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Peter Beard, Photographer: The Toast of Society Photographs the Death of a World

Photographs are the blown leaves of modern experience. They swirl around us, clamoring for attention whether they have anything to say or not, and the sheer mass of them can impair our ability to see even the best. Then, once in a while, some iridescent image will confront us and peel away our numbness like a burned skin.

So I was taking an uncustomary browse through Interview a while ago because the issue was entirely devoted to photography. The pictures were an odd jumble, like an exhibition at some peculiar museum run by, well, Andy Warhol. There was a brawny back by Man Ray, a pointless self-impersonation by Verushka, some crinoline-stiff fashion pictures by Horst, a curious view by David Hockney of a sternly symmetrical park, and then, lurking in the midst of all this mostly forgettable imagery, a two-page spread composed entirely of aerial photographs of dead elephants. They were ghastly and beautiful at the same time, and the mix was hypnotic. Unexpectedly coming upon them was the kind of thing that jogs phantoms loose in the mind. When I saw that the photographer was Peter Beard, it was a confirmation of sorts; for the past several years his intensely personal viewpoint has made me anticipate the emergence of a compelling and unique visionary. In fact, all that has stood in the way of this emergence is Peter Beard himself.

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Beard is a man of so many parts that the best is inevitably confused with the least. As he stands in front of you, there is the distinct feeling that he is on the verge of moving, shifting slightly out of focus every few seconds. One thing is certain: with his 15-year-old J. Press suit and striped shirts, with his refle­xive and fastidious manners, with his habit of laughing off his own most serious commitments the minute they hang too heavy in the air, he is quintessentially a True Wasp. After spending two decades in Africa, photographing animals, and blasting holes in more than a few (in the name of science), ruffling official feelings, getting himself thrown in jail for putting a poacher in his own trap, he has been called everything from jet-set adventurer to high-minded ideal­ist, and each description can fit easily into his accommodating, tessellated personality. Beard is a scion of privilege — he is the great grandson of J.J. Hill, who put together the Northern Pacific railroad; he went to Buckley School in Manhattan and to Yale (class of ’61), and though conjec­ture on the amount of money he has varies widely, it is safe to assume that he could scrape by without doing any of the things he does. Instead, he uses the advan­tage of financial independence to work under the almost weightless cloak of amateurism. (Make that a capital A.) Everything done with a certain brilliance, but nothing te­diously overdone. And no inescapable niches, please.

Despite telling evidence to the contrary, Beard insists he is not a photographer at all, and strictly speaking, he is no professional. “I think the camera is a wonderful machine, don’t you?” he asks, without trying to be ingenuous (I think). “And not to take photo­graphs in this century is crazy.” Beard might actually think that his work is just a casual record of various aspects of his life in Afri­ca, (as Lartigue viewed his work as merely a record of childhood’s se­cret garden) but at its best it is sim­ply too remarkable to be looked at that way by the rest of us. He has been largely ignored as a photographer because, for one thing, he refuses to take himself seriously, enough, which is a serious crime indeed, and for another he shows up frequently in society columns, which is worse. But attention ought to be paid to pictures that contain the kind of portents some raving prophet might bring back from his purgatory under the desert sun; to a man who can make a picture of two dead crocodiles belly up by a joyless lakeshore in such a way that his own disturbed and disturb­ing inklings of doom speak to the unwary observer in an awful whis­per; to someone so struck by the pre-echoes of Armageddon in the deaths of elephants that he will spend days in a wind-pitched light plane making a vast catalog of colossal remains, and then present a wall of those awesome and memorable cadavers to the some­what less awesome and memora­ble creatures of the New York beau monde at a party that rates a two-page spread in W. There is a temptation to see Beard, with his manic energy and charged conversation, as the Ancient Mariner, trying with a sort of helpless anguish to ride out all the famous kisses and hugs and get the wed­ding guests to listen.

In 1955, when most of his friends were presumably going to Bermu­da or even the Biltmore, Beard went to Africa. One suspects that he could have as easily gone to Bermuda, being the manner of man who overlays whatever discontent he may feel with a soothing and deceptive layer of adaptability, and perhaps if he had lived on the benign talc beaches off and on for 2o years, as he has in Kenya, he might even have found the reverberations of doom there. Beard had a close friendship with Karen Blixen (whose pen name is Isak Dinesen) during the last years of her life (she died in 1962). His new book, Longing for Dark­ness, is in many ways an echo of Dinesen’s Out of Africa, and contains an amalgam of her family album photographs taken over 60 years with captions from Dinesen, and stories and drawings by Ka­mante, a Kikuyu who was for years her cook. When Beard is in Africa, he lives in an encampment known as the Hog Ranch on the outskirts of Blixen’s farm near Nairobi, which Kamante now runs for him.

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Beard photographs in Kenya, mostly the peoples and the animals living there in disintegrating harmony. If that were all there was to it, there would be no more to say. Africa can dictate more photographic cliches than a toddler’s birthday party, and given the beauties and the beasts readily available, they can often be surprisingly good. What single Beard out so unmistakably from the mechanized army that roars and clicks across Africa is the same thing that singled out Ahab from the average sea captain — a kind of madness. The eye that peers through his lens is not your Garden of Eden variety rational optic; it is estranged from the world of im­peccable boundaries, and its hallucinatory perceptions transfigure his pictures. They become messages sent from the Apocalypse.

Perhaps even this misrepresents Beard’s vision. For if he is not one of Darkest Africa’s myth-spinners (“How splendid and melancholy is this vanishing continent”) — and he is not — neither is he a trendy doom-beater of ecology (“It’s not going to be easy, my fellow men, but we can save all this noble savagery for our grandchildren”). When forced even to use the word, he winces. Instead, he is, in the specific clarity of his craziness, a recorder of dissolution in a particular time and place, after the manner of Defoe in Journal of the Plague Year or Celine in Death on the Installment Plan. It is not easy to take pictures of animals and keep them unsentimental, but Beard’s are almost fiercely so. He is assembling a rolling landscape of life and death that is never mawkish, and in the process he is dredging up out of himself (and those of his pictures’ viewers who don’t turn away too glibly) prime­val stirrings that fundamentally alter what we see.

Whether as a thoroughly nove­listic character, a stranger in a­ whole geography of strange lands, or as a photographer, Beard does not sit lightly to be examined. In many ways, his recent exhibition at the Blum-Helman Gallery epito­mized the slippery contradictions that mark his work. First, the exhibition came and went in two weeks, while other less deserving imagery hangs on gallery walls until it turns sepia. (Though no longer hanging, many of Beard’s pictures remain at the gallery and can be seen on request.) The Blum-Helman Gallery, which provided an intimate and elegant setting for the pictures, cannot be faulted, since the rent-paying product there is modern painting. But the exhibition was undeniably worth more time, and perhaps­ more space, somewhere else. Because Beard is a society Somebody with the good luck to be out of town most of the time, the brevity of its run never gave the exhibition a chance to evolve from a social event into a photographic one. The pictures were mounted unframed with a nice sense of balance and flow. Most of the photographs were taken from his three books, The End of the Game, Eyelids of Morning, and his most recent Longing for Darkness. The prints varied in size, and they had a raw look consistent with his blithe lack of concern. (“I’ve never been a quality man myself.”) More than a few of the prints were made from copy negatives where the originals were lost in one pat of ooze or another.

The first grouping of pictures was, perhaps intentionally, the least moving, though there were fine moments, like an awesomely tusked boar right out of Jung, just visible at close range through a screen of underbrush. Two up­stairs rooms were respectively devoted to the corpses of ele­phants, and the corpses of tim­e — the loony and monumental collec­tion of diaries in which Beard stores the lint of his existence, plus an epic photographic record of the diaries.

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To put it very mildly, the diaries are the most obviously obsessive aspect of Beard’s work, and there is no way to adequately describe them in a few words, however well chosen. They are a combination of adolescent daydreaming, fiendish detritus, cosmic dandruff, frantic tangible psychotherapy, and visual novas page after exhausting page (to mention a few well chosen words). On one page lies a stra­tegic segment of a Playboy centerfold, on the next a dried snakeskin, on another an exquisitely loony ink doodle, followed by extraordinarily fetching photographs of Beard’s former wife, Minnie Cushing (one of the beautiful Cushing daughters, and Amanda Burden’s sister), a quote from some arcane source, and so on. The league of compulsive diarists has so diminished these days, and these diaries are so phenomenal, that if they were in any way reproducible they could stand on future bookshelves next to Pepys, Kafka, and Woolf, not as literature, but as the copious archeology of a particular mind.

The “elephant room” — with one wall almost covered by 40 or so views of similar and varying death and a large color picture of an exquisitely formed stillborn ele­phant embryo — may have been in its way as arresting as the room of Irving Penn’s cigarette butts exhibited at the Modern last summer, or that of Richard Avedon’s pictures of his dying father shown there two years ago. (Perhaps more than the show as a whole, this room deserves remounting somewhere else.) This is not to compare these pictures in any way, just to indicate that they are all works of significant eccentricity. Beard, using the odd aerial point of view (an invention mothered by the fact that the park authorities consider him persona non grata for his strong espousal of a politically unpopular method of game control, and perhaps because he has had trouble masking his contempt for rampant mismanagement of African wildlife) has turned what might simply have been sad and horrifying pho­tographs into paradoxes on the nature of death itself. Lying on their sides devolving visibly to dust and old leather, the elephants seem almost to be running, but with a weightless grace that belies the reality of their lives. They are a culmination of Beard’s way of looking at the darkening horizons behind and before us, aptly de­scribed by John Hemingway as “beauty born out of ashes.”

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The story that the elephant pic­tures tell is not at all beautiful, however. They represent just a handful of more than 12,000 ele­phants that starved to death when the growth of suburbs and farmlands crowded them into an 8000-square-mile national park. “I have 6000 pictures of dead elephants!” Beard said when I mentioned that some I had seen in Interview were not on the wall. Whether or not that figure is true, there seems to have been a considerable fury behind the aerial survey. The “die-off,” and Beard’s elegiac photographs of it, illustrate what he calls “the fallacy of the bleeding heart.”

