Greater New York @MoMA PS1

JTF (just the facts): A group show featuring the work of 47 artists and collectives, spread across galleries in the basement, and on the first, second, and third floors of the museum. The show was organized by Ruba Katrib, Serubiri Moses, Kate Fowle, and Inés Katzenstein.

The following photography and video works are on display:

  • images of Curtis Cuffie sculptures (in vitrine), c1990s
  • Rotimi Fani-Kayode: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1983, 1989
  • images of Luis Frangella paintings: Peter Hujar – 1 gelatin silver print, 1983; Eric Kroll – 1 contact sheet, 1984; Andreas Sterzy: 2 color photographs 1984
  • Robin Graubard: 1 installation of photographs, 1979-2021
  • Bettina Grossman: 10 sets of 4 c-prints, 1979-1980
  • Avijit Halder: 7 pigment prints, 2018, 2019
  • G. Peter Jemison: 1 photocollage printed on canvas, 2021, 1 mixed media on board, 2018-2019
  • Steffani Jemison: 1 HD video (color, sound), 35 minutes, 51 seconds, 2019
  • Las Nietas de Nonó: 1 installation of 1 digital c-print, 2 zinc sheets, 2020
  • Carolyn Lazard: 1 2-channel video (color, sound), 10 minutes, 15 seconds, 2021
  • Hiram Maristany: 14 gelatin silver prints, 1961-1971
  • Alan Michelson: 1 HD video (color, sound) and oyster shells, 12 minutes 17 seconds, 2021
  • Marilyn Nance: 12 inkjet prints, 1975-1987
  • Shelley Niro: 4 inkjet prints, 2019
  • Kayode Ojo: 2 inkjet prints, 2016, 2021
  • Raha Raissnia: 1 16mm film (b/w, silent), wood, sap, acrylic, on canvas, 3 minutes, 2018/2021
  • Diane Severin Nguyen: 3 lightjet c-prints in steel frames, 2021
  • Regina Vater: 1 video (color sound), 16 minutes 30 seconds, 1973-1974
  • Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa: 2 inkjet prints, 2021, 1 diptych of inkjet prints, 2021, 1 triptych of inkjet prints, 2021, 1 brick/wood (in vitrine), 2018-2021, 1 found object/plaster (in vitrine), 2021
  • Lachell Workman: 1 installation, t-shirts, 35mm slide projector, slides, 2021

(Installation shots and video stills below.)

Comments/Context: The impetus that lies behind the once-every-five-years Greater New York show is relatively straightforward – twice a decade, MoMA (and its teams of curators) should take stock of the art being made in and around its home city. In practice, not only should this process keep its curators aware of both the artistic cutting edge and the rediscovery of those that were overlooked in the past, it should also force them to grapple with the patterns, themes, trends, and motifs that might represent the past five years of artistic effort.

Given how fast things change in New York, five years can feel like an eternity, and this year’s installment (delayed a year because of the pandemic) comes on the heels of plenty of highly disruptive events – in health, in the local economy, in race relations, in the environment, in our trust of one another, and in the art world itself. So I came to PS1 expecting to find a chaotic range of urgent expression and combustible material representative of this charged moment in contemporary New York history.

But at least photographically, Greater New York doesn’t really deliver on overtly engaging with these major dramatic themes. Instead, the exhibition settles into more modest community and identity centric modes, where artists are looking at both themselves and their NYC surroundings with an eye for points of deeper connection and understanding.

For a show ostensibly about the art of this moment, there is a surprisingly broad range of photographic (and video) work from the past. Several of the selections feel driven by the desire to represent different identity groups, many of whom were previously marginalized in one way or another. Hiram Maristany’s photographs document Puerto Rican life in East Harlem in the 1960s, with particular attention paid to street protests and political activism. Marilyn Nance’s photographs jump forward a decade to the late 1970s, capturing an eclectic mix of New York energy, from elephants on parade and subway riders jumping turnstiles to various marches, gatherings, and protests. Robin Graubard then picks up the chronological trail in the 1980s, following youth and street life in the Lower East Side for another decade or two. And additional images from other photographers indirectly document the 1980s figure studies done by Luis Frangella on the walls of the West Street piers and the 1990s street sculptures of Curtis Cuffie. But photographically, all of these works feel primarily like time capsules.

Of the older photographic works on view, only a few offer a more durable response to life in the city. Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s 1980s era self portraits powerfully capture the blending of his Nigerian heritage and his outsider status in New York in his search for personal identity as a Black gay immigrant man. Bettina Grossman’s abstractions of the city itself from the late 1970s use reflection and distortion to warp everything from yellow taxis and skyscrapers to storefronts and uniformed doormen. And Regina Vater’s biting video from the mid 1970s juxtaposes luxury and garbage in the city, highlighting the beginnings of the culture of consumption and income inequality that now overwhelms us.

Several of the newer photographic works find the artists interacting with resonant objects to inform their investigations of identity. Avijit Halder looks back to the saris worn by his mother, playing with the fluid sweeps of fabric that envelop his and other bodies. Lachell Workman wrestles with how we memorialize those that have died (or been killed), with an installation of t-shirts with the words “Sill Alive” projected in increasingly layered and overprinted lettering. And Diane Severing Nguyen’s sculptural assemblages descend into photographic uncertainty, with textures, surfaces, and light effects that become increasingly hard to unpack or identify.

Physical gestures, and the implications of those movements, provide another entry point for potential connection. An engaging video work by Steffani Jemison leverages mimicry to explore how people move through the city, with a mime following along as people walk in the park, work out in the playground, and talk on the phone, creating a range of attentive echoes and amplified movements. And a selection of images by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa explores implied violence, recapturing blocking turns by Anna May Wong, noticing the blackened curves of a reaching two body sculpture, and seeing a mask-like shadow cast by an industrial box.

One thread of New York identity which gets more prominent attention than usual here is that of the city’s indigenous peoples. Alan Michelson’s video installation tracks past industrial sites and grungy canals in the city, the imagery set against an arrangement of oyster shells that represent the thriving natural environment once available in these ancestral lands which is now gone; while the panoramic scenes are forgettably depressing, there is a hint of hope present in the piece, in the form of activism now taking place to protect and rebuild the oyster beds. And other works by Shelley Niro and G. Peter Jemison similarly probe indigenous histories, from images of ancient fossilized life forms that connect the distant past to the present, to autobiographical photocollages that interrogate the intermingling of histories, languages, and traditions that New York’s indigenous peoples have experienced.

Greater New York checks plenty of photographic boxes, in ways that feel consciously diverse and inclusive, and this mindset feels decently representative of the city as it emerges from the traumas of the past few years. But the exhibit also feels photographically underwhelming, with less frenetic New York energy and urgency than we might have expected or wanted. Perhaps what the show is communicating is the evidence of a collective turn inward, to more nuanced, mindful, and modest artistic thinking, and with resultingly less brashness in conception or risk taking. It seems to be saying that the emotional roller coaster of the past five years has led us back to a bit of introspective tenderness and compassion, even as the never-ending New York hustle rolls on.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices, and with so many artists/photographers included, we have omitted our usual discussion of individual gallery relationships and secondary market histories.

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