Friday, February 11, 2011

Allen Ginsberg @Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 52 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung in groups against light brown and cream walls in the main gallery space and the book alcove. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, taken between 1945 and 1996, with most made in the 1950s and 1960s. The 15 photobooth and "drugstore" prints range in size from 2x2 to 4x5; the 37 regular prints range between 8x10 and 16x20, with many at 11x14. The show includes a mix of vintage and later prints, many with hand written captions; no edition information was available. One portrait of Ginsberg with Peter Orlovsky taken by Richard Avedon in 1963 is also included at the beginning of the exhibit. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Back in 2002, Howard Greenberg Gallery acquired over 1000 photographs from the estate of the famous poet and activist Allen Ginsberg. This show is a sampler of Ginsberg's photographic work from his entire career, including many vintage and later prints of himself and his fellow Beat writers.
I think Ginsberg's pictures are of interest for two main reasons. First, they provide a time capsule view of the 1950's Beat writers and poets: Ginsberg himself, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso et al. The images are an insider's snapshot of this small group of men: caught at the typewriter, joking around in Ginsberg's apartment, walking on the street, traveling in Tangier, meeting other now-famous people. They reconstruct their days in New York and San Francisco, and provide insights into the real personalities of these influential writers.

Second, and I think more durably, Ginsberg explored the idea of combining text with his images, often via elaborate hand-written captions and inscriptions right on the white space of the prints themselves. Sometimes these words are merely descriptions of people and locations, but in many cases, Ginsberg provides personal scene setting and story telling details: what books an author was working on at the time, evidence of first or last meetings between people, who was strung out, or what someone was eating that day. While not every caption is particularly poetic, I think Ginsberg successfully broke down some of the barriers between text and imagery in ways that hadn't been crossed before, and these written words transform relatively straightforward pictures into something deeper and more unexpected. The front-and-center captions make the history come alive.
As such, this show works on two levels: one for fans of Ginsberg and the other Beat writers who want to live vicariously through these stolen moments, and one for photographers interested in expanding the boundaries of portraiture thought the addition of text.

Collector's POV: The works in this show are generally priced in two groups: the vintage photobooth and "drugstore" prints range in price between $9000 and $22000, with several intermediate prices, and the larger prints range between $4000 and $25000, again with a variety of prices in the middle. A small number of Ginsberg's prints seem to come up at auction every year, with prices ranging between $1000 and $16000 in the past few seasons.
My favorite photograph in the show was Eager Kerouac, East 7th Street, New York, 1963; it's the image on the bottom left in the cluster of four prints in the top installation shot. I like the way the bookshelf and the vertical shadows obscure the author's face, making the portrait a little less obvious.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Exhibit: Beat Memories @NGA, 2010 (here)
  • Feature: Smithsonian magazine (here)
Allen Ginsberg
Through March 12th

41 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

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