Shooting an elephant is not the sort of thing you can drum up much enthusiasm for among mod­ern civilized folk. It can only seem an act of purposeless destruction in a world of ever scarce wildlife, but Beard sees it as the only realistic solution. The problem is that man is interfering in a much more profound way than hunting; he is expanding the geographic limits of his civilization, and elephants, with their voracious appetites and inclination to travel great dis­tances, have less and less place in modern westernized Africa except as tourist trade decor. So they are crowded together on preserves to await nature’s way, in the form of the Malthusian sickle. But as Beard vehemently points out, there is nothing natural about overcrowding, whether in Kenya or Manhattan, and while thousands of elephants sank into starvation, the doomed and distended herds deserted the ancient forests that had been their habitat, and that of hundreds of other species. As Beard and I looked at the wall of pictures a Famous Person remarked in plangent Italianate tones, “How wonderful that they die with all that beautiful space around them — not like the way people die here in New York.” Beard pointed out, with his imper­turbable Wasp politesse, that the photogenic empty space was sim­ply the result of the elephants eating every living thing in the region. Beard’s elephants, vul­tured and rotting, are not just unprecedented views of the end of an epoch, they are intimations of the end of the world.

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In the sense that he will still harness his energies to a cause that has been lost as he watched — ­Africa, after all, will finally be lighted in every corner, the heart of darkness flickering with 10 mil­lion color televisions — Beard is the ultimate romantic. It is not a par­ticularly fulfilling thing to be anymore. His pictures, when they are good, relate to Goya’s drawings of the horrors of war, and they may be serving a dual purpose for the photographer: exercising his anguish by determinedly recording the source of it.

I had thought to write about Peter Beard the photographer and leave alone Peter Beard the toast of society, but it would be an incomplete impression. The prob­lem is that the edges of the two personae don’t match up too well. What, one wonders, does that unforgettable wall of elephants have to do with the paparazzi-choked opening-night party thrown by Lauren Hutton for Beard, attended by the likes of Halston and Andy Warhol? And when Marion Javitz tells the Times reporter that Beard is showing Africa through “young, vigorous, sophisticated New York eyes,” one twitches a bit at that missed point and wishes that Beard would find some other way to go public. It’s no crime to befriend the famous — somebody has to, after all, and what matters is the work — but fair or not, the inevitable glamorous cortege around Beard prevents him from being taken seriously by a public that ought to see his pictures. There seems to be no way to rub the glitter off him. This piece, for instance, began life as a humble photography column and has moved forward into a brighter limelight as if by magic — Beard’s magic.

Beard is an anachronism, a throwback replica of the 19th-century young English nobleman who went out to Africa to get away from stultifying family and wan friends and, if he survived malar­ia, green meat, and knobkerries, periodically returned to regale his circle with tales of savagery. When I spoke with Beard at the gallery he was gushed over nonstop by a parade of famous beauties and semi-titanic achievers, and there can’t be much doubt that at least some of his friends are feeding on his palpable vitality. I suspect he puts up with the lionizing for various reasons. First, he is just too well bred in that obsolescent true Wasp way to suggest that anyone take a walk. Second, he has not been in the bush so long that he’s unaware of the power of celebrity to sell books — though an afterword in Longing for Dark­ness by the luminous Jackie O. really is a bit much. And finally, let’s assume that Beard, despite being to the manor born, is just as liable to be star-struck as any other mortal. It would be asking a lot to expect him to resist being that adventurous adorable beau Peter. (If his diaries are any clue to the state of his libido, the assured flow of attractive women is no minor dividend.) His current bit of mischief is that he misrepre­sented a beautiful African girl who was the wife of a Nairobi official, as a goatherd.

The inconsistencies about Beard would be irrelevant if they didn’t seem to confuse Beard himself. If he means it when he denies that photography has any particular importance to him — and his atti­tude toward the reproduction of his pictures indicates that he does­ — then he can deny the harsh lan­guage of his vision rather than accept the risks of confronting it. Like certain other offhandedly gifted photographers, Beard is better than he knows. What he needs is someone who can prod and browbeat him further into the midnight of his mind’s eye. His next book, Nor Dread Nor Hope Attend, is a collaboration with Francis Bacon with an introduc­tion by R.D. Laing. It deals with such things as stress, death, and the lugubrious future in ways that one can hardly predict, but the elephant motif gives an indication of its tone. This may be the project that finally defines Beard’s vision. Sooner or later, too, there should be an exhibition that orchestrates his singular nightmares in a way that they — and we —deserve.

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I have spent only one afternoon with Beard, and otherwise know him only by hearsay and through his photography. He was polite and personable and just as charming as had been predicted, but my guess is that he is a very disconso­late man. In the second after he would express concern over some­thing, he would laugh at himself and disclaim it. I was reminded of a moment in Casablanca when Paul Henreid protests to Bogart that if we stop fighting for what we believe the world will die, and Bogart just shrugs and says, “Well, what of it? It’ll be out of its misery.”

Friends can’t resist reporting that Beard habitually puts himself in situations full of risk, and many of the pictures, of him and by him, attest to this. He once climbed inside a dead crocodile to have his picture taken and was almost crushed by a spasm of rigor mortis. Yet there is no aura of bravado about him. It may be simply that he doesn’t like what the world is becoming, and feels no particular dread at the thought of leaving before the rug is yanked out from under the rest of us. In his lost paradise, in the seemingly immutable African bush, Beard has seen the present, and it doesn’t work.

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Taxi Driver — A Trip To 1970

“Taxi Driving Man: Hail and Farewell”

Ninth Avenue at 6 a. m. is a surrealistic study in flaming trash cans and steaming manhole covers. In the pre-dawn gloom, the streets are dimly lit by fruit and vegetable merchants preparing to display their wares on the sidewalk. From inside the cab, all is still, but unnaturally still, and since it is New York, the stillness only heightens your anticipation of an approaching cataclysm. It is an exceedingly ugly street, even for New York. But in its monumental ugliness it commands that special morbid fascination that all New Yorkers feel toward their city, despise it as they may. 

Driving down toward Port Authority, the feeling is more that of crossing the River Styx than one of Manhattan’s commercial arteries. You have the road practically to yourself, yet there is a restraining force which causes you to drive along slowly, at a steady pace. You are in a phantasmagorical place, and you better not disturb the unholy balance of things, lest you be spotted as an outsider. 

It was in that frame of mind that I decided my career as a cabby was to come to an end. It was a decision I turned over in my mind throughout the day, and although the circumstances hardly warranted it, toward turning-in time, I began feeling a little cheerful, mostly because I couldn’t see any footing beneath me to which to sink from here. There was, I thought, cause for optimism. Leave the job, I assured myself, something worthier is bound to come through. (It seems that one side effect of a middle-class adolescence is that in the pinch, you are taught to rely on everything and everybody but yourself. Just when you are at the peak of your desperation — if you have been weaned on Hollywood westerns — is when you most expect your salvation to come galloping across the plain and smash that redskin to smithereens before he detaches your scalp. What entirely eludes the realm of possibilities is his one day making off with it — consequently, you grow up totally unfit to face reality.)

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My last passenger of the day was a decrepit old woman with bony, heavily rouged cheeks, whose accent might have originated anywhere from the east bank of the Danube to the Urals. I mentally took a bet on Hungarian refugee and, as it turned out, I wasn’t far off the mark. We headed down Seventh Avenue. 

“You not have rrahdio?” she asked, rolling about four extra Rs onto each syllable. 

“No.” 

“Too bad. It must be lonely, young man like you, no rrahdio.” 

“It’s not too lonely.” To settle my mental bet, I asked her where she hailed from. 

“Oh, I have been born Rrussia, but now here 45 yearrs.” 

I supposed that if it had been 145 years her syntax would never have improved. After a spell, she tapped on the plastic divider the company throws into their cars as a bone to the driver’s peace of mind. 

“Tell me, this glass bullet-proof?” she asked. 

“No, I don’t think so.” 

“Ah, too bad. You better have bullet-proof, no?” 

“Yes.”

Another silence. Then, as we passed through Times Square: 

“You like pretty girls?” 

“Yes, they ‘re okay.” 

“Yes? You like young pretty girls?”

“Sure, young ones.” We waved our way between the hand trucks in the garment center. 

“Maybe you like meet young pretty girls? Yes?” 

We turned east on 15th Street to Sixth Avenue and got held up behind some trucks. I cursed at the trucks so as to avoid following the bait. She came at me again, this time in a more determined tone.

“No, I don’t think I want to meet any just now,” I answered. 

She feigned shock. 

“No? You not want meet pretty girls?” There was a brief pause. “You like meet young boys, maybe?” 

Her voice didn’t betray any sign of facetiousness; it was very routine. I pulled over at 16th Street and threw up the flag, trying to avoid her glance and remain aloof. She took the hint, I guess, and paid and got out. 

There was no reason to take her seriously, but when you drive a cab, you run such a daily gamut of these two-bit desperadoes that it soon ceases to be a laughing matter. I started back to the garage very pissed off. 

At 17th Street, I turned west and saw a car pulling in on my left. He had the right of way, so I went to slam on my brake to let him pass. I slammed on the accelerator instead. 

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It was over in about two seconds: I scraped the car, veered right to get loose, ran straight for a pedestrian sitting on a fire hydrant, he jumped up, I knocked him back down, jerked the car left to avoid the hydrant — not far enough — and came to rest half on the hydrant and half on the back of a parked truck. At last, just before pushing all of 17th Street in to the Hudson River, I remembered the brake pedal. 

“Shit!” I said aloud, disgustedly, and threw the car into Park. That was all. My victim knelt on the ground, nursing a battered leg. He moaned some, and coincidentally enough, also said “shit!” Good. At least there would be no manslaughter charge, I thought to myself. 

