Posts Tagged ‘photography’
Bruce Davidson‘s been on the mind lately.
Was revisiting his Subway book for a short project I’m currently working on with a friend (apropos of the SKL0 affair). The images are justifiably admired: graceful, single-minded, beguilingly insalubrious snapshots of a New York City I thought I was going to discover when I moved there in the early 2000s — only to find, of course, that that world of urban decay, of dirt and graffiti and muggings and CBGB and Bernhard Goetz, had long given way to what, by then, statistics proved was the safest large city in the country. (A fact corroborated by the number of Starbucks cafes and D’agostino’s supermarkets I found on every block. Both phenomena thanks in large part to Giuliani-driven gentrification.)
But that’s not the point here.
Another pal and I were having drinks at a rooftop bar a couple of nights ago: a cool, balmy evening, with a slight breeze and a couple of beers (and the high of seeing one’s name on a wall) and talk for some reason turned to our adolescent days — misspent adolescence, in my case.
Of playing hooky, of screwing up the ‘O’s, of hiding out in the bathrooms to smoke during P.E. lessons …
Fast-forward two decades later, and sometimes I’d dream of some amateur photog out there who’s amassed an unseen stash of images capturing the subculture of ’90s ‘kids’: the doc marts and Birkenstocks, the Guess berms, the Hunting World tees, the black JPG wallets and the Sonia Rykiel quilted bags, the tea dances at Fire and hanging out at the McDonald’s outlet at Centrepoint … You know, the way Carol Jerrems did for the Sharpie movement in Melbourne, or Gavin Watson’s punks and skinheads.
The pal and I soon moved on to other topics, but the exchange, however brief, dredged up out of the cold-freeze of consciousness a younger self I haven’t seen around in a while. A younger, hungrier, more starry-eyed self. And, oddly enough, he’s been missed.
The images here are from another iconic Bruce Davidson project, his Brooklyn Gang series, which preceded the work of Jerrems and Watson. According to one commentator, it “stands as one of the first in-depth photographic records of rebellious postwar youth culture”:
In 1959, there were about 1,000 gang members in New York City, mainly teenage males from ethnically-defined neighbourhoods in the outer boroughs. In the spring of that year, Bruce Davidson read a newspaper article about outbreaks of street fighting in Prospect Park and travelled across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan in search of a gang to photograph.
“I met a group of teenagers called the Jokers,” he wrote in the afterword to his seminal book of insider reportage, Brooklyn Gang. “I was 25 and they were about 16. I could easily have been taken for one of them.”
…… For several months Davidson followed the Jokers on their endless wanderings around their Brooklyn turf and beyond. He captured them hanging out in Prospect Park, where outdoor dances were held on weekend summer nights, and lounging on the beach at Coney Island. He snapped the young men as they killed time in a neighbourhood diner called Helen’s Candy Store. In his photographs, the Jokers look both tough and innocent, uncertain adolescent kids caught in that hinterland between childhood and – this being New York – premature adulthood.
(Read the full Guardian article here.)
More pictures from the series below. The opening image at the top of the post, though, pretty much encapsulates my sentiments about vanished selves and halycon springs: a seemingly perfect moment fixed in monochrome, a taxidermic impression of a street corner, reckless hijinks, an endless stretch of street, and the splintered corona of a late-afternoon sunbeam scintillating out of an open sky — the Peter Pan-nish promise of the eternal good vibe.
The mythology of memory ……
Here’s perhaps the perfect counterpoint (culled from one of the most famous novels of prodigal youth):
I don’t even know what I was running for — I guess I just felt like it. After I got across the road, I felt like I was sort of disappearing. It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like disappearing every time you crossed a road.
Conceptual artist David Weiss, of Swiss duo Fischli/Weiss, has passed away, two months shy of his 66th birthday.
The film, Der Lauf Der Dinge (The Way Things Are), tends to be cited as their representative work — but me, I love their early series, The Sausage Photographs, from 1979 (below).
No more Würste.
This is one of those randomly topical posts.
Image of the day: photog Franco Rubartelli’s iconic image of ’60s supermodel Veruschka, swaddled in fawn-hued fur and leather straps.
