Sunday, June 28, 2015

American Moments Photo Exhibit at the Phillips Collection

American Moments: Photographs from The Phillips Collection

June 6, 2015 -  September 13,2015

Reviewed by Ed Voves

“Let America be America Again” proclaimed Langston Hughes in his 1935 poem. With searing, unflinching verse, Hughes condemned the social ills of the United States during the Great Depression, “the rack and ruin of our gangster death.” And yet, he held firmly to “the dream that’s almost dead today.”

O, let America be America again--                                                                                     The land that never has been yet--                                                                                   And yet must be--the land where every man is free.                                                           The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--                                               Who made America…

These are bold, unforgettable words that stick in the mind. They are also words that are very difficult to express in visual terms. How can an artist depict a “land that never has been yet--and yet must be” with paint or sculptor’s clay?

The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. has managed to evoke the “mighty dream” of Langston Hughes with a powerful exhibition of twentieth century photographs. American Moments: Photographs from The Phillips Collection embraces both the vision of the people of the United States and the reality of their lives. While Hughes is not directly mentioned in the exhibition wall texts, seldom has there been a better visual articulation of the American dream, "a dream so strong, so brave, so true,That even yet its mighty daring sings..."

American Moments is also a testament to the vision of Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection. During the same period of Hughes' literary activism, Phillips (1886-1966) and his wife, Marjorie (1894-1985), created America's first museum of "modern" art. In a bold mission statement, Phillips in 1926 declared that the new venue would be an "intimate museum combined with an experiment station."

The Phillips "experiment station" joined forces in 1941 with the Museum of Modern Art to collect and promote Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series, the epic cycle of tempera paintings celebrating African-American history. Phillips supported many struggling American artists, buying paintings directly from them or from the New York galleries of Alfred Stieglitz, the Intimate Gallery and its successor, An American Place.

Anyone in the American art world during the first decades of the twentieth century could expect to hear from Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) on the subject of photography. Duncan Phillips entered into a lively dialog with Stieglitz and began to selectively collect work by noted American photographers, including cloud studies by Stieglitz himself. From time-to-time, the Phillips Collection mounted photo exhibits but never devoted the resources to build an in-depth  photo archive of its own.

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1926.

In 2006, the Phillips received a major gift of 152 photos by Brett Weston, a great photographer and the son of one of America's most legendary photo artists, Edward Weston. This marked the "takeoff" of the Phillips photo collection with acquisitions, predominantly donations, raising the photo holdings to 1,000 pictures. In 2014 alone, nearly 300 photographs were donated. These included works by major figures like Bruce Davidson. a personal favorite of mine and a living link to the hard-hitting photojournalism of mid-twentieth century America.

Davidson, born in 1933, draws on the street photography of Louis Faure (1916-2001). In his 1950 picture,Times Square, N.Y. (Home of the Brave), Faurer took a rather routine situation, investing it with magical ambiance and an ingenious subtext. Home of the Brave was one of the first major films to deal with a Civil Rights theme.Yet to look at the neon lights, you could easily jump to the conclusion that it was a big screen adventure flick starring Clark Gable or Tyrone Power. 

Louis Faurer, Times Square, N.Y. (Home of the Brave), 1950

Looks are deceiving.

Davidson documented some of the most dramatic moments of the Civil Rights movement. He also  captured prosaic, matter-of-fact images of that remarkable era as well: stressed-out Freedom Riders, an impassive Martin Luther King, besieged with questions at a press conference. 

Bruce Davidson, Woman with Newborn on Lap (East 100th Street series), 1966 - 1968

Here, Davidson's  Woman with Newborn on Lap, (East 100th Street series), taken between 1966 and 1968, could represent either an icon-like representation of motherhood or a devastating critique of the African-American experience of urban poverty in a time of plenty.

The same dilemma arises when we study another Davidson photo from the mid-1960's, Girl Waving with Sign on Road, (Los Angeles series). To go from Woman with Newborn on Lap to this picture may be a "from the sublime to the ridiculous" transition. The multiple meanings that can be imparted to Girl Waving with Sign, however, testifies to the oracle status of great photography. 

Bruce Davidson, Girl Waving with Sign on Road (Los Angeles series), 1964

Which answer would you pick:
  1. Mid-century Modern life-style      
  2. "Sex-sells" dehumanization of womanhood
  3. Corporate promotion leading to global warming
  4. All of the above
The "correct" answer is there for the choosing. But we have to decipher its meaning, as with the oracles of ancient times. 

