Ari Marcopoulos: Within Arm’s Reach
September 23, 2009 - February 7, 2010
Newsflash: Ari Marcopoulos selected for the 2010 Whitney Biennial.
Ari Marcopoulos’s photographs convey a remarkable feeling of intimacy. He draws the viewer into relationships with his subjects that could only have been achieved through a powerful experience of empathy and engagement. Self-taught as a photographer, Marcopoulos makes photographs that are often imbued with a subtle formalism, a classical austerity—informed by the artist’s broad knowledge of art history—combined with an intuitive approach and an ability to adapt to the moment.
Born in Amsterdam in 1957, Marcopoulos came to New York in 1979 and quickly became part of the downtown art scene. He got a job printing black-and-white photographs for Andy Warhol, and two years later, tired of spending so much time in the darkroom, he found a position as a studio assistant with the photographer Irving Penn. Marcopoulos credits Warhol with teaching him that anything is worth photographing, and Penn for showing him the virtues of control, technical skill, and a simple approach. His own artistic practice began on the streets of New York City, echoing a long tradition of work made in this arena by photographers such as Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand. His approach was unusually engaged: Marcopoulos has an uncanny ability to become part of the community he is photographing.
Before he left Holland, Marcopoulos thought he wanted to be a fashion photographer but he was put off by the emphasis on artifice. Conversely, in his art, Marcopoulos was able to explore “something that just stands for life lived.” He wanted his viewers to face the stark facts of existence, without having to make his subjects appear polished and contented. In a typical work of his early period, Self-Portrait as Egon Schiele, New York (1986), his sinuous pose is both frail and clenched, almost brutally self-revealing.
New York City in the early 1980s was infused with a punk spirit as well as the emerging forces of graffiti and hip-hop. Creative energies from the South Bronx merged with a lively downtown art and music scene, affording Marcopoulos a dynamic range of subjects. His portrait of Rakim (c. 1990) shows the rapper head on wearing a thick gold chain and signature baseball cap with the letter “I” embroidered on the front. Marcopoulos interpreted the “I” as symbolic of the musician’s third eye.
In the 1990s Marcopoulos became interested in the lives of skateboarders. A popular gathering spot for the New York skaters at that time was “The Banks,” an area of concrete slopes under the Brooklyn Bridge. Marcopoulos befriended and photographed a group of young skaters who would go on to be immortalized by photographer and director Larry Clark and scriptwriter Harmony Korine in the 1995 film Kids. Following the skaters on his bicycle, Marcopoulos documented their community and individual idiosyncrasies.
Marcopoulos was introduced to a new youth milieu when a snowboard company saw his skater pictures and asked him to shoot photographs for a catalog. He had to learn to snowboard to document the sport, and in the process once again formed lasting friendships with his subjects. Not all of the images in this series focus on the snowboarders themselves. White Room, Dizin, Iran (2000) is a simple picture filled with dazzling light: a spray of powder foregrounds a horizon line where a pristine surface of pure white snow meets a flat, bright blue sky. Marcopoulos describes the arc of powder as “the snow becoming the expression of the snowboarder.”
The subjects that Marcopoulos explored during his early days in New York City, and the youthful athleticism found in the skater and snowboard series, were revisited in a different setting when the artist married Jennifer Goode and moved to the West Coast with their young sons, Cairo and Ethan. Marcopoulos said that he never set out to make a “family” body of work until he started to look at the pictures he was taking of his children and saw something in common with everything else he was doing. In Cairo, Sonoma (2006), a Xerox blow-up of a gelatin silver print, Cairo’s stance echoes his father’s early self-portrait after Egon Schiele.
On view in Galleries 4 and 5, Within Arm’s Reach is Marcopoulos’s first mid-career survey in the United States and his first one-person exhibition at a West Coast museum.
Ari Marcopoulos: Within Arm’s Reach is funded in part by The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, with additional support from Stefano Pilati, PKIRKEBY Inc., Barbara Balkin Cottle and Robert Cottle, and Linda Nations and Robert Mott.