The humidity ’round here has been out of control this past week. (The April-May season is a killer. Killer.) We denizens of the tropics, though, have at least the comforts of casual wear and flip-flops … for this spread for the July ’68 edition of Vogue, shot under the searing sun of Arizona’s Painted Desert, stylist Giorgio di Sant’Angelo (yes, the designer started out as a lowly stylist) swathed Veruschka in a full-body, fur-lined wrap, held together with asphyxiating tightness by bands of brown leather. Rubartelli’s photograph of his then-squeeze made fashion history – it remains one of the most famous images of her – but the combination of sizzling heat and winter wear proved too much: she simply “tipped over like a tree.” (“Lummbeerrrrr !”)
Read an account of the episode here.
Hey, don’t get me wrong, the sun’s been great for getting the brown on, but just looking at this image (and the ones below) is making me slightly dizzy …
Like the good people of PETA, I want to say “NO TO FUR” — but that hardly seems necessary in Singapore’s context.
Image from youthquakers.
Image of the day: Carl Van Vechten’s 1935 portrait of Mai-mai Sze (above), the subject poised against a backdrop of concentric squares, the wavy, undulating shapes seeming to emanate in a dance of geometric distortion from her head …
Sze, or 施美美, as her Chinese name goes, was the daughter of one of Republican China’s most important political dynasties. She was born to Alfred S.K. Sze, who represented the fledgling republic at the League of Nations and the Court of St. James; he later became the country’s first ambassador to the U.S.A. (According to his Wiki entry, he was also the first Chinese student to graduate from Cornell.) Mai-mai’s maternal uncle was Tang Shaoyi, the first Prime Minister – albeit briefly – of post-Qing China.
Sze was a woman of many talents, it seems. Painter, writer, activist, sometime Broadway actress. However, to me, at least, the name is recognizable primarily for her translation of the famous Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual, or 芥子園畫傳 – still the version most commonly used today. Art lovers may also be interested in this little factoid: her grand-niece is American artist Sarah Sze, who has a solo show on right now at the Asia Society in New York, Infinite Line.
Ms. Mai-mai was a little-known pioneer in one other respect: long before the era of the equality movement and identity politics, she was a gay woman of colour. (Born in Peking, she was educated at Wellesley, and lived out her life in the U.S.) Her longtime companion was costume designer and 5-time Oscar recipient, Irene Sharaff, who was honoured for her work on cinematic classics such as The King and I, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and West Side Story. Late in life, the couple donated money towards the building of the Music and Meditation Pavilion of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge University, on the grounds of which they are buried today.
Daughter, niece, aunt, lover – and seldom the star of her own life. Yet it’s clear that Mai-mai Sze was an individual possessed of intellect and creativity, a fact which Van Vechten’s image of her alludes to in wittily elegant fashion.
The photograph is in the collection of Yale’s Beinecke Library.
Below is another striking portrait of Sze, this one by George Platt Lynes. Dressed in a slender, streamlined sliver of silken fabric from Fortuny, balanced between a blank expanse of wall and an abstract object, she resembles nothing so much as a Brancusi sculpture.
Last night’s rash of gallery openings (see previous post for full list) saw a personal five-exhibition run.
And a few terribly embarrassing fanboy moments – complete with flushed face, heart palpitations, and a mortifying malfunction of public etiquette. Meeting Belgian artist Wim Delvoye is at the top of that list.
Friends and numerous acquaintances will testify to my wince-inducing geek-out last night.
Art-wise, pick of the night: Yasumasa Morimura: Requiem for the XX Century – Self-Portraits in Motion at Ikkan Art Gallery.
Miss of the night: Monumental Southeast Asia, Valentine Willie Fine Art.
With Josef Ng.
Hyung Koo Kang admiring Isaac Julien’s work.
RICHARD KOH FINE ART & ARNDT PRESENTS (at Richard Koh Fine Art)
YASUMASA MORIMURA: REQUIEM FOR THE XX CENTURY – SELF-PORTRAITS IN MOTION (at Ikkan Art Gallery)
IN HOUSE ADOPTION, MITHU SEN (at Galerie Steph)
Helen Frankenthaler at work, in 1969. Photographed by Ernst Haas; all images here from ernst-haas.com.
Seems like the Grim Reaper is determined to get the most mileage out of the last few days of the year.
Helen Frankenthaler, pioneer of so-called color field painting, passed away yesterday, on Dec 27th.
What I find absolutely fascinating are the series of images Life magazine photog Ernst Haas took of her at work in the studio in the late ’60s. There she is, straddling a wide expanse of canvas rolled out against the floor; unravelling a river of paint; impressing a series of splotches onto the blank canvas, her body crouched like a cat’s or an acrobat’s.
Remind anyone of anything ?
