Lee Friedlander: America By Car @Whitney


JTF (just the facts): A total of 192 black and white works, framed in white and matted, and double hung nearly edge to edge in a pair of adjoining gallery spaces on the fifth floor mezzanine level of the museum (down the back stairs). All of the works are gelatin silver prints, 16×20 framed square, and made between 1992 and 2009. There are 65 images in the first room and 127 in the second room. A monograph of this project has recently been published by DAP/Fraenkel (here). The Whitney does not allow photography in the galleries, so unfortunately, there are no installation shots of this show. The single images at right are taken from the Whitney website. (Lee Friedlander, Texas, 2006, at right.)

Comments/Context: As I came down the stairs into the funky, low ceilinged mezzanine space at the Whitney and got a first glimpse of the newest Friedlander show, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Once again, the prolific Friedlander seems to have gotten his way – it’s a densely packed installation of more pictures than any other normal photographer would dare to hang in such a cramped space.
What I found most interesting about this particular body of new work is that it feels a little like a victory lap. Friedlander has gone back out on the road, traveled through the truck stops and big cities of this great land once again, and made pictures of nearly all the same subjects he covered earlier in his career. There are mountain and desert landscapes, images of monuments, chaotic urban cityscapes, witty jokes made from vernacular architecture and roadside signage, self-portraits, and angular juxtapositions of abstract geometries in flat picture planes. There’s even some chain link fence for those of you who want to go back to the early 1960s.
The difference here is that he has upended this personal retrospective by making each and every one of these pictures through the obstructed window of his rental car. Not content to make the same pictures twice, he has given himself a new challenge, with a new set of aesthetic mechanisms to break up his vision. The features of the cars provide him with a variety of complex compositional tools: square frames, borders, and dark slashing lines (from the car frame itself), sinuous curves (from the steering wheel and molded plastic dashboards), and picture in picture effects (from the reflections in the side mirrors, echoing a similar motif from the 1960s). Friedlander uses these structural devices to create additional disorienting layers of juxtapositions and perspectives that make the old subjects new again. (Lee Friedlander, Montana, 2008, at right.)
The show itself is carefully sequenced into loose groups of common subject matter that flow into one another. Stop signs become broad landscapes, which become road signs, which become portraits, which become industrial views, which become echoes of circles, which become trucks, which become roadside memorials, and so on and so on. Patterns repeat and replicate, blossoming into new ideas that morph once again. The commonality of the framing device becomes a bit monotonous across so many images, but it is altogether amazing that Friedlander can take such a simple, almost boring idea (pictures taken through the car window) and explode it into something so multi-faceted and original. His voracious eye takes the organizing principle and then extends it to its limits, creating an entirely new vocabulary out of the obvious. He does all this with impressively consistent joy; jokes, puns and ironies are to be unpacked and discovered everywhere.
Overall, I think this is a highly accessible and likeable body of work, that entertains on the surface and rewards a deeper and more thoughtful examination. The crowded rooms were full of “did you see that one?”, “look over here” and smiling pointed fingers, from school groups and adults alike, all equally fascinated to see the world through Friedlander’s restless eyes.
Collector’s POV: Of course, none of the images in this museum show are for sale. See our review of the recent Friedlander gallery show at Mary Boone (here) for details about current price levels. As a reminder, Friedlander is represented by Janet Borden in New York (here) and Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (here). (Lee Friedlander, Alaska, 2007, at right, via the Whitney website.)
Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Reviews: NY Times (here), New Yorker Photo Booth (here), Wall Street Journal (here), Vanity Fair (here)
Through November 28th
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New York, NY 10021

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