The only damage, aside from the leg, was a touch of shock, so with the help of a few bystanders, we stretched him out on the front seat of the cab. Suddenly, my thoughts turned to my brand new 60-cent cigar which I carried in my shirt pocket. As I looked down at my victim’s leg, I vaguely remember hoping that the cigar didn’t get smashed in the impact. All in all, my indifference to everything except the cigar should have appalled me, but it didn’t. 

There was one regrettable moment, when I realized that I had left the cab’s motor running and that in the collision I had inadvertently knocked down the flag. The meter was ticking away, and I dashed into the cab practically having to climb over my victim’s prostrate body, to turn off the ignition. This, just to save myself a few pennies. I admit it was a disgusting thing to haw done, but at the time it seemed quite logical and proper. 

The truth is, there was really nothing else to do. The driver of the other car got out and we chatted a bit and whiled away the time explaining to the bloodthirsty spectators that the fellow on the seat wasn’t dead. 

One woman shouted from the opposite corner to her friend. “Tell me if he’s dead. I can’t go over, I just can’t look.” 

“It’s all right,” she shouted back, “he’s alive,” and her friend crept over to join the crowd. 

The police came by too and had a look. They took everybody’s papers and went back to the patrol car to sort them out. By now, I began to feel like a fool. Every now and then I’d lean into the car to ask my victim how he was getting along. He mumbled that he didn’t know, he was very cold, and when would the ambulance arrive, please? The police called three times for the ambulance, meanwhile jotting down more important data. The spectators bunched up around the cab, three or four deep, to have a look. 

The ambulance eventually arrived, and after several attempts to jerk my victim off the seat, they decided to go through the bother of rolling out the stretcher. 

I quietly backed away from the crowd and called the garage. The police departed, then the ambulance. The driver of the other car stayed around for a while, hoping for a quick settlement with the company’s inspector. Finally, he too moved off with the rest of the crowd, and I waited alone with the cab, in the darkness, for the tow truck. 

After making out a preliminary report at the garage, I walked up West 46th Street toward the subway, counting my day’s take. It was a Friday, supposedly the best day for hacking. Forty-five dollars and 90 cents in bookings, half, or more correctly 51 per cent, of which belongs to the garage, and about $10 in tips. Thirty-two dollars for 10 hours’ work, and on the best day. 

Halfway up the block, I stopped to look at some new pushcarts standing outside a sort or garage-warehouse arrangement. They were the type you see in front of the Museum of Modern Art or up near Central Park, loaded down with pretzels and chestnuts. I stood for a minute, dumbly examining the crude workmanship, when an enormous hulk approached me from behind and dribbled out in old-time Newyorkese: “So, tell me sumpin’.”

I looked back, not sure of what the come-on required for an answer.

“You buying or selling?” he asked.

“Selling,” I said instinctively, since my situation wouldn’t have allowed me to take the other alternative much further. Then he wanted to know what I was doing now. I said nothing, but he insisted and playfully ran down a list of down-and-outer possibilities. We settled on part-time actor.

“Here you make 50 bucks a day. Fifty, 60, 70 — whatever you want. You lose nothing. I give you the pretzels at four cents apiece and the chestnuts for 20 cents a pound. You sell them for whatever you can get. You interested?”

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I was just desperate enough to get suckered in, so I let him hustle me into this dark cavernous hole on the West Side, and when my eyes became accustomed to the shadows and I had a look around all I could think of was Dickens. Off to one side was a group of old people (women, I believe) crouched over a mountain of chestnuts. Some were splitting the shells, others passed them on to still others who were doing the roasting. I say “women” hesitantly, because at about 10 yards and in the darkness , it was difficult to make out what those grubby specimens really were, wrapped in about six layers of tattered cloth. Some amateur carpenters were putting together new carts or patching up old ones. And some more of those ogres were off in a corner doing something to the pretzels I won’t describe (I will never eat another).

My friendly giant took me closer to them and said in a loud, obviously theatrical tone; “Here our motto is ‘Fuck the People!’ ” There were a few assenting grunts from the old men-women of “Yeah, fuck the people!” It warmed my heart to see that there are thieves left in New York who are still only after your money.

He went on to enumerate a few more highlights of the profession and wound up with a cheery “and remember, here you don’t pay taxes to no one.”

Again, the grizzly chorus: “Yeah, no taxes!” accompanied by a few chuckles. 

He told me to come in the following day, Saturday, which, along with Sunday is the most lucrative in this business, provided it’s good and cold. I left feeling like I had stepped out of a primitive picaresque novel, complete with beggars, harlots, and assorted outlaws and outcasts.

So I was to sell pretzels. That was something worth considering very carefully.

The train was delayed at the Times Square station. After that day’s experience, I had little desire to get on a subway, so I loafed around a hot dog counter, sipping an orangeade and looking at the hordes of commuters running every which way like animals trapped in a forest fire.

Above the tumult and the screeching of the trains, I slowly became aware of a sharp tapping on the pavement outside the lunch counter. It was as audible as tapping on a glass with a fork in a crowded restaurant and I don’t think I would have caught it had my nerves not been so keyed up. The tapping, I soon saw, came from the canes of two blind people — a man and a woman — slowly moving toward each other along the platform. Maybe you’ve seen them. They usually ride the Brighton line, though not together. They are beggars who play the accordion and, if I’m not mistaken, she sings. He is undistinguished, much like any other shabby, middle-aged beggar. She, on the other hand, has an enormous shock of frizzy red hair and resembles a relic from the worst days of the 1940s. Anyhow, I was impressed by their calm, steady manner, how they seemed to head for each other like homing pigeons, following the tapping of their canes, apparently oblivious to the shrieking and shoving of the other million or so blind beggars around them.

The tapping of the canes was enough for them to find each other, and when they finally did — my God — I have never seen such an embrace in my entire quarter century in this god-awful place. They flung their accordions over their shoulders and held on to one another — brilliantly smiling, mind you — with a passion that could only be observed with a trembling lip.

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For a moment, I was taken back to my senior year in college. I remembered standing in the hall one morning between classes, trying to recruit a friend for the NYU Fascist Club which I had formed out of sheer maliciousness or boredom or both. He said he hadn’t the time to hear about it, he was expecting his girl from Philadelphia whom he hadn’t seen in months. After a while she showed up, freshly scrubbed and in madras, and when he spotted her, my friend dropped his books on the ground next to him and they ran for each other. He gave her a big kiss and hug and threw her into the air and then, just for a second, out of the corner of his eye, I saw him look back at the books he had so heroically thrown to the ground. There was something in the look he gave those books, while holding his girl, that explained everything. At once, all the disgusting repressions, fears, anxieties, and miseries that have turned this country into the grandest shithouse on the face of the earth gushed in torrents out of my poor friend’s eyes. 

Back at the BMT station, I stood watching these two blind beggars. The longer I watched, the more I felt a strange sensation coming on: one of being totally washed out, limp from physical and nervous exhaustion, yet somehow cleansed, like after a day at the gym and steam room. And as I watched, gradually all the sentiments and pointless words made into mush and emptied of meaning by the hippie-flower-beautiful people crowd — sentiments like compassion for a pathetic humanity, words like happiness, charity, and love — began to come to life and, to my own amazement, acquire a freshness and meaning l had long given up for lost within myself. 

This, I thought, would be a good time to take the next train downtown. So I went home, thinking about pretzels and chestnuts and two blind lovers, and not feeling bad at all. 

[Editor’s note, January 1, 2020: This essay originally appeared in the Voice’s Personal Testament section, “a department open to contributions from our readers. They may write on any subject and in any style they choose, with the editors selecting manuscripts for publication on the basis of literacy and interest.”]

 

“THE SIXTIES: Remembrance of things past — and present”

January 1, 1970

IT BEGAN with the beats: Tuli Kupferberg, in front of the Gaslight on MacDougal Street (top left); at the end of the ’60s there were the militants: Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and David Dellinger; in between, and throughout there was Allen Ginsberg and a school strike that ripped New York apart (left); and finally — nudity: its first intimation was brought to the big stage, at Hunter College, by the Anne Halprin dancers. (Photographs by Fred W. McDarrah)

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Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES

An Evening in the Life of Washington Heights

 

Children watch as friends play volleyball at the Hudson River Greenway in Washington Heights on a summer Sunday evening.
Kids play along the riverfront at the Hudson River Greenway in Washington Heights on a summer Sunday evening.
Neighborhood friends celebrate the birthday of Miss Shay, who is turning 15-years old (center left) in Washington Heights on a summer evening.
12 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Washington Heights residents practice volleyball and softball in the Hudson River Greenway on a summer Sunday evening. CREDIT: SARAH BLESENER FOR THE VILLAGE VOICE

12 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Friends sit at the riverfront at the Hudson River Greenway in Washington Heights on a summer Sunday evening.

12 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Friends play a game of Ecuavolley in the Hudson River Greenway in Washington Heights on a summer Sunday evening. Ecuavolley is a variant of volleyball invented and played in Ecuador. CREDIT: SARAH BLESENER FOR THE VILLAGE VOICE

16 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Anthony and Orlando, long-term residents of Washington Heights, sit on Amsterdam Ave on a summer evening.
16 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights on a summer evening. The street is filled with cars and set designs, as the community is being used for the filming of “The Deuce” for HBO this week. CREDIT: SARAH BLESENER FOR THE VILLAGE VOICE

16 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Jahmel, Liam, Mia, Kourtney, Jared, and Bria sit on the stairs in front of their apartment building in Washington Heights on a late summer evening. The group lives on 164th, where they have grown up together their whole lives. They are not related, but feel the same as family.

