Empty Pleasures

John Haber
in New York City

Wijnanda Deroo, Katherine Newbegin, and Duane Michals

Joe Pflieger and Sarah Jones

Photography has found a place in museums and a place in mass culture. It has taken to the city and taken to the road.

Now photography walks right in and takes their portraits—but when no one is around to see. When Wijnanda Deroo documents the Rijksmuseum's renovation, she leaves it open whether the empty museum or the photograph is closer to art. When Katherine Newbegin and Duane Michals document cities, they find the comforts of movie theaters, hotels, and the early 1960s, but also a high vacancy rate. Joe Pflieger's Volvo Turbo (Monya Rowe gallery, 2014)When Joe Pflieger and Sarah Jones document a dreamy landscape of high-performance cars, horses, and gardens, they give it the look of museum architecture as well. They recall the medium's early years, when long exposure times meant not just blurring traffic, but making it vanish. If the contrast between desires and absences sounds Freudian, not even art photography can disdain empty pleasures.

Night in the museum

One may not think of the Rijksmuseum as a space for contemporary art. One may not, that is, unless one has seen it empty, as a space apart. Wijnanda Deroo has, and she finds a near abstract perfection even in walls behind drop cloths and floors strewn with rubble. The museum underwent a major renovation, starting in 2004, and the Dutch photographer dropped in several times a year until its reopening in April 2013. A documentary film by Oeke Hoogendijk has already tracked its progress, and the Rijksmuseum's Web site makes the changes look suitably polished, but Deroo is not interested in process or finish. She strips away workers and scaffolding in search of space, light, and color.

The building dates to 1885, when Pierre Cuypers combined Gothic columns with Renaissance symmetry and simplicity. For the reopening, the firm of Cruz y Ortiz undid previous renovations and restored period details, but museums these days are expected to grow and to attract a wider public, not to revert to a more stately past. The Spanish architects added an Asian pavilion and, of course, shops and restaurants. They created a new entrance and converted two inner courtyards, both postwar additions, into that bane of new museums, an atrium, in two parts connected by a passageway. MoMA since its 2004 renovation, the Morgan Library under Renzo Piano, the Queens Museum, and the Whitney in the Meatpacking District, eat your heart out. At least unlike MoMA's plans for the future, they did not have to destroy anything as valued as the former Museum of American Folk Art.

They also ran five years over schedule and way over budget, in case you had any doubts that this is a very big deal. As if to shout major renovation, the rehanging leaves exactly one work in its old place, The Night Watch. In a night at the museum, Rembrandt will be watching. Deroo, too, has her presiding deities, but less comforting ones. A pitying Madonna looks down from her pillar, and portraits of the Dutch upper class under strapping tape appear tied up by kidnappers. Still, by and large only a few art objects remain, on their way in or out.

They leave behind an unexpected kind of art, its very modernity rooted in an older museum fashion of decorative arches and colored walls. Deroo sets the geometry of wood flooring against the planes rising behind. A black wall frames a door opening onto only the black rectangle of another wall, like the center of a black painting for Ad Reinhardt. The Rijksmuseum has galleries for Art Nouveau and, in the 1950s, Cobra—a northern European art movement that included Karel Appel. Still, one knows it best for Dutch painting from the age of Rembrandt and Jan Vermeer. And empty there is hardly a trace of Expressionism to be seen.

There is, however, room for theater, with Gothic sculpture among the performers. Mary and the angel of the Annunciation stand on their platforms past a stepladder, moving pallets, and entrances and exits stage left and stage right. You fill in the script. The sheer intensity of museum lighting suggests a stage set, as in the long, slim shadows cast by equipment left behind. James Casebere might have photographed the cloistered arches above white halls, only he would have built them himself as a scale model. It might be a box, but not a Minimalist box by Donald Judd or what Ilya Kabakov calls his Empty Museum.

Maybe the story has redeeming lessons for other museums. The stacked white boxes of the New Museum on the Bowery might work just fine if they did not have to hold art—and if people did not have to circulate from floor to floor. Tourists reliably line up for the Guggenheim regardless of what is on display inside, and Frank Lloyd Wright would have liked it that way. Deroo set a goal of photographing neglected spaces, from Indonesia to Kansas, but also Tavern on the Green in Central Park. And the tourist trade is driving its restoration, too. Better head there now, before the people.

Portraits without people

Katherine Newbegin ranges more widely, in search of more humble pleasures. She finds her way from a motel in New Mexico to a youth hostel in Warsaw and to Soviet-era hotels elsewhere in Eastern Europe, not so far from the unmade beds in photos by Laura Larson. She has a special fondness, though, for movie houses. All are "Vacant," in her show's title, but people seem to have slipped just off-stage. Someone must have set down the blue hotel telephone in Moldova or swept the trash from a bungalow in Germany neatly into a corner, and someone might have been using the roll of toilet tissue and woolen glove in a chapel room at Vassar only a moment before. One can almost count movie theaters in Mumbai as their portraits, with quaintly numbered seat backs assigning each a place. Newbegin calls her subject spaces of transitional occupancy. That relates her photographs to creature comforts closer to home. Back in New York, after all, people may treat a bar as a way station before settling into an evening at the movies—one temporary solace after another. Newbegin's pleasures, though, could easily have become a casualty of empty rooms, displacement, and change on a far larger scale. Hers is a world recovering from totalitarianism and poverty, with people moving on to make their own choices. They just may have to travel a long way before letting go.

