New York is a vibrant, bustling mess of colors, activity, sights, and people. It is a place like no other in the world, and its icons do not disappoint. There is so much going on, in every corner of the city and, it feels, at every hour.
Manhattan is so densely developed that somehow the distinction between indoor and outdoor spaces seems to blur together. Even being outside here it feels like you’re in some kind of open-air emporium. This is especially true in the steamy summer days, when going inside is the only way to cool off and everything feels a bit backwards. I was in awe of how such a small island could stand to shoulder so many big, heavy buildings and all these people that occupy them.
Looking up, it’s easy to imagine the people that are inhabiting and working in every level of the skyscrapers. There are so many work hours being completed, in this city where a 90 hour work-week is something of a norm and on the other hand, so much being spent, the whirling clockwork of consumerism completing its own circle.
Against this chaotic background, wandering into the Whitney Museum of American Art was a surprising juxtaposition of calm. From it’s architecture, modern, industrial grey that is somehow towering and distinct even in a city of giants, to its contents, artwork portrayed in a space designated for contemplation and study, consuming visually, intellectually, and not with your wallet, everything seemed to set the museum apart from the rest of the city. With its high ceilings and everything all-white inside it felt like an entrance into another realm, putting an abrupt pause on the background buzz of the city and leaving just the artwork to pop off the walls, these little or sometimes huge windows that provide a glimpse into different artists’ souls.
We started on the 7th of 8 floors where there is an ongoing display of the Whitney’s large collections of portraiture. The display traces the evolution portraits over time, suggesting that our means of representing ourselves has become more accessible to us than ever before. In the past, a portrait would have been a costly endeavor, reserved for the rich and famous who could afford to commission an artist to spend weeks or months painting them, while they had the luxury of the time to sit for the painting. Now we live in a ‘selfie’ age, where cell phone cameras are nearly ubiquitous. Yet do we own or control our image any more than in the past? I wondered if the opposite was actually true with the slippery slope of ownership of all the visuals that circulate on social media and almost the feeling that we owe something of ourselves to these platforms.
I was awash in new ideas, inspired by artwork and just the magnitude of all these past acts of human creativity. Passing from the 7th floor to the 6th, we went out on the balcony to experience the cityscape as larger-than-life exhibit in and of itself, and then headed down again to the 5th floor which was showing a photography exhibit. In university, I’d spent some time thinking about photography between Barthes’ Camera Lucida and Susan Sontag: that jarring (and staying) idea of a camera being like a gun, shooting your subject. Who is in control? Who is object and who is subject? Recently, my relationship to photography has been evolving quite a bit, as I’ve started learning more and taking more pictures and this exhibit forced me to question some of the previous conclusions I had drawn, perhaps hastily.
There were three different photographers' work being displayed, but I spent nearly all of the time captivated by the works of Danny Lyon. I’d never heard of him before, but I learned that he had become well-known as a photographer in the 1960s for his participation in the American street photography movement. He captured his subjects up close and personal, and I liked his pictures for their grit. He would spend extended amounts of time in rough neighborhoods, from New York to Chicago, getting to know the people who inhabited these spaces that had been so little represented. He also captured shots of a prison in Texas, starkly exposing what the reality of conditions for the incarcerated.
Lyons had traveled far and wide with his photography, always with an emphasis on “[his] concern with social and political issues and the welfare of individual considered by many to be on the margins of society,” as the Whitney explains it. His pictures ranged from border crossers in Mexico, to “advocacy journalism” of rural miners in Bolivia in the 1970s and 1980s. His photography projects took him from Cartagena, Colombia to the Xiang-Xi region of China.
While photography can be objectifying and fetishized way of consuming difference, this was a clear example of how it can also be an important tool for activism as well a powerful art form. This exhibit reminded me of how poignantly art can serve social justice.
I think the truth is that we need art, at times desperately. We need it as a means of understanding and representing ourselves, in the amazing connection it can awaken when we recognize some part of ourselves in another’s artistic creation. We need it to fill us and inspire us, a reminder of our amazing capacity to create something new.
Artwork has the amazing capacity to communicate a message and bring to life a sensibility that’s all too often been desensitized by endless violent images in today’s news. The creation and presentation of art is a powerful thing that we do; it is a gift to us, those who seek to create it in some way and those who receive it in all its vibrant forms.
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
New York, NY 10014
The Lyons’ exhibit is on display through September 25th. The Portrait exhibit is ongoing. Bring your student ID for discounted entry ($18). Full price tickets, $25. Pay what you want admission Fridays from 7-10pm.