André Cadere, New York City, 1975

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Triangle Books (here). Softcover, 200 x 200 mm, 40 pages, with 30 color photographs. Includes an essay by Hervé Bize in English and French. Design by Olivier Vandervliet. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: At first blush, the monograph New York City, 1975 seems to depict, well, New York City in 1975. Plagued by crime and graffiti, and flirting with bankruptcy, New York was not a cheery place at the time. The cover photo of an overflowing dumpster captures the gritty zeitgeist. It faces an asphalt paving truck parked nearby. The receding sidewalk between them is a patchwork of cardboard, grime, potholes, and lurking figures. The malaise continues throughout the book’s thirty interior photos. “Ford to City, Drop Dead” blared the Daily News headline in October 1975, a phrase which might be a fitting caption for any of André Cadere’s photos taken over the following month.

Cadere’s portrayal is bleak. But after paging through his pictures a few times, a thin ray of sunshine becomes noticeable in the form of a brightly colored pole. In the cover photo it seems to have fallen out of the dumpster. But its appearance is no accident. Sure enough, there it is again in the next photo series, this time leaning on a fence. It then turns up propped against a lamp post, against a concrete monument, a blank rainy wall, in a subway car, and so on. This Zelig-like staff is in every photograph in the book, injecting odd stagecraft like a magic wand.

The pole is one of Cadere’s barres de bois rond (round bars of wood) which he hand crafted into linear form from circular blocking. Beginning in 1972 and continuing for the last seven years of his life, Cadere rarely left the house without a barre. He carried them everywhere on his daily outings, often propped on a shoulder or held as a walking staff. When he felt the urge he would leave it behind as a talismanic memento. These surreptitious interlocutions were never authorized. He referred to them coyly as “displacements.”

The photographs in New York City, 1975 depict one particular pole positioned in various photo ops, but in fact Cadere created hundreds over the course of several years. Each was designed and built to exacting specifications, with colored segments sized to match the pole’s diameter. The color choices and pattern followed a mathematical formula (different for each pole), and each one included a striping error deliberately injected into the sequence. Accounting for formulation, design, carving, glue, construction, paint, and polish, each one represented many hours of labor. But Cadere was not particularly possessive of his handiwork. His displacements occurred with territorial regularity, like a graffiti artist tagging a wall or a dog marking a hydrant.

Cadere’s targets routinely included galleries and museums, much to the consternation of established artists and collectors. He was a regular on the art circuit, visiting openings, lectures, and events. He always brought a pole, but did not always leave with one. As he knew full well, an abandoned barre might pass unnoticed among the sanctioned wares of avant-garde art works. Thus he became a chronic nuisance for gallerists. They called him an unwelcome squatter, stickman, and sometimes worse. Gradually he earned a bad-boy reputation as a fly in the art world ointment.

It’s hard to say what came first, his rejection from the establishment or his finger-in-your-eye displacements. Each action fed the other, and he eventually came to embrace, or at least accept, his identity as an outcast. He’d been born in Poland (surrounded by Poles from birth, so to say), raised in Romania, and later emigrated to France. By the time of his first New York visit in 1975, he knew what it was to be an outsider, to wander the streets and create impromptu exhibition spaces in exile.

It’s been a half century since the barres de bois rond had their heyday. But the art world often reconsiders overlooked crannies, and it’s especially good at commodifying rebellion. Both tendencies have worked in Cadere’s favor. His star has been steadily on the rise since his death (prematurely, from cancer) in 1978, spurred initially by a solo retrospective at MoMA’s PS 1 in 1989. In the past decade his posthumous career arc has steepened with major exhibitions at Centre Georges Pompidou, Modern Art Oxford in Ostende, Belgium, Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, and Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht. A current show at Fondation Cab in Brussels is up through July 2023.

All of which has helped the strange barres which Cadere once left behind as disposable calling cards to become quite collectable. A 2022 solo retrospective at Ortuzar Projects in New York (here) exhibited his poles and psychedelic paintings. The show also featured a grid of thirty New York photos by Cadere, adapted from a 2013 exhibition at La Valette-Du-Var. They were presented on the wall as supporting context for his other physical creations. Now published in book form as New York City, 1975, they step out on their own as the primary focus.

