Published on Artforum.com on October 5, 2012. The exhibition remains on view at Nicole Klagsbrun until October 27.
The austere geometry and muscular presence of architect Louis Kahn’s late designs infuses the photographs Barney Kulok has taken of the Four Freedoms Park. In this exhibition, however, one won’t find conventional documentation of the park’s allée of linden trees, its open granite “room” at Roosevelt Island’s southern tip, or its bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt created by Jo Davidson. Kulok, who was granted access last year to the construction site, has instead brought back chiaroscuro fragments—moody gelatin silver prints that demonstrate remarkable tonal range and control but explain little about the late master’s final design. As often as not, Kulok seems simply to be photographing whatever was resting at his feet. The results, however, are quietly thrilling.
In addition to distilling something of Kahn’s design principles, these twenty-three images also demonstrate that Kulok has deeply internalized the legacy of Minimalist and post-Minimalist sculpture. One can walk through the gallery’s two rooms assigning to individual photographs entries from Richard Serra’s 1967–68 Verb List. “To scatter”: Untitled (Cobble Constellation) (all works cited, 2011) depicts a chance array of loose granite paving blocks resting atop those already laid in neat rows. “To suspend”: Untitled (Improvised Plumb Line), an image of a dangling brick, isolated against a dark, pockmarked wall. “To heap”: Untitled (Joint Filler), a pile of the eponymous material that exhibits such sharp contrasts between light and dark as to seem unreal, like a Photoshop tweak or a darkroom mistake. Others, with their bent wires and bits of stone and wood and earth, call to mind Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, or Carl Andre. The photographs’ charcoal-rubbed wooden frames give them a solidity, an objectness, that further aligns them with this sculptural precedent—and with Kahn’s resolutely tactile architecture. Visitors’ experiences of the park will undoubtedly range widely. For viewers of these images, Kulok has expanded that range still further, and tapped into something elemental that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
During the mid- to late 1960s, photographer Danny Lyon chronicled the “slum clearance” required by two enormous infrastructure projects in New York City: a new ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge and the World Trade Center. The results were solemn portraits of Manhattan’s stout brick and cast-iron buildings, the men responsible for bringing those structures down, and, in interior scenes, the accretion of human history and labor those buildings preserved. After the violent obliteration of the Twin Towers in 2001, renewed attention to Lyon’s project, evocatively titled The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, was perhaps inevitable; indeed, it has enjoyed quite a renaissance. In 2005 PowerHouse republished to wide acclaim Lyon’s original book of the photographs. The series was also the primary inspiration for the 2010 Mixed Use, Manhattan exhibition at the Reina Sofía in Madrid, which surveyed artists’ interactions with postindustrial New York’s buildings and spaces. Finally, last summer and fall, the Princeton University Art Museum presented The Life and Death of Buildings, which curator Joel Smith was motivated to organize after a collector donated to the museum a complete set of Lyon’s pictures.
Smith’s curatorial effort, drawn largely from his museum’s collection, was a meditation on the role photographs play in granting us access to pasts no longer extant. Buildings and photographs are both artifacts that can be located in history, Smith notes, but each embodies a different sense of time. Buildings accumulate pasts, which shadow every encounter one has with them in the present. (Certain examples even make explicit their history, like the Bundestag in Berlin, the redesign of which deliberately left its walls pockmarked with World War II–era bullet holes and covered in the graffiti of Russian soldiers.) Photographs freeze a specific moment, excise it from its context, and make aspects of that moment accessible at a later date. To analyze these differences, and to focus viewers’ minds on the concept of time, Smith deployed his copious material, which ranged across the entire history of photography and several continents, in a somewhat unusual manner. He intentionally disavowed the divergent aims of the photographers included in the show—amateur and professional alike. Everything, then, became more or less “documentary.” Similarly, because no building appeared repeatedly, and we were thus denied a full understanding of its “life,” each skyscraper or cathedral represented the category “building” as much as or more than it represented itself.
Though at first I chafed at this selective curatorial framing, Smith’s criteria gave coherence to his expansive selection. Under such constraints, formal connections suggest themselves immediately, as between a detail of thirteenth-century brass work on a door of Notre Dame cathedral, captured by the Bisson Frères circa 1854, and the foliate handiwork in John Szarkowski’s Corner Pier, The Prudential Building, Buffalo, New York (1951). But unexpected links revealed themselves as well. The surface of walls was given close scrutiny in a section labeled “The Sentient Wall,” which featured midcentury abstractions depicting buildings ravaged by time. In these works, by Aaron Siskind, Minor White, Harry Callahan, Robert Doisneau, and others, the “sentience” accumulates after the building is erected. Yet this arrangement prompted in me a reconsideration of the decorative patterning in the Bisson and Szarkowski photographs as a kind of sentience of its own. (Think of John Ruskin’s description of Gothic builders as free to creatively employ their talents; the resultant walls literally embody their craftsmen’s knowledge.) If, as this thought suggests, the lives of buildings begin before they are completed, evidence abounded in this exhibition that it likewise extends beyond their deaths. Richard Misrach’s White Man Contemplating Pyramids (1989) and Philip Henry Delamotte’s 1856 picture of the dilapidated cloister at Yorkshire’s Fountains Abbey both remind us that a structure’s affective potential can far outlast its original uses. So, too, does Tim Davis’s witty photograph of nearly two dozen tourists’ cameras resting on the pavement, their viewfinders displaying just-snapped shots of the Colosseum in Rome.
