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American 1 Reality
r Manhattan side-walks and young kids ‘ on the block, WILLIAM KLEIN’s photographs of 505 New York, on show
at the National Portrait Gallery, put urban reality in the frame. Words: Susanna Beaumont
Think 50s America. and what jumps to mind is probably more dream thatt reality: the endless grin of families in curvaceous Fords. fancy kitchen gadgetry and white picket fences. Talk to William Klein. and the picket fences are kicked aside along with the
' tnyth of the American Dream.
town after six years of living
Klein likes to deal in reality. In 1955. the native New Yorker returned to his home
in Paris. On the continent. talk was of the internationalism of New York. the literary output of Arthur Miller and the bliss of the American way. The reality was different. The States was continuing to eek its way out of the depressive gloom that came hard on the heels of the economic highs spawned by World War ll. while the supposedly metropolitan New York was. found Klein. ‘desolate and tragic. A hick-town. stick-in-mudsville.‘
Meanwhile. the nation was collectively looking
over its shoulder. as McCarthyism spread a veil of
Kids on the empty block: William Klein‘s Looking Up - Vacant Lot - Brooklyn Bridge, 1955
'In painting so much was happening. It had been liberated by Picasso; photography hadn’t. That was the reason I plunged in.’
suspicion from Alabama up to Wyoming. The 503 dealt in myth. Klein felt. not in reality. ‘The students were apathetic. even though America was the prime power in the world.‘ her says. “it was in the 60s that everything happened: the sexual revolution. the black movement.‘
Instead Klein was confronted by 50s New York. a ‘sordid and uncomfortable city.‘ and ‘an anguished centre of the world‘. But it was the years spent in Paris. where he had briefly worked with the artist Le’ger. that had given Klein a sharper take on New York. ‘I was a native New Yorker yet had a certain distance. it was like double-vision: i could see things that most Americans wouldn’t be seeing.’
Klein had worked in photography while in France; now he wanted to take on New York with his camera. ‘ln painting so much was happening.‘ he says. ‘lt had been liberated by Picasso; photography hadn’t. That was the reason I plunged in. l was 24 years old and. like all kids. I had curiosity and thought. “I can change photography”.‘
Klein served up a grey complexioned picture of urban life. A concrete and stone landscape of sidewalks and high-rises. Blacks in Harlem and the ceaseless shuffle of white office workers. Middle- aged women in diners. wrapped in dog-cared furs. oozing evidence of genteel poverty. Kids with baseball cards. kids chasing a ball in scrag-end. vacant building plots.
Grainy and frequently blurred. often taken ‘off- angle‘. Klein‘s photographs delivered a picture of New York that has become archetypal. Street life that was down-at-heel but nonetheless in an energetic. cosmopolitan and resolutely American way.
William Klein: New York is at the National Portrait Gallery Fri 23 Oct-Tue 5 Jan 1999. The Edinburgh Filmhouse is presenting a series of films by Klein: see film listings and index for details.
Checking the artworld’s pulse.
IS THE 'WHITE SPACE’ as we know it dying a death? Contemporary art spaces have long favoured the ice- white interior look, but if the National Galleries new Dean Gallery in Edinburgh is anything to go on, the future is colour. Rich greens and reds are the order of the day at the gallery which is to open next March housing the Paolozzi Gift and a Dada and Surrealist study centre. And appropriately next summer, the Dean's temporary exhibition space will host a show of new paintings by Gary Hume. The 1996 Turner shortlisted artist is known for his fondness of colour and household gloss paint. Past personalities of the gloss going-over include household names Tony Blackburn and Kate Moss.
COULD THE HUME exhibition confirm that the National Galleries are continuing to tune into resolutely contemporary art? While the current touring Mona Hatoum exhibition has been a great success, perhaps the gallery should initiate a few more shows. With more and more Scotland- based artists getting international coverage, it would be good to see the gallery broadcast and tour the talents of those close to home.
DOUGLAS GORDON IS surely a candidate for retrospective treatment by the National Galleries. The Glaswegian has been named one of 100 worldwide artists for the new millennium by Cream, a bright, pink, doorstep of a book obviously keen to calm our pre-millennium anxiety and spoon-feed us with predications.
HEALTHY COMPETITION AND co- ordination is maybe what is needed among all of Scotland’s galleries. As well as the new Dean Gallery, Dundee Contemporary Arts opens next spring, while Glasgow's CCA is due to close next year for major redevelopment. Meanwhile, the city's Tramway is currently undergoing a make-over, and further north the Isle of Skye’s An Tuireann has recently re-opened. The fall-out from this should cause a shifting up of gears and, in turn, quality of exhibitions - funding permitted. Old-timers such as Edinburgh's Fruitmarket are sure to be kept on their toes.
Household gloss: Gary Hume's After Petrus Christus
22 Oct-5 Nov 1998 THE UST 89