“Twin” apartment buildings in the Bronx, east of the Grand Concourse, as seen from the terrace of the Bronx Museum of Art.
I make a point of dropping in the Bronx Museum of the Arts when I’m back in New York. This most recent visit did not disappoint, with three strong exhibitions of arts with connections to the borough and New York City at large.
Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect turns familiar notions of architecture upside-down with many projects featuring cuts, holes, and other modifications to derelict and abandoned buildings in New York and beyond. The Bronx of the 1970s was one of his main canvases and the point of departure for his practice. His series featuring the iconic graffiti of the borough’s subway trains and facades leads the exploration, with Matta-Clark observing the built environment as it is.
The next level of his work modifies the built environment by adding his own elements, or rather removing parts of existing architecture. In his Bronx Floor series, Matta-Clark removes a section of the floor of an abandoned building on Boston Road. This serves as a setting for installations and photography.
[Gordon Matta-Clark. Bronx Floor]
Like Matta-Clark, I find these spaces of the Bronx of the 1970s quite inspiring on an aesthetic level. My enjoyment of this often overlooked aesthetic is a bit tempered by the notion that these buildings ended up this way through a variety of bad circumstances: neglect (sometimes deliberate), poor city planning, rising inequality, etc.
From the foment of the South Bronx, Matta-Clark took his concept to Manhattan. In his 1975 project Day’s End, he cut large holes into the abandoned Pier 52 along the Hudson River (I remember the derelict piers that used to line the lower West Side all to well from the 1970s and 1980s).
[Gordon Matta-Clark. Day’s End (Pier 52 in Manhattan)]
This served both as a sculpture and installation in its own right, but also as a performance an exhibition space. Interestingly, the authorities did not notice the initial work cutting out a piece of the building, but they did find out about the performances and happenings, and were none too pleased by this. Eventually, the city dropped charges while he was working on a project in Paris.
[Gordon Matta-Clark. Conical Intersection (Paris)]
Conical Intersect cuts out a section of a partially demolished mansion in the Les Halles district, adjacent to the still-under-construction Centre Georges Pompidou. This was the setting for film and still photography projects, as well as performances and happenings (including “including roasting 750 pounds of beef for passersby on the Pompidou plaza” [
[Susannah Ray. Hutchison River and Co-Op City, 2015.]
Seeing Ray and Matta-Clarks photographs in the same visit shows the evolution of the Bronx, and in particular how the natural spaces have improved since their nadirs in the early 1980s. The lower Bronx River was once a disaster but is returning to new natural-urban balance in recent years.
[Susannah Ray. Canoes, The Bronx River, 2013]
You can read more about the revitalization of the lower Bronx River in this 2016 article. Again, we find beauty in these spaces and admire the work that Ray and others are doing to share it.
The final exhibition takes a decidedly inward turn compared to the explorations of Ray and Matta-Clark. In Elegies, artist Angel Otero explores the long history of painting. His large “deconstructed” paintings bring together traditional practice, abstraction, and collage.
[Angel Otero. The Day We Became People, 2017]
The exhibition is organized in relation to Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic series and includes stark black-and-white pieces from Motherwell, sometimes with statements on art and painting.
Otero’s work stands apart from Motherwell’s in its vibrant colors and relation to space, as well as its unique use of material. Although titled Elegies, the paintings are not really elegies at all – or at least not in the typical sense. There is an optimism in his work.
The paintings were all created specifically for this Bronx Museum exhibition.
Our visit to the Bronx Museum was also the subject of a recent CatSynth TV episode, which also took us a little further south to visit our friends at the Bronx Brewery in Port Morris.
This winter the Bronx Museum of the Arts has three exhibitions to bring forth different aspects of life and art in New York City: a gritty and intimate solo exhibition, reflections on the urban landscape from the permanent landscape, and a view of a little understood country through the camera lens.
Martin Wong: Human Instamatic is a large posthumous retrospective of Chinese-American painter Martin Wong. There have been several exhibitions highlighting his role as collector and muse for contemporary artists, but this one is the first to bring together his work as a painter since his death in 1999. It starts with his early works as a street artist in Eureka, CA but mostly focuses on his time in New York, especially his years on the Lower East Side in the early 1980s.
The Lower East Side of that era was a notoriously gritty neighborhood, as exemplified in the painting above. But there was a vibrant multi-ethnic community of artists and musicians living among the dilapidated buildings. Wong’s work documents the artistic and daily life of the area, but does so in a way the is deeply personal and internal at the same time.
[“Attorney Street (Handball Court With Autobiographical Poem by Piñero),” dated 1982-84.]
Sign language abounds in his work along with urban scenes. The sign language in the piece shown above, Attorney Street, Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero, features a short poem by Miguel Piñero, the playwright and actor who was co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café. The piece and its subject also show the immersion of Wong, a Chinese American, in the Latino culture of the neighborhood, and his expression of his identity as a homosexual man – Piñero was both his collaborator and lover. The latter theme repeats frequency is works – most prominently in images of firemen – along with the sign language.
In contrast to his depictions of the Lower East Side, his paintings of Chinese American people and culture have a more quaint and nostalgic quality, whether illustrating Manhattan’s Chinatown or San Francisco. In these works, we see women for the first time. One particularly prominent piece featured a cheongsam-clad woman reminiscent of the sexually charged images of Asian women from the early 20th century. He did, however, marry his heritage to the contemporary urban world. In the piece shown below (and a much larger companion), the Chinese symbolism and astrology are combined with the brick facade of the urban landscape and an ominous black hole, perhaps a nod to the rising AIDS epidemic that eventually took his life.
