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by Peter Schjeldahl
This is one of the finest and most potent small shows of anything, never mind photographs, that I have ever seen. But it bemuses me. My heart hangs back from it. The reason has to do with petrified meanings of the 20th century, notably the myth of something that we keep calling "modernism," as if we knew what we were talking about. The myth is fueled by oxymoronic feelings: drunk on clarity, for instance. During World War I in New York, Paul Strand nailed that sort of epochal delirium so authoritatively that one's first reaction to the work he made then may be to salute it like a flag.
Strand, in his 20s, gave photography specialized formal lexicons and professional attitudes keyed to a sense of the modern world as perfectly unprecedented and bound for intelligent glory. Like Pablo Picasso, James Joyce and other exemplary reinventors of their respective arts, he thereby released volcanic zest. Just try resisting the intellectual strength and visual excitement of the pictures in this show. But there is something increasingly alien and even a bit mad about the pictures, too, here at the century's wised-up end.
So-called modernism was a productive mental illness, perhaps, with heroic symptoms. (This would make so-called postmodernism a secondary malady, like a disease that a disease germ gets. I can't stand these puffy labels, which substitute for thought.) One symptom is a belief that by changing how the world is commonly seen, you change the world. You don't though. You only render yourself and your followers arrogantly impervious to inconvenient varieties of always uncontrollable, humbling fact. Modern art spewed self-crippling delusions, some fabulous.
Strand's early photographs still stun. The three justly most famous are Wall Street (1915) and White Fence and Blind (both 1916): object lessons in how to iconize the real. Pedestrians raked by morning light in a canyon of commerce, weathered wood dreaming of Plato down on the farm, and a sightless woman peddler trumpeting several kinds of visibility assert mighty capacities for photography. Each suggests that to see through a lens is to know, and that to know is to master essential reality. It can seem a simple step from such lucidity of vision to lucidity of action, taking the world in rational and enlightened, perhaps revolutionary hand.
Strand, a Jewish kid raised in a hothouse milieu of social and esthetic idealism (he went to Ethical Culture high school), began his career on a photographic scene dominated by the foggy loveliness of Pictorialism, as practiced by Edward Steichen and Clarence White. Met curator Maria Morris Hambourg, assisted by Laura Muir, has prefaced the Strand show with a wonderful selection of Pictorialist touchstones trumped at the end by Alfred Stieglitz's new-look talisman The Steerage -- the Demoiselles d'Avignon of photography. The terrific quality of those old-fashioned images retards a little the triumphalist flourish with which conquering "modernism" then makes its ritual grand entrance.
Pictorialism is underrated on a couple of counts. First, it acknowledged the subjectivity of all decisions in the photographic process. Second, it acknowledged the roots of subjective vision in conventions shared by painting and literature, among other mediums. Modern artists mystified these truths with fantasies of objectivity and originality. Appearing to transcend Pictorialism, Stieglitz and Strand really just replaced it with sharper-focus, subtler make-believe. To put it another way, they exalted hard exclusivity over soft inclusiveness, idealized masculine vigor over Victorian effeminacy.
It worked, picture after well-chosen picture -- in this show that moves from an impressionistic view of chickens in 1911 to a crisp 1917 composition of light and shadow in a city backyard hung with wash -- emits undying novelty. We see the piecemeal development of a bag of major formal and rhetorical tricks: high angles, diagonal ground planes, rhymings of substance and shadow, inside-out repoussoirs (framing elements in the background), giddy still-life close-ups imitating Cubism. Not that Strand was coldly tricky. The world interested him too much for that.
He set incredibly lofty standards for himself. A shot of his had to have just about everything in terms of formal rigor and inherent fascination to be worth printing, and his printing itself, commonly on platinum paper, crackles with sensitivity to nuances. The result almost always is something definitive -- as if each picture were the first and last in the world -- that happens to take as its subject a contingency of light and time. Charles Baudelaire's formula for beauty applies: the eternal plus the fleeting. But it applies excessively, I am surprised to feel.
Modern art at its best, such as here, can seem like one long demonstration project, reveling in sheer possibility. It shows that one may do this thing, and this and this, while continually postponing a sense of the reason for doing anything at all. It soars on utopian optimism, anticipating an explanatory, redemptive future. When the optimism has leaked away, such as now, that attitude becomes bizarre. Its cavalier dismissal of the past seems particularly foolish, as if on a warm day in winter one were to throw away one's overcoat.
One photograph in this show, new to me, gathers my mixed feelings into a complicated ecstasy: Twin Lakes, Connecticut (1916), a vertiginous shot of cloud-fretted sky with a corner of roofed porch intruding diagonally. You must see the original print, whose fine-grained registration of the sky is like a mathematical proof of the evanescent. If the spirit of the 20th century were to issue a souvenir brochure for time tourists, this image would be perfect for the cover. It is about drunkenness on clarity, or perhaps clarified drunkenness.
Humanly temporal architecture plus sublimely eternal sky divided by photography and multiplied by individual creative audacity equal a picture that reminds me of the title of Marshall Berman's book on modernity: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Strand took the sentiment a step farther, precipitating air into something solid. Yes, it was bonkers. Even as Strand innovated in busy New York, modern warfare was eviscerating European civilization. In 1917, America's entrance into the war traumatized him. Formerly a pacifist, he was soon in uniform. The experimental phase of his art was over, succeeded by less startling and more somber splendors until his death in 1976.
This show seems to me as catchy and sinister as old, wondrous martial music in a foredoomed cause. I won't march to it, but I'm damned if I can keep my toe from tapping.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.