A long exposure makes the most of their presences. The end of a corridor glows, like the end of a Paris street for Charles Marville, and one source spreads its points of light like a star. Sunlight on partially torn wallpaper simulates a forest clearing in Oregon. When light falls onto a boarded-up movie screen, it could be the start of a cinematic projection. Duane Michals's Empty New York (D. C. Moore gallery, c. 1964)Abandoned spaces often stand for unmet human needs, much as with classrooms caught up in the drug wars in Colombia for Juan Manuel Echavarría. As for Deroo, though, they never cease to promise pleasure.

Cities are surely the ultimate in transitional spaces, with all their chance encounters, risks, and pleasures. New York was my transitional space, in what one likes to call growing up, and so it was for Duane Michals around 1964. His Empty New York shares its emptiness and a gallery with Mark Innerst. Michals, like Danny Lyon, values a seemingly quainter city than the painter's broad avenues barreling into depth. Yet his photographs take one past skyscraper canyons and early twentieth-century convention. The thirty prints capture real spaces, without the exaggeration of thick sunlight, and a real moment in time.

New York then still had cul-de-sacs, Hook and Ladder Companies, and a majestic Penn Station. Diners had juke boxes, and subway cars had rattan seats. Graffiti had not taken over—or taken on the cachet of street art. Michals could look at empty barber chairs, empty tables, and a dry cleaner's promise of same-day pressing and know that they were waiting for customers, perhaps him. "Everything was theatre," the gallery quotes him as saying (with that old-world spelling). "Even the most ordinary event was an act in the drama of my little life."

He found inspiration, too, in the Paris of Eugène Atget, its shops boasting of desires. Still, he must have known that the Beatles and war had arrived, the crowds on the Coney Island roller coaster were getting rowdier, and America was on the cusp of change. He did not have to show the freaks and flagrant pleasures of Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus to know that emptiness is only a transition. He has clean contrasts in place of Atget's warm shadows, and the repeated objects within his compositions, from women's shoes to subway poles, have as much to do with late Modernism's formal strictures as consumerism and private fetishes. His white borders may not be so far from Innerst's thick wooden frames after all, with each print signed. He could stand at a distance without traveling half the world, to know the strange comforts of day-to-day life.

Off the road

When Joe Pflieger tackles the American dream, he sure makes it look dreamy. Yet he sought out a decidedly masculine version of the dream, an auto show, where he photographed engine models. His choice of high-tech models should only intensify the testosterone rush. When he compares the close-ups to "formal portraits," he might be speaking of the male psyche. The artist's black frames cut off all but a central shaft pressed close to the picture plane. Stacked planes spiral upward, and pins thrust out to one side, but the engines look motionless, as if lost in a dream.

The show's title, manifest, already proclaims its clarity, while also promising what Sigmund Freud called the latent content behind the manifest content of a dream. The engine housing may look like Brutalism in architecture, only carved from bath soap and dust. Then, too, the photographer could be dreaming the whole thing, with or without male biases of his own. Pflieger uses Photoshop to apply pastel tints, accentuate contrasts, and dissolve mass. Red Cadillac sounds like a fast-food chain, but it is going nowhere fast. Sometimes the spurts of color layered onto gray approach abstraction, in inkjet on acrylic.

Downstairs, he pursues the dream from Death Valley to the Fort Worth Water Gardens, designed by Philip Johnson. Again the scenes are close-up, immersive, and elusive, if also less charged with ambiguity or feeling. These larger compositions divide more neatly, like collage—or maybe like tiles in Windows 8. With a little work, one can make out bricks or cinder blocks along with soil, as a human imprint on the land. Both series recall the tradition of "road pictures," as with Robert Frank or Lee Friedlander crossing America by car or Emmet Gowin by air. Landscape and portraiture were not so far apart all along.

Sarah Jones takes to the road the old-fashioned way, on horseback. Or rather she photographs horses at rest, but with an old-fashioned beauty. Their black coats gleam against black backgrounds, as in archival prints from an era before motor cars. As in "At Grass," Philip Larkin's poem, "The eye can hardly pick them out / From the cold shade they shelter in." Yet they also take on a resplendent fullness. Where Pflieger softens cold steel, Jones hardens organic form and light, but as formal portraits all the same.

Her other subjects, too, suggest memories that refuse to slip away. They include the iron gates of an unseen estate, books, and the museum cases to hold them. Natural forms, too, have the look of wrought iron, whether flower stems or budding branches. Translucency competes with objects close to the picture plane, to make one feel that one could touch the blackness. As Larkin says, "Dusk brims the shadows."

They are not, however, altogether black. White is implicit in the highlights and the glass, but also explicit in orchids. The red of roses pops out from the crystalline darkness, as if hand painted. Look closely, too, and the horses are indeed at green or browning grass. For all the memories, Jones parallels the contemporary erasure of differences between photography and other media, high tech or low, as with Anne Collier and what a group show called "Strange Magic." She, too, she finds an uncanny clarity in what might pass for a dream.

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Wijnanda Deroo ran at Robert Mann through March 29, 2014, Katherine Newbegin at Lesley Heller through April 20, Duane Michals and Mark Innerst at D. C. Moore through May 31, Joe Pflieger at Monya Rowe through May 18, and Sarah Jones at Anton Kern through April 26. Portions of this review on Newbegin and Michals first appeared in a different form on New York Photo Review. A related review looks at portraits by Duane Michals and the empty New York of Holly Zausner.


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