Values, insights - meaning in art - often change with time. When Davidson photographed Girl Waving with Sign in 1964, most people would have classified it as a delightful example of Americana. Their values would have been shaped by popular television shows like Petticoat Junction or That Girl and by Coca Cola ads - "The Pause that  Refreshes" - with pretty young ladies in polka dot blouses.

With the polar ice caps melting from overuse of fossil fuels, we are confronted with a different scenario. The "meaning" of this photo changes too. Girl Waving with Sign in 2015 is a modern day Siren, beckoning us to our doom as her ancient counterparts tried to do to Odysseus on his voyage home from the Trojan War.

We can subjectively interpret the photos in American Moments with some confidence because the exhibit itself is thematically arranged. This comes as a slight surprise. American Moments is the first exhibition of photos from the Phillips Collection, 130 photos by thirty-three artists. The exhibit might well have been arranged to illustrate the evolution of the photo archive at the Phillips. Marjorie and Duncan Phillips, however, frequently chose to explore the meaning of their paintings in special exhibits. American Moments keeps to this great, open-minded tradition.

An early favorite of Duncan Phillips was Clarence John Laughlin (1905-1985). In 1943, the Phillips Collection presented a solo-exhibit of Laughlin's photos. The Louisiana-born photographer certainly gave his viewers a lot to ponder.

Laughlin grew-up in an atmosphere of genteel poverty. With the relics of the Old South all around him, he became the visual artist of "Southern Gothic." What Carson McCullers and Walker Percy explored  in words, Laughlin presented with imagery. 

Clarence John Laughlin, Grandeur and Decay No. 1, 1944

Laughlin frequently used photo montage to created some of the most surrealist photographs in American history.However, Grandeur and Decay No. 1, 1944 did not require any "special effects" to present an indelible symbol of the collapse of the grandiose, slavery-based, culture of the American South.

Grandeur and Decay No. 1, 1944  depicts  the passing of a "heroic" age while Lewis Hine's Empire State Building, 1931, shows a new era on the rise. Certainly there was incredible courage, tenacity and skill involved in the construction of the skyscrapers of Gotham City. Hines's photographs of the Empire State Building, however, were utilized to create a "myth" of progress for New York City that was as problematical as the sense of decline and fall in Laughlin's Grandeur and Decay.

Lewis Hine, Empire State Building, 1931

The Empire State Building opened in 1931, shortly after Hine (1874-1940) took this vertigo-inducing photo. But the "Empty State Building" (as New Yorkers referred to it) was a financial black hole for most of its early years. Floor after floor of vacant office suites echoed like a tomb. For much of the period, the management of the Empire State Building relied on the fees paid by tourists to use the observation deck to keep the towering edifice standing. 

What both Laughlin's Grandeur and Decay and Hine's Empire State Building show is the incredible harshness of American life during much of the twentieth century. We can see this too in the incredible array of portraits and group shots of America's people during an era of economic turmoil and of total war. Look at the faces on the gallery walls of the Phillips Collection and you will see people, in Langston Hughes' words, "battered through the years."

Alfred Eisenstaedt, Sunday afternoon crowd of passengers waiting for trains in Union Station, Washington, DC, 1943

It is particularly jarring to note the grim expressions of wartime service men and women in 1943 at Washington's Union Station. Their home leaves are over and they are headed back to war. Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995) captured an image of foreboding that can still be felt all these decades later. I was struck by the slightly-out-of-focus soldier in the center. A year later, he could have been the central figure in Robert Capa's blurry, over-exposed photo of a GI Joe struggling in the surf to reach Omaha Beach on D-Day.

So too might Jack Delano's protagonist in Untitled (Railroad Man), the introductory photo of this review. Put a combat helmet on the head of this hunched, weary man and he might just as well be standing behind a parapet of sandbags at Tarawa or Anzio as at a railroad depot.

The real standout for me among the American Moments photographers was Esther Bubley (1921-1998). A photographer for the Office of War Information under the dynamic Roy Stryker, Bubley documented the American home front during World War II in a number of photographic series. These photo series may sound a bit dull and of little importance today - people in line waiting for war-rationed shoes or riding a bus to Pittsburgh, PA-  but Bubley created a time-machine portrait of the lives of America's people that borders on the definitive.

