New York State of Mind

New York State of Mind

New York State of Mind

The big picture.
July 31 1996 3:30 AM

New York State of Mind

A city of buildings, gangsters, and hats.

Every summer there is an afternoon when the wind has scrubbed the sky over Manhattan to a blue translucency, and the whole city looks as though it has just finished an extremely satisfying game of tennis (winning 7-5 in the third), taken a long shower, and is now sitting on a shady porch with a tall glass of mint iced tea in its hand and absolutely nothing on its mind. This summer, that afternoon turned up last weekend. It was not an afternoon you wanted to spend in a museum. But having lived for 22 years in the city, with little prospect of escape, I decided, on a perfect day for bananafish, to go up to the Whitney Museum of American Art, on Madison Avenue, to visit a show called NYNY: City of Ambition and find out what this place is all about.

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Tall buildings, is the answer. Also: dead gangsters and ladies' hats. The show, which is curated by Elisabeth Sussman, has on display paintings and architects' models and comic strips and film clips and photographs and a few items of women's clothing, all made by artists and designers in and of New York between 1900 and 1960. There are photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand and Alvin Langdon Coburn and Margaret Bourke-White, paintings by Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis and Andy Warhol, scale models of Rockefeller Center (which Lewis Mumford originally hated) and the Seagram Building (which everybody originally hated), drawings by Reginald Marsh, comic strips by Will Eisner, and a bolero jacket by Charles James. If you like New York and have lived here long enough, you'll have seen most of this stuff already, but you'll like this show anyway. I liked the show anyway.

The photographs steal it. A lot of the power of the paintings to compel astonishment or pathos has leaked away: Max Weber's fantasy painting of a New York department store (1915), once an icon of modernity, now seems quaint. New York no longer exactly leads the world in big department stores; big department stores are the sort of thing you go to New Jersey for. But the photographs, especially the photographs of buildings--Coburn's Flat-Iron Building, Stieglitz's Singer Building, Bourke-White's Chrysler Building--are as grand as ever. Those early photographers must not have believed their luck at finding hundreds of brick and steel towers jammed together for them on a little island, with new ones blasting up out of the ground like constructivist flowers every day. The compositional possibilities must have seemed endless, every change in the light disclosing a fresh set of visual effects waiting to be captured. It was better than a haystack. They knew what they had, and they took advantage of it.

The dead gangsters are a more specialized taste. The Whitney has plunged rather deeply into the oeuvre of Arthur Fellig (Weegee) for this show. He's represented not just by his homicide victims and his famous shot of The Critic (two grande dames in evening dress stepping out from their limo as a bag lady appraises their fashion sense), but by a 20-minute film, called Weegee's New York (1953), as well. The film--a long series of crotch shots on Coney Island, followed by a long segment of drunks at a cocktail party--gives the game away a little. Weegee didn't seek out the underside; the underside was all he saw. He is one of the great chroniclers of midcentury luridness, but his photographs of men grinning at a dead body on the sidewalk are like those photographs of Southerners milling around after a lynching: They are undeniably riveting, but you don't really want to stop to think about what the photographer was doing there in the first place.

The greatest photographer of New York street life, I think, is probably William Klein, whose collection titled Life Is Good & Good for You in New York, first published in Paris in 1956 and long out of print, has just been reissued by Dewi Lewis Publishers under the title New York 1954-55. I have never seen the original edition; the new one is said to have been completely redesigned and to include many more photographs. Several are in the Whitney show.

The formal trick in Klein's pictures is the multiplication of focal points. There is almost never a single subject in the frame, and as soon as the eye picks out a face or an object as the thematic center of the composition, another face, or another object, suddenly displaces it, and the center moves off someplace else. The key to the effect is that the various "centers" are nearly always incongruous. The boy with the pompadour staring with a smile of lighthearted menace straight at the camera is in a different visual world from the lady in the demurely checked kerchief with her eyes somewhere else and her mind on lunch.

Most of us look at a midtown sidewalk and see a crowd. For Klein, there is no such thing as a crowd. There are only a lot of faces, all inscrutable, but differently inscrutable. His pictures are advent calendars on which none of the doors will open. It's the kind of instant de-homogenizing sensation you sometimes get in the subway, when you suddenly awaken to the fact that the dozen faces you've been staring vacantly at across the aisle from you belong to a dozen different moral universes--not just in the trivial sense that we all see the world differently, but in the distinctly nontrivial sense that people sitting right next to each other really can have nothing in common--and that you'll never know a single one. Sometimes this sensation is moving, and sometimes it's just creepy. But it's a New York sensation.

When you find yourself reflecting on the phenomenology of the subway, you have had enough art for the day. Outside, the city had all gone home, but there was still a summer sky, and an empty iced-tea glass was sitting on the porch. New York seemed like the least ambitious town in the world.

Louis Menand teaches English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.