16 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights on a summer evening. The street is filled with cars and set designs, as the community is being used for the filming of “The Deuce” for HBO this week.
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At MoMA PS1, Photographer Elle Pérez Finds Depth in the Everyday

Elle Pérez, a Bronx-born Puerto Rican photographer, is having a hell of a summer. Their first solo show, Bloom, a tightly curated set of beguilingly intimate portraits and still-lifes, went up in March at 47 Canal, a gallery in Chinatown; a handful of months later, on July 1, Pérez’s first solo museum show, Diablo, opened at MoMA PS1, where it’s on view through September 3. Their work has also become a mainstay in New York’s art scene, appearing in summer group shows like Yossi Milo’s “Intimacy” and David Zwirner’s “This Is Not a Prop,” both of which were on display in late June and August.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Pérez attended the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and went on to do their MFA at Yale, where they Tod Papageorge and Gregory Crewdson, among others. Pérez first came to attention photographing the Black and Latino wrestlers of the Bronx’s underground, independent wrestling leagues, interested in the way that the young men’s interactions tangled with identity formation, ritual, and performance. In these early photographs, the action bursts out of the frame — bodies and faces are contorted with emotion, and there’s a tenderness in the more intimate photographs, a sense that we, as viewers, have been allowed in. Other bodies of work demonstrate Peréz’s interest in created community, from photographs taken at a Radical Faeries queer sanctuary in rural Tennessee, to the quiet, almost behind-the-scenes photos from nightclubs and the ballroom scene.

Expansive yet intimate, concerned with the specifics of queer and trans community yet tautly private, even reticent to the unschooled eye, Pérez’s current work dwells in seemingly mundane moments of intimate connection — between Pérez and their subjects; between the artist and the world. A binder — Peréz’s own — hangs to dry in a bathroom, weighted with its own powerful presence. A figure unfurls a red handkerchief at the camera; it blurs in the frame, flagging — what, exactly? A viewer in the know will realize that, according to the hanky code, red indicates an interest in fisting, an act referenced again in a viscerally beautiful image of a bloodied hand resting between parted legs — the blood on the fist dried into the perfect shape of a flower.

Many of the photographs feature Peréz’s partner, Ian. In some, he gazes into the camera; in others, his face is cropped out, as if to provide an insulating layer between subject and gaze. In a strikingly beautiful portrait at PS1, Ian is shot in black and white, his body curving out of the frame. In the lower third of the composition, Ian’s hand is thrust between his legs, but the viewer’s eye is drawn to his wide, bright smile.

These private moments are made startlingly public, but never slide into voyeurism — they’re still deeply encoded within a language of queerness and trans experience that offers viewers varying degrees of access. In Warm Curve, an arm protectively circles the torso of the sitter, which bears a top-surgery scar — and from that scar, a story unfolds, though only its outlines are known to us. In another photograph, two phallic rocks nestled against each other conjure subtle, diffuse erotics, charging the everyday.

Pérez’s show at PS1 features a suite of ten large-scale photographs made in the last three years, many of which appeared in the show at 47 Canal, as well as a new wall-spanning collage consisting of prints, visual references, and pieces of writing by Pérez and other authors, including the poet Anne Carson. The collage hops from place to place — landscapes are connected by colorful foliage; pages are torn out of books, photocopied, and underlined, accompanied by Post-it notes in Pérez’s hand. “I’m not necessarily looking for someone else’s mundane, but my mundane,” says Pérez. “My everyday.”

At 29, Pérez currently teaches at Harvard, and is a dean at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, an intensive summer residency in Maine. Earlier this year, I collaborated with Pérez on writing the text for their show at 47 Canal, working to evoke the same haloed, subtle intimacy conjured in the photographs. We spoke again some weeks after the opening of “Diablo” at MoMA PS1, talking about intimacy, formalism, representation, and … Stephen Shore.

“Of course there is a conversation about representation and authorship that’s a part of it,” Pérez told me. “Sure, I’m a different kind of author than maybe other authors have been.”

Installation view

Let’s start with the collage. It’s so cool to see the network of inspiration that you have laid out. It’s not explicit, but if you get up close and read everything, you begin to understand where this work is coming from. Tell me about the collage — what inspired it?

I used to do that kind of building for myself all the time. When I really dig into the studio, that’s what my studio looks like. And that’ll accrue layers and layers of information and references.

Sometimes I think about what I did before I thought of myself as an artist, and it’s like, oh, it’s been there all along. I was looking for something on my old Flickr account and I found a picture of my room in high school. On all of my walls I had made these intense whole-wall photographic collages that were composed of Xeroxes, and pictures of my friends, and clippings that I had torn out. I think it’s something that a lot of people did, but it was kind of funny to see that and think, “Oh yeah, that’s totally coming from this kind of obsessive collecting and media saturation.” Like, when I was a kid, that was my impulse — to put it on the wall and cut it out and hold on to it.

I had been hesitant, or reticent, to put the collage up. It felt like part of the process, but not a piece itself. But then, for the show at PS1, there was the idea of, “What would your studio look like in an exhibition?” And I thought of the best ways to do that. The individual pieces of the collage were things that I’d just been thinking about, and looking at, and really intensely referencing for the last year. There are a couple of pages from Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red …

Oh, I saw that! I knew immediately. That’s one of the first queer love stories I can remember reading that felt complicated and adult and deeply mythological, but also so present. Of the moment. Which line in particular is your favorite?

It’s the one where he’s like, “Lots of little boys think they’re a monster/But I’m right./The Dog regards him joyfully.”

There’s a lot of text on that board, which I wanted to ask you about — how your writing practice started out, and how you see it play into your photographic practice.

I think the moment where I was pushed to make that public was actually when we were working on the writing for the show at 47 Canal, in February and March this year. And Jamie, who is the director, called me out a little bit! He said, “I feel like you’re maybe hiding behind your friend’s writing!” And I was shocked. He said, “I really want you to write something. I’m not going to let you hide from this. You need to do something too. It can be a network, we can do all of it, but you’re not allowed to hide anymore.” And I was like … I just gagged. Like, oh my god, OK.

Ian had told me about his daily writing practice. He writes for thirty minutes every day, in a stream of consciousness. And he said, I think this might help you. So then I was trying to do that, and I pulled the pieces together of all the diary entries that I had had, that I had written, which I wasn’t necessarily thinking of as a writing practice.

Talking to you really made me think about what I was trying to do in that first show. At first I was like, “I don’t even really know what I just did here! I don’t know if this is good, I don’t really know what’s happening, I don’t know …” I was not ahead of it at all. I was maybe five steps behind it. Things became much clearer at the end of the exhibition than the beginning of the exhibition.

With the PS1 show, you can kind of see the backbone of it a little more. As you said, you know what it’s about, and I think the device of the collage allows us to know what it’s about. I wouldn’t consider it voyeuristic, even though some of the photos can feel really intimate. The way that you handle the intimate relationship you have with Ian, for example, feels very protective.

That’s good. That makes me happy, because sometimes I worry about how vulnerable the work can be. Sometimes it does feel like there needs to be time for the relationship to heal before photography can come back into it. Especially now that  we’re more aware of the fact that the images will be distributed. Whereas before the two shows it wasn’t like that.

This summer I’ve taken a little bit of pressure off of our relationship by not photographing our intimacy as much, and putting this material aside to contextualize it allows me to still be doing something and making, but it’s also giving our relationship some time to heal from after being made very public.

Installation view

Do you feel like your work is moving in different directions now, or does the way that you conceive of it feel different now?

What was cool about having the opportunity to do this PS1 show was that I had realized what I was doing with the show at 47 only after it all came into focus. And I started tofeel like then I could really home in on a couple of things … and then this kind of came out of thin air. And I was like, Oh, wow, now you do have an opportunity to do that.

It was perfect in a way, and such a privilege — it was like saying, here’s the second half of that body of work that you saw the beginning of. If this had been a longer period of time, people might have expected a new body of work entirely.

What’s the process of photographing like for you? What is the impulse that you have to make a picture of a moment?

There are two things that go on at the same time. The first thing usually comes from impulse. Part of how this work started was, I was super not making work after grad school. In my second year of grad school it dried up. It had to do with a lot of personal things, and a lot of changes I had to make. I started feeling like, if I didn’t figure out how to how to have this process and make work, it was not going to happen.

I really wanted to be able to make work, and I really wanted to make work wherever I was. Previously it had been so tied to the right location — to being home, to being in the Bronx, to going to wrestling matches. There were people who I admired who were able to make work anywhere, and I was tired of allowing myself to have those excuses. Like, Oh, it’s not the right place. I really wanted to move away from that. So it became this thing about making photographs of what is around me. It’s also been these very specific moments of thinking about what was around me that I hadn’t necessarily been allowing myself to see as material, or to see as worthy of being in a picture. And it’s been allowing myself to just fully use my life as raw material.

The way I got to that though, was through practicing. Like, Since I’m just practicing, since I’m just trying to make something, I am going to try to make a really good picture. My specific problem was, How do you stop relying on a kind of written context? That I had to tell you that people were queer, that I had to tell you that people were trans. It was about figuring out how to make a queer photograph, how to make a trans photograph, that would operate on a couple of different levels. I really wanted to figure out those problems in photography that I had. [Laughs] I wanted to figure out how to make a picture with content. I really really wanted to figure that out!

Formal problems are such a good way to go about art making. Even in my own painting practice, when I’m going through and editing down and figuring out what I’m actually going to paint, it becomes: what am I drawn to, why am I drawn to it, why is this happening, what does this body of work say.

That has been a real shift for me that has been really generative. The things that I was thinking about when I was doing the first show had to do with surface, texture, and having a balance of gesture and pose and stillness. It was about making an image that felt like it had the right amount of tension in the frame but still emotionally authentic. And not having an image that was too staged, or too contrived. Because I’m not interested in feeling contrived. When it comes too close to that, it starts to annoy me. Like, ugh, get rid of it. And compositionally, how do you make a photograph that works? Which brings up color relationships. How does color work, how does light work? These are really basic problems. It was about color, light, composition. What do I do with that?

The easiest things to reach, of course, are my particular life, and my particular circumstance. It comes down to being honest about that, and being honest about who the people who surround me are, or what objects are really close to me. And what is my mundane: I’m not necessarily looking for someone else’s mundane, but my mundane. My everyday.

