Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Sublime Public Eye and the Fight for the American Mind

by Drew Martin
The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, which is the main building for the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street (with the proud Lions out front), serves up art sooner than it does books.

The main entrance leads you directly into the D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall, and before entering that you will notice the charming Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery off to your left.

In the exhibition hall there is now a very interesting show called Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography. From the NYPL website:

Thanks to the development of new technology and social media, more photographs are created, viewed, and shared today than ever before. Public Eye, the first-ever retrospective survey of photography organized by NYPL, takes advantage of this moment to reframe the way we look at photographs from the past. What are some of the platforms and networks through which photographs have been shared? In what ways have we, as photography’s public and one of its subjects, been engaged over time? To what ends has the street served as a venue for photographic practice since its beginnings? And, of more recent concern, are we risking our privacy in pursuit of a more public photography? Ranging from photography’s official announcement in 1839 to manifestations of its current pervasiveness, this landmark exhibition, drawn entirely from the Library’s collections, explores the various ways in which photography has been shared and made public. Photography has always been social.

I also really liked the show in the Wachenheim Gallery, Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind, which does a lot in a very small space. It is wall-to-wall propaganda materials circulated around the United States during WWI, such as poster art for war bonds, recordings from original Edison wax cylinders, and my favorite (taking up very little space in one corner, a series of clips from war-era films). The one that I found most fascinating was Winsor McCay’s (of Little Nemo fame) landmark 1918 animated film, The Sinking of the Lusitania. It is beautifully done, tragic, and very modern looking. There is even a wall-sized map in the room showing what a German occupied United States would look like, renamed New Prussia, with a small American Reservation in the South West, Denver renamed Denversburg, and a Wienerschnitzelplatz.

I first went into the Over Here show and as I was about to enter the Public Eye show, I walked by three young adults who were looking into the little gallery from which I just came. The young lady in the group asked "Wait, can we go in there?" and one of her male friends immediately responded, "Yes, it's a PUBLIC library." Hearing that was actually quite reassuring and made me appreciate the space/building and its shows even more. The nice thing about seeing art in the library is that is not really an art crowd, which gives the viewing experience (with people commenting around you) a different depth.

This year seems to have been a great year for films, and one of the new releases I am dying to see is Mr. Turner, which is about the brilliant British artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner. If the two shows I wrote about in this post are not enticing enough to get you into the library then maybe I should also mention that on the third floor, in the Print and Stokes Galleries, is the excellent show Sublime: The Prints of J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Moran.

The Public Eye is up until September, and Over Here and Sublime until February 15.