Roy Colmer: Doors @Lisson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 238 framed photographic works (some of which are framed as diptychs and one of which is framed as a triptych), each consisting of between one and forty-two 5 x 3 ½ gelatin silver prints. Printed in a posthumous edition of 5 from negatives shot between 1975–76. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: From November 1975 to September 1976, painter-turned-photographer Roy Colmer (1935–2014) crisscrossed the borough of Manhattan on foot, photographing every doorway on particular blocks in sequence. Ultimately comprising over 3000 individual photographs, the final work, Doors, NYC, is an atomized view of the city that falls somewhere between representation and schematic, street photography and conceptual artwork, diary and historical document.

At Lisson Gallery, the exhibition “Roy Colmer: Doors” presents this extraordinary project in its entirety. As they were during the artist’s lifetime, photographs of each block or intersection’s doorways—further subdivided into odd and even address numbers—have been framed in horizontal rows, together with a description of their location. Displayed in chronological order, the framed sets take up most of three large walls in the gallery.

On the surface, “Doors” is a picture of an earlier New York City, a place that in many ways embodied the seismic socioeconomic changes occurring in America and the world starting in the 1970s. The city was broke, a victim of the Great Inflation that many believe ushered in supply-side economics and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Its population was shrinking as the well off fled for the suburbs.

Hints of that grittier, but perhaps more democratic time lurk in photographs here of cracked sidewalks and graffiti covered doors, storefronts on 14th Street advertising cheap fabric and the rundown industrial buildings in Soho and Tribeca where artists could still find affordable living and studio space. They depict a city that was far more a patchwork of neighborhoods than it is now, some bustling, some quiet, some seemingly deserted.

Portions of Doors have previously been displayed—notably at the New York Public Library, which owns the original work, and in the 2015 iteration of “Greater New York” at PS1—as a window into the city’s past. But when viewed in its dizzying totality, Colmer’s project takes on a more complicated aspect.

Unlike Thomas Struth’s empty Soho, Baltrop’s wild side New York Piers, or Mel Rosenthal’s ravaged but vibrant South Bronx, Comer’s Manhattan is a series of close-ups rather than vistas. Seen together, the row after row of rectangular apertures—not only residential and commercial doorways, but garage entrances, loading docks, and shuttered storefronts—function not so much as a broad description of the city as an analog of its geography, with the longest framed works mirroring the length of the blocks between avenues and shorter pieces or single photographs reflecting smaller streets or plazas.

In this sense, though Comer’s work is indebted to Eugene Atget’s 19th-century photographs of Paris’s vanishing historic districts, the street photography of Lisette Model (with whom Colmer studied at the New School), and even Ed Ruscha’s 26 Gasoline Stations, it is just as allied with such conceptual projects as Bernd and Hilla Becher’s serial portraits of industrial structures and Colmer’s close friend Hanne Darboven’s massive, gridded installations of framed texts, images, and numerical sequences. (An excerpt from “Doors” is an element in Darboven’s 1983 photo archive Cultural History 1880-1983.) At the same time, however, unlike the work of his conceptual peers, Doors, NYC incorporates a certain amount of randomness, the blocks not selected according to a self-imposed system but simply those encountered on Colmer’s daily rounds.

Colmer came to photography only after 10 years of painting, during which time he became increasingly interested in translating, in spray-painted canvases, such film and video effects as static, distortion, and flicker, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that he named this project after Aldous Huxley’s book Doors of Perception. As emphasized by this installation—said to be how the artist originally wanted the work displayed—Doors, NYC operates on many perceptual registers at once. In it, personal and social history, internal and external experience, objective and subjective observation, and past and present overlay each other like shuffled transparencies, while we the viewers move through it both as participants and onlookers.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are generally being sold as one single installation, with the price on request. One of the 5 posthumous editions is being broken up and sold as individual works, with prices ranging between $4000 and $30000 depending on the number of prints in the piece. Colmer’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Roy Colmer, Lisson Gallery

One comment

  1. Pete /

    I went from dismissive to mesmerised. Fine review of a triumph of compulsive photography disorder.

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