Cadere was not a skilled photographer, and this thin paperback dispenses with artistic pretense in a way which is refreshing. It less fine art monograph than chapbook of amateur snapshots. They were taken by an eager shutterbug, then simply sequenced one picture per page. An old shop advertisement casually overlooks a shadowy bystander in one photo. Another shows a woman strolling past chain link fencing and parked cars. We see a subway entrance, wheatpasted placards, and an apartment interior. Regardless of subject Cadere’s compositions were fleeting and direct. They cropped or caught urban ephemera without fuss. Most exposures used flash, probably automated from a simple point-n-shoot.

The WTC twin towers make an unexpected cameo in a few backgrounds, just a few years young at the time. It’s not clear if Cadere made a conscious attempt to capture them or if they were just another element in the urban fabric. When photographing his beloved poles his intention was more deliberate. He was careful to position one in each frame, leaning vertically off-center to join the skyline. How would a barre look on this corner? Or against that show bill? Beyond perfunctory execution he made little effort to manage color, composition, timing, perspective, or the other typical traits of fine art photography. His method was aim, point, and click. Shoot softly and carry a big striped stick.

The resulting images glow with prosaic charm, and sometimes morning sun as well. Clearly Cadere took pride in his odd wooden creations, propping them happily here and there. Finally he was able to showcase the fruits of his labor in the Big Apple. Never mind what the gallerists said. He’d arrived. This was his gallery, and his photos affirmed that fact just as family albums affirm a new graduate or 10-year old. Tourist pictures—both then and now—typically document the camera owner standing with canned smile against this famous backdrop or that one. Cadere’s were born of the same impulse, but with his pole substituted as alter ego.   

That said, he did shoot himself on occasion. A two-picture spread in the book shows him snapping a selfie reflected in an office window. In one photo he embraces the barre de bois rond. In the other it’s propped against the building. There is also a night shot of Cadere holding the pole shot by an unknown photographer, and another photo of Cadere’s artist friends Dan Graham and Robert Barry, again with the pole. So he had company at times. His wasn’t just a solo venture, although the photos don’t reveal much information. Did his friends encourage his displacements, or participate in them? That’s unclear. 

Cadere’s barre may have been the the primary instigation for these pictures. But it was usually lost in the visual mix. His barres de bois rond photos generally suffered the same problem as Lee Friedlander’s Uncle Vern. “I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on the fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more.” So it was with Cadere and New York. The metropolis swamped his human-sized poles like a drowning rat. Perhaps that was his intention, to become digested by the city and somehow incorporated? Could he become absorbed by New York through sheer willpower? Or, barring that, perhaps he could absorb its famous energy?

Looking at Cadere’s photos now, almost five decades after he shot them, the irony is that it’s this secondary material which we appreciate most. The poles we know. They are as static as any museum piece. But the city has changed almost past recognizability. Judging by these historic documents Cadere must have spent time in lower Manhattan. But where are the plate glass boutiques and haute couture? Was it really ever so trashy and workaday? Cadere’s New York was a filthy mess of curvy hoods, brick apartments, wrought iron bannisters, a million pebbles in the driveway, and more. One can still find those things today, but they have largely retreated to the fringes. Cadere’s photographs “capture the very spirit of New York,” writes Hervé Bize, “a city that is always changing, but one that nevertheless, and paradoxically, always manages to retain its identity.” By his reckoning, at least one scene captured by Cadere—the corner of 6th and White near Ortuzar Projects—looks much the same today. That photo is the exception. Most views have radically evolved.

Despite Cadere’s dogged focus on his barres, the city wins in the end. New York City, 1975 fulfills its initial promise and its title. As a plainly stated document of Manhattan’s seventies nadir, it’s entertaining and informative. The pole pictures are intriguing too as they trace Cadere’s wanderings and hint at his peculiar obsession. But I suspect the actual barres might be most impactful in person. To stumble upon a displacement by chance in an art gallery, or better yet find one leaning against a city wall, that must have been quite a thrill for those in the know. These photos may fall short of those real world encounters, but they flesh out Cadere’s adventures, and also New York City in 1975.

Collector’s POV: André Cadere’s estate is represented Hervé Bize Gallery in Nancy, France (here). There is a primary and secondary market for his paintings and barres, but the photographs in this book have not consistently appeared at auction, making gallery retail the most likely option for those collectors interested in following up. 

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