Esther Bubley, A Child Whose Home Is an Alley Dwelling near the Capitol, 1943

Amid the hundreds and hundreds of photographs taken by Bubley, a number are truly iconic. One of them is displayed in American Moments, A Child Whose Home Is an Alley Dwelling near the Capitol, 1943. This was part of a series aimed at depicting the appalling living conditions of African-Americans in Washington D.C. only a few blocks from the White House. Bubley's photos were quite effective in meeting the goals of her assignment but this picture is a symbolic masterpiece of inspiring merit.

The shadow cast by the length of wood held by the little boy transfixes his body. His right eye peers through the shadow making it seem like the disembodied eye of an alien being rather than one of a pair of eyes belonging to a scrawny, underfed, apprehensive little chap, trying to keep out of trouble. That eye in turn transfixes the viewer, forcing him or her to recognize the humanity of this child and the inhumanity of the "Jim Crow" racial oppression that blights his life.

With this photo, Bubley truly captured what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the "decisive moment." It was a transforming moment, as more and more Americans came to realize -sometimes unwillingly - that the racial segregation that had arisen following the Civil War could no longer be tolerated now that America was the leader of the Free World.

America did change following World War II and change for the better. The American Moments exhibit is a brilliant evocation of these social changes.

It is important to note that this wonderful exhibition at the Phillips Collection also documents the joys and  pleasures, the "pursuit of happiness" that figure in the American story along with sorrows and challenges.

Louis Faurer, Broadway, New York, N.Y., between 1949 -1950

Louis Faurer's Broadway, New York, N.Y., shows a group of laughing friends in a snappy sports car with the bright lights of the city reflected on its polished, gleaming surface. Faurer's astonishing picture was taken between 1949 and 1950 - or was it just last night? 

If there's a better illustration of American joie de vivre, I've never seen it. And when joy of life is shared by all our citizens, then Langston Hughes' dream will come true at last and America will be America again.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.                                                                                                                                                                                          
Introductory Image:                                                                                                                                               
Jack Delano, Untitled (Railroad Man), 1940s/printed later. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Gift from the Collection of Michael and Joyce Axelrod, Mill Valley, California, 2013. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1926. Gelatin silver print, 3 5/8 x 4 3/4 in. The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, gift of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1949. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Louis Faurer, Times Square, N.Y. (Home of the Brave), 1950, printed 1981. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Gift of Steve LaMantia, 2013. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Bruce Davidson, Woman with Newborn on Lap (East 100th Street series), between 1966 and 1968. Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in. Gift of Saul E. Levi, 2013. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Bruce Davidson, Girl Waving with Sign on Road (Los Angeles series), 1964. Gelatin silver print, 7 15/16  x 11 15/16 in. Gift of Lisa Finn, 2013. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Clarence John Laughlin, Grandeur and Decay No. 1, 1944. Gelatin silver print, 13 3/8 x 10 5/8 in. Acquired from the artist, 1945. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC 

Lewis Hine, Empire State Building, 1931. Gelatin silver print, 10 1/4 x 13 1/4 in. Gift of the Phillips Contemporaries, 1997. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Alfred Eisenstaedt, Sunday afternoon crowd of passengers waiting for trains in Union Station, Washington, DC, 1943. Vintage gelatin silver print, 10 5/8 x 13 1/14 in. Gift of Cam and Wanda Garner, 2014. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Esther Bubley, A Child Whose Home Is an Alley Dwelling near the Capitol, 1943. Gelatin silver print, 10 7/8 x 10 1/8 in. Gift of Cam and Wanda Garner, 2012. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Louis Faurer, Broadway, New York, N.Y., between 1949 and 1950, printed later. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Gift of Jerri Mattare, 2013. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Friday, June 19, 2015

Farewell to the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA)

Sculpture in the Age of Donatello:

Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral

February 20, 2015 to June 14, 2015 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

There is always a touch of wistfulness lurking in my emotions when I leave an art exhibition. Outstanding works of art, many of which have not been displayed together in centuries, are joined in unforgettable configurations of genius. After a few months, the exhibit closes. The masterworks are packed in crates and sent back to the museums and collections from which they came.

The magic moment is over.

In the case of Sculpture in the Age of Donatello at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City, actual sorrow mixed with my feelings of awe at seeing these wonders of Renaissance art. Not only the exhibition, but the museum itself was scheduled to close in a few days. The iron grip of financial "reality" was about to claim another venue of artistic expression.

