws to a close, dragging in the heat, dragging down the sun a few minutes earlier, it seems that the art market is also dragging. All’s certainly quiet on the Western Front. Aside from a few rumbling U-Hauls making trips to and from gargantuan storage facilities, or the intermittent shuffle of a runner’s feet, the streets of Chelsea are silent. The cobblestones pave what seems a deserted movie set; hot breeze whips fallen fliers against the frosted sea-green doors of the great galleries. It is a veritable ghost town waiting for life to return in September.
Despite this ghostliness, a modest handful of shows linger - offerings for the latest of late-August tourists. Sexy and the City is one of these, a group show put on by Yossi Milo in cooperation with a number of other galleries which specialize in photography, as part of the citywide exhibition NEW YORK PHOTOGRAPHS. Sexy in the City features some works well-known to even the least photography-familiar of us, including work by Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand as well as the iconic V-J Day at Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt. The works span the decades from the 1940s to the present. Despite its self-proclaimed description as presenting the “scandalous side of New York’s people and places,” this show does not shock or scandalize but it does present a very comfortable—a very safe, I posit—collection of work.
There are some great images to be found here: portraits of people who love, such as Arbus’ Young Couple on a Bench, N.Y.C., or Leon Levinstein’s Untitled (couple under graffiti); images of the cosmopolitan and the glamorous (New York Nights, Studio 54); the underground, the sub-cultural (Joey at the Love Ball, NYC). There is the quintessential New York City in its various stages of development and of social and sexual liberation. Most interesting, though, are the few representations of the un-seen private moments that take place in between those that overtly define us in relation to the metropolis we inhabit. These are quiet images: a young woman in her undergarments spotted through her dirty bathroom window as she leans elegantly, artlessly forward; a lone figure in private contemplation framed by the arch of a doorway, silhouetted against the early evening sky and stretches of city. Taken together, these black and white photographs of entwined figures, of kisses shared, of flamboyant transvestites drawing stares, of public copulation, of mobs, of crowds, of naps in the park, constitute an overall impression of city life that feels frank and, somehow, familiar.
Part of what makes such an unassuming exhibition as Sexy and the City worthwhile, even though it is abundantly clear that little if anything is at stake, lies in the show's installation; its form mirrors its content. The majority of images are crammed together frenetically on one small gallery wall. There appears to be no identifiable organizational strategy. These photographs represent the flamboyant and the modest, the public and the private, the open and the closed; they depict moments which are both disparate and fluid, related to one another only insofar as they co-exist in the spaces we all occupy. This installation technique works - it mirrors city life.
Each photograph is vested with a human presence, even those that seem devoid of it at first glance; André Kertész’s Woman on Fire Escape, for example, strikes the viewer as an unpopulated architectural landscape until he spots two elegant calves jutting out from an open window. Such “humanizing” of each scene allows us as viewers to insert ourselves into the frame, to project our own experiences and perspectives onto and into what we see, rendering the images somehow more personal—even though they aren’t—and therefore relatable.
All but two of the photographs included in the exhibition are displayed jammed together with hardly a seam between them; the two outliers, however, each get their own wall. Perhaps this is simply a function of their size (they are the largest photographs in the show), but I see their physical isolation as an effective curatorial decision. Acting as bookends of sorts, they frame the world expressed and constituted moment to moment by the sea of photographs on the other wall. The two large images provide opposing extremes on the city-living spectrum. The first presents a stage. Most of the frame is dark; the only light issues from a spotlight, and illuminates the lone figure of a burlesque performer in pink-sequined bodice and feather headdress. She is posed provocatively, dramatically, and her campy, theatrical shadow looms large behind her, cast against a white brick wall that dissolves quickly into black. This image seems to me to represent the overtly, aggressively public, the “show”; I view it as a metaphor for the performance we all put on daily, New York City life our stage.
Its antipode is expressed by the second solitary photograph: an intimate close-up of a woman’s profile, taken from inside a car. Her eyes are shut, her head thrown back against the seat which supports her long neck. Her cheeks are slack, her lids and under-eyes are dark and reddened. Behind her face, out the car window, we can discern iconic figures of the city: lampposts, passers-by, buildings. But just barely—they are blurred into an impressionistic background. This is a portrait of the inside life. Here, the private is brought aggressively into focus while the public—the “performance” that our exhausting city often demands of us—retreats into the distance, melting into a few streaks of color.
(Image: Merry Alpern, Dirty Windows, #23 (1994), Silver Gelatin Print, 18 by 12 inches, edition of 30. Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York.)