Downtown

Nora Burnett Abrams

 

“. . .[The] residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” 

 

Ryan McGinley was born in Ramsay, New Jersey, the youngest of eight children, but he came of age in Manhattan and was raised by his fellow skaters, graffiti writers, artists, misfits, outcasts and outsiders whom he encountered in the specific neighborhood of New York’s East Village. He visited the city often as a child, first to visit his older brother, who was gay, dressed in drag and lived with his partner on the Upper East Side, and then, as a young teen, to skateboard and to experiment in all manner of adventures and altered states.

 

McGinley attended Parsons School of Design, initially to study painting, then poetry, and then graphic design, before taking a class with George Pitts titled “Nudity, Sexuality and Beauty in Photography.” Those three ideas are central currents coursing through McGinley’s work from 1998 to today, though they manifest in far-ranging ways. During the period of 1998-2003, the focused time period of this study, they appear intimately attached to McGinley’s own life [fig. 1]. In fact, the intimacy of lithe, at times nude bodies intertwined or isolated, and bathed in pure light—a signal aspect of McGinley’s photographic approach—in this body of work is born of the artist and his close-knit group of friends at that time. And to a certain degree, the twinning of his community and his work, that blending of his art with his life, and the fulfillment of photography as documentation of a life being lived, are a part of a long continuum of art enmeshed with life sited squarely—singularly—in Downtown New York [fig. 2]. 

 

One need not look too far back in history to identify a conceptual complement to McGinley’s cultivation of his Downtown context. Though McGinley’s work is often discussed in relation to photographers who similarly turned their cameras to the engrossing scene in which they lived, such as Nan Goldin or Larry Clark, a more apt counterpoint is the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. To put McGinley’s early work in dialogue with that of Basquiat’s is to foreground the absolute indistinguishability between the lives they were living and the art they were making. In this vein, McGinley’s photographs of his and his friends’ antics, experiments, dynamics and emotional rollercoasters advance several key aspects of Basquiat’s own early works [fig. 3]. And, ultimately, bringing the elder artist’s work to bear on McGinley’s underscores precisely the connection to and filtering of popular culture, the celebration of youth, the direct and raw immediacy, and the diaristic approach that so characterizes his photographs from this moment.

 

Their biographies might read differently, but, pressingly, they both came of age in lower Manhattan, a denizen of cultural and political permissiveness. It’s difficult to say whether the neighborhood shaped their lives or their lives gave color to the neighborhood, but, the very interdependence of the two—context and work, life and setting, art and life—illuminates the singular importance of this location as a muse and a stage for their creative impulses. 

 

The long and rich history of the East Village and much of lower Manhattan as a hub of activity for the counter-culture of the 1960s and its artistic freedom of the 1970s established a backdrop against which Basquiat and McGinley conceived their early work and realized it. This area’s storied past as a site of neglect, poverty, and ethnic diversity, enabled it to become a site for those operating outside of the mainstream to pursue their own paths [fig. 4]. One epicenter of downtown, the Bowery, was synonymous with Skid Row for much of the 20th century. But its “unsavory” character kept landlords, commercial businesses and urban developers away from altering its physical and cultural authenticity. And, it is this very authenticity that attracted the artists, writers, counter-cultural thinkers, activists and actors and enabled the neighborhood to resist the pressures of conventional authorities and systems of power. As Sharon Zukin notes, “From the 1950s through the 1980s most cultural migrants came to the East Village because they felt ‘different,’ and they believed the neighborhood was ‘authentic’ because of its concentration of difference. . . . In contrast to the high crime rates and drug dealers that made the neighborhood dangerous, the East Village offered a safe space to be as different as possible.” As the writer and activist Jane Jacobs noted in her landmark study, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the architecture and urban design of New York City’s downtown neighborhoods enabled life to take place on the street. Limited living spaces and a plethora of public gathering sites shifted socializing from the private home to the public street. It was on the street where relationships were formed, ideas conceived, and, crucially, communities connected. Jacobs’ analysis of the West Village could easily extend eastward as a way of better understanding not simply why Basquiat and McGinley emerged in this location, but rather, how their work came to be. Without the contingencies of downtown—the cramped spaces of tiny apartments, the lack of mainstream commerce, the absence of “official” culture, the historical acceptance of alternative approaches to lifestyle as well as creative practice—these artists would not have been able to produce the very works for which they received their initial distinction. Without context, there is no content. 