The Museum of Biblical Art in New York City (MOBIA) opened in 1997, under the direction of the American Bible Society. In 2005, MOBIA became an independent museum, albeit one without a permanent collection of its own. MOBIA paid the American Bible Society $1 per year to rent the second floor of its Columbus Circle area headquarters. It was a beautiful arrangement, allowing MOBIA to mount high caliber exhibitions of religious art.

Gallery view of the Museum of Biblical Art during the Sculpture in the Age of Donatello exhibit

Organizing Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral was MOBIA's most brilliant success. But in 2014, the American Bible Society decided to move to Philadelphia and sold its building. As record numbers of patrons visited Sculpture in the Age of Donatello, MOBIA scrambled to raise the funding to rent a new site. With only a few months to do so, MOBIA faced an impossible task.

This depressing scenario is also rich in irony. The final exhibit at MOBIA brought treasures from the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the museum attached to the cathedral of Florence. Santa Maria del Fiore is better known as the Duomo or House of God. The Duomo, as is well-known, was the creative - and spiritual - heart of Florence during the Renaissance.

The works of art in the MOBIA exhibit virtually define Western conceptions of religious faith and devotion. Sculptures by Donatello (1386-1466) and by his colleague and rival, Nanni di Banco (c. 1384 – 1421) were the centerpieces of the show. 

Luca della Robbia & Antonio di Salvi Salvucci, Processional Cross, 15th century

An exquisite processional cross created by Luca della Robbia (1400-1482) was another highlight, along with a series of series of hexagonal panels celebrating the intellectual pursuits of Florence. One of these showed a grammar teacher instructing his students, a perfect illustration of Renaissance learning in action.

Luca della Robbia, The Art of Grammar, 1437-39

How could MOBIA go from organizing and mounting such an impressive exhibition to closing its doors forever? A comparison of Florence's S. Maria del Fiore Cathedral with MOBIA provides telling insight into the comparative expressions of religion and culture in Renaissance Italy and modern-day America.

Construction of the Duomo took place over 165 years. The keystone of S. Maria del Fiore was laid on September 8, 1296. The cathedral's stunning dome, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1418 and completed in 1436, was represented in the MOBIA exhibit by the actual working model of this astonishing edifice. The crowning touch, the Lantern of the Cupola, was set high atop the dome, in 1461.

Filippo Brunelleschi, Model for the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, ca. 1420–52

Taking American history as a comparison, these 165 years match the long course of American democracy, from 1776 to the U.S. entry into the Second World War in 1941. That is a long time to build a church. The Duomo, however, is not just any church. The Florentines knew that and the sculptures from S. Maria del Fiore that MOBIA displayed proved that they knew it.

Two statues were given pride of place, side-by-side in the MOBIA exhibit, St. Luke the Evangelist and St. John the Evangelist. These impressive works of art asserted the piety and self-confidence of Florence during the 1400’s in a way that is almost impossible to conceive today. Renaissance Florence managed to combine mercantile skill, political pragmatism and fidelity to the Christian faith with cultural awareness of Greek and Roman antiquity. These traits are well-attested to in the marble men of God sculpted to adorn the Duomo.

Nanni di Banco, St. Luke the Evangelist, 1408–13

St. Luke the Evangelist, sculpted by Nanni di Banco around 1408–13, embodies the intellectual mindset known as Humanism. This innovation of the Renaissance made the role of individual scholars, rather than scholastic theory, the keystone of intellectual inquiry. The keen-eyed Apostle Luke appraises passers-by and the world at large from his niche on the wall of the Duomo.

Nanni di Banco's St. Luke resembles the Roman emperor Hadrian, an indication of the zeal of Renaissance humanists for studying the surviving art works of antiquity. By contrast, Donatello's St. John the Evangelist played an important role in how the image of God came to be presented in Western art.

Donatello, St. John the Evangelist, 1408–15

During the Middle Ages, God the Father was almost never depicted, save as a disembodied arm sending the Holy Spirit winging down to earth.  In a daring stroke, Lorenzo Ghiberti showed the torso, head and outstretched arms of God the Father in the Annunciation panel of his North Doors for the Florence Baptistery, created between 1403-24. God's face, however, is largely obscured.

When Ghiberti created his second set of doors for the Baptistery, the famed "Doors of Paradise," God was shown as a long-bearded sage not unlike Michelangelo's Supreme Being on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. More to the point, Ghiberti's God the Father looked like Donatello's St. John, completed a few years earlier in 1415.

