New York, New York
New York City is not just the center of the art world; it's the center of American culture. That was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt almost a year and a half ago by the tragic events that occurred on 9/11. With that event, the city's place in the popular imagination of people around the world was amply demonstrated, both by the terrorists' decision to hit New York in the first place and the national and international response to the disaster.
In the days and weeks after the famous, iconic Twin Towers by Minoru Yamasaki came down, it became obvious that the enormous and valuable site would be rebuilt and that it must include a memorial to the thousands of innocent victims who were lost.
The site has now been cleared, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, charged with the rebuilding, has winnowed down the list of nine designs for a new World Trade Center complex (which will be renamed) and announced last week that Daniel Libeskind is one of the two finalists.
The hotter-than-hot architect is a familiar face in Denver, owing to frequent visits related to his soon-to-be-built freestanding wing of the Denver Art Museum. The three-building complex will include, in addition to the museum wing, a parking garage and a residential high-rise. Interestingly, Libeskind's proposal for the New York site is clearly a conceptual and stylistic extension of the much more modest Denver project: Both feature Libeskind's signature cubistic and expressionist handling of the volumes, in which his buildings are conceived as a series of overlapping diagonal planes.
Libeskind's DAM has already garnered a lot of press in art and architecture magazines here and in Europe. But if Libeskind is selected to design the WTC, the profile of his Denver complex will rise dramatically, because it will be finished while the New York buildings are just getting under way. The new DAM wing will thus serve as the proof in the pudding regarding Libeskind as a designer.
I have no crystal ball, nor am I privy to the internal workings of the selection committee, but I think Libeskind's WTC design has a better-than-even chance of making the final cut. His only rival, THINK Design, a consortium of architects headed by Raphael Viñoly and Frederic Schwartz, put forward the idea of a pair of 1,600-foot cylindrical towers with outdoor staircases spiraling to the top. True, Libeskind's design has some outrageous features, too, none more so than the almost 180-story greenhouse spire -- "a green boulevard set on its end," as Libeskind has described it -- but even that's not as absurd as those evocative but creepy THINK staircases. The project's on a fast track, so we'll know the winner in just two short weeks.
The city of New York, including the destruction of the WTC, is the subject of a compelling exhibit, Street Level: A Century of New York Street Photography, currently at the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture. The show, which fills both the main space and the annex in the nearby atrium, is so impressive that it seems like something that could only have been put together by the likes of the International Center for Photography or Eastman House. Well, okay, maybe the New York Historical Society -- but surely not the Singer?
The volume of the material alone makes Street Level appear to be a traveling blockbuster. The exhibit includes more than 120 photographs by so many big names it'll make your head spin. But appearances are deceiving, because it was put together, as preposterous as it seems, at the Singer. And it only stops here in Denver.
The show was organized by the gallery's director, the multi-talented Simon Zalkind, who has been told by many people that they assumed the show was from out of town. "There's the assumption that it's too ambitious. Certainly we didn't do it; we just paid for it. And it is, I guess, in a way, a compliment," Zalkind says with a laugh. But it's hardly the compliment Zalkind deserves for putting together this riveting show.
The secret to Zalkind's success is his network of loan sources, for the most part galleries and collectors, which are easier to deal with than museums when it comes to loans. Many of the photos in the show are from commercial venues right here in Denver, including the Camera Obscura Gallery and Gallery Sink, while others come from New York operations, such as the Howard Greenberg Gallery and the Robert Miller Gallery.
The exhibition's design, also the brainchild of Zalkind, is something worth mentioning. Strikingly, Zalkind had the walls painted a strong yellow: "It's the color of the mustard at Nathan's in Coney Island," he says. Against this mustard background, the photos stand out like jewels. Zalkind went classic with the framing, putting just about everything in cream-colored mattes and painted-black wood moldings, long the standard of elegance for photography presentation. But it was more than just a chic choice: The framing unifies the disparate photos, simplifying the overall look of the densely installed exhibit -- a necessity, because Zalkind crammed in so many photos that he didn't have room for even one more.
