This exhibit on “Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, from 1960-80,” is on view at the Princeton Art Museum until early June. The curators have assembled an impressive array of photographs, artworks, film, and historical artifacts to reveal how images became an indelible part of urban life during this period.
There are photographs from some of our best – Martha Rosler, Gordon Matta-Clark – alongside master planning documents of each city in the 1960s and experimental films on building demolition. (33rd and LaSalle (1962), by Ken Josephson, featured a wrecking ball smashing an advertisement for West Side Story on the side of a building in Chicago.) The mix of these objects is rarely seen and it fortifies the curators’ argument that this era merged visuality and the city with new importance. Kevin Lynch, the author of The Image of the City (1960), consulted on LA’s 1967 urban plan, incorporating his methodology of talking to people about how they see the city. Aerial and street photographs in the document as well as in feature film What is the City but the People? accompanied New York’s plan of 1969.
In a conversation that started off a symposium on the exhibit, though, Martha Rosler quickly tarnished the importance of images – or at least any agreed-upon understanding of their importance. Her work has consistently critiqued the idea of photographs as complete or clear; her admonition: “representation is not experience.” Given that my contribution to the symposium was on West Side Story, the relation of that representation to the experience of Puerto Ricans in New York is a case in point. At the same time, however, neither representation nor experience are stable or transparent terms or concepts. And the story of Puerto Ricans and West Side Story shows how very intertwined these concepts become. “Maria has followed me to London, reminding me of a prime fact of my life: you can leave the Island, master the English language, and travel as far as you can, but if you are a Latina, especially one like me who so obviously belongs to Rita Moreno’s gene pool, the Island travels with you,” the poet Judith Ortiz Cofer has written.
The point, perhaps, is to move from image as argument to image as question, Alison Isenberg suggested. Artists know this better than historians. To capture is to acknowledge the distortion of representation and experience even as it may be a clue to both.