Of course there is a conversation about representation and authorship that’s a part of it. Like, sure, I’m a different kind of author than maybe other authors have been. But I’m still interested in formal things. It’s funny, when I have college students, they’re surprised by this, when I say I’m really interested in Stephen Shore. Do not shit-talk Stephen Shore! He’s doing a lot that we can learn from! And my students are like, You have a septum ring and you’re a trans fag, and you’re telling us that Shore has the answers?

Because of my identity and what is part of it, which is part of the work, sometimes the conversations can really focus on that, and not on the other parts of it. So I really appreciate being able to go off about this formal stuff.

Apart from Shore, who are some other old-school photographers you’ve been influenced by?

I love Roy DeCarava. Classic stuff. He’s incredible. I’ve learned so much from Roy’s work, because he’s someone who really thought about the way the tool of the camera — but also the picture plane, and the tones, and the way that he was utilizing his printing and image construction — could create a metaphor for what he was talking about.

The thing about DeCarava’s pictures is the gray tones are where everything happens. He has these super luscious shadows, and so much information is in the shadows — it reinforces that idea of there being life in the shadows. Everything happens in the shadows for Roy DeCarava, and you can spin out from there, and associate various kinds of positions on black life in the Fifties and Sixties. What didn’t have light cast on it but was still there. That is present in the physical, formal construction of the images. And that was like, a fucking mind-blowing lesson that I get to have every semester, because I have the privilege of teaching it.

You mentioned trying to figure out how to do the work. How do you think you’re doing?

By the time I had the show at 47, I was really earnestly discovering what the work is about. And then for PS1 it was cool, because I had done a little bit of that discovering, and it was like what else can I find out here? At that point it felt a little bit more like, this is what I found! Knowing partly what it was. Because, obviously, I know what my life is.

I was looking at this Nobuyoshi Araki book, that I’ve had since I was like eighteen. It was the first photography book that I’d ever bought, Araki’s Phaidon monograph, Art Life Death, and I carry it around with me everywhere. It’s the only book that doesn’t go into storage. I hadn’t read it in a long time, but I was going through it, and he has this one quote that I find so fucking funny, and also really true: he was like, “If you want to change your life, change your life. If you want to change your photographs, you need to change cameras.” Like, real. I think that’s really true.

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A Painter’s Photographer: Erin O’Keefe’s Bewitching Shapes

When I first walked into the gallery, I mistook Erin O’Keefe’s photographs for smooth-surfaced paintings, with an intense but exquisitely tuned palette and dynamic abstract compositions. Everything about them — the triangular shadows cast across two emerald-green rectangles by a mottled yellow crosspiece — recalled the way a painting’s built-up strokes impart a sense of time passing, of long sessions in the studio.

When I finally determined, through some nose-close viewing, that these were, in fact, photos, I said a little critic’s prayer: “Please let these not be Photoshopped.” It makes a difference, because if the fragile equipoise O’Keefe (born 1962) achieves in her constructions was born of manipulating pixels, the images would still boast impressive layouts and a feisty palette, but much of their physical wondrousness would dissipate.

“Built Work #8” (2018)

In Built Work #8 (created this year, as are the other works in the show), two right triangles stand before blue, pink, and gray rectangles. A heavier plane matches the height of the blue element, and all of the objects align on one off-center axis. There is a communion in that vertical line, as if these planes were seeking something greater than the sum of their plain-Jane individualities. They attain it, and then some, not least because they cast translucent green shadows, pitched at perpendicular right angles to the vertical fulcrum, undermining with a playful frisson O’Keefe’s carefully structured architectonics. The geometric characters in Built Work #5 also align on a vertical, as if they were revolving around a maypole. As I studied the slightly irregular joins and roughly brushed surfaces, I said aloud to a fellow gallery-goer, “Damn, I think these are straight-up photographs.”

“Built Work #5” (2018)

A gallerist heard my mutterings and insisted on taking me two blocks north to O’Keefe’s studio, where I could see for myself how the artist achieves her bewitching balancing acts — using only painted boards set precariously on edge with nothing more than an occasional bit of tape on the backs to help hold them in place. O’Keefe worked for years as an architect, which gives her insight into — and endless curiosity about — the ways in which walls, ceilings, and floors interact with each other and the spaces they surround.

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O’Keefe told me she gets her cast-off bits of lumber from woodworkers she contacts on Etsy, a way to sidestep making the cuts herself. Instead, she works with whatever comes out of the box, painting the wood pieces and setting them up against simple, flat backgrounds. In her studio it was fascinating to walk around one tableau-in-progress and watch the angles of light and shadow entwine, then separate, which helps explain why her homely materials find such animation in the final compositions. Using only a digital 35mm camera and a shallow focus, O’Keefe conjures a palpable realm of space and air, a colorful gravitas.

“Built Work #1” (2018), “Built Work #6” (2018)

The artist once told an interviewer, “I look at painting a lot. I feel interested in those issues. When I was teaching architecture at design studios, we did this exercise where we would have students take a purist painting and build it as a model. It was fascinating to think about the translation of something and see what would happen when you would try to go backwards from it, to reverse engineer it. We also did another exercise with [Josef] Albers paintings. I would have the students try to render them three dimensionally to see how the color operated.”

One can easily see how Albers’s color studies influenced this work, but when looking at O’Keefe’s rough edges and bluntly painted objects, I instead recalled the bottles, cups, and boxes that Giorgio Morandi, a true “painter’s painter,” would arrange on a battered tabletop in endless variations in the middle of last century. The remorseless observation the Italian master brought to his mundane housewares captured the very colors in the air — those whiffs of reflection and shadow that traverse the spaces between objects. There is a monumental intimacy in Morandi’s natura morte canvases, akin to the off-kilter emotions aroused by the surreal piazzas painted by his countryman (and influence), Giorgio de Chirico. O’Keefe’s keen attention to lighting, surface, perspective, and volume similarly conveys an expansive yet intimate range of corporeal heft and formal excitement.

“Built Work #7” (2018), “Built Work #2” (2018)

In a perhaps wildly inappropriate analogy, it occurred to me on the subway home that the intensity of O’Keefe’s imagery recalled the flesh-and-blood stuntmen leaping from one fast-moving vehicle to another in The Road Warrior — as opposed to the physics-defying CGI hijinks of whichever Marvel blockbuster is currently showing in the multiplexes. O’Keefe’s rich imagery reminds us that amid our virtual cacophony, sometimes you just want to see some skin in the game.

Erin O’Keefe
Morgan Lehman Gallery
534 West 24th Street
212-268-6699
morganlehmangallery.com
Through May 19

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Celebrating the Free Jazz Revolution, in Black and White

Buried in the afterword of Geoff Dyer’s 1991 fantasia But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz is the following: “There may be little first-rate writing on jazz, but few art forms have been better served by photographers.”

Ouch! And partially true, at least as for the latter. One of those photographers, who happens to be a first-rate writer, too, is Val Wilmer, author of the essential As Serious as Your Life: Black Music and the Free Jazz Revolution, 1957–1977, reprinted earlier this month by the U.K. imprint Serpent’s Tail.

Published in 1977, at the height of disco and arena rock, with hip-hop beginning to percolate, As Serious as Your Life is a reported book, a social history of the free jazz movement from its beginnings in the late 1950s — when a small group of musicians, virtually all of them African American, posed questions and issued challenges — to its evolution into the 1970s, when, as British journalist Richard Williams writes in a new foreword to this edition, “jazz was about as unfashionable as it was possible for a once-favored music to be.”

Wilmer has a good eye — she’s a photographer, after all — but she also has foresight. Some of the musicians she writes about had big reputations at the time—she does chapters on Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, nothing particularly original in that approach — but she was also determined to focus on who and what was left out of the frame, like less-celebrated mavericks such as Milford Graves, the percussionist, and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who forty years on are recognized as giants. She’s not just interested in their music, but in their politics, often radically left; their relationship to money and how they fought for control of their music; how they negotiated within, and outside, the industry, and their attempts at creating self-sustaining collectives; the supportive role of women in their lives, and the female practitioners of this new music, Amina Claudine Myers, Fontella Bass, Lynda Sharrock, and Carla Bley, among them. “More Women — white and Black — are taking up instruments and really playing,” she writes, “but the prejudice against them continues. Whatever the extent of their talent, this discrimination is more pronounced in so-called jazz than in rock.” Primarily, though, she’s cncerned with race, how it’s informed the work, inspired it, and kept it from penetrating both the masses and the intelligentsia.

Guitarist George Benson in concert with the Harlem Jazzmobile, New York City, 1967.

Wilmer, born in 1941 in the north of England, writes with great directness. “Black music is, with the cinema, the most important art form of this century,” she states early on. “In terms of influence, there is scarcely anyone untouched by it.” But in her telling, this intellectual black music was largely dismissed by whites: “The so-called New Music, has been treated irresponsibly by many critics, something that could not, I suggest, have gone on for so long had the music in question been created by whites.”And this: “At times it seems as though there is a definite conspiracy afoot to inhibit the progress of the new Black music.”

And if black musicians in the “new thing” were overlooked and exploited, and they absolutely were, so, too, were whites. None other than Gary Peacock, she writes, went without food for fifteen days. Albert Ayler rode to the rescue, pulled him from his bed, and took him on tour in Europe, where free jazz musicians may not have gotten rich, but were treated with more respect then in the U.S. and taken seriously as artists, from the press attention they received on state media outlets to the venues they played, often at concert halls that hosted classical music.

Club owners slowly stopped booking the musicians, label execs claimed they couldn’t make money on it, elite cultural institutions turned their collective back, and impresario George Wein ignored them when he moved the Newport Jazz Festival to New York in 1972, which led to a counter-festival organized by black musicians. But it was largely underappreciated by black people as well. “There are always Blacks who know about the music but it’s hard to get it to them,” the saxophonist Billy Harper told Wilmer. “Some Black people do not realize the importance of this music. … They’re being brainwashed with all that stuff that’s on the radio. . . I certainly don’t think that Archie Shepp could play at the Apollo! The people who go there are programmed for a certain kind of music and that’s all they can hear, that’s all they can accept.”