The most important aspect of Zalkind's design for Street Level is the arrangement of the installation in loosely chronological order, beginning with photos from the late nineteenth century and winding up with those from the early 21st. One of the great advantages of a chronological installation is that movements and styles, and their interrelationships, are automatically evident, allowing Zalkind to cogently present the development of street photography and reveal its golden age in the mid-twentieth century.
Unfortunately, there is no signage indicating how viewers should proceed through this large show. To follow the course that was set by Zalkind, begin to the right of the Singer's entrance, go around the perimeter of the room, then cross to the angled walls in the center, then go back out the door and down the hall to the atrium.
One of the first photos on display is "Untitled (Woman and Children with Baskets)," an 1890s gelatin silver print by the legendary Jacob Riis. The shot is taken at an angle from across the street, so that the curb creates a diagonal line leading the eye up and to the right. The woman and the group of children sitting on the sidewalk are immigrants, as indicated by their clothing, and they're poor, as indicated by their meager selection of baskets for sale. So Riis was already doing something -- depicting outsiders such as immigrants, the impoverished and other marginalized individuals -- that is still dominant in street photography.
The work of another early photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, exemplifies a different approach. In a group of photogravures from 1911, he uses New York's grandeur and enormous size as the subject of the pictures. This style, too, has endured and is often seen in contemporary photography, but Riis's way is still predominant as far as street photography goes.
As the show gets to the 1920s and 1930s, styles gradually begin to shift as modernism becomes established in photography. Some works, like "Fire, West Side Rooming House," a 1936 gelatin silver print by Weegee, are imbued with psychological content. In the photo, a crowd of onlookers morbidly surrounds the collapsed ruins of a burned-out building. In others, such as "Steelworkers-Bolt Boss," a 1931 gelatin silver print by Lewis Hine, there's a political agenda -- in this case, the left-wingish glorification of the laborer.
Many of the street photographers of the 1930s and '40s were left-leaning, which, sadly, caused them lots of trouble during the Red Scare. Nearly all of the socially aware photographers working at that time in the city were somehow associated with the New York Photo League, and in 1947, it was officially listed as a subversive organization. Zalkind has a special interest in the members of the league; he's previously exhibited their work and includes some of them in the current show, such as George Gilbert, Sol Libsohn, Ruth Orkin, Bill Witt and Jack Manning.
Street photography hit its high point in the 1950s and '60s with the work of William Klein, Garry Winogrand and especially Diane Arbus, who is represented by two marvelous gelatin silver prints, 1965's "A Young Man and His Pregnant Wife" and 1967's "Blonde Girl with Shiny Lipstick." In the photos from this period, there's a palpable distance between the photographer and the subject. And the subjects -- even the children in the Klein photos, such as "Gun 1," a 1955 gelatin silver print -- are threatening and menacing, yet ultimately sad. That's not the approach Don Donaghy takes, but his candid '60s shots of people on the city streets are still right on the money for the period.
Donaghy now lives in Boulder and is one of several Colorado-based photographers that Zalkind was able to include in Street Level. The others are Alan Rabold, Mark Sink, Joe Dallenbach and Laura Merage, who are all represented with photos that date back to the '80s and '90s.
Some of the newest photos, which finish out the show, are the remarkable large-format C-prints taken by Jeff Mermelstein, which depict views of the aftermath of 9/11. The first of them, "Ground Zero," shows two firemen on duty, one wiping the dust from his eyes while the other looks up at the sky.
The Mermelsteins are exhibited together in the atrium space that's separated from the rest of the show. These eighteen photos of wreckage -- trees hung with boots, sidewalks caked in dust -- could easily carry the exhibit all by themselves, giving you some idea of just how good Street Level really is, especially considering that the other part of the show is even better.
Zalkind's Street Level is straightforward, yet it tells the story of New York street photography dramatically, as though it were a sweeping epic, which, I guess, it was. He sets the photographers in the foreground of the show, and then he puts the big forces of history just behind them. As a result of Zalkind's efforts and insights, he's produced an art exhibit that's simultaneously informative and entertaining, and, as I hardly need to point out, that makes Street Level a real accomplishment.
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