Danny Lyon: Message to the Future @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibit containing a total of 146 black and white photographs, 21 color photographs, 7 collages/montages, 5 films, and 7 audio recordings. The photographs are generally framed in black and matted, and hung against white and grey walls in a series of divided spaces on the fifth floor of the museum. The show was originally organized by Julian Cox (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) and edited for the Whitney location by Elisabeth Sussman. After its time at the Whitney, the exhibit will travel to the de Young/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Fotomuseum Winterthur, and C/O Berlin Foundation. (Installation shots below.)

The show is roughly organized into subject matter/project groups in discrete rooms, with images from smaller trips and projects shown in the transitional spaces and in one large salon-style installation. The films are shown in darkened rooms at the end of the gallery space, and listening stations are available for the tape recordings. For each major section, the number of works on view is provided below, with details on processes, dates, and vitrine contents as background:

Civil Rights

  • 18 gelatin silver prints, 1962, 1963, 1964
  • 1 poster, 1963
  • vitrine: 1 negative list, 1 field notes, 1 book, 1 pamphlet, 2 leaflets, 1 brochure, 1963, 1964

The Bikeriders

  • 17 gelatin silver prints, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966
  • 2 cibachrome prints, 1966/2003
  • vitrine: 1 cloth patch, 1 exhibit invitation, 1 book, 3 gelatin silver prints, 1963, 1966, 1968

Destruction of Lower Manhattan

  • 16 gelatin silver prints, 1967
  • 1 chromogenic print, 1966

Artists/Knoxville/Chicago/Miscellaneous Salon Wall/Texas/Various Locations

  • 41 gelatin silver prints, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1977, 1986, 2009, 2014
  • 2 gelatin silver prints with hand made inscriptions, 1975, 1987
  • 3 pigmented inkjet prints, 1966/2015, 1975/2015
  • 1 chromogenic print contact sheet, 2000
  • 2 montages, 1969/1985, 1965/1995
  • 2 collages, 1985-2005

Prisons

  • 15 gelatin silver prints, 1968
  • 2 gelatin silver prints with hand made inscriptions, 1968/1975, 1968/1969
  • 2 films, 4 minutes, 4 minutes, 1968
  • vitrine: 2 mug shots, 1 FBU wanted poster, 1 album page, 1 prison ID card, 1 letter, 1 drawing, 2 gelatin silver prints, 1 envelope, 1 Texas Dept. of Corrections ID card, 1956-1959, 1962, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1980, 1988

Films and Montages

  • Soc. Sci. 127, 16mm film, 21 minutes, 1989
  • Dear Mark, 16mm film, 15 minutes, 1981
  • Willie, 16mm film, 82 minutes, 1985
  • 5 gelatin silver prints, 1968, 1984, 1985
  • vitrine: 4 flyers
  • 7 tape recordings, 1966, 1967, 1968
  • 1 montage, 1981
  • vitrine: 1 album (17 polaroids shown), 1 album page (10 gelatin silver prints shown), 1 album (8 polaroids, 1 map shown), 1945, 1979, 1998-2000

New Mexico and the West

  • 8 gelatin silver prints, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1977
  • 2 gelatin silver print with hand made inscriptions, 1969/1975, 1973
  • 1 montage, 1968-1970/1991

Ongoing Activism

  • 20 gelatin silver prints, 1972, 1975, 1986, 1998, 2000, 2006-2009
  • 1 set of 9 SX-70 Polaroids, 1997
  • 2 cibachrome prints, 1966/2008
  • 3 pigmented inkjet prints, 2011, 2013
  • 1 montage, 1986/1987

A catalog to accompany the exhibition was recently published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Yale University Press (here) Hardback, 288 pages, with 50 color and 200 black and white illustrations. Includes essays by Julian Cox, Elisabeth Sussman, Alexander Nemerov, Ed Halter, and Danica Willard Sachs, and an interview of Alan Rinzler. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: One of the great strengths of truly “full” artistic retrospective exhibitions (as opposed to greatest hits selections and tightly edited samplers) is their ability to show us the broad arc of an artist’s career. While well known projects and even iconic individual artworks typically provide the organizing tent poles for these kinds of shows, it’s the up and down progression over time and the nuanced evolution of the underlying thinking that often only become discernable when an entire life’s output is shown together at once. By letting us see some version of “everything”, we can crystalize the important takeaways and conclusions with more confidence and authority.

Covering six decades of artistic output, Danny Lyon’s first full retrospective provides an inclusively robust cross section of his work as a photographer, filmmaker, and writer, so much so that it opens the door to a wholesale re-evaluation of his long career. What it shows us is that the first decade of Lyon’s career (from roughly the early 1960s to the early 1970s) burned with an astonishingly incandescent brightness that few have matched before or since. In that one ten year span, Lyon delivered no less than four stand alone lightning strike projects of durable significance, along with several other in-between efforts of overlooked merit. Seeing that consistent intensity of engagement clearly laid out in a series of well-edited adjacent rooms is immensely impressive.

Like a prize fighter at the top of his game, Lyon delivers knockout blow after knockout blow in these early years. His early 1960s images of the civil rights movement (taken as the official SNCC photographer) get inside the sit-ins, marches, protests, and funerals, capturing the muscular action of arrests and confrontations and the simmering tension of stare-downs with helmeted police. A few years later, he joined the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club and made insider images that celebrate the freedoms of dirt track races and open road cruising while getting close to the individuals and personalities behind the leather jackets, skull motifs, and iron cross necklaces.

