All summer long, I’ve been waiting to see the four fascinating-sounding art shows that opened in New York while I was away. And now that I’m here, I’ve done so.
The first two were at the Whitney: the cumulative Danny Lyon retrospective and the career-spanning Stuart Davis show. I always like going to the new Whitney, with its novel urban views, its wide-open gallery spaces, its more-than-pleasant cafes, and its great location at the foot of the High Line, and it’s a plus when the art on display is also good. Last year’s Archibald Motley show, for instance, was a revelation and a delight. I can’t say that either of these two new shows lived up to that level, but I was glad to have seen them both.
Danny Lyon is a photographer whose work I have admired since I published him in the first issue of The Threepenny Review, over thirty-six years ago. Those were his prison pictures, which still remain among my favorites, and one of them—the two prisoners playing dominoes at a square table, seen from directly above—is one of the outstanding photos in the Whitney show. There were many other good ones as well, in all sorts of categories, but the show is so wide-ranging and so comprehensive that there is inevitably a lot of mediocre material in it. I am sure Lyon (or the curator) cut out a lot of pictures to arrive at this selection, but the cutting needed to be even more draconian: a smaller show of, say, two roomfuls of his best work would have served him better, I think.
The same was true, in a way, of the Stuart Davis exhibition that shared the same floor with the Lyon show, but in this case the problem lay with the artist, not the curating. For my money, Davis was best and most interesting early in his career—first when he started discovering geometrical abstraction, then during his delicately figurative Paris period, and finally when he happened upon his vibrant use of color and shape. But having happened on it, he just kept doing it, sometimes at larger and larger scale, sometimes in square format, sometimes with a limited palette of colors—but always the same “look,” for decades. It got tiring, in these huge doses, and I left the Whitney exhibit feeling less excited about Stuart Davis than I was when I first saw the poster advertising the show.
The third alluring-sounding exhibit was the “collections” show, entitled The Keeper, at the New Museum. All the critics loved it and made it sound wonderful, so even though I am usually nervous about concept shows like this, I happily trundled over to the Bowery to see it. The woman at the ticket booth advised me to start on the second floor and work my way upward to the fifth, since it was a dense show that got denser as you rose. I’m not sure it would have mattered which direction I went: it was all too much for me, and very little of it struck me as art worth looking at. Among the finer bits were the balsa-wood carvings of animals on the fifth floor, the Henrik Olesen serious-joke-pictures about gays in art (“Faggy Gestures throughout Art History,” and so forth), and the pages from a Holocaust victim’s sketchbook (though I would say that wasn’t a collection at all, but a narrative of horrifying dimensions). But I couldn’t stomach the 3,000 pictures of people with their teddy bears, which took up two floors of one whole side-gallery, with the photos mounted helter-skelter all over the walls. And much of the rest of the show seemed to stem from either lunacy (the woman who displayed every one of the thousands of outer-space messages she had received and noted down, piled up in a stack on a table) or mere collectors’ zeal (the polished rocks). I thought the studio portraits of Ye Jinglu, taken once each year, didn’t hold a patch on Nicholas Nixon’s Brown Sisters—and that, in a way, exemplified the whole problem. The Nixon photos are art; the Ye Jinglu photos are just artifacts of a life, and not very revealing artifacts at that.
It was with some relief, and eventually great pleasure, that I ended up at the fourth show on my list, the Diane Arbus exhibit at the Met Breuer. This show, which focuses on her early work (1956 to 1961) but also includes a few well-known later pieces as well as the self-selected “Box of 10,” is beautifully displayed on gray pillars, one to each picture. As you stroll up and down the aisles, examining these early efforts that sometimes look like Arbus (particularly the ones with children) and sometimes don’t (the street photography could just as easily be Davidson’s or Friedlander’s, at times), you get an enhanced sense of the genius of this particular artist. My visit to the show was greatly assisted, I must admit, by my having recently read Diane Arbus, the long-awaited and excellent biography which my friend Arthur Lubow just published in June. But I hope that even without this guide, I would have been able to recognize the virtues of the Met Breuer show. Over the summer, in search of more Arbus fodder, I had twice been to a roomful of the late “Untitled” Arbus pictures at SFMOMA, and had been disappointed both times—in the pictures themselves as much as in the display. I’m glad to say that yesterday’s visit to In the Beginning utterly restored my faith in the photographer’s intelligent eye.