Did Donatello influence Ghiberti or was it the other way around? Donatello assisted Ghiberti with the North Door panels during the early years of the project, before he started sculpting St. John in 1408. Donatello was almost certainly influenced by Ghiberti's depiction of the long-bearded Abraham poised to sacrifice Isaac in the competition piece that enabled him to best his rival Brunelleschi to gain the commission for the Baptistery doors.

The answer to this question lies in the creative rivalries and relationships in the small, brilliant circle of the Florentine art world during the early 1400's. Donatello, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi and the rest mutually influenced the techniques and achievements of each other - and succeeding generations of artists. When we look at the powerful, visionary countenance of Donatello's St. John the Evangelist we are looking at the face of Western art from the Renaissance onward to Rodin in the nineteenth century.

Donatello, St. John the Evangelist (Detail), 1408–15

The great artistic drama in Florence during the 1400's centered on the sculptural decoration of the Duomo and other places of worship like the Church of Santa Croce. It was a wise decision by the curators of the MOBIA exhibit to extend the range of artists to include ones of lesser talent than Donatello because virtually every Florentine artist of note was involved in the sustained programs of ecclesiastical art.

Attributed to Giovanni d’Ambrogio, Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary

The two-figure ensemble of the Archangel Gabriel of the Annunciation and the Virgin Mary of the Annunciation, attributed to Giovanni d'Ambrogio during the late 1300's, is a case in point. Etched into the faces of Gabriel and Mary are intense emotions which in turn reveal the deep psychological roots of the Renaissance in Italy. This great artistic revolution was not the product of two or three isolated "genius" figures. The spirit of that remarkable age encompassed the many not the few.

Donatello - Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi - was a genius and a long-lived one at that. By the time he died in 1466, aged 80, his vast, innovative and varied body of work encompassed the entire epoch of the early Renaissance. Several of the disturbing works of his later career, such as the Penitent Magdalene, which he carved in wood around 1455, pointed to the political and religious discord that marked the later stages of the Renaissance.

Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to see social stress fractures beginning to appear in a relatively early work and one that Donatello was reputed to have spoken to as if it were alive. This statue, created around 1435, is believed to depict the Old Testament prophet, Habakkuk.  

Donatello, Prophet (possibly Habbakuk), 1435–36

With a typical Italian blend of affection and irreverence, the statue of Habakkuk has long been called lo Zuccone or "Squash Head." When viewing this mighty work in person, the wittiness of its nickname can become rather annoying. The mind behind the tormented face of Habakkuk has other ideas. Lips parted as if to speak, Habakkuk scores a direct hit on the complacency and self-satisfaction of the viewer - without saying a word.                              

As the excellent essay in the companion volume to the exhibit notes, the Prophet Habakkuk proclaimed in the Old Testament that "... the just shall live by his faith."

Donatello, Prophet (possibly Habbakuk), (detail), 1435–36

Any society which devotes so many resources, so much talent and zeal to church building as the Florentines did during the 1300's and 1400's is obviously a faith community. But Donatello's Habakkuk is speaking to a primal level of religious belief for those times when our lives and souls are not protected by the walls of the Duomo.  Faith at this level is an act of courage, physical and moral, when menaced by tyranny and death. It is a voice saying yes to God when the rest of the world says no.

Donatello's Habakkuk speaks of values that an institution like MOBIA is best equipped to present. No art museum is - or should be - a surrogate church. MOBIA was designed to present religious art in a sensitive, non-sectarian manner. By doing so, MOBIA allowed the moral values of the works on view to be evoked without endorsing them. This unique and dearly-needed artistic environment is very rare, apart from the Metropolitan Museum's Cloisters and a few other venues.

When MOBIA closed its doors on June 14, 2015, a major loss to American culture took place. How sad that an American foundation could not have stepped forward to assist MOBIA to find a new home. The guilds of Florence played a direct role in funding the Duomo and the incomparable art created by Donatello and Ghiberti.

MOBIA's closing raises real questions about the values of the present-day.  Are we a society that stamps "In God We Trust" on the coin of the realm but fails to support a museum dedicated to the study of the Bible upon which the values of the West are ultimately founded?

