The German artist George Grosz so despised the savagery of World War I that he tried to commit suicide in 1917 and was later almost shot for desertion. His ruthless caricatures of the 1920s captured the perversity of Weimar Berlin, filled with profiteers, prostitutes and poverty-stricken cripples and amputees. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Grosz emigrated to America where he lived until 1958, the year before he died.
The United States, in a way, was one long anticlimax for Grosz. He watched, helplessly, the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust from afar. Much of the artwork he’d left in Germany was destroyed in the Nazi incineration of "degenerate art." Many have thought that his work became weaker in the U.S. and the relatively bucolic landscapes and nudes he made in Cape Cod (hoping, perhaps, for sales) didn’t help his reputation.
"George Grosz: The Years in America: 1933-1958," Sept. 16-Oct. 31, 2009, at David Nolan Gallery, however, demonstrates conclusively that Grosz continued making unbelievably powerful and bitterly satirical paintings and drawings throughout his entire career. "I start to paint a nude, sun, dunes, Arcadia and grass, a good fine imagination," he said, "but alas, the more I go on with my work, it changes and all of a sudden there is fire and ruins and mud and grim debris all over. . . as if somebody more knowing and utterly destructive is leading me on."
Grosz’s works on canvas do feature dribbles and slashes of piled-on paint that can bring the purposeful decadence of late de Chirico to mind. God of War (1944), for example, an almost sickly image of a bearded heavenly titan who glories in human suffering, is rendered in fluffy brushstrokes of pink, blue and white. Cain or Hitler in Hell (1944), in contrast, is a portrayal of an enormous Fuhrer sitting on a rock in a blackened inferno with sweat running down his forehead, in front of a heap of tiny skeletons.
Even after the Nazis were finally defeated, Grosz remained pessimistic. In The Grey Man Dances (1949), an image of absolute frustration, a figure with an open skull and torso cavorts in front of a ragged flag and a pair of red buildings. His ears are covered with blocks of wood, his mouth is sewed shut, and spirals of barbed wire surround him. Grosz’s nihilism is even more all-pervasive in The Painter of the Hole II (1950), a portrait of a bug-eyed artist obsessively creating representations of rips. Tubes of paint litter the ground, rats crawl over canvases, and the sky behind him shines through the hole that pierces his elongated forehead.
The latest works in the exhibition, two examples from a group of 40 photomontages, are as purely Dada as anything Grosz made in the Weimar era. This is a Man? (1957) features a pair of huge breasts and a strange twisted face meticulously pasted over a banal photo of a bathing beauty, turning her into a grimacing monster. Grosz died of a heart attack in Germany the next year, after a long night of carousing.
Fernell Franco, "Amarrados"
An equally gloomy vision, discovered in the most quotidian of places, is expressed in Colombian photographer Fernell Franco’s Amarrados [Bound]. A riveting exhibition of 17 large-scale black-and-white prints from the series (curated by Maria Iovino) can be seen at Americas Society on Park Avenue, Sept. 17, 2009-Jan. 23, 2010. His pictures of bundles of merchandise in the markets of Columbia, Ecuador and Peru, seen as isolated objects bound with ropes, become nightmarish mysteries that bring bondage and mummies to mind.
After an early childhood spent in the countryside, Franco and his family were forced to move to a poverty-stricken Cali suburb by the violence that racked the country for most of his life. Conflicts between government forces, right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing insurgents raged between 1948 and 1953, and started again in the ‘60s. Further battles between the drug cartels of Cali and Medellin are only now abating.
Franco began his working life as a messenger, and then was an assistant for a photography studio. Later he became a photojournalist for newspapers including El País and Diario Occidente, and also worked in advertising. He photographed victims of massacres for money, but in his personal work, made early in the morning and late at night, he sought to represent violence through metaphor.
"That tragic, poor, transitional element that is found all over Latin America is encapsulated in those images," Franco explained, "The act of binding -- of shipping and storing -- bespeaks a defenseless class that exists in each of those countries, where there are people who have never owned property and whose only option for conserving what little they have is to bind and enclose it before moving on elsewhere." (The quote is from Fernell Franco: "Testimonio" in Maria Iovino: Fernell Franco: otro documento, the catalogue for a large 2004 Franco retrospective held in multiple Cali venues).
Small snapshots and darkroom experiments displayed in cases reveal the way Franco manipulated snapshots taken in daylight to create an atmosphere of hidden doom. One original, for example, shows a man pushing a bundle on a cart, with buildings visible in the background. In the final print, the image has been cropped so that all that is left of the man is a barely visible fragment of his arm. The contrast has been accentuated until the bundles seem to shiver under searchlights in the midst of deepest night.