Wilmer seems especially fascinated with drummers and their process. In addition to Graves, she creates finely tuned portraits of Ed Blackwell, Sunny Murray, and Rashied Ali, whose photo graces the cover of this new edition. And consider this thoughtful bit from the drummer of drummers, Elvin Jones: “The role of the drummer is primarily to keep time,” Jones tells her. “Whether you think you are or not, always in one way or another, either consciously or subconsciously — or unconsciously — the drummer is keeping time, or implied time. Regardless of how abstract it may seem, if it’s analyzed to its fullest extent, it will be ultimately a very definite repetitious rhythm.”

Also included in As Serious as Your Life — the title is taken from a McCoy Tyner quote, “Music’s not a plaything; it’s as serious as your life” — are nearly three dozen of Wilmer’s black-and-white photographs, some in the glorious pre-gentrified streets of New York City. (Her photography is in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London’s National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian, and the New York Public Library.) They illustrate struggle — the jazz life, to borrow a title from Nat Hentoff, is not an easy one, especially free jazz — but not only struggle. You see focus, discipline, hard work, nurturing, joy.

Max Roach (left) plays the drums in 1968

Toward the end of the book, Wilmer poses a question — and then answers it. “Will there be future generations of musicians sufficiently interested to play this music if the financial returns remain small? There is little incentive for young players who have been drawn instead into the more lucrative rock field, yet the power of the new Black music is so strong that there are many who are willing to make sacrifices in order to play it.”

Few at the time would’ve predicted that what was stirring in the Bronx would become so central to the culture. But Wilmer was right about “new Black music”: It may not be new, but it’s evolved in new and surprising and wonderful ways. And at least some of the world, and its higher institutions, have caught up to what these musicians were up to all those decades ago, and what Wilmer put into such sharp focus: Henry Threadgill, a free jazz pioneer, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for music with his album In for a Penny, in for a Pound; at least one jazz musician, and one influenced by the innovations of the 1960s and ’70s, seems to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship annually; and many others who lean into free jazz territories have major posts in the nation’s top universities.

As Serious as Your Life, like so many recordings of the era on, say, ESP-Disk, Black Saint in Milan, or Strata-East — founded by the politically conscious musicians Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell in 1971 — has aged remarkably well.

During the 1960s and ’70s “counterculture,” much of which became a massive cash register, Val Wilmer fixed her strobe lights onto a musical and political landscape that really did in fact run counter to the culture. A shame so few — blacks and whites — were paying attention at the time. But her book, and the work it documented, remains as serious, and necessary, as ever.

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One Nation, Behind Bars: Examining Prison Culture Through Photography

Forty years ago the situation in U.S. prisons was still, in some ways, normal. The War on Drugs was yet to begin (1982); federal mandatory minimum sentences were not yet in place (1986), though some states had gotten a jump on the concept — notably New York, where the Rockefeller Drug Laws took effect in 1973. Since then, the U.S. prison and jail population has ballooned fivefold, reaching some 2.3 million people now (of whom 40 percent are Black and 19 percent Latino), plus many more on parole or probation. Mass incarceration — and the explosion of related businesses that make up the prison-industrial complex — is entrenched in American life. In the late Seventies, by contrast, in some facilities and if you looked the right way, prison life could seem borderline quaint.

When Jack Lueders-Booth ran a photography workshop at the Massachusetts women’s prison in Framingham, from 1978 to ’85, the institution still allowed inmates to wear their own clothes. The velour sweaters and layered hairstyles in his portraits of the workshop participants give away the era. The women wear makeup, pose in cells decorated with memorabilia, or in pairs of friends. One holds the book Mick Jagger: Everybody’s Lucifer. It is still a prison. There are cold brick walls, peeling pipes. But these are warm, soulful portraits that express individual personalities and bespeak a fundamental human dignity.

Lueders-Booth’s is one of fourteen photo-based projects that make up “Prison Nation,” an exhibition now on view at the Aperture Foundation gallery in Chelsea, and the theme of the spring issue of Aperture, the foundation’s quarterly. The initiative addresses a dilemma: The U.S. has, by far, the world’s highest incarceration rates. Yet little about prison life is widely known outside — the fictional portrayals of Oz or Orange Is the New Black notwithstanding — and authorities have, if anything, bottled up access over the years. The exhibition’s crisp, effective wall text poses the problem: “How can photographs visualize a reality that, for many, remains out of view?”

The answer: By using every possible tactic, getting inside the walls through education programs or by the favor of cooperative wardens; or finding oblique ways to convey the enormousness of the prison system and its impact on every canvas, from the individual psychologies of inmates and officers to the landscapes and local economies where prisons are spatial behemoths and anchor employers.

Bruce Jackson, “Cummins Prison, Arkansas,” (1975)

Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick began shooting in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 1980, and continued until 2013; their project has appeared, among other venues, in the Venice Biennale. The time-series nature of their work helps dispense with any romanticism about prisons of yore; the exhibition juxtaposes black-and-white photographs of prisoners doing field labor in 1980 and 2004, and the similarities — lines of men bearing heavy tools, guards on horseback — underscore a legacy of brutality going back to the prison’s roots as a plantation. The prison photographs Bruce Jackson made in Texas and Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s extend the message, stark documentary compositions inhabited by a chilly, apprehensive feel. (Jackson also helped gain prison access for Danny Lyon, whose lyrical 1971 book Conversations With the Dead, a classic of U.S. prison photography, is not represented here.)

Photographer unknown: A guard at San Quentin State Prison, April 8, 1961

Less familiar is the remarkable archive of thousands of photos that the artist Nigel Poor came across through her work at San Quentin State Prison in California. Most recently, Poor co-created the revelatory podcast Ear Hustle with two incarcerated men, Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams. The trove of photos pulls us back several decades, presenting life as seen by the now-anonymous prison guards who took them. These are often violent images — bruised faces, the impact of assaults and brawls — along with snapshots of prison ceremonies, football teams, a Christmas tree. One photo shows the dummy a prisoner left in his bunk during an escape attempt; another, a crude tunnel, presumably for the same purpose.

Jamel Shabazz: Pretrial detainees posing, Rikers Island, 1986

Beginning in 1982, the photographer Jamel Shabazz worked seven years as a correctional officer on Rikers Island. Shabazz is known for vivid, often joyous images of Black and Latino life in New York, particularly in the early days of hip-hop culture. But with the escalating crack wars, young people began to bounce between the island jail and the streets. Back from the Army and offered civil-service jobs in the post office and the correction department, Shabazz chose the latter. “Correction was the best place for me, because a lot of young brothers were being locked up and I had a desire to make a difference,” he explains in an Aperture interview. A 1986 image of four pre-trial detainees, young men in casual clothes striking an artfully casual pose — one crouches in front, hands open with a luminous smile — has the body language and easy energy of similar shots Shabazz made on Lenox Avenue or the Fulton Mall.

Emily Kinni, Untitled, Huntsville, Texas , 2017

As we move to the present, we see fewer images from inside, and more from life surrounding the core fact of mass incarceration. In Huntsville, Texas, site of nine prisons housing over 15,000 inmates, Emily Kinni went to the Greyhound station and invited men newly released to pose for portraits, sharing Polaroids with them and often keeping in touch. These affecting images are likely the first time the subjects control their own depiction after years inside. In one, a young man has removed his shirt and stands in profile, revealing a tattoo of Abraham Lincoln on his arm. Another shows the lower body of a man readying to board the bus. He totes his belongings in two onion bags; his wrinkled hand marks him as quite old.

Stephen Tourlentes, “Wyoming State Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming” (2000)

A different pathos haunts the long-exposure nighttime photography of Stephen Tourlentes, who has made a series of images of prisons in their landscape, sometimes up close — as in an image from Waupun, Wisconsin, where placid little houses on tree-lined streets give way to the halo-lit walls of a prison at the end of the block — and sometimes from a great distance, ultra-bright lights on the horizon in the Wyoming plateau or backlighting a row of palm trees that surrounds a prison in the barren Arizona desert. There are no humans in these compositions, just institutions that mark the land, harsh disruptions of the ecology.

There is not enough prison-related photography; at the same time, it is a renewing field, broader than one might deduce from this exhibition, in part thanks to the dissemination potential of social media. Everyday Incarceration, a curated feed on Instagram, is one place to scout projects on the prison-industrial complex and its community impacts. More broadly, the system’s injustice and racial bias has become the subject of influential scholarship (such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) and activist mass-media projects (such as Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th). Prison abolitionists, long toiling in the activist underbrush, may be starting to get a fair hearing.

Zora J Murff, Megan at 16 , 2014, from the series Corrections , 2013–15

But a strength of this show is how it depicts artists as participants, not just documentarians. Shabazz worked in the system; so did Zora Murff, who spent time as a tracker for a country juvenile justice system in Iowa, and made portraits — blurred or posed so as to conceal the subject’s identity — of youth he dealt with. Deborah Luster, who presents large-format portraits of inmates dressed for a prison Passion Play performance, has worked on prisons and violence since the 1990s, spurred by her mother’s assassination in 1988 by a contract killer. The multimedia artist Sable Elyse Smith shares pages from her artist’s book that centers on her relationship with her long-incarcerated father. Here, the material spills out of photography and into the epistolary, with a cheery handwritten letter (“What it do daughter!”) signed “Love, Dad A.K.A. Pa.” These artists are implicated. Ultimately, so are we all.

