Christopher Bollen, 2017
In 2003, at the age of 26, Ryan McGinley had his first major solo show in New York—at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Today, after more than a decade of the art world strategizing and promoting young artists as instant masters worthy of career-size retrospectives with what is often still embryonic material, that fact may not ring as particularly astonishing. But I remember the opening night of that show in the uptown Breuer building, passing through the gallery alongside so many downtown friends-all of us still struggling with our art and lives and wallets in the city—and the strange swell of pride we felt that night for McGinley’s antic, over-the-edge photographs hanging in such an esteemed institution. It was an exhilarating, hopeful feeling that bordered on validation. One of us—through hard work, a refusal to bend to etiquette, and an ingenious eye for his own surroundings—had made it. It is difficult to imagine the careers of many of the artists who sprang from McGinley’s orbit—several of whom appeared in his early photographs, like Dan Colen and Dash Snow—without McGinley’s encouragement and success. You rarely get to pick the artistic pioneers and figureheads who come to represent your time or generation, but McGinley had captured—gorgeously, hypnotically, unflinchingly—the wonderful, doomed wilderness of New York and youth that we knew and believed in as our own.
Of course, the photographic work of the New Jersey-born, New York-made artist had its historical antecedents; those range from Larry Clark to Nan Goldin, both of whom also brilliantly managed to create radical social tableaux with still images that seemed soaked in the madness and euphoria of their moments. But for us, it was McGinley’s prints that got to the heart and the heat of a giddy, semi-lost generation caught in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic, in the era of 9/11, and in the increasingly policed, gentrifying urban sprawl that no longer safeguarded individual freedoms and dizzy misbehavior. Behavior is really the crux of much of McGinley’s output: How do we behave in the intimate spaces we create with friends and lovers, on rooftops or behind locked apartment doors, beyond the lens of judgmental eyes, in the safety of other oddballs and rogue performers like us? McGinley’s subjects, even when clothed, feel stripped, and because of this, they are at once beautiful, frightening, and honest. Today, we are highly attuned to the fact that cameras are all around us, constantly monitoring our behaviors and canned reactions; but for a time, it seems as if McGinley’s camera created a temporary, portable free zone in a post-Giuliani universe where personal conduct was allowed to run wild. McGinley offered a stage without any need for staging or rehearsal; the results could be perceived as anti-selfies in their celebration of more authentic selves. And if any viewer found the conduct portrayed in the work “perverse” or “disgusting”—vomit, cum, blood, drugs, blow jobs, bruises—it only indicated the social hygiene instilled in such a viewer’s prudish sense of humanity.
This February, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver will open “Ryan McGINLEY: The Kids Were Alright,” an exhibition of McGinley’s early photographic archive, complete with some 1,500 Polaroids never before on view that the artist took in downtown Manhattan during his years in art school. A corresponding monograph is out simultaneously from Rizzoli. In these early images, we see an artist building his visual vocabulary and testing out the contours of his aesthetic and style. More than mere juvenilia, these images stand as a testament to McGinley’s ability to draw out his subjects’ personalities and turn the camera itself into an active participant in all manner of intimacy and play. (I can personally attest to McGinley’s appreciation of play; I distinctly remember being at the East Village bar the Cock in the early 2000s, when McGinley planted his Yashica T4 camera in my hand so I could take a photograph of him with the priapic, nude go-go dancer on the bar.) McGinley, now age 39, recorded a time in New York that no longer exists, but unlike many photographers, he did not let his first successful chapter define his career. Among other projects, he went on to create lyrical odes to travel and formal nude studies. Recently, his friend, the artist and filmmaker Mike Mills, met up with him in New York to talk about those young, uncertain years when he was finding himself as an artist and a man.