By the mid-sixties, he was back in New York and pointing his camera at the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, applying a more formal eye to the empty buildings and hollow shells being torn down and the workers using crowbars and jackhammers erasing history, finding grace amid the loss. And near the end of the decade, Lyon inserted himself into the Texas prison system, documenting the rhythms and degradations of cell block life and embracing the desperate humanity of the inmates.

In all four of these projects, and to a lesser extent in other resonant works made in Knoxville and Chicago during the same general time period, Lyon was adapting photography (and bookmaking) to his own demands, and taking the previously separate roles of embedded photojournalist, engaged activist, and fine artist and merging them into a single unique persona. In each case, he immersed himself in a marginalized subculture or overlooked community, to the point of building enough authentic trust to be accepted and allowed inside, and from there he always chose sides, empathizing and identifying with his subjects with genuine emotional force and tenderness. Lyon’s approach to photography was the opposite of the arms-length impartial witness – his pictures urgently search for truths, take stands, and recognize human nature in ways that blend idealistic advocacy with hard fought intimacy.

And then for some reason, in the early 1970s, after this seemingly unending streak of enviable artistic success, Lyon’s sparkler abruptly goes out, and he appears to effectively give up on photography. This is not to say that he stops taking pictures – he doesn’t – but his attitude fundamentally changes, and his projects are no longer infused with the same propulsive energy. The retrospective doesn’t do a good job of explicating this fulcrum point in his career, and we’re left to wonder what triggered this puzzling estrangement – was it the move to New Mexico, the stresses of divorce, remarriage, and raising split families, the death of his parents, or perhaps even a changing Post-Modernist tide in photography that convinced him that what he had been doing was no longer working? The show papers over this shift by showing us Lyon’s later projects in Colombia, Bolivia, and China, but they are mere shadows compared to his earlier efforts. It’s a largely unexplained mystery.

What is clear is that during these years, Lyon became more interested in the fluid combination of imagery and passing time/memory, and he explored that line of artistic thinking via family albums, multi-image collaged and montaged works, and short films. For those who are altogether familiar with Lyon’s early projects, these later works offer plenty of exciting revelations, as Lyon’s reconsideration of visual storytelling is surprisingly well suited to moving pictures.

Hints of Lyon’s forthcoming embrace of film can be found back in his Texas prison project, in two short films that capture vignettes from a Sunday morning visit to the cell block and the after work shakedown of inmates. In both efforts, Lyon’s single frame photographic vision is undeniably present, but his impressions have been strung together to create a more multi-dimensional portrait, the plantation-style pat down routine of checking of shoes and hats turned into a repeated motif that builds into a deeper indictment than one frame would have ever captured on its own.

The three films included in the exhibition, all from the 1980s, all embrace this extended portrait concept. Dear Mark follows the sculptor Mark di Suvero as he creates massive geometric constructions of steel, interspersing snippets of the bearded man banging on the rough metal and working with a blow torch with shiny armor from the Met museum and a Gene Autry cowboy soundtrack – the effect is layered, with massive physicality intermingled with playful charisma. Willie reconnects with a Hispanic man recently released from prison, with brothers, nephews, and friends adding their two cents to the larger story of his life. As Willie sits in the dirt, drinks beers, and swims underneath a highway overpass, talking with Lyon the entire time, his wide eyed paranoia shifts to poignant dark melancholy, singing Old Rugged Cross and acknowledging that he should be dead – it’s touching, empathetic, and poetically even handed, seeing both the failure and the tragedy of the situation. And Soc. Sci. 127 tracks the eccentric tattoo artist Bill Sanders as he rants and raves while plying his trade, his dingy nude pin ups, sweaty drunken pronouncements (on everything from Vietnam to “pepper bellies” to Lyon as a “Brooklyn Jew”), and staged classroom lecture creating a three-dimensional roundness to his gravelly character that is both repulsive and engrossing. Lyon would likely have been pleased to see viewers getting up to leave in the middle of the Sanders film, huffing at its inappropriateness in an art museum – his film captures the rich, often ugly fullness of his subject, far more than traditional photographs could have.

What I like best about this retrospective is that it challenges our preconceived notions about Danny Lyon. It eloquently reinforces the greatness of his early projects and then upends that easy conclusion with his excellent lesser known films, forcing us to reconsider both the initial approach that gave us so many indelible images and the later one that rejected the single frame in favor of different forms of dialogues, conversations, and engagements. Through it all, we see Lyon as relentlessly interested in people, and in the social and political issues that surround their lives. His stance as a participant rather than an observer was always emotionally open, the experiences shared and the discoveries treated with attentive dignity. By thoroughly immersing himself in the overlooked, he seemed uniquely placed to unearth reluctant beauty, and it is those singular moments of engaged human clarity that define his powerful artistic legacy.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibit, there are of course no posted prices. Danny Lyon is represented by Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York (here) and Etherton Gallery in Tuscon (here). His work is consistently available in the secondary markets, with recent single image prices at auction ranging between roughly $1000 and $17000.

Read more about: Danny Lyon, Americas Society, Whitney Museum of American Art, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Yale University Press

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