Lucas Foglia, Vanessa and Lauren watering, GreenHouse Program, Rikers Island

‘Prison Nation’
Aperture Foundation
547 West 27th Street

212-505-5555
aperture.org
Through March 7

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

Portrait of the Artist, Ana Mendieta, Iowa City, 1973

I was putting in my hours at the co-op,” Raquelín Mendieta remembers, “when Ana showed up, unannounced, and said, ‘I need some help creating a piece that I’m thinking about. Can you come with me?’ ”

It was May 1973, just a few weeks before the end of the academic year. Ana Mendieta, 24, was finishing the first year of her MFA at the University of Iowa’s five-year-old Intermedia program, where students were encouraged to roam beyond the traditional boundaries of painting, printmaking, and sculpture and into emerging fields like performance, video, and conceptual art. The sisters lived in Iowa City, a college town then home to around 50,000 people. Raquelín was 27, married with two young daughters, and just then she was working her member hours at one of the university’s several cooperative-run day-care centers. Ana and Raquelín had always been close — as girls in their native Cuba they had shared a bedroom, and they had survived a difficult adolescence spent in Catholic-run group and foster homes across Iowa — and Ana sometimes relied on Raquelín for help executing her pieces.

Ana had recently taken up film as a medium, partly as a way of documenting the fugitive, performance-based art she was making, art that had the body and its transformation as a central element. For a piece the year before, Ana asked a classmate named Morty Sklar to shave his beard and mustache, collected the shorn hairs, and carefully glued them to her own face. For another work, she put a dried bean up her nose in hopes it would sprout. When it did, she had to get it removed. The doctor was horrified. These were the kinds of things Ana did.

Raquelín looked around the day care center. It was a slow day. The other parents working could cover for her. She turned to her sister and, without even asking what the piece was, said sure, she’d help, as long as they didn’t take too long. They got in Ana’s car.

With Raquelín in the passenger seat, Ana drove downtown and parked around the corner from the Moffitt building, the plain redbrick low-rise where she lived, in Iowa City’s small downtown. Only a couple of blocks from campus, the street was a busy one, and the Moffitt building’s ground floor was all storefronts — the American Beauty Shoppe, a place that sold granite monuments and grave markers, and the building’s management office, which still bore the name of the original developer, H.F. Moffitt, in faded letters.

Earlier that day, before going to find Raquelín, Ana had assembled everything else she needed for the piece she wanted to make. She had borrowed equipment from the art department and gone to the Whiteway Supermarket on Clinton Street, just south of campus, to pick up a bucket of cow’s blood she’d convinced the butchers to save for her.

Ana got out of the car, carrying her cameras and her container of blood. Her parking spot was not ideal. She’d figured she’d shoot from inside her own car, but all the spaces in front were taken. Raquelín remembers there was an “old, 1940s type of car” parked near the building’s door. “We didn’t know who it belonged to, but it was unlocked,” Raquelín says. Iowa City in the early Seventies was the kind of place where cars (and front doors) were often left unlocked. “Ana said, ‘Let’s get in this car.’ ”

While Raquelín, holding a Super 8 camera, settled into the front seat of the stranger’s vehicle, Ana took her bucket of blood and walked to her building’s front door. She worked quickly, pouring blood and spreading bits of viscera on the sidewalk, starting at the threshold. The big concrete paving squares in front of the Moffitt building had long ago settled at uneven angles — perhaps because of the freeze-thaw cycle of the harsh Midwestern winters, or perhaps due to some oversight in how they were originally laid — and so the bloody matter ran down the sidewalk, away from the doorstep, seeking a level. Staining the concrete as it flowed, the blood pooled in the lowermost corner of a square of pavement, collecting to make something chunky and unspeakable.

Ana got into the front seat of the car, relegating Raquelín to the back. “I want to know what people’s reactions are going to be when they walk by and see blood dripping out from under the door,” she told Raquelín. Ana took back the Super 8 and handed her sister a still camera to document the reactions. Raquelín recalls there was a third person with them that day — a parent friend from the day care center, though she can no longer remember who — who also sat in the back seat and helped with the photographs.

The film Ana made that day, which she called Moffitt Building Piece — the related series of still photographs is known as “People Looking at Blood, Moffitt” — is one of a number of artworks Ana Mendieta made with blood in the years 1973 and ’74; she’d been working with blood since at least 1972, when she filmed a performance in which she stood in a white studio and held a decapitated chicken by the talons as it flailed in its death throes, flapping its wings and spattering its blood over her naked body. Blood’s power to convey many meanings captivated the young artist. Sometimes she plumbed its Catholic resonances, evoking imagery of, for example, the sacred heart or the Eucharist. But in the spring of 1973, something happened in Iowa City that led Mendieta to respond with a suite of works, including Moffitt Building Piece, that were different from those that had come before. These new pieces used blood as a symbol of violence and its aftermath, and they all forced a confrontation with their (usually unsuspecting) audience.

Ana Mendieta, Still from Moffitt Building Piece, 1973

Although Mendieta was generally loath to talk directly about the meaning of her work, when she spoke about these pieces in later interviews, she always explained that she’d felt moved to make works addressing violence because of an incident on campus: the March 1973 murder of a 20-year-old nursing student. The victim’s name was Sarah Ann Ottens.

Mendieta told a reporter for the university newspaper in 1977 that she began making these pieces after Ottens’s death, “as a reaction to the idea of violence against women.” Years later, Mendieta again referred to Ottens when she wrote, in a letter to a museum curator, “I became very involved with the rape issue in 1973 when a young student at the University of Iowa was found murdered after having been brutally raped.”

While these works were exhibited widely both before and after Mendieta’s death in 1985, art historians, curators, and critics have not always identified Ottens, and they have sometimes gotten details of the case wrong. (A notable exception is the art historian Julia Herzberg, who devoted significant space to Ottens in her 1998 dissertation on Mendieta.) Although Ottens’s death is remembered well by many older residents of Iowa City, interest in her from outside that community has come largely from crime writers. The only recent article about Mendieta that gives a meaningful portrait of Ottens is by Sarah Weinman, a crime writer, and was published last year in the Guardian. In exhibition wall copy and in books about Mendieta, Ottens is often left nameless.

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Sarah Ann Ottens was killed two months before Mendieta made Moffitt Building Piece. The student’s body was found in a dorm room one night during spring break; she had been savagely beaten and choked to death. The killer then wet his victim’s head and hair, presumably in an attempt either to revive her or to wash away the blood, leaving behind a stopped-up sink full of bloody water. Ottens’s was the first murder to take place on the University of Iowa campus in its 126-year history. Newspapers across the state, as well as in Ottens’s native Illinois, covered the news of her death and the ensuing investigation above the fold for months. “Just fear, and a sense of not being safe, that was the mood in town,” says Raquelín Mendieta.

It was reported that Ottens was found lying facedown, wearing a torn, bloodstained green blouse, while the rest of her clothing was strewn around the Rienow Hall room where she was killed. Her lower body had been carefully covered by a bedspread. Other than the corpse on the floor, the room was strangely orderly: Both bunk beds were neatly made, and the only sign of a disturbance was an overturned ashtray, which might have been the mischief of the two pet cats Ottens had been looking after.

The medical examiner’s report concluded that Ottens had not been raped before she was killed. But the pathologist who performed the autopsy found that her corpse had been violated rectally and vaginally — newspapers used the euphemism “mutilated” or “molested” — with the bloody broomstick that had been used to choke her. Even now, 40 years later, everyone I’ve spoken to in Iowa City who remembers the murder brings up this broomstick. “That was what women were angry about,” says Diane Troyer, a filmmaker and a friend of Ana Mendieta’s who lived in Iowa City at the time. “Does that not violate a woman on every level that there is?”

In the early 1970s, women’s access to higher education was still a newly won right. Title IX, which outlawed sex discrimination in public education, had only been passed in 1972. Although the University of Iowa had in theory admitted men and women on an equal basis since its founding, in practice male students had long outnumbered women on campus, and in the early Seventies the faculty in most departments (including the art department) was either entirely or almost all male. Many private colleges still excluded women entirely. The place of women on campus, their right to safety, their very right to an education were still up for debate.

The coverage of Ottens’s murder reflected a wider parental and societal fear about the place of women on campus: that the equal treatment their daughters were increasingly demanding would put them at greater physical risk — that liberation would come at the cost of safety. That fear underlies almost every news story published about Ottens’s death. It’s in the headlines that refer to Ottens as a “coed,” the ledes that repeat that Ottens’s body was found “partially clad” or “partly nude,” and in the questions to Ottens’s friends about her relations with men (she had “several male companions” but “no steady boy friend [sic]”). Meanwhile, the violence of the old system that women on campus were fighting — the rapes never reported, the expulsions on “morality” grounds, the systematic exclusion of women from higher education — went largely unexamined.

The Ottens murder galvanized the discussion of violence against women, an issue which, Mendieta would tell the Village Voice in 1980, “I just can’t see being theoretical about.” Shortly after the killing, a group of female students founded the university’s first rape crisis line — also one of the first in the nation. The activists remained anonymous at the time, for fear of harassment and because “we don’t want to create superstars,” as one volunteer put it in a news story, but one of those involved was a friend of Ana’s named Sheila Kelly. Editorials appeared in the university newspaper, signed by entities like Women United Against the Common Oppressor and WAR: Women Against Rape.

Ana Mendieta did not play a direct role in this activism. She wasn’t protesting or answering calls on the rape crisis line. But she was making art. Mendieta placed signs of violence in public where viewers were forced to see it and react. She poured blood on the crotch of a pair of her jeans, placed them in the alley behind her building, and aimed her camera out a window to capture the people who discovered them. Another time, she filled a suitcase with, as Raquelín recalls, “animal entrails and blood” wrapped in newspaper, like pieces of a dismembered body — and left it propped open in a large public park near an abandoned zoo.

“She put it in this park where a lot of students frequented, thinking people are gonna say, ‘Somebody has been murdered and put inside a suitcase,’ ” Raquelín remembers. Ana waited, expecting someone to raise the alarm. “What happened was a man came by and stole the suitcase.”