Yep – Hans Namuth’s famous pictures of Jackson Pollock in a similar vein, which gave rise later to Harold Rosenberg’s declaration of “action painting.” And indeed Namuth’s images cemented Pollock as the Ab-Ex artist par excellence in the popular imagination: the reinventor of post-war painting as a gestural, action-oriented, macho arena, a man who embodied talent, tragedy, and – ultimately – self-destruction at the height of fame.
(Chief victim though: Lee Krasner.)
Perhaps Ernie Haas had Namuth’s Pollock pictures in mind when he snapped these shots of Frankenthaler; they look like a conscious attempt to mythologize her creative processes and originary power, in like fashion. The NYT’s obit of her (reproduced below, or read it here), interestingly enough, seems to emphasize her privileged, moneyed existence, offering up her biographical circumstances – which includes her connections to influential men, such as ex-squeeze Clement Greenberg (?!) and one-time husband Robert Motherwell – as an explanation of sorts for her place in a resolutely masculine canon, almost apologist in tone, not unlike Haas’ conspicuously citational framing of her as a Pollock-ian wannabe (whatever the reality) …
HELEN FRANKENTHALER, ABSTRACT PAINTER WHO SHAPED A MOVEMENT, DIES AT 83
By Grace Glueck. Published: December 27, 2011.
Helen Frankenthaler, the lyrically abstract painter whose technique of staining pigment into raw canvas helped shape an influential art movement in the mid-20th century and who became one of the most admired artists of her generation, died on Tuesday at her home in Darien, Conn. She was 83.
Her longtime assistant, Maureen St. Onge, said Ms. Frankenthaler died after a long illness but gave no other details.
Known as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, Ms. Frankenthaler was married during the movement’s heyday to the painter Robert Motherwell, a leading first-generation member of the group. But she departed from the first generation’s romantic search for the “sublime” to pursue her own path.
Refining a technique, developed by Jackson Pollock, of pouring pigment directly onto canvas laid on the floor, Ms. Frankenthaler, heavily influencing the colorists Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, developed a method of painting best known as Color Field — although Clement Greenberg, the critic most identified with it, called it Post-Painterly Abstraction. Where Pollock had used enamel that rested on raw canvas like skin, Ms. Frankenthaler poured turpentine-thinned paint in watery washes onto the raw canvas so that it soaked into the fabric weave, becoming one with it.
Her staining method emphasized the flat surface over illusory depth, and it called attention to the very nature of paint on canvas, a concern of artists and critics at the time. It also brought a new, open airiness to the painted surface and was credited with releasing color from the gestural approach and romantic rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism.
Ms. Frankenthaler more or less stumbled on her stain technique, she said, first using it in creating “Mountains and Sea” (1952). Produced on her return to New York from a trip to Nova Scotia, the painting is a light-struck, diaphanous evocation of hills, rocks and water. Its delicate balance of drawing and painting, fresh washes of color (predominantly blues and pinks) and breakthrough technique have made it one of her best-known works.
“The landscapes were in my arms as I did it,” Ms. Frankenthaler told an interviewer. “I didn’t realize all that I was doing. I was trying to get at something — I didn’t know what until it was manifest.”
She later described the seemingly unfinished painting — which is on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington — as “looking to many people like a large paint rag, casually accidental and incomplete.”
Unlike many of her painter colleagues at the time, Ms. Frankenthaler, born in New York City on Dec. 12, 1928, came from a prosperous Manhattan family. She was one of three daughters of Alfred Frankenthaler, a New York State Supreme Court judge, and the former Martha Lowenstein, an immigrant from Germany. Helen, their youngest, was interested in art from early childhood, when she would dribble nail polish into a sink full of water to watch the color flow.
After graduation from the Dalton School, where she studied art with the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo, she entered Bennington College in 1946. There the painter Paul Feeley, a thoroughgoing taskmaster, taught her “everything I know about Cubism,” she said. The intellectual atmosphere at Bennington was heady, with instructors like Kenneth Burke, Erich Fromm and Ralph Ellison setting the pace.
As a self-described “saddle-shoed girl a year out of Bennington,” Ms. Frankenthaler made her way into the burgeoning New York art world with a boost from Mr. Greenberg, whom she met in 1950 and with whom she had a five-year relationship. Through him she met crucial players like David Smith, Jackson Pollock, Willem and Elaine de Kooning and Franz Kline.
In 1951, with Mr. Greenberg’s prompting, she jointed the new Tibor de Nagy gallery, run by the ebullient aesthete John B. Myers, and had her first solo show there that year. She spent summers visiting museums in Europe, pursuing an interest in quattrocento and old master painting.