 

Basquiat first received much attention while operating under the pseudonym, SAMO©. A project initially conceived with his high-school friend Al Diaz, SAMO© (Same old shit) was his tag and he marked it all over the environs of the East Village and Lower East Side—the very confines of the burgeoning avant-garde community of artists living in New York in the late 1970s. Under the guise of SAMO©, Basquiat’s word-based graffiti often used the language of conceptual art to announce himself, introducing his signature amalgamation of contemporary art, popular culture, advertising, and slang as his own distinct voice on the street. His graffiti was poetic, political, powerful. It stung and it was funny; it startled and was smart; it was cool and familiar, all at once. Such commentary moved easily from the street to the artist’s notebooks, works on paper and, ultimately, his bold and expressively gestured paintings. He worked as a filter, absorbing information from multiple sources and reanimating it in varied ways that brought the spirit of the dynamic street life onto the paper of his studio. 

 

McGinley’s early works are similarly attached to the street life of a downtown New York that preceded gentrification. As Teddy Liouliakis reflects in this publication, he and Ryan moved to East 7th street (just 5 blocks south of Basquiat’s first permanent address since running away from home) “before it turned.” But before living there, McGinley frequented the neighborhood as a teenager, seeking out a space where his differences were accepted. The community he formed and which clearly formed him included skaters and graffiti writers, namely those from the Irak crew, a group which in fact was its own collection of outliers and misfits, who operated outside of “official” graffiti culture and whose character was formed by two personalities that challenged then-held stereotypes—the descendent of a privileged family (Dash Snow) and a gay, African-American runaway (Kunle Martins). Being so different bound them together. Importantly, by the time McGinley turned to photography, he was already thoroughly enmeshed in the Irak crew, though he himself did not write [fig. 5]. This is a key point because it makes clear that he was not a voyeur, sneaking around them trying to remain indistinct. Instead, McGinley’s photographs of Dash Snow and Kunle Martins in the midst of their action are pure and raw and explicit. He is right there with them. And, powerfully, his photos capture the thrill, the fear, the disbelief, and the ambition that drove the writers in the first place. 

 

Beyond the subject depicted in Dash Leaning Over the Edge or Dash Bombing [fig. 6], McGinley’s composition and other formal choices also exhibit a similar rawness. The prints’ graininess purposefully suggests a lack of refinement or finish. And yet, the balance of a lighted window with the light of Dash Snow’s other-worldly glow creates an arresting image. The raindrops on Kunle in Preparation [fig. 7] return the viewer to the rooftop of this photograph’s origin. The watermarks from the camera allow the viewer to feel as though the experience is unfolding and we are a part of this adventure. In capturing the antics of his transgressive friends, McGinley chose candor over theater—which is to say that he did not set up a stage on which they could be manipulated with light or action. Instead, he captured the drama already built into their lives, their own daily activities. Bringing the viewer as close as possible to the thrill, fear, jubilation, and anxiety of these moments is a hallmark of McGinley’s work at this time. It is the very essence, in fact, of what Susan Sontag declared in 1977 regarding the role of the photograph to suffice as or even to supplant the actual experience. As she wrote, “It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form.” McGinley capitalizes on this notion of experience being supplanted by the photographic document. The texture of his work—its coarseness, its truncated or cropped frame, its single light source—speaks directly to Sontag’s point about our contemporary devotion to the photograph, so much so that it can stand in for, even replace, the authentic experience itself. 

 

In an early article on McGinley and his crew of downtown misfits, his photos were described as “documenting the life you are too busy to enjoy. He’s capturing the artists, writers, musicians and designers you’ve been reading about all day. You don’t need to destroy your liver and blow out your septum. You can get it all vicariously [through his work]”—a provocative testament to the seductive nature of his photographs [fig. 8]. Particularly with some of the more graphic works, such as McGinley’s “puke” series [fig. 9], in which he documented himself in the moment of wretching, viewers almost prefer the photograph to the experience itself. Abject and gripping, these photos bring the viewer so close to the experience, that it is only through the safety of the two dimensional print that viewing is protected from a barrage.