The answer to that question may be more important than we realize.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), New York City

Introductory Image:    
Installation view of Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral at the Museum of Biblical Art, 2015. Photo by Eduard Hueber. The exhibition is organized by Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, and the Museum of Biblical Art, New York

Installation view (Interior) of Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral at the Museum of Biblical Art, 2015. Photo by Eduard Hueber. The exhibition is organized by Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, and the Museum of Biblical Art, New York

Luca della Robbia and Antonio di Salvi Salvucci, Processional Cross: Christ Crucified, the Evangelists, Allegory of the Sun, 15th century (after 1460, before 1475), Gilded copper (repoussé and chased), gilded bronze, and enamel, 76 × 57 cm (total height with staff: 160 cm) (30 × 22½ in.) (total height with staff: 63 in.) Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/347 © Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Luca della Robbia, The Art of Grammar (Aelius Donatus or Priscian instructing students?), 1437-39, Marble, 81.5 × 68.5 × 13 cm (32 × 27 × 5 in.) Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/436 © Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi, Model for the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, ca. 1420–52, Wood, dome: 100 × 70 cm (393⁄8 × 27½ in.); apses: 55 × 63 × 35 cm each (215⁄8 × 24¾ × 13¾ in. each) Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/493 © Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Nanni di Banco, St. Luke the Evangelist, 1408–13, Marble, 207 × 91 × 63 cm (81½ × 357⁄8 × 247⁄8 in.) Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no 2005/112 © Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Donatello, St. John the Evangelist, 1408–15, Marble, 212 × 91 × 62 cm (83½ × 35¾ × 24½ in.) Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no 2005/113 © Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Attributed to Giovanni d’Ambrogio, Archangel Gabriel of the Annunciation, late 14th century, Marble, 144 × 44 × 30 cm (56¾ × 17¼ × 117⁄8 in.) Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/276 © Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Attributed to Giovanni d’Ambrogio, Virgin Mary of the Annunciation, late 14th century, Marble, 144 × 44 × 30 cm (56¾ × 17¼ × 117⁄8 in.) Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. No 2005/277 © Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Donatello, Prophet (possibly Habbakuk), known as the Zuccone, 1435–36, Marble, 195 × 54 × 38 cm (763⁄4 × 211⁄4 × 15 in.) Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/374 © Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone


Saturday, June 6, 2015

Abandoned America by Matthew Christopher

Abandoned America: the Age of Consequences  

By Matthew Christopher

JonGlez/$39.95/239 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In 1927, the Ford Motor Company commissioned an artist from Philadelphia, Charles Sheeler, to photograph Ford's River Rouge plant. Covering eleven hundred acres and employing a staggering 75,000 workers, River Rouge was the world's biggest, most technologically- advanced industrial facility. The epicenter of the production of Ford's new Model A automobile, River Rouge could only be described in images not words.

Sheeler spent six weeks at the Michigan factory site but only made 32 prints. This handful of photographs, however, provided a sensational visualization of industrial age civilization. Pictures like Criss-Crossed Conveyors, Ford Plant presented a world where factories had become - in Sheeler's words - “our substitute for religious expression."

Flash-forward from Sheeler's era to Matthew Christopher's contemporary photographs in the new book, Abandoned America. Here you will see what became of the temples of twentieth century "religious expression."

Matthew Christopher is a Philadelphia artist like Sheeler. Over the last decade, Christopher has explored dozens of sites dating from America's Industrial Age. He has photographed factories, power-stations, churches, hotels, hospitals and prisons from the proud Progressive Era. When built, these structures were  statements of faith in an American future where science, religion and culture were intertwined like the wire strands of the steel-cables supporting the Brooklyn Bridge.

Everyone of these buildings is now closed, bolted-shut or demolished. The derelict, rusting ruins of Carrie Furnaces, the windowless facade of Packard Motor Car Company, the "bare, ruined choirs" of Gothic Revival churches in Philadelphia facing the wrecking-ball - these are sign-posts of America's "post-industrial" present. 

Matthew Christopher, Holmesburg Prison,

To his credit, Christopher does not fall into the trap of "good old days" nostalgia. His well-researched commentary presents the grim history of such places as Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, nicknamed  the "Terrordome." When paired with his terse accounts of medical experimentation on prisoners and other atrocities at Holmesburg, the sinister beauty of Christopher's prison photos is hard to banish from one's mind.

Christopher's book asserts that we should not be quick to turn the page of history. It is clear from his photos and his reportage that America is not necessarily a better place as a result of closing-down hell-holes like Holmesburg. Rather, Abandoned Americapowerfully - and painfully - documents what Christopher calls the "Age of Consequences."

The first "consequence" which Christopher examines is the collapse of America's heavy industry during the last three decades of the twentieth century. Photo essays treat the demise of the Eastalcoa works in Adamstown, Maryland, which produced 8% of the aluminum in the United States, the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, New York, and the Packard auto manufacturing  works in Detroit.