(DE) (RE) CONSTRUCT brings together pieces from the museum’s permanent collection around the topic of design. Design covers a lot of territory, and there are pieces that explore both its small and large aspects. Liliana Porter’s Bird, Drawing, Model, Painting, Rip, Hand, 1982 deals with small objects and figures. The start white background gives it a somewhat lonely but simultaneously tender quality.
[Liliana Porter. Bird, Drawing, Model, Painting, Rip, Hand, 1982. Acrylic, pencil, silkscreen, collage. Gift of the artist]
Vito Acconci’s Building Blocks for a Doorway, goes in the other direction by focusing on architecture. The lettering is a fun detail, though, and I leave its interpretation as an exercise to the ready.
[Vito Acconci. Building Blocks for a Doorway, 1983-85. Five color etching. Each half 93 7/8″ x 47 1/4″. Edition of 8]
Acconci’s architectural spoke to me on a personal level, as did the far more minimalist Black Road by Glen Goldberg. Fun with highways…
[Glen Goldberg. Black Road]
And the most minimal of all was Elizabeth Jobim’s Red.
[Elizabeth Jobim. Red]
Transitions: New Photography from Bangladesh brings together works from nine Bangladeshi and Bangladeshi-American photographs to interpret a country that is rapidly changing country that defies many long-held stereotypes. The Bronx happens to be home to a large community of Bangladeshi Americans. Many of the photographs were just portraits and landscapes, as well as some striking similarities with India. On the subcontinent, pointing out the similarities between the two countries would be politically charged, but as South Asian Americans we can freely observe them. Most of the portraits were relatively prosaic, but one that I particularly liked was Arfun Ahmed’s Olympia Burka which featured the artists’ wife and a relative is Muslim does. It a very timely statement given the conversation we are having in this country around Muslim-American identity and prejudice. Plus, it features a cat!
[Arfun Ahmed. Olympia Burka, 2014]
Debashish Chakrabarty’s photographs featuring streaks of light are abstract and energetic. The figures, when visible at all, are very much obscured in the dark background.
The Bronx Museum of Arts has become a regular stop on my visits to New York, and I’m proud to see this institution grow and thrive in the borough to which I am most deeply connected. I look forward to more exhibitions in the future. Dare I even hope to play a show there someday?
I always like to discover new places when I visit New York, and one of those on my most recent trip was the Bronx Museum.
From the D train, one alights at the 167th Street station along the Grand Concourse. Two blocks south is the museum’s impressive new building. The structure is a start metal facade with odd angles and geometric details that one often sees in contemporary buildings. But the repeating patterns also evoke the old narrow apartment buildings that used to cover this an many other sections of the Bronx. Inside the lobby, a large installation by Bronx-born conceptual artist Vito Acconci fills the space with airy undulating shapes that complement the exterior architecture.
It turns out this piece is made from Corian, which the artist uses to make solid but seemingly pliable forms. The numerous holes allow air and light to become part of the piece. I think the protrusions that look like seating are in fact seating for visitors, but I did not ask. (As an interesting side note, it turns out that Acconci has already been mentioned on this blog in this review closer to home.)
One gallery featured paintings and works on paper by the Cuban-American artist Emilio Sanchez, all depicting commercial buildings from the Hunts Point neighborhood. Hunts Point is at the southern edge of the Bronx, known for its huge produce market and concentration of auto-repair shops.
These colorful canvases strip the buildings and street down to essential elements, the rectilinear forms of the structures and lettering of the signs.
The sources for these paintings were images from the 1980s, a time when the Bronx had gone through a precipitous multi-decade decline that give the borough its reputation. None of the urban decay that was undoubtedly present on the streets at the time is present in these pieces. Indeed, the colorful palette and idealized shapes celebrate the neighborhood.
Also on display was a large exhibition entitled Muntadas: Information >> Space >> Control by the artist Antoni Muntadas. Through video, photographs and other media, the artist explores “the relationship between public and private space, the media, how information is conveyed, interpreted, and manipulated, and the way that public opinion is shaped.” One wall featured five photographs of scenes from the Bronx, with the opportunity for visitors to write the own responses. Among the photographs were the infamous Charlotte Street building facade from the late 1970s, and a more recent image of a girl interacting with a gorilla at the Bronx Zoo.
Both of these are familiar aspects of frequent visits to the Bronx as both a child and an adult, the bleak landscape of the 1970s and 1980s and the natural oasis and curiosity of the zoo. As such, this was the most personal aspect of the exhibition. The other pieces, which included videos, images and printed words taken out of their original context, was interesting, but not quite as resonant. Though I did enjoy seeing a clip from Goddard’s Alphaville among the images.
Although my visit was during the museum’s free Friday evening, it was almost empty. This gave the space a bit of a lonely feeling, but also complete freedom and peace to enjoy the galleries. Granted, it was the Friday after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year, and an exceptionally warm evening for late November in New York, so I hope the emptiness I saw was an exception. Nonetheless, I am glad I had the chance to finally visit, and it was great to see the positive changes that are happening in the area. I strongly recommend a trip north on the D line to check out the museum and its surroundings.