In an untitled image from the series "Amarrados [Bound]"(ca. 1988), three vertical bundles on carts are pressed up against the picture plane like advancing bandaged soldiers. Two of them are wrapped in striped fabric that suggests prison uniforms, while the third is covered in scraps of cardboard typical of homeless shelters. And the horizontal bundle in another untitled picture from the series "Amarrados [Bound]" (1986) resembles a hospital bed containing a covered body, ready to be transported to the morgue.
Sally Mann, "Proud Flesh"
Sally Mann also uses the developing process to add drama to her images. In the early ‘90s, Mann became notorious for evocative photographs of her children in the nude, and was even accused of making child pornography. Mann has since created mournful landscapes of Civil War battle sites, studies of decomposing bodies and snapshots of a place on her farm where an escaped prisoner shot himself. "Proud Flesh," her current show at Gagosian Gallery, is a series of 33 images of her husband’s nude body, shot in her studio over the past six years.
The Manns met in 1969, and they’ve been together ever since. For this project, reminiscent of Steiglitz’s pictures of Georgia O’Keeffe, her husband Larry unconditionally offered the beauties of his body to the explorations of Sally’s camera. Her love for the imperfections that make it unique, including the wasting of his muscles due to the late-onset muscular dystrophy that was diagnosed in 1994, comes through in every print.
Reminiscent in their way of antique statuary and history paintings by Poussin and David, Mann’s photographs are contact prints made from wet-plate negatives -- sheets of glass coated with ether-based collodion and submerged in silver nitrate. The chemicals engulf the images, resulting in prints that seem eaten away at their edges and marred by nicks and scratches, contradicting the three-dimensional presence of their subjects.
In Thinner (2005), for example, two black areas at the image’s top make Larry’s body resemble a phantom materializing on a transparent piece of cotton. And Silence, Exile and Cunning (2004) features his torso lying on a bed with light pouring out beneath it, seemingly turning the rest of the image into a shade halfway covering a window.
Most of the photos feature fragments -- his leg, his arm, his buttocks or his lap. Larry Mann’s face is seen only twice: like the faded silhouette of an antique bust in Time and the Bell (2008), and in Was Ever Love (2009), still as death, lying on a bed with his beard and hair catching light coming in from the left to illuminate the planes underneath his nose and chin.
Justine Kurland, "This Train"
Justine Kurland’s latest exhibition also includes portraits of aging males, but her muses are often strangers met on the road. Kurland came to prominence in 1999, with a series of photographs of young girls acting out fantasies in landscapes. Later staged images of nude mothers and children in spectacular settings were taken while crossing the country with her son Casper in a customized van with a bed.
In her current exhibition at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in Chelsea, "This Train Is Bound for Glory," Kurland explores the world of hobos, the usually male and often alcoholic eccentrics who have rejected social norms to eke out subsistence existences, traveling illicitly on the railroad and camping in the wild. The series features rich, velvety prints of rough images, and was inspired by Casper’s youthful obsession with trains.
The installation begins claustrophobically with Hope, or the Suicide Bed (2008), an image of the inside of a train tunnel littered with garbage. The mattress and pillow placed next to the tracks physically demonstrate the danger at hand. Next comes Donner Pass (2008), a picturesque aerial view of a snowy expanse of wilderness with a long train passing along the side of a mountain on the left.
The title reveals that this was the place where 87 travelers were trapped in the winter on their way to California in 1846. After eating their animals, some resorted to cannibalism and began to consume the dead: an extreme example of the brutal side of the pioneer spirit that often inspires the hobo lifestyle.
The exigencies of hand to mouth life can be seen in Astride Mama Burro, Now Dead (2007), an image of a disheveled bare-chested drifter with a bandanna around his head holding up the reins of his mount. Portrait of a Hobo (2007) is a close-up view of another bearded man displaying the tattoos on his arms and chest. He wears a backwards baseball cap and his eyes seem to look at nothing.
Although the series is more melancholy than Kurland’s earlier work, the presence of her little son counteracts its sadness. Prospecting the South Fork of the Platte River (2008) is an image of a white-bearded shirtless man sitting by the side of a river and reaching for Casper’s hand.
Other photos feature young men and women enjoying the wilderness, including Land of the Lost (2008), a picture of a black-bearded youth sitting on a log with his backpack beside him, playing the violin. What begins as a gloomy portrait of the price of nonconformity ends up illuminating the different generations attracted to the unspoiled American West. Prices range from $4,500 to $12,000 and the show is up until Nov. 14.