The Huber Breaker is a fitting focus point for trying to grasp the staggering abandonment of America's industrial hegemony. 

Matthew Christopher, The Huber Breaker

Christopher's wintry image of this now-demolished coal processing facility is an artistic masterpiece. Cezanne's geometric essentials have been transplanted from the painter's canvas to a photograph of gigantic, box-like superstructures mounting hundreds of square window panes or empty, broken frames. 

Located in the anthracite coal-mining region of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, Huber Breaker took raw coal and turned it into a high-grade variety, dyed blue, 7,000 tons of it per hour. The building's design practically screams "1800's." Yet Huber Breaker was built in 1939 and - initially - was threatened not so much by its own obsolescence as by changes in energy use following World War II.
What followed was even worse - the unthinkable collapse of the American industrial heartland centered on the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states. This spelled the doom of Huber Breaker and of power stations like the Westport Generating Station in Baltimore, demolished in 2008. Fewer factories required less energy which led to staff layoffs and shuttered power plants. 

Matthew Christopher, Westport Generating Station

This downward spiral led to the second of the "consequences" upon which Christopher focuses with such discernment. This is the unraveling of the social fabric of communities no longer sustained by the tax base of local companies and their workers.

Believing that American industry was "too big to fail," many Americans could not, would not admit that schools, libraries, social clubs, theaters and even churches were being undermined by the escalating economic calamity around them. And  when these social institutions closed their doors in turn, the people they served faced the most terrible form of impoverishment - that of the mind and of the soul.

Many of the most haunting images in Abandoned America deal with three historic Catholic churches in Philadelphia. Once the "Workshop of the World" and the "City of Neighborhoods," Philadelphia has lost most all of its industry. Many Philly neighborhoods, once centered on local churches, linger on, neither fully alive nor clinically dead.

Christopher's churches include one fittingly called the Church of the Transfiguration. One of Philadelphia's largest Catholic churches, Transfiguration was constructed with the same level of craftsmanship and expensive, durable materials used in the churches of Renaissance Italy. Many of these historic churches of Italy, with paintings and sculptures by great masters, are still used for liturgies today. So too, Transfiguration, St. Boniface and St. Bonaventure were churches built to last for generations.

All three churches are now closed and their congregations dispersed. All three have been torn down.

Matthew Christopher, St. Bonaventure Church 

René Magritte or Salvador Dali could not have painted more surreal images than Christopher's photographs of St. Bonaventure Church during its demolition. Built during the early 1900's through the efforts of its German immigrant congregation, St. Bonaventure featured stained glass windows and bas reliefs, many of which were still in place when it was demolished in 2013 at a cost of $1 million dollars from the City of Philadelphia budget. 

Matthew Christopher, St. Bonaventure Church 

The pews of St. Bonaventure sit vacant in Christopher's stunning photograph, facing an open sky. But was the issue here really a matter of lack of community support or lack of will? 

St. Bonaventure was situated in the the crime-ridden Fairhill neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The church, however, had been  evolving into a Latino parish. Moreover, adjacent neighborhoods are witnessing a resurgence as a young adult population is starting to purchase "fixer-upper" houses. Small business, even factories, are relocating to the nearby Kensington area.

In a few years, Fairhill is likely to experience these positive trends. But St. Bonaventure is gone.

In a way, St. Bonaventure and the other buildings in Abandoned America were victims of their own success. These institutions generated their share of public programs or corporate profits. When the cost of sustaining them was greater than the financial return, then these institutions were closed down. Some were abandoned like the Lebow Brothers Clothing Company  in Baltimore, with hundreds of usable garments left to rot. Others like Kohl's Motorcycle Sales & Service in Lockport, N.Y. became entangled in law suits. Kohl's burned down in 2013 under suspicious circumstances with scores of vintage bikes lost.

Matthew Christopher, Kohl's Motorcycle Sales & Service 

Tossing aside manufacturing sites or churches like empty cans of beer is not merely wasteful. It destroys a climate for small business development and for community involvement. It also leads to more wealth and power accumulating in fewer hands.

In the first volume of Das Kapital, Karl Marx noted that the mass of individual workers were not the only ones to suffer in the “merciless vandalism” that accompanied the “centralization of capital.” The early stages of industrial production are characterized  by a large number of small, private firms - iron foundries in the 1800’s, computer software companies during the 1990’s. But ruthless competition reduces the initial number of pioneers in favor of fewer, bigger and more powerful companies.

