Barb Choit

Published in Artforum, February 2013. For more information about and images of this exhibition, click here.

Installation view

Memories fade, so we invented a chemical process by which we can affix images of our world to paper. Yet photographs also fade, so we place them behind protective glass or store them away from the very light that brings them into being. By making fading the theme of her second solo exhibition at this gallery, New York– and Vancouver-based artist Barb Choit devised a novel way to frame the impulses behind, as well as the fundamental facts of, the medium. (In doing so, she acknowledges but adroitly sidesteps the pervasive arguments about photography and death.) The twelve pictures she exhibited are rich with associations, encompassing broad swaths of photography’s history while also offering sharp commentary on economic change, standards of beauty, and other facts of contemporary life. Though in line with the works exhibited in “Nagel Fades,” her 2009 show at Rachel Uffner Gallery, “Fade Diary” marked a significant step forward for the artist. This was a conceptually taut and strikingly elegant show.

These photographs are, simply put, views of storefronts. Each one focuses on a poster or a group of objects that has been in a window for an extended period; sunlight has diminished the bright colors of the items’ industrially printed surfaces. The large expanses of plate glass also function as mirrors, layering over the ostensible subject of each photograph a thin veneer of reflected imagery. Countless artists have taken storefronts as their subject matter, from Eugene Atget to Lee Friedlander, who se exhibition depicting mannequins in shop windows was on view in New York at the same time as this show. Choit brings to her project not only an awareness of this history, but also, at times, a wry sense of humor.

Five photos title Barbershop Fade (all works 2012) demonstrate this well. Each depicts a poster showing the hairstyles available within—including, of course, fades. The gridded images bring to mind everything from Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies to Arnaud Maggs’s serial portraits to Walker Evans’s 1936 photograph Penny Picture Display, Savannah. That the posters’ saturated colors have dimmed can be understood as a metaphor for the fate of such mom-and-pop businesses in the increasingly gentrified areas of Brooklyn where most of these pictures were taken. Kings County, which is coterminous with the New York City borough, was recently revealed to possess the third-greatest income inequality of any county in the state of New York. The solidly working- and middle-class communities that patronize such businesses are themselves quickly fading.

The other images on view are taken from the sidewalks in front of beauty parlors, corner stores, and travel agencies. In the salon windows hang posters of women sporting hairstyles evocative of an earlier era. Here, too, Choit plays on words, by titling these images Faded Beauty; in doing so, she reminds viewers that while our fashions change, our underlying standards of beauty—thinness, unblemished skin—are remarkably consistent. We see these women as being out of time, yet can understand how they were deemed beautiful at the moment each poster was made.

Untitled Faded Beauty (Asian Cinema), 2012

Choit’s color palette is necessarily subdued—cyans softened to a baby blue, magentas with their forcefulness drained away, blacks that are no longer truly black. This delicateness gives the photographs a nostalgic quality that never lapses into sentimentality. Perhaps the most mysterious image in the show is Untitled Faded Beauty (Asian Cinema), of a movie poster depicting a woman holding a phone to her ear. The image has been not only effaced by the cumulative effects of the sun but also obscured by the reflection of trees and an overcast sky. The viewer knows precisely what she is looking at; yet, as do many of the works in this show, the picture also affords the chance to ask why we try to capture our experiences and why, in the end, those efforts will necessarily fail.

Barney Kulok

Published on on October 5, 2012. The exhibition remains on view at Nicole Klagsbrun until October 27.

Barney Kulok, Untitled (Cobble Constellation), 2011

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.

Richard Zacks, Island of Vice

Earlier this week, Capital New York published my review of Richard Zacks’s Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. The book is fun, though it has some limitations, as I tried to make clear:

Some of Zacks’s most entertaining passages chronicle Roosevelt’s after-midnight prowls along city streets, searching, often alongside a reporter for one of the city’s many dailies, for cops sleeping or drinking on the job. He would nearly pick a fight with those he found, then gleefully inform them just who they were arguing with and demand they appear at police headquarters early the next morning. Such episodes are retold with zest, and the book is unfailingly entertaining. Drawing upon courtroom and committee room minutes, as well as newspaper reports and his subjects’ voluminous correspondence, Zacks has crafted a popular narrative history of a pretty high order.