Hellen van Meene, "All Will Disappear"
The Dutch photographer Hellen van Meene finds a different kind of melancholy pensiveness in meticulously staged small format c-prints of children and adolescents posing in natural light, often streaming in through windows. Her latest exhibition, titled "Tout va disparaitre" (All will disappear) was on view at Yancey Richardson Gallery, Sept. 17-Oct. 31, 2009.
Photographs from several bodies of work were presented, including Pool of Tears, taken in an abandoned house in Holland; ("That Ghosts have just as good a right in every way, to fear the light, as Men to fear the dark." From Phantasmagoria by Lewis Carroll); and Going My Own Way Home, a group of portraits of young African Americans, made in 2007 during a trip between Florida and New Orleans.
Van Meene’s European works often bring paintings by Old Masters to mind. The eerie little girl in Untitled #331 St. Petersburg, Russia 2008 has a wedge-shaped haze of frizzy blond hair reminiscent of a Velazquez Infanta portrait. And Untitled #319 St. Petersburg Russia, 2008 features another nymphet with downcast eyes, clad in a high-necked pale dress that makes her resemble a Renaissance angel.
Other images are permeated by a sense of claustrophobia and fear. Untitled 308 (from Pool of Tears, 2008), for example, features a girl in a nightgown cowering in an attic as a blaze of sunlight seems to make her feet dissolve. And in Untitled #304, a skinny young boy in an undershirt presses his body against a paneled wall, as if he is clinging to his shadow.
The subjects of van Meene’s American photographs, in contrast, often seem aggressive and cheerful. In Untitled #294 (from Going My Own Way Home) 2007, an African-American woman in jeans stretches over the hood of an automobile like an arrogant odalisque, as a little girl peeks out from behind her. Another young woman leans against a tree in Untitled #282 (from Going My Own Way Home) 2007, obviously proud of her elegant red necklace, skirt and shoes. Prices range from $5,500 to $7,100.
Keizo Kitajima, "Joy of Portraits"
The flashbulb-lit nighttime ambiance of Keizo Kitajima’s spectacular black-and-white snapshots is worlds away from the sun-drenched nubility van Meene explores. Shot from the hip to catch subjects unaware, the bizarre worlds he documented can be seen in "The Joy of Portraits," an exhibition on view at Amador Gallery in the Fuller Building, Sept. 9-Nov. 7, 2009.
The earliest works in the show were taken in Koza, a red light district of Okinawa that catered to the United States army. Koza Business Center, 1977 features an American youth in a t-shirt with a Japanese woman in his lap. Startled by the camera, he reaches for something in his pocket while she seems to whisper in his ear. In another image with the same title taken three years later, a long skinny person of indeterminate gender rests coyly on a car that has seemingly screeched to a halt.
Pictures of nightlife in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district shot between 1979 and 1980 are even more dramatic, with contrast so extreme that skin color is hard to discern. Perhaps overtaken by drug-fueled ecstasy, a blackened woman wrapped in a glowing white sheet holds on to her face in utter electric delight; a nude man holding a flame-like cloth dances like Nijinsky with the legs of a faun; and a man with an Afro has his legs bent, as if ready to explode into movement.
The impression of speed that these images communicate was also a feature of their public life. In Image Shop CAMP, an independent gallery, darkroom and store that Kitajima started with Daido Moriyama, large-scale prints were projected on rolls of bromide paper attached to the wall, sponged with developer and fixative, and immediately exhibited. Small versions of the snapshots were bound into booklets for visitors to buy.
Kitajima continued to document wild masquerades in the nightclubs, gay bars and streets of New York during 1981-82. When he arrived in Eastern Europe in 1983, he found everyday people in daylight that were just as amazing as late night partiers -- the man with sunken cheeks seen in 1984. Marcius 22. Budapest could have stepped out of a novel by Kafka. Back in New York and shooting in color, he captured more expressions on the fly, as in New York 1985, a portrait of an open-mouthed black woman with an American flag fluttering above her head.
The latest works featured in the Amador show are photographs taken during a 150-day trip to the 15 republics of the USSR, shortly before it broke up into separate states. St. Petersburg, Russia, 1991, an image of a street musician wearing a red and black raincoat with lipstick to match, is one of Kitajima’s last flamboyant snapshots. Since then he’s concentrated on repeated static portraits of Japanese men and women, focusing on minute changes in facial expressions and hair. Prices range from $2,500 to $3,500.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer. A show of her ceramics is currently on view through the end of the month at Rose Burlington Living Room Gallery at 15 Park Row.