Her marriage to Mr. Motherwell in 1958 gave the couple an art-world aura. Like her, he came from a well-to-do family, and “the golden couple,” as they were known in the cash-poor and backbiting art world of the time, spent several leisurely months honeymooning in Spain and France.
In Manhattan, they removed themselves from the downtown scene and established themselves in a house on East 94th Street, where they developed a reputation for lavish entertaining. The British sculptor Anthony Caro recalled a dinner party they gave for him and his wife on their first trip to New York, in 1959. It was attended by some 100 guests, and he was seated between David Smith and the actress Hedy Lamarr.
“Helen loved to entertain,” said Ann Freedman, the former president of Knoedler & Company, Ms. Frankenthaler’s dealer until its recent closing. “She enjoyed feeding people and engaging in lively conversation. And she liked to dance. In fact, you could see it in her movements as she worked on her paintings.”
Ms. Frankenthaler’s passion for dancing was more than fulfilled in 1985 when, at a White House dinner to honor the Prince and Princess of Wales, she was partnered with a fast stepper who had been twirling the princess.
“I’d waited a lifetime for a dance like this,” she wrote in a 1997 Op-Ed article for The New York Times. “He was great!”
His name meant nothing to her until, on returning to her New York studio, she showed her assistant and a friend his card. “John Travolta,” it read.
Despite the early acknowledgment of Ms. Frankenthaler’s achievement by Mr. Greenberg and by her fellow artists, wider recognition took some time. Her first major museum show, a retrospective of her 1950s work with a catalog by the critic and poet Frank O’Hara, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, was at the Jewish Museum in 1960. But she became better known to the art-going public after a major retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969.
Although Ms. Frankenthaler rarely discussed the sources of her abstract imagery, it reflected her impressions of landscape, her meditations on personal experience and the pleasures of dealing with paint. Visually diverse, her paintings were never produced in “serial” themes like those of her Abstract Expressionist predecessors or her Color Field colleagues like Noland and Louis. She looked on each of her works as a separate exploration.
But “Mountains and Sea” did establish many of the traits that have informed her art from the beginning, the art historian E. A. Carmean Jr. suggested. In the catalog for his 1989-90 Frankenthaler retrospective at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, he cited the color washes, the dialogue between drawing and painting, the seemingly raw, unfinished look, and the “general theme of place” as characteristic of her work.
Besides her paintings, Ms. Frankenthaler is known for her inventive lithographs, etchings and screen prints she produced since 1961, but critics have suggested that her woodcuts have made the most original contribution to printmaking.
In making her first woodcut, “East and Beyond,” in 1973, Ms. Frankenthaler wanted to make the grainy, unforgiving wood block receptive to the vibrant color and organic, amorphous forms of her own painting. By dint of trial and error, with technical help from printmaking studios, she succeeded.
For “East and Beyond,” which depicts a radiant open space above a graceful mountainlike divide, she used a jigsaw to cut separate shapes, then printed the whole by a specially devised method to eliminate the white lines between them when put together. The result was a taut but fluid composition so refreshingly removed from traditional woodblock technique that it has had a deep influence on the medium ever since. “East and Beyond” became to contemporary printmaking in the 1970s what Ms. Frankenthaler’s paint staining in “Mountains and Sea” had been to the development of Color Field painting 20 years earlier.
In 1972, Ms. Frankenthaler made a less successful foray into sculpture, spending two weeks at Mr. Caro’s London studio. With no experience in the medium but aided by a skilled assistant, she welded together found steel parts in a way that evoked the work of David Smith.
Although she enjoyed the experience, she did not repeat it. Knoedler gave the work its first public showing in 2006.
Critics have not unanimously praised Ms. Frankenthaler’s art. Some have seen it as thin in substance, uncontrolled in method, too sweet in color and too “poetic.” But it has been far more apt to garner admirers like the critic Barbara Rose, who wrote in 1972 of Ms. Frankenthaler’s gift for “the freedom, spontaneity, openness and complexity of an image, not exclusively of the studio or the mind, but explicitly and intimately tied to nature and human emotions.”
Ms. Frankenthaler and Mr. Motherwell were divorced in 1971. In 1994 she married Stephen M. DuBrul Jr., an investment banker who had headed the Export-Import Bank during the Ford administration. Besides her husband, her survivors include two stepdaughters, Jeannie Motherwell and Lise Motherwell, and six nieces and nephews. Her two sisters, Gloria Ross Bookman and Marjorie Iseman, died before her.
