America’s Mid-Century Adolescence 

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click to enlarge Robert Frank "Rodeo, New York City" (1954)
Throughout The Americans, images’ individual strengths are amplified by Frank’s keen sense of editing. Photos are linked thematically, by graphic or compositional similarities, and for maximum contrast, as in the image of a young black family in a car moving through the image from left to right, followed by a photo of an elderly white couple hunched in their car moving from right to left– Hopper captured the two groups’ eventual collision in Alabama in 1965 in one of his rawest series. Elsewhere Frank made his point more forcefully, as in a glimpse of a bustling Detroit assembly line followed by an image of five white politicians at a Chicago convention. Throughout, he moves between America’s powerful and powerless, producers and consumers, haves and have-nots, which helps to explain why, as curator Jeff L. Rosenheim explained, the book “was reviled as un-American by critics and photographers alike.” Frank began to isolate the country’s most debilitating fractures years before most citizens (especially those consuming photography books) were willing to acknowledge them.

The startling disjunctures that came to define American culture in the 1960s are foreshadowed throughout The Americans, as in the iconic image of a segregated New Orleans trolley car in 1955 (top), or the surreal shot of a mysterious (proto-David Lynchian, perhaps) cowboy lighting a cigarette on a gritty Manhattan street in 1954 (above). The most prominent cowboy in Dennis Hopper’s exhibition at Tony Shafrazi, meanwhile, is John Wayne, a shift that reflects a deeper move from a society of text to a culture of images. Hopper’s subjects of choice are billboards, while one of The Americans’s most formally subtle and elegant images highlights the similar forms of a Manhattan newspaper stand’s magazine rack and the stepped architecture of the skyscraper behind it.

click to enlarge Dennis Hopper "Andy Warhol" and "Jasper Johns"

In contrast, the most prominent artists in Hopper’s photographs were pioneers of the Pop art movement–Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol (both pictured above), Roy Lichtenstein, etc.–image-makers who were hyper-literate in the visual products of the booming consumer culture whose rise Frank documented uneasily a decade earlier. Not incidentally, Hopper’s earliest motifs were billboards, which he shot in disorienting close-up, often fragmented and repeating in unintelligible, monstrous patterns. Among the photographs in Signs of the Times are a half-dozen or so mural-sized oil paintings by Hopper based very closely on his photographs. Occasionally they feature additional swaths of color, though they generally follow their models with a rigor reminiscent of Chuck Closes’s most hyper-realist paintings. These canvases elevate certain images to iconic status, but the vast amounts of wall space they occupy would have been better used to exhibit more of Hopper’s work (in an interview with Vulture he explained that the 400 photos in the show were picked from an initial pool of 800). Hopper’s work is sprawling, less focused around a singular theme than Frank’s and therefore can extend out infinitely while adding layers of intrigue.

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