“One capitalist always kills many,” Marx declared, a prediction abundantly fulfilled by the demise of Autocar, Duesenberg,  Nash, Hupmobile and hundreds of other trail-blazing American car companies.

The longer-lived Packard Motor Car Company (1899–1958) eventually succumbed as well. Packard was a well-managed,  profitable company in the luxury car market, especially noted for exporting  automobiles to European and Asian royalty,  including the last Tsar of Russia. As Christopher wryly remarks, the rubble-strewn Packard industrial complex in Detroit "stands vacant, now a status symbol of a different sort."

Matthew Christopher, Packard Motor Car Company

Several of Christopher's Packard photos look like they had been taken in the aftermath of the Battle of Stalingrad. But the seemingly unremarkable shot of the exterior of empty factory buildings is actually the most revealing. Look closely and you will see vines and sapling trees already beginning to cling to the vacant buildings. With these "scouts" in position, a further wave of trees and bushes is poised, ready to advance and invade the abandoned edifice.

The "reclamation"  by nature of deserted human habitations has happened countless times in the past. This scene from the Packard plant is strikingly similar to what occurred as the jungle of Central America engulfed the abandoned Mayan temples after the drought-stricken civilization collapsed around 900 AD.

The striking photos of the Carrie Furnaces in western Pennsylvania are very evocative in this respect. Christopher's images illustrate both Marx's theory of cut-throat capitalism  and of the "lost civilization" aspect of social decline.

Matthew Christopher, Carrie Furnaces

Carrie Furnaces was built in 1906, across the Monongahela River River from the Carnegie-owned Homestead Steel works. The 1892 strike at Homestead brought the United States closer to a labor revolt than at any moment except the wave of union protests during the 1930's. Now, with its gantry crane looming above the surrounding vegetation, Carrie Furnaces looks as the deserted Mayan cities of Copán and Palenque did as the jungle closed-in a thousand years ago.

Christopher writes movingly of Carrie Furnaces:

For all intents and purposes, it seems like the last vestiges of a civilization of giants. Rather than flaking frescoes or cracked religious reliefs adorning the walls, there are indecipherable graffiti tags from over the years. It is hard to imagine that such a place was ever inhabited, or that the furnaces once roared. The silence is nearly absolute, save for the rustle of the wind in the leaves or an occasional deer bounding through the grass.

This passage highlights Christopher's great ability as a writer and the thoughtful, inspiring nature of what he writes. Christopher often took great personal risks going to these abandoned and dangerous sites. Yet, the quest for the photos in Abandoned America was also an interior journey, marked by a courageous effort at reflection and self-assessment.

Matthew Christopher, photo by Olivia Antsis.

In a particularly moving passage in the essay on the Westport Generating Station, Christopher notes how he came upon the narrow gauge rail engine which brought coal to the upper levels of the Baltimore power station. With poetic insight, Christopher writes that discovering a rail engine and coal cars "perched atop the labyrinthine networks of turbine halls and furnaces was an abrupt shift between the waking and the dreaming world..."

The afternoon swiftly vanished and in what seemed no time the building too was gone forever. Occasionally it would reappear in my memory but it seemed too odd and improbable to be real. If I told someone about it, surely they would think me a liar, but I had the photographs to prove it. These flickering collections of pixels were not only Westport's witness, but my own.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images and text excerpts, courtesy of Matthew Christopher/Abandoned America                                                 
Introductory Image:                                                                                                       John Wilde & Brother, Inc., photo by Matthew Christopher/Abandoned America                                              
Cover Image of Abandoned America: the Age of Consequences, Courtesy of JonGlez Publishing

Holmesburg Prison, photo by Matthew Christopher/Abandoned America

Huber Breaker, photo by Matthew Christopher/Abandoned America

Westport Generating Station, photo by Matthew Christopher/Abandoned America

St. Bonaventure Roman Catholic Church, photo by Matthew Christopher/Abandoned America 

St. Bonaventure Roman Catholic Church, photo by Matthew Christopher/Abandoned America 

Kohl's Motorcycle Sales & Service, photo by Matthew Christopher/Abandoned America 

Packard Motor Car Company, photo by Matthew Christopher/Abandoned America

Carrie Furnaces,  photo by Matthew Christopher/Abandoned America

Matthew Christopher, photo by/courtesy of Olivia Antsis.