In 1999, she and Mr. DuBrul bought a house in Darien, on Long Island Sound. Water, sky and their shifting light are often reflected in her later imagery.
As the years passed, her paintings seemed to make more direct references to the visible world. But they sometimes harked back to the more spontaneous, exuberant and less referential work of her earlier career.
There is “no formula,” she said in an interview in The New York Times in 2003. “There are no rules. Let the picture lead you where it must go.”
She never aligned herself with the feminist movement in art that began to surface in the 1970s. “For me, being a ‘lady painter’ was never an issue,” she was quoted as saying in John Gruen’s book “The Party’s Over Now” (1972). “I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.”
Image of the day: Elliott Erwitt’s iconic snapshot of a Springer, Paris (1989).
Someone I know is facing one of those dilemmas that seem to crop up in life with almost .. reassuring regularity.
Sometimes a leap – of faith, of courage – is called for.
No better way to break a deadlock than a bold, gravity-defying gesture.
Image from Smoking Lily.
Happy December 1st, folks – which, of course, happens to be World Aids Day.
In memoriam: a short roster of artists lost to the scourge.
Félix González-Torres (d. 9.1.1996).
Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991
David Wojnarowicz (d. 22.7.1992).
Arthur Rimbaud in New York (Times Square), 1978
Keith Haring (d. 16.2.1990).
Mural in the (converted) bathroom at the New York LGBT Community Centre, 1989. (Thanks to regular reader Marc!)
Scott Burton (d. 29.12.1989).
Bench and Table, 1988 – 89
Robert Mapplethorpe (d. 9.3.1989).
Self-Portrait with Bullwhip, 1978
Jack Smith (d. 25.9.1989).
Flaming Creatures, 1963
Tseng Kwong Chi (d. 10.3.1990).
New York, New York (WTC) from the East Meets West series, 1979
Peter Hujar (d. 26.11.1987 )
David Wojnarowicz, 1981
Scant days after his release from a Chinese gulag (why do the Chinese authorities make it so easy for people to hate on them ? – as if they didn’t already have major PR issues), artist and mischief-maker extraordinaire Ai Weiwei was back in the news, this time as the subject of a retrospective at the Asia Society in New York, Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983 – 1993.
As the title suggests, the show features a collection of snaps taken by Ai and of Ai when he was living in Manhattan back in the ’80s, when the city had yet to morph into one huge gentrified playground with a Starbucks on every corner. The biggest surprise, though, is the artist as he was then: a svelte, intense presence, with a full head of hair and minus the gut. Quite the dreamboat, really …
Holland Cotter’s review from the NYT reproduced after the images.
A BEIJING BOHEMIAN IN THE EAST VILLAGE
By Holland Cotter. Published July 28, 2011.
The Chinese government did what it set out do with the artist and gadfly Ai Weiwei: silenced him. Or did it? When he was released from detention in June, he was under orders not to discuss the experience, or human rights issues generally, with anyone. Talking about politics nonstop for years via blogs and tweets was what landed him in jail. No one expected to see him back on the Internet anytime soon.
But there he is, as of this week, with a new Google+ account. It comes with a bare-chested photographic self-portrait, a profile describing him as “a suspected pornography enthusiast and tax evader” (a reference to the charges leveled at him during his detention) and scanned lists of items removed from his home by the police.
Also on the site is a file of 227 black-and-white photographs that Mr. Ai took when he lived in New York City some 25 years ago. If the new Google account can be taken as evidence that he is still active as artist-provocateur, the photographs document how he became one.
Online you can view them one by one. But in an exhibition at Asia Society called “Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993” you see them panoramically: hung salon style, edge to edge, in large-print format, in a wrap-around installation that puts you in the middle of the social and political action.
Politics was part of his life from the start. His father was a renowned poet who ran afoul of the Maoist government. In 1959, two years after Mr. Ai was born, the family left Beijing for the remote countryside, beginning a forced exile that would last until the end of the Cultural Revolution. In the mid-1970s Mr. Ai moved back to the capital with vague ambitions to be painter. There he became involved with some young avant-garde artists known as the Star Group, who painted in Western styles and railed against the Communist Party.
Inevitably, in 1982, the government cracked down. A year later Mr. Ai left for New York, ostensibly to study art but really to figure out who and what he was supposed to be. He did a desultory stint at Parsons and took odd jobs as a baby sitter, a sidewalk sketcher, an extra in the Metropolitan Opera’s “Turandot.”
