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Vol. LXV, No. 43
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
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Art


“THE WORLD TRADE CENTER, TWILIGHT”: Peter Hujar (1934–1987) made this gelatin silver print the year he published “Portraits in Life and Death” (Capra Press 1976),the only monograph issued in his lifetime. The true twilit luminary in the photo is Cass Gilbert’s 97-year-old Woolworth Building (on right). “The Life and Death of Buildings” will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through November 6. The catalogue is distributed by Yale University Press and is available in the Museum Store.

(Collection of Richard and Ronay Menschel © 1987, The Peter Hujar Archive LLC. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery NY/Photo by Bruce M. White)

A Matter of Life and Death: University Exhibit About Buildings Looks Toward 9/11

Stuart Mitchner

On returning to New York City in 1905 after an absence of 30 years, Henry James expressed a qualified admiration for the “multitudinous skyscrapers” of lower Manhattan “standing up to the view, from the water, like extravagant pins in a cushion already overplanted.” When he saw one of the towers from the inside, he found “huge constructed and compressed communities” that he imagined “throbbing … with a single passion, even as a complicated watch throbs with the one purpose of telling you the hour and the minute.”

Time and architecture are central to the Princeton University Art Museum’s new exhibit “The Life and Death of Buildings,” where one of the first images claiming your attention is a clock on the facade of a Spanish cathedral. In the exhibit catalogue, subtitled On Photography and Time, Photography Curator Joel Smith points out that the blurred minute hand in a photograph of Burgos Cathedral taken in 1853 by Charles Clifford reveals that “the exposure lasted about two minutes.” The presence of the functioning clock is, in Smith’s words, time’s “autograph,” a “memento mori” that “stands for — and in its triviality, caricatures — the ephemeral viewpoint of a mortal observer.”

Presented as an “indirect meditation on the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11,” this eloquently and imaginatively mounted show includes a survey of photographs from the 1840s to the present drawn largely from the museum’s collection. Once you put 9/11 into the narrative, however, the course of the exhibit seems to move inexorably toward Thomas Ruff’s devastating and unsparing depiction of the collapse of the North Tower.

“Compressed Communities”

According to Museum Director James Christen Steward’s foreword to the catalogue, the idea for the exhibit “was sparked” in 2008 by the donation of a complete set of Danny Lyons’s 1967 series of 72 photographs, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan. Since the series records the razing of buildings to make way for the World Trade Center, the 9/11 theme once again becomes predominant. If history can be “embodied in a building,” what was embodied in the twin towers while they were standing was a vastly more populous version of the “compressed communities” Henry James discovered in a primal skyscraper almost a hundred years before the towers fell.

Few would disagree with Joel Smith’s contention that “once built,” the Trade Center was “difficult to love.” Architecture critic Paul Goldberger saw “two big, tall boxes” embodying nothing but their own “boring … utterly banal” massiveness. In Peter Hujar’s The World Trade Center, Twilight (1976), you can see what Goldberger means when he says the towers had no relation to anything around them. While Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building glories in the foreground in all its fancy full-dress gothic glamour, the twin towers glower in the rear.

Love

The curator’s reference to “love” stands out in an exhibit where the rhetoric is focused on time, art, history, myth, and the way a building’s “life cycle of construction, transformation, and afterlife gives tangible form to history and turns public space into an index of the past.” For someone whose infatuation with the city began at the age of ten, the towers were not just “difficult to love,” they were associated with the forces that had razed treasures like Penn Station, the Astor Hotel, and the Roxy Theater. Even so, I figured the city would sooner or later assimilate the Trade Center into its New Yorkness as it has the ego trips of Donald Trump and Middle American chains like Burger King. While the towers acquired a sort of vicarious charisma as settings for the 1976 remake of King Kong and Phillipe Petit’s tightrope walk, it was impossible to bond with those two buildings. Something resembling love became possible only after seeing pictures of the thousands of people who were were remembered in the New York Times photo spreads of the victims and in books like 102 Minutes (reviewed here 9/14/2005).

Implacable 9/11

The grim implications of the time frame in 102 Minutes has me thinking back to the hands of the clock on the facade of Burgos Cathedral. As shown in Charles Clifford’s photograph, the time on that day in 1853 was around 10:21 a.m. In an exhibit presented as an “indirect meditation” on the upcoming anniversary, a clock showing the exact time on a sunny morning in Spain 158 years ago evokes the sunny morning hours of September 11, 2001. According to most reports, the first plane slammed into the north tower at 8:46, the second plane penetrated the south tower at 9:03. The south tower collapsed two minutes before 10 a.m. and its twin went down at 10:28, or within about seven minutes of the time frame the “mortal observer” Charles Clifford observed, recorded, entered into ten years before his own death. Take the thought still deeper into September 11, 2001, and you can imagine the multitude of clocks all busy “keeping time” on the 110 floors inside the buildings at the hour of each one’s fall. Go still deeper and you’re thinking about the watches on the wrists of the thousands who died. Then move out beyond all the human suffering experienced on that day and in the event’s war-ravaged aftershock and you come up against simple numbers in the form of the magnetic, final, implacable date: 9/11. Has our measure of time ever left a more legible and lasting “autograph?”

Denouement

There is much in “The Life and Death of Buildings” that can be seen and enjoyed without reference to 9/11. I’m thinking in particular of Richard McGuire’s brilliant graphic work Here (1989); Sze Tsung Leong’s vast storybook vision Jiangsheng Cun, Shanxi Province (2004); Jeff Brouws’s guessing-game series Signs Without Signification (2003-2007); Andrew Moore’s Model T Headquarters, Highland Park (2009), also featured in this Sunday’s New York Times as an example of “ruin porn”; and Dmitri Baltermants’s Tchaikovsky (1945), which shows some Red Army soldiers gathered around a piano in a bombed-out building in Berlin. One soldier appears to be trying out the keyboard while the others huddle nearby, as if the piano were a hearth giving off warmth.

The last chapter of the exhibit’s narrative is built around Thomas Ruff’s image of the collapse of the North Tower, with its aggressively impersonal title, Jpeg co01. To view this enormous enlargement made from small image files off the Internet (some pieces in Ruff’s jpeg series are over two meters high), you find yourself standing between the four cheaply-shingled roof corners from an abandoned house in Englewood, N.J. According to the catalogue, Gordon Matta-Clark’s piece, Splitting: Four Corners (1974), “carries emotional weight” because it is not a representation but the reality “sawed from the body of a structure given up to decay.” It also makes a contrastingly humble setting for the contemplation of the exhibit’s deadliest, most cataclysmic and emotionally weighty moment, 10:28 a.m., September 11, 2001, an image still so disturbing, even after ten years, that I decided not to reproduce it here, if only because there is no way to do justice to its magnitude.

No amount of abstracting or refining or retitling 9/11 as Jpeg co01 can lessen the impact of that moment in time. The catalogue cites “the unifying feature” of the reconfiguration as the “distinctive pixelization pattern incurred in jpeg compression,” with the pixel acting as “a signifier of transmission, of circulation as a photographic value” that, at this scale, “doubles as a kind of brushstroke.” To which you can only think, “People were dying in there.”

Take a moment to contemplate the impending tenth anniversary of September 11 as you stand before this prodigious image and your meditation on the event and everything that it has set in motion will be anything but “indirect.”

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