What did this collection of pictures suggest about time? A basic lesson came insistently to mind: time exposes the frailty inherent in all human endeavors—even the grandest and most secure-seeming ones. In some instances that frailty was evident in the images themselves. The first gallery included century-old photo-postcards depicting homesteaders posing with their ramshackle homes. “BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE…” reads the ironic handwritten inscription on one, its sender surely aware of the insecurity of his perch on the plains. In most cases, however, the recognition that what is depicted no longer exists imparted the same message. Though both life and death appear in its title, the general drift of this exhibition was toward ends, toward ruins.
Many of photography’s earliest practitioners, such as Delamotte, had a Romantic predilection for photographing ruins; it’s as if the awareness of death upon which Smith focuses is encoded in the medium. But this is perhaps fitting, as an additional level of melancholy inheres in the recognition that photographs themselves are extremely fragile. Those early photo-postcards are rare survivors from an era that saw the creation and delivery of millions just like them. Photographs possess a rare power, granting us something akin to the capacity to time-travel, but that power lasts only as long as does the ability to read their surfaces. Thomas Ruff’s jpeg co01 (2004), in the show’s final gallery, draws together these themes. The wall-size print depicts the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, the iconic structures enveloped in a haze of smoke, ash, and dust. Yet because Ruff made the photograph by scaling up a compressed JPEG file, pixelization further obscures its ostensible subject. The momentous event, the erasure of the towers that had replaced what Danny Lyon so carefully captured on film, recedes from us ever further.
Urban Omnibus has published an interview with Stanley Greenberg, whose “photography explores hidden systems, infrastructures and technologies, both state-of-the-art and antiquated. New York City’s unseen workings, the region’s complex water systems, architecture mid-construction, physics labs, telescopes and a decommissioned dam have all been the subject of Greenberg’s careful eye.” A slideshow of Greenberg’s photographs accompanies the text; to see more, click here for a page on the Gitterman Gallery website and here for a selection published at the site of the Architect’s Newspaper.
This month I have been reading books on the history of Chicago. I’ve enjoyed several that are deemed classics in their fields—namely William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Carl Smith’s Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief. But rather than sing their praises yet again, I want to mention a new book, Joanna Merwood-Salisbury’s Chicago 1890: The Skyscraper and the Modern City (University of Chicago Press, 2009). It’s a slim, engaging study that places a handful of the city’s first skyscrapers, including The Monadnock, the Masonic Temple, and the Reliance Building, in the context of the raucous decade during which they were erected. While Merwood-Salisbury does include some formal description, a far greater proportion of her book is given over to analysis of “architecture and anarchy,” strikes by building trades union members, and the skyscrapers’ relationship to civic reform efforts, such as sanitation. Even the technical innovations that allowed the skyscrapers to reach above ten stories in the first place, such as steel-frame construction, are examined from the standpoint of their impact upon the labor that goes in to their building. This push-and-pull between aesthetics and politics played out in the pages of The Inland Architect, the house journal of the city’s architecture professionals, and the newspaper and periodical press, which Merwood-Salisbury mines to strong effect.
Rorotoko, a website that publishes original first-person statements by authors that describe their books, featured Chicago 1890 at the beginning of the month. Here are a few of Merwood-Salisbury’s own words:
→ The book is firstly a reinterpretation of some well-known architectural masterpieces by Chicago architects Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler, Daniel Burnham, and John Wellborn Root, notably the Monadnock (1885-92) and the Reliance Building (1889-95). I examine these buildings not only as important artifacts in architectural history, but also as sites for a contentious debate about the future of the industrial city.
Chicago’s defining events, including the violent building trade strikes of the 1880s, the Haymarket bombing of 1886, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and Burnham and Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago— feature large in the book as the context in which the skyscraper, at the turn of the twentieth century, was imagined, built, and finally repudiated. This approach to architectural history provides a new way to look at the work of important American architects, understanding their designs as specific responses to modern urban phenomena.
To read more from this interview, click here. To see a video recording of a lecture on this subject that Merwood-Salisbury delivered at the Skyscraper Museum last year, click here.
My brief review of Paul Goldberger’s Why Architecture Matters (Yale) appears in the fall issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Click here (and scroll down) to read it. “[Goldberger] is suitably temperate while discussing the balance of ‘aesthetic ambition’ and ‘social purpose,’ exterior form and interior space, architecture’s effects on our emotions and on our intellect, the importance of place and time, and the architect’s responsibility to both the design he is crafting and the context it will enter.” Though Goldberger’s book arrived in stores a few weeks ago, I’ve yet to find much other review coverage, a fact that may be due in part to the preponderance of discussion concerning Louis Begley’s Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, which is published in the same series. I’ll update this post with links to any coverage I come across. In the meantime, Goldberger’s personal website offers a fairly extensive archive of his writings on architecture from the past decade.