Mostly, though, he hung out in the East Village, where his apartment became a crash pad for Chinese friends passing through. The composer Tan Dun stayed there, as did the filmmaker Chen Kaige and the artist Xu Bing (who has an exhibition at the Morgan Library this summer).
The one thing Mr. Ai did consistently, and daily, was to take photographs wherever he went, the way tourists do, as Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg (an East Village neighbor) did too. Mr. Ai’s were just candid snapshots of this and that; nothing special. But he took thousands of them. The 227 examples in the Asia Society show — which originated at Three Shadows Photography Art Center in Beijing — represent a mere fraction of the total.
Still, arranged in chronological sequence, they give a vivid impression of his New York stay. They chart his gradual immersion into the city’s life and his awakening to the idea of art as social action.
Among the early pictures are a few sleepy, sullen-looking self-portraits and shots of his bare-bones apartment packed with Chinese friends. We also see him visiting museums. At the Museum of Modern Art he poses with work by two artist-heroes, Warhol and Marcel Duchamp.
And he was making various kinds of art himself: conceptual, ephemeral, trying-out sorts of things. For one piece, photographed in 1983, he bent a metal coat hanger into the shape of Duchamp’s profile, laid it down on his apartment floor and filled in its contours with sunflower seeds. In effect, he was creating a sketch, way in advance, for his 2010 Tate Modern installation, which consisted of thousands upon thousands of seeds cast in porcelain.
In the early photographs New York is mostly backdrop to images of young people having fun. But by 1987 the city starts to move into the foreground, with shots of homeless people and abandoned buildings. Mr. Ai had arrived near the peak of the East Village art boom. He stayed on as the economy tanked, and as a poor and working-class neighborhood gentrified. In 1988 warfare broke out.
The main battleground was Tompkins Square Park, where community activists, punk anarchists and the homeless repeatedly clashed with the police over use of the park. When a troop of park employees broke up a squatter encampment one day, the violence intensified. Mr. Ai was there in the middle of it, photographing everything. He sold some of the pictures to newspapers but gave most to the American Civil Liberties Union for use as evidence in their lawsuits against the police.
Just a few months later the pro-democracy movement in China was crushed. After the Tiananmen massacre Mr. Ai went on an eight-day hunger strike in protest. If his identity as an artist-activist didn’t exactly originate at this time — it was already there earlier in China — it certainly crystallized and gained force. He became fully who and what he was supposed to be.
The final pictures in the show are subdued. By the 1990s his friends are no longer the harum-scarum newcomers of 10 years earlier, bopping around town or camped out on floors. Tompkins Square Park has changed. It’s cleaned up and filled with elegant young summer picnickers. The show’s final shot, from 1993, is of an all-but-empty apartment. Mr. Ai moved back to China that year to be with his ailing father. The New York sojourn was over.
But not forgotten. He took the essence of it with him. Back in China he found himself cast in the role of adviser and exemplar to a group of radically experimental younger artists who lived in a wasteland area of Beijing that they dubbed East Village.
His own field of activities expanded hugely. But whatever work he did as the years went on — as an architect, a magazine publisher, an entrepreneur, an artist, a blogger — was in some way collaborative, interactive, socially directed.
And he never stopped taking photographs. During the past several years he routinely uploaded hundreds a day onto his Web site. Many of the images, like the blog entries and tweets they illustrated, were blatantly, heedlessly critical of China’s social realities and of its leaders. Outraged by the political negligence that resulted in the deaths of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Mr. Ai photographed shoddily built and flattened school buildings and interviewed distraught parents, posting everything on his Web site, which by then had an international following.
The earthquake was a public relations disaster for the Chinese government, which was doing everything possible to limit coverage in the news media. And here was this artist feeding on-the-ground truths out across the world.
Until that point Mr. Ai had operated within a kind bubble of protection, because of his father’s illustrious reputation within China and his own fame as an artist abroad. But with his persistent antigovernment blogging and tweeting, he finally went too far. He was taken into custody in April, held for nearly three months and released only conditionally.
It would not be wrong to call his Internet activity his most important art so far, his magnum opus. And it appears that it will continue in some form, which means that government pressure on him will be unrelenting. So should the vigilance of his supporters. And it is not too much to say — Mr. Ai has more or less said it — that the seeds for an art of social change, if not planted in New York, certainly took roots there. You see those roots growing in these coming-of-age photographs.