It enters a crowded field. There are not only many lengthy biographies of T.R., like the one by Edmund Morris, whose third and final volume, Colonel Roosevelt, arrived in late 2010, but also a steady flow of narrower studies, such as Hot Time in the Old Town (2010), about Roosevelt and the summer 1896 heat wave, or Honor in the Dust (2012), on Roosevelt’s place in American imperial expansion. Island of Vice dovetails with perennially popular studies of Gilded Age excess and crime, such as Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City (2007). It’s easy to see how such a book was published, sitting as it does at a busy intersection on the map of publishers’ desires: the Roosevelts, New York City, sex, and crime.

What broader developments Zacks hopes to explain, or what lessons he wishes readers to draw, are somewhat harder to discern.

To read the rest of the review, click here. New York magazine ran a feature on the book devised with Zacks’s help. This nugget of service journalism asks the all-important question, “Do You Live in a Former Brothel?”

Christopher Gray’s “Streetscapes”

For several years I have enjoyed Christopher Gray’s “Streetscapes” column in the New York Times. This morning, looking online, I discovered Gray has been writing about buildings and blocks in New York for over two decades. These pieces comprise a huge and diverting archive, from which I learned, for example, that until the early 1990s my block housed an Episcopal church constructed in 1838 on land donated by Clement Clark Moore. Moore is the author of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (more commonly known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), and his family estate, Chelsea, is the source of my neighborhood’s name. Click here for the archive with a brief introduction to the column by Gray. Two books, Changing New York (1992) and New York Streetscapes (2003), also contain materials from the column.

18th-century New York, In the Eyes of NYU Scholars

The January 2010 issue of The William and Mary Quarterly contains reviews of recent books by two scholars based at NYU. Both books, Thomas M. Truxes‘s Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York and Bryan Waterman‘s Republic of Intellect: The Friendly Club of New York City and the Making of American Literature, also happen to focus on mid-to-late-eighteenth-century New York. And, last but not least, both authors happen to be speaking this semester as part of NYU’s Atlantic World Workshop. Truxes appears next Tuesday, February 2; Waterman will deliver a paper on March 23. For more, see Waterman’s blog, co-authored with Cyrus R.K. Patell and called, appropriately enough, Patell and Waterman’s History of New York; listen to Truxes’s March 2009 conversation with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate; and see my brief post on turn-of-the-eighteenth-century New York bookseller Hocquet Caritat.

Chatter on New York’s streets, circa 1962

Yesterday afternoon, during a conference held at Columbia University on Lionel Trilling and his legacy, the eminent historian Fritz Stern recalled one day in 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis, when he met Trilling on the corner of Broadway and 116th Street. Unsure whether nuclear missiles would rain down on New York, Stern cautiously admitted to Trilling that he wished he would survive an attack, if only to see what life would be like afterward. Trilling replied in a serious tone: “I hope I survive, too; I know a lot of Shakespeare by heart.”

This morning, reading Julian Bell’s review of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman in the New York Review of Books, I came across another piece of not-so-idle street chatter from that historically frought moment.

In fact The Craftsman’s initial point of departure, Sennett tells us, was a wish to reply to an argument to put him by Heidegger’s pupil Hannah Arendt. Back in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arendt told him in a New York street that the dire predicament in which nuclear physics had placed the planet proved that technology could not be its own master, for “people who make things usually don’t understand what they are doing.” 

Platform for Pedagogy

Platform for Pedagogy is a weekly e-mail newsletter listing an interdisciplinary mix of lectures in New York City. According to its website: “Platform for Pedagogy is an initiative to advance a culture of cross-disciplinary public lecture attendance and to develop the lecture as practice. We deal exclusively with public lectures.” For two years I have maintained an elaborate, iCal-based calendar of lectures, panels, symposia, screenings, and performances by artists and writers. This seems similar in spirit, and I hope that it proves a successful venture.