 

The “puke” photos also attest to a complete collapse between McGinley as artist and McGinley as subject. A key feature of his work from this time period is McGinley’s repeated turn of his camera onto himself [fig. 10]. He photographed himself in his room, on the streets, hanging out, getting beat up, having sex, being reckless, being introspective, being extroverted, posing, at ease, joyful, and in pain. He captured everything he did, from experiences to performances to emotionally impactful moments [figs. 11-13]. He shows himself bleeding, crying, cumming. He shows himself in love, in torment, and in drug-induced haze. This is a key point because McGinley is as vulnerable, as complicit, in the activities he documents, as his friends are. He is no voyeur, but rather, a willing, and brave subject himself. This is a moment for him of personal and creative liberation—both a coming out sexually, and a coming into or discovery of photography. This is a period of self-doubt, self-confidence, and self-loathing, all at once. And, with those images taken at moments of both pain and of ecstasy, he is trying to bring us in—bring us as close as possible to the emotion of that moment that he himself experienced. More than a breakdown between art and life, he presents a breakdown between artist and audience—a literal breaking down of the most private, intimate moments so that we can share in the jubilation and the sorrow, the adventure and the fear, of a life being lived

 

Certainly such actions and activities recur in any context that includes precocious teens and young adults, but the exigencies of downtown New York played an important role in this body of work because it enabled him to claim his experiences as his art. The work was born of the culture of permissiveness that permeated every street corner of Lower Manhattan at that time. A neighborhood with a history of acceptance and tolerance of transgression, experimentation, and, most importantly, a rejection of the mainstream, dominant culture—whether that is in politics, in architecture, in fashion, or in sex. The point here is that the environment conditioned the behavior, which, in turn, became the subject of his art and which brought his art into his life, marking them as forever entwined and irrevocably knotted together.

 

Turning the camera onto himself in such a diaristic, nearly confessional way, McGinley pioneered a type of self-portrait that seems to anticipate the smartphone selfie [fig. 14]. What McGinley identified and exploited, though ultimately abandoned after 2003, is the scrutiny of one’s self through the photograph. McGinley not only turned his camera on himself in moments of activity, but he also took hundreds of Polaroids of himself, posed and poised in his apartment and other downtown environs [figs. 15-19]. The profundity of his type of self-examination is made clear by the sheer volume he produced during this time period. 

 

Snaphsots of his daily life, the Polaroids were taken at all hours of the day and in all manner of dress or undress. Between 1999 and 2003, he took a Polaroid of every single person who visited his apartment, as well as countless others he met while out at night. He produced over 10,000 Polaroids of his friends, family, unknown visitors, and himself [figs. 20-22]. He would then arrange each photo on his wall, labeled with the name and the date of his subject. A photograph of McGinley and his then boyfriend Marc lying on his bed, Ryan and Marc [fig. 23], reveals the Polaroid series colonizing the walls around them. 

 

There is a visual rhythm to these images that becomes apparent when looking at them in a series. In nearly all of them, McGinley shot his subject against a stark white wall (it was actually a large piece of white material that he or a friend schlepped around each night to “stage” his shots). In some, the border of this screen is visible [fig. 24], making clear the setup that we are viewing and also revealing a key contradiction of this series: the idea of fiction contained within that most immediate, direct, candid of mediums, the Polaroid. Even when taking Polaroids outside, on the roof of his apartment building, all subjects are set against a plain white wall. The starkness of the background of course enables the personality of the subject to become more pronounced, more distinct and individuated. 

 

While some figures make silly faces or gestures, what is remarkable, is to see specific individuals who recur over the course of 4 years. A single individual transforms into hundreds of different personalities over time. Dash by a window, Dash on the phone, Dash drenched by rain, Dash debaucherous with a friend—the same person represented in the same way but the end result is a cast of characters [figs 25-29]. 

 

Documenting these characters relates nicely to the history of photography and ideas around the archive. August Sander’s un-sentimental profiles of German citizens from the 1930s is a notable forebear to McGinley’s project. His straightforward representations of bakers, teachers, steel workers, etc. subjected every figure to the same formal conditions. Cataloguing his fellow citizens in this way, Sander’s project made clear a diversity within the population but did so in the least invasive way. His series is a testament to diversity, but almost in spite of his efforts to create an impersonal, pseudo-scientific archive or database of the national population. 

 

Another precursor to McGinley’s project is Andy Warhol’s series of screen tests. Using 16mm film, Warhol shot “portraits” of hundreds of visitors to his studio during the years 1963-66. Dennis Hopper, Lucinda Childs, Allan Ginsburg, Salvador Dali and countless others stood in the same location in front of a fixed camera and, for a fixed amount of time predetermined by the length of film, participated in this project. Warhol’s series in many ways corrals the avant-garde of New York at that time. Using the same background and duration for each screen test belies the distinctiveness of each performer and rich diversity of character throughout the series. Taken as a whole, the screen tests offer a study in human behavior—the desire to present oneself in a certain way, to alter one’s personality before the camera, and the vulnerability of such performances on camera. 

