It’s not every day that an art exhibition makes something as complex and horrific as the Bronx’s 40-year season in hell convincingly real. This is the weird achievement of “Urban Mythologies: The Bronx Represented Since the 1960s,” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, high on the Grand Concourse overlooking Yankee Stadium.
It’s all here: the flourishing and gradual decline; the borough’s vampiric half-life as land of the damned, the dead, and the barely living; the waste, the loss, and then the dawning of a new, fragile light, and the subsequent approach to something almost ordinary.
The Bronx tale, as told by this uneven but ennobling exhibition, is as chilling as it is stirring. It brings art and life into almost perfect balance. Inspired by, or in direct contact with this place, or state of mind, much of the work on view is a kind of unnamed folk art. The work in it may not be your cup of tea, but going to see it here, in the Bronx—in situ, as it were—is an intensely site-specific experience. It’s like seeing Apocalypse Now in Vietnam during the Vietnamese war. The ways the aesthetic and the real rub up against each other in this exhibition—the way they never leave each other, or you, alone—is not an experience you get in most New York museums. Here history is in your face.
Snaking through the show is a time line that begins in 1963 with the devastation wrought by Robert Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway and ends this year with the death of the unarmed West African immigrant Amadou Diallo in a hail of police bullets.
These very real events, and others like them, bracket and permeate the art in this exhibit. Organized by Lydia Yee and Betti-Sue Hertz (okay curators with a great subject), the show includes the work of over 40 artists, in the form of paintings, sculpture, photography, installations, film clips, and the amazing frescoes on wheels that are the heavily tagged New York subway cars created by young Bronx artists.
To most New Yorkers the Bronx is another country, another continent. Someplace we pass through. (Its bridges, highways, and railroads are the most heavily traveled in the country.) Seen more in media than in person, the Bronx slipped into the realm of legend, becoming an international symbol of urban decay. Once you’re a symbol, instead of a real place, you’re dead.
By the late 1970s 300,000 people had fled the borough; 40 percent of its housing was destroyed or condemned. In 1976 there were 33,465 fires in the Bronx; 1982 saw the city install decals of plants and venetian blinds in the windows of abandoned buildings in order to hide the blight. By 1985 the Bronx was considered the poorest congressional district in the United States.
The exhibition catalogue tells of a Swiss critic who, when visiting New York in the early 1980s, declined a visit to the Metropolitan Museum, and simply said, “Take me to the burning buildings.”
Installed chronologically, the show begins on a high note, in the 1960s, with the photo journalism of Max Levine and Klaus Lehnartz. Levine depicts JFK shaking a policeman’s hand, or a stop sign being installed by a proud community group. Lehnartz portrays the bustling streets of an ethnically diverse American city. Looking at these pictures you think “The Bronx was normal; the Bronx was great.”
In the early 1970s a number of Downtown artists perceived the borough’s value as frontier and off-site location. Richard Serra installed a large circular piece into a Bronx street, Gordon Matta-Clark cut cross-sections from buildings, and Dan Graham compared stacks of plastic kitchen trays to new monolithic rows of low-income housing. In these beginnings you can see the Bronx’s end. The street where Serra worked is decaying, Matta-Clark’s buildings are already empty, and the projects in Graham’s collages are hideously anonymous. It was the twilight of the Bronx.
Then something unexpected and amazing. As the last rays of hope and ordinariness disappear from the scene, three extraordinary indigenous art forms rise up from the streets: salsa, break dancing, and (most relevant to this exhibition) graffiti, which had mutated from scrawl into a full-blown wild style. These forms show there was still life in the Bronx—at the end of the line.
Mostly though, people hated graffiti, or felt vaguely threatened by it. By the time most folks got that those painted trains were special, it was too late: The city painted them over in that vile red-brown. All but extinct, occasionally you’ll see one rumbling over the tracks.
At the same time, two outstanding photographers caught night creeping in, and life keeping on. Mel Rosenthal shows exuberant kids playing on deserted streets, or a young girl dancing on a desolate sidewalk. Carlos Ortiz’s somber pictures portray desolation, emptiness, and sleepwalkers amidst the ruins, and ooze Pulitzer-level power.
Meanwhile, a new generation of artists found their way to the South Bronx. Many stayed. In 1978, Austrian artist Stefan Eins opened a grungy storefront gallery on 149th Street. Known as Fashion MODA, the gallery-cum-hothouse showcased graffiti artists, local talent, and nascent Downtowners like Christy Rupp, Jane Dickson, Rebecca Howland, John Ahearn, and others who were looking for an alternative to Soho, its escalating real estate and hyper art scene.
Of the many artists who came to stay, two stand out: Camilo Jose Vergara as a revelation, and John Ahearn as a warning.
Vergara, who maybe should be given a MacArthur for his work, is less an artist than he is a kind of time-lapse documentarian who photographs the same location, sometimes over the course of 20 years. The first image in one sequence (taken along Charlotte Street and Boston Road in the Bronx, between 1980 and 1994), is a bombed out, Berlin-like intersection—a shambles. Next, in 1985, new ticky-tacky suburban tract houses are being built. Initially you think, “Oh no, not this!” Then, in 1989, the houses are complete and people move in. By 1994, the wretchedness is gone, and these strange houses have been turned into a lovely neighborhood. Campers, decks, and swimming pools dot back yards; trees, lawns, and life have returned.
The other story is not so happy. John Ahearn moved to the Bronx in the early ’80s. Teaming up with Rigoberto Torres, a neighborhood resident, the pair made hundreds of painted plaster casts of local characters. I’ve never been a fan, but the work has an idiosyncratic integrity and a warm roughness. In 1986, Ahearn (working alone) received a city commission to make three bronzes. In 1991, he installed three outdoor sculptures: one of a boy with a boombox, another, a girl on roller skates, and Raymond, kneeling beside his pit bull. Depending on how you look at it, the rest is history, farce, or tragedy.
The entire narrative of the Bronx echoes in Ahearn’s story. Immediately after the unveiling, protests began. The sculpture (especially Raymond) was branded as offensive, and Ahearn was cast as an outsider. One civic official chided, “He’s not of the community because he’s not black….” Ahearn, who had lived and worked here for nearly his entire adult life was shaken. He tried to reason, but to no avail. Giving up, he paid to have the statues removed, and soon after, left the Bronx. The three pedestals remain empty. So continues this Bronx tale.