Getty Museum to Mount Major Exhibition Devoted to Photographs of New York by Walker Evans
Exhibition dates: July 28-October 11, 1998
June 2, 1998
For more than forty years, the city of New York - its people, its streets, its signs, its architecture - was a persistent but lesser-known theme in the work of Walker Evans, one of the greatest American photographers of the 20th century. The first in-depth exhibition ever devoted to his vision of that vast metropolis, Walker Evans: New York, will be on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center from July 28 through October 11, 1998. It reveals Evans, who is perhaps best known for his Depression-era images of the rural American South, as a quintessential street photographer whose style and vision were shaped powerfully by the city in which he lived. Coinciding with New York City 100 - the centennial of New York's consolidation of some 40 municipalities into one city - the exhibition features more than 100 photographs drawn entirely from the Museum's collection of some 1,300 works by Evans.
The exhibition spans the period from 1927, when the young photographer captured the excitement of the Lindbergh Day Parade and celebrated the Brooklyn Bridge from many viewpoints, to 1963, when the mature artist, then working for Fortune magazine, documented the dramatic transformation of Third Avenue as the old curio shops and storefronts gave way to midtown business expansion. The exhibition demonstrates not only the city's impact on Evans, but also how his early abstract "formalist" approach - influenced by Paul Strand's images of New York, Eugène Atget's photographs of Paris, and other avant-garde currents in Europe - slowly evolved into a deeply humanist vision. It also sheds light on the influence he had on an entire generation of younger street photographers, such as Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand.
"For most of us," says Judith Keller, Associate Curator of Photographs, who organized the exhibition, "Walker Evans is the 1930s photographer of tenant farmers and their families in the South. Yet from the mid-1920s, when he began living in New York, until 1965, when he moved to teach at Yale University, Evans produced a rich and varied portrait of his chosen city. He consistently focused his camera on New York, its soaring skyscrapers, signs, vendors, graffiti, people on the subway, Coney Island, street life, and fashion. Many viewers who think they know Evans' work will be surprised by just how much of his subject matter embraces New York, and how much has remained unseen until now. This show provides an opportunity to observe unfamiliar work by a familiar artist - and to see him under a new light."
Walker Evans (1903-1975) was raised in St. Louis, suburban Chicago, and Toledo. He briefly attended Williams College in Massachusetts before heading to New York, where he took odd jobs to support his career in photography. He moved frequently during the 1920s and 1930s, living in Brooklyn Heights, sharing an apartment for a time with the painter Ben Shahn in Greenwich Village, and eventually settling in Manhattan's Upper East Side community of Yorkville. Before taking the Fortune job in 1945, where he worked for 20 years, Evans was a freelancer, photographing for Scribner's, Architectural Review, and Harper's Bazaar, as well as for museums, galleries, and the government. He also served as a film critic for Time in the early 1940s.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically, dividing his work into distinct phases and themes and opening with the city as Evans first encountered it in the 1920s, on his return from more than a year of study and travel in Europe. In one of numerous images of the Brooklyn Bridge (1929), he captures the distant yet commanding Manhattan skyline and suggests the huge expanse of the bridge over the East River. In Manhattan (about 1928-30), a U.S. rubber sign on the company skyscraper just south of Central Park is seen as a hallmark of American culture. In a dizzying view of the Chrysler Building Under Construction(1930) he suggests a vast, prospering, vertical city whose very angularity is revealed as man-made abstraction.
The exhibition takes the viewer out on the street itself, showing hurrying pedestrians, street vendors, the unemployed, ads large and small, and the Coney Island boardwalk. In Second Avenue Lunch/Posed Portraits (around 1933), a short-order cook standing in front of a menu offering ten-cent hamburgers proudly engages the viewer's eye. He places his hand on his hip and puts an arm around the shoulder of another man. Like much of the 1930s work, the image reveals Evans searching for a straightforward style, in which pictures document everyday life.
Walker Evans: New York also features a rare series from the late 1930s-early 1940s (none of which was exhibited for some 20 years) in which Evans takes the viewer below ground to view his portraits of anonymous New Yorkers riding the subway. In this crowded underworld environment filled with signs and the glare of cheap lighting, Evans secretly recorded - with a hidden Contax camera - individuals, a couple of friends or a family, and isolated them from the crowd. In a serial portrait he made using sixteen carefully cropped prints of women riders, all of them pensive and wearing hats, Evans stacked his images into rows of four, forming an intense grid and underscoring his subjects' isolation, anonymity, and introspection. Assembled in the 1950s, it is a summary statement reflecting on a project that had occupied him for years.
From the haunting Subway Portraits, as they are known, the exhibition moves to post-war New York, the beginnings of a new building boom, and an emphatic new street style. Evans' close observation of street fashion - better known through his assignments in Havana, Detroit, and Bridgeport - also found a renewed focus. In the show it is manifested in a little-known series of the 1960s that captures the appearances and inadvertent gestures of busy men at midday. Most of these men, including messengers, shopkeepers, well-dressed executives, and the eager youths of Four Young Men with Ties, Rockefeller Center (dated April 9, 1963), were too absorbed in their activities to notice they were being observed.
Walker Evans: New York concludes with the Third Avenue images, also taken in the 1960s after the removal of the elevated rail, that document the transition from the traditional to the modern and the decrepit to the new. Less celebratory than his early works, these photographs suggest the toll of fast-paced change in the city. Evans strikes an elegiac note in Third Avenue, New York City (1962), one of the show's final images. An old man strolling down the street, his back to the camera, seems all but enveloped by the stark walls of new office buildings that shadow the asphalt and extend from block to block.
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A new book coinciding with the exhibition will be published by the Getty Museum in August 1998. Walker Evans: Signs contains a provocative essay by the Romanian-born poet, novelist and National Public Radio commentator Andrei Codrescu, a Professor of English at Louisiana State University. Codrescu is a keen observer of American culture who poses new questions about Evans and the America he captured. The book, with an introduction by Judith Keller, focuses on Evans' obsession with the signs he found in modern America, from billboards to gas station pumps to street graffiti to handmade announcements of a Saturday night dance. It features 50 photographs from the Museum collection (including photographs that are also in the concurrent exhibition). The book contains 96 pages and 50 duotone illustrations ($19.95).
The Getty Museum's Evans holdings, which include Evans' own prints and various manuscript materials, were formed initially through the purchase, in 1984, of the collection of Arnold Crane, which has been enlarged since. It is the largest museum repository of Evans' prints in the world. Walker Evans: The Getty Museum Collection (1995), a comprehensive volume by Judith Keller, surveys the Getty's collection of Evans' work and chronicles his career. The book includes a wealth of bibliographic information and serves as a major contribution to the scholarship on Evans' photography. It contains 416 pages; 31 color and 1,054 duotone illustrations ($95.00).
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