 

McGinley’s series of Polaroids, offers a typology of downtown, youth culture. He documented the different types of kids who were in his life and who occupied or inhabited his environs: graffiti writers, skaters, artists, designers, models, druggies, writers. There is no uniform stance or position taken by his subjects, nor does the background reveal anything additional about the individual on camera. What the series does reveal is the (authentic) diversity of this scene. People of every different racial background populate this series and they are shown in various states of undress, provocative pose, prosaic or wild activity. Taken together, this massive body of work testifies to that cultural permissiveness which McGinley personally sought out, which was institutionalized in his lower Manhattan neighborhood and which then enabled these photographs to emerge. Without that setting of tolerance, McGinley would not have been able to document such wild, experimental, and riotous subjects.

 

In many ways, the Polaroid series offers a lexicon of McGinley’s own approach to photography that continues today. An isolated individual engaging directly with the camera, the single light source, exploiting the daylight to create a magical moment outside—all of these devices will become the hallmarks of McGinley’s studio work and his roadtrip-based scenes of nudes in majestic, natural settings [fig. 30]. Seeding this later work, the Polaroids establish a formal language that distinguishes the artist’s approach to balancing light, composition, and framing so that the starkness of an isolated subject becomes more vivid and provocative. Dan with the dog draped around his shoulders surely anticipates McGinley’s body of work that culminated in his Animals series; [figs. 31-32] images of Sam, standing in a ¾ pose and filling the frame suggests McGinley’s ability to endow his subjects with great integrity and gravitas in his studio [figs. 33-34]; Dash swathed in creamy natural light, seducing the viewer with his stare, presents an intensity of focus evocative of later studio portraits [fig. 35]; and his repeated “pose” of a subject with his arms out and serious gaze (see Kunle, Marc), evidence a developing gesture that will recur beyond the Polaroid series [figs. 36-37]. 

 

But, here is the rub: McGinley’s Polaroids curry in truth-telling, in objective fact. And yet, after surveying this body of work, one must ask the fundamental question: what is staged and what is real? What is a setup and what is authentic? And, crucially, does it matter? Sontag offers an important claim on photography’s position as a fulcrum between fact and fiction. She writes, “the camera’s ability to transform reality into something beautiful derives from its relative weakness as a means of conveying truth. The reason that humanism has become the reigning ideology of ambitious professional photographers—displacing formalist justifications of their quest for beauty—is that it masks the confusions about truth and beauty underlying the photographic enterprise.” Sontag’s “humanism” can be interpreted here as that quality in the photograph that enables the viewer to relate to or connect with the subject on a visceral, emotional level and, importantly, relate it directly to one’s own experiences. It refers to a type of connection to the photograph based on pathos and power. As she writes, “In humanist jargon, the highest vocation of photography is to explain man to man.” But the problem with photography, as she notes, is that it struggles with fact. And, McGinley’s Polaroid series is a monumental affirmation of this issue: for, the sheer variety of a single subject’s treatment over the course of four years, questions the very veracity of the image. Which photograph captures the “real” Dan Colen or Dash Snow or, critically, Ryan McGinley? Sure, they all might contribute, collectively, to an understanding of that person, or they might all function as an approximation of a character, an abstraction or even a caricature at times. Viewers might want to believe that the more solemn images are more “real” than the rowdy or jokesy ones, but who is to say? The very strength of this series is that it presents itself as fact, but in actuality, it is built upon a contrivance. As “real” and direct, as candid and “honest,” as these images might appear, they are staged, as the tape holding up the white screen so brazenly announces. 

 

Staging and more elaborate productions will become the hallmark of McGinley’s work post-2003. Much is noted about how there is a break in McGinleys work from the densely documented, heady days with his eclectic group of friends and the melding of nude figures into the natural landscape that has become his preoccupation over the last decade. But, there are of course threads of consistency that bind these series together: how he conjures a sense of optimism and freedom, a sense of exhilaration, and a sense of ephemerality—a consciousness about the brevity of each moment. David Rimanelli has discussed McGinley’s later work as approaching death, and frankly, it is quite possible to read the early work through this lens as well: as a foreboding of the rapid ascent and decline of young people falling rapturously in love not just with one another but also with altered states of mind, with restlessness, and recklessness. McGinley’s work of 1998-2003 details a personal adventure that kissed the tipping point from curiosity to perilousness; it is an elegy to the city that served as a backdrop and platform for enabling such an adventure to unfold. 

 

Nora Burnett Abrams, “Downtown,” in Ryan McGinley: The Kids Were Alright (Denver: MCA Denver and New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2017): 15-24.