Ana Mendieta, Untitled: Facial Hair Transplants, 1972

As her friend and fellow artist Nancy Spero said in a 1987 interview, it was the women’s movement that “gave her permission to do this kind of expression.” A violence most often suffered in private was finally was finally being talked about. “Iowa City had a very high incidence of rape,” Mary Boudreau, a fellow student and friend of both Mendieta and Kelly, told Herzberg in a 1994 interview. “The problem of rape was very much on our minds.” So was other violence against women. In addition to the Ottens murder, Troyer recalled a series of attacks on women in Iowa City committed by a masked man with a baseball bat. “At that time, you aren’t worried about someone making a pass at you and rubbing your leg — you’re worried about your life, as a female. You know who the predators are, and it’s not because they want sex, it’s because they hate women.”

About a month before Moffitt Building Piece, Mendieta invited art school classmates, and the art professor she was then romantically involved with, to her apartment, where they found the door ajar. As they walked in they saw Mendieta, her wrists bound with rope to her kitchen table, her underwear around her ankles, with dried blood running down her thighs in streaks. Her furniture had been overturned and dishes were broken on the floor. There was blood on the floor, blood in the toilet, and a bent wire coat hanger. Mendieta called the resulting work Rape Scene.

Working with Kelly’s assistance that afternoon, Mendieta had carefully plotted the angles of the tableau, repositioning her kitchen table several times until it was in just the right spot that her body would be seen the instant anyone entered the apartment. Once Mendieta was satisfied, Kelly tied her up and left before the artist’s classmates began to arrive. Mendieta remained motionless in the performance for about an hour, which, she later told a reporter for the university newspaper, “really jolted” her audience.

Rape has a long history as a subject in art, but it was exceedingly rare, in 1973, for an artist to portray rape as a violent crime, one with a victim who was terrorized bodily and mentally. Western art is studded with famous, beautiful “Rape of” paintings — Leda, Io, Europa, Lucretia, the Sabine women, the daughters of Leucippus — all depicted by men, cheerfully. Rape scenes were painted in sumptuous colors by the likes of Titian and Rubens, or sculpted with luscious, fleshy realism by Bernini. There might be a token struggle, but there is never any force. Io attempts to evade Jupiter only coyly. They could as easily be dancing. At least part of rape’s popularity seems to be due to the opportunity it offered to male artists to depict a female nude and male collectors to own one. In the history of art, rape is eroticized, exalted. The men who commit it are gods, war heroes, and kings.

It is this tradition — what the critic Susan Brownmiller has called “heroic rape” — that Mendieta’s Rape Scene defies by centering female pain. Mendieta used her own body to create this work, and she retains control of the depiction; her nude body is de-eroticized and confrontational. Though triggered by Ottens’s real-life murder, Rape Scene departs significantly from news accounts and photos of the dorm room crime scene. Mendieta’s has far more visible injury, more signs of force, more broken crockery and thrown furniture. More blood. It is at once abject and fierce; it is also intensely cruel. Imagine the shock of discovering, without warning, the violated body of your classmate, your friend, your girlfriend. Imagine, also, taking the story of the death of a woman you never met and using it for art.

“I didn’t know if it was OK or not,” Mendieta said of the work years later, in a 1985 interview. “I did something that I believed in and that I felt I had to do.”

The body of work Mendieta started in the spring of 1973 remains among her most influential. It would turn out to hit close to home.

Mendieta spent the summer of 1973 in Mexico. Upon her return to Iowa City, in August, she was at her sister’s home when she happened to witness, as Raquelín puts it, “one of my ex-husband’s drunken rampages.” Ana and Raquelín’s brother Ignacio, then just a teenager, was also in the house. So were Raquelín’s young daughters. “He terrorized us,” says Raquelín. She remembers the exact date: August 9. “[He] beat my head against the house door and pointed a shotgun at us, shooting three holes onto the ceiling and walls of the living room.” It was not the first time he had abused Raquelín, but it was the first time Ana saw it happen.

That evening, the police drove them to Ana’s Moffitt building apartment, where they remained inside for the whole next day. (They sent the kids to a friend’s house for safety.) But the ex knew where Ana lived. He kept circling the block in his car, and he beat on the front door of the apartment. Ana never spoke publicly about this experience, but surely she never forgot the sounds of those shotgun blasts or those fists on her door. Raquelín recalls, “As Ana and I hid under the bed we said to each other, ‘This is the scariest movie we have ever been in.’ ”

In September of 1973, a fellow student — a former player on Iowa’s football team — was arrested for Ottens’s murder (he was convicted, then released after a series of appeals, and is now in prison for another murder). The combination of the incident with Raquelín and the death on campus continued to exert a powerful pull on Ana. She made a series of self-portraits with blood dripping down her face, clearly evoking that terrifying day at Raquelín’s house. Later that fall, Ana dragged some dirty mattresses into an abandoned farmhouse in a wooded area near the campus. She scattered debris, papers, and clothing around the room. Then she poured blood on the mattresses and splattered it on the walls. The sculptor Charles Ray, then a student at Iowa, happened upon the scene while out walking and was greatly disturbed by it. Mendieta overheard Ray talking with other students in the art building about it and wondering if it was “real.” His unease gratified Mendieta, though she quickly confessed to having created the scene. She went on to perform another version of Rape Scene in the woods, lying prone, naked, and covered in blood, which she documented from 35 different angles.

Ana Mendieta, Still from Moffitt Building Piece, 1973

In Moffitt Building Piece, Mendieta leaks signs of private violence into the public street and tests the reactions of those who witness it. From the first frame of the three-minute film, it is obvious something is wrong. Before we see the blood on the screen, we see it in the body language of the people passing by. Shoulders tighten, postures straighten, a foot hovers in midair then makes a slightly different landing than planned.

We see a plate glass window with flaking lettering and yellowed blinds, a screen door with peeling white paint and an exhausted spring, and a bit of redbrick façade. A woman in a trench coat steps around the pool of blood without breaking stride. A young couple in jeans turn their heads in a synchronized double-take but don’t stop to investigate. A woman in a nurse’s uniform walks primly past. The camera scans left and right, tracking its subjects in secrecy, and the wide black pillars of the old car where Mendieta was hiding serve as a kind of bracket to each shot.

It’s a chilly May afternoon and everyone is wearing jackets as they hurry about their business. A man wearing a fedora pauses for a better look, turns left, turns right, as if checking that nobody has seen him, then walks away. A woman in white pants bends at the waist for a closer look before dipping the tip of her umbrella in the thick, dark substance. She straightens up and continues on her way. Everyone sees the blood, and everyone feigns not to.

The camera keeps on zooming in on the stained square of pavement. It’s aggressive, this camera. It’s insistent that we admit to seeing what we see. Dozens of people go by, and the blood is still there, seen but ignored. It really does look like it’s seeped out from under the building’s front door, like something awful has happened inside. Moffitt Building Piece is a horror movie without a body. The horror is that everyone notices but nobody intervenes.

Yet I also find a dark humor in this film. It’s a hidden-camera prank by a 24-year-old. The more I watch it on loop, the more I find myself smirking every time Mendieta zooms in, gleefully pinpointing a new target of her perverse empathy test. As the film goes on, the tediousness and ridiculousness of the lengths to which we will go to keep a straight face — one woman, clearly seeing the blood, retreats to the edge of the sidewalk yet still continues on — start to feel pathetic, though also deeply human. How heavily our fear of standing out, of reacting to what others in our midst have shown themselves capable of ignoring, weighs on us all. The longer the film plays, the stranger it would be for someone to be seen to notice the blood, or to raise the alarm.

When she sees Moffitt Building Piece today, Raquelín says what impresses her most is her sister’s boldness. “There was a sense of risk-taking,” she recalls, “not only because of the use of blood and what people or the police might think we were doing, but also because we were in a stranger’s car, who might have returned at any moment.”

When she got into that car Ana Mendieta was prepared for someone walking by to call the police and say, “There’s been a murder here — there’s blood dripping out from this door.” She was prepared to explain herself and show the Whiteway receipt. But as the film reveals, that’s the kind of thing that only happens in movies. In the real world, after a long time, a gray-haired man in blue-and-white striped overalls and a dirty shirt comes out of the dingy office with the yellowed blinds. He carries a cardboard box and a scraper. He has the world-weary air of an experienced janitor. Without even looking around, the man bends down and begins to clean the blood from his doorstep, as he has cleaned up so many unspeakable things before.

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Datebook Events FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Meet Chef Monica Byrne of Home/Made

Monica Byrne admits that she just might be a control freak. She’s the kind of chef who, while cooking in the tiny kitchen of her Red Hook restaurant, Home/Made, also takes the time to observe diners from a stove-side window and ask the waiters: “What’s going on with that couple? Is it the food, or are they fighting?”

She’s the kind of control freak that insists on offering patrons free coffee while they wait for their brunch table, the kind who demands that her dining room be a retreat, “a vacation” from ordinary life. In other words, the best kind of control freak.

Byrne’s pantry is wonderfully hodgepodge and full of fragrant, beat-up jars of spices and heads of garlic. Originally a pastry chef, Byrne’s cooking leans toward the savory and simple: She can slap a piece of house-made dough on a grill, brush it with olive oil and scatter it with bacon, summer peaches, grated cheese, and make you
never want to eat a composed plate of food again.

After almost four years in the neighborhood, Byrne will be the first to tell you that owning a restaurant in Red Hook isn’t easy. To overcome the small local population and the practically nonexistent public transit, Byrne employs what she calls “the great underestimation factor.” “If we can get them here one time,” she says, “they’ll keep coming back.”

Home/Made
293 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn
347-223-4135

Categories
FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Heirloom Bling, Heritage Birds

Photographer Peter Lippmann‘s portraits of jewel-wearing chickens and roosters for the latest issue of Marie Claire are both ridiculous and charming. I know I’m supposed to be mesmerized by all the shiny rocks from Cartier and Buccellati, but these birds have so much character that they steal the show.

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Via Flavorwire

Read the most recent posts on our food blog or check our longer weekly reviews. Contact the writer at trao@villagevoice.com.