“Now that my life is so different I forget about how we all came so close to death.” Ryan McGinley
“We were just fucking maniacs” Teddy Liouliakis
In a nice piece of wordplay, Ryan McGinley’s The Kids Were Alright, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, is an exuberant recasting of The Kids Are Alright [my emphasis], his 2003 solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum. “Were” includes many self-portraits excluded from the Whitney, which makes it a more personal journal, but its most notable additions are some 1,700 Polaroids of his crew of friends, lovers, and clubbers – described by his friend Jack Walls as “a rough and tumble bunch of mostly straight though sexually fluid graffiti artists, skateboarders, and trouble makers”.
McGinley’s images are vibrant, hedonistic, and often exhilarating. In the words of curator Nora Burnett Abrams, they are “a celebration of independence without responsibility” – aka, there’s a lot of bad behavior on display. Which can be disconcerting, especially if you’re an adult sharing a museum outing with a teenager. But then again, all evidence points to teenagers being scarily at ease with explicit material, which might be just enough reason to let you and the kids go it alone.
Meticulously curated and edited by Abrams, The Kids Were Alright was conceived as a companion to Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980, showing concurrently (through May 14) on the floor below. Like Basquiat two decades earlier, McGinley developed his career in New York’s East Village and Lower East Side, and Abrams argues persuasively that for both men, life and art were intertwined and indistinguishable.
George Pitts, who was McGinley’s photography teacher at Parsons School of Design, comments In the catalog that “every subculture yearns for a voice,” which is a reminder that McGinley is part of a continuum that includes artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as alt-lifestyle-cum-fashion-chic photographers like Larry Clark, Terry Richardson, and Nan Goldin, who also involved their circles in the creation of art and lifestyle-as-art. “You couldn’t just be some fuck-up. You at least had to be a productive fuck-up,” as McGinley’s friend Leo Fitzpatrick succinctly describes the creative pressures on McGinley’s crew.
To the list of forerunners, one could also add a few established fine art photographers: August Sander (for his typologies), Irving Penn (for his grunge portraiture), Robert Mapplethorpe (for his extremes), and Richard Avedon (for his white backdrops), but none of those innovators even begin to approach the gleeful spontaneity seen in McGinley’s imagery. (McGinley was, in fact, connected to both Mapplethorpe and Larry Clark through his friends, and Clark videotaped McGinley and his goofball crew for an abandoned TV series.)
McGinley’s images in the show were all made between 1998, when he began taking classes with George Pitts, and 2003, when he was on the cusp of national fame at the Whitney. All his images were taken with film cameras, which are themselves part of the show: vitrines full of trashed Polaroid SX70 and Yashica T4 (with Zeiss lens) cameras, ‘zines, and ephemera are scattered throughout the installation. As well as showing that McGinley can pick a good lens, the point-and-shoot cameras and their condition – something between wear-and-tear and total destruction –are vividly tangible evidence of the frenetic lifestyle he and his crew lived.
McGinley didn’t write graffiti himself, but he ran with a graffiti crew (IRAK) and stage-directed photo shoots every night in apartments, clubs and streets, at Coney Island – anywhere where action was happening (or could be made to happen).
It’s easy to forget that this was during the very early digital, mostly pre-9/11, definitely pre-social media days – an era of creaky technology and attitudes that is erased by the images’ contemporaneity. 9/11 traumatized the crew, but not enough to deter McGinley and his friends from grabbing film and cycling downtown to see what was happening. That trip produced “Sam Ground Zero,” one of the most memorable images in the show, of an anarchic masked biker careening through the World Trade Center dust.
As well as being dramatic, the image also reveals how film’s granular softness embraces the viewer’s gaze, just as the analog process embraces chance and wavering control – the very qualities of life that energized McGinley in his youth: “If I knew what I was going to get every time, photography would be so boring,” Pitts quotes him as saying.
Another standout image is of his friend Dan Colen “dusted” like a graffitied substrate by marker pens. In the catalog, Dan recollects his PCP-fuelled night; how he arrived on McGinley’s doorstep at 7 a.m. only to be hauled upstairs to the roof for an impromptu photo shoot. Dan Dusted is an outstanding example of an image Kunle Martins describes as having been “orchestrated.” Curator Abrams is emphatic that McGinley didn’t stage his shots, but Dan and his friends are equally emphatic that he constantly wrangled them into situations and places that would elicit the most drama and the best lighting.
McGinley’s compositional and Abrams’ curatorial instincts are a good match. The show is organized into loosely thematic sections, beginning with a nervy rooftop bombing raid with the IRAK graffiti crew that leads to a central gallery dominated by an oversized “puke” photo – a self-induced party trick that’s disgusting though hard not to admire given its unique performative aspects. A shrine-like room is dedicated to his bedroom/studio – a “site for private moments” as the wall text understates. In one photo – Having Sex (Polaroids) – an early grid of some of his eventual 10,000+ SX70s hangs above the bed, referring back to the 1,700 Polaroid portraits of friends and visitors lining MCA’s second floor perimeter.
The Polaroids are essential footnotes to the exhibition’s main text. Contrary to my initial assumption, they were not influenced by Warhol but started as a class silk-screening project at Parsons. Carrying on from that, McGinley decided to take a Polaroid of everyone who visited his apartment, and he extended that to encompass clubs and bars, where he would tape up a white backdrop and cajole partyers to ham it up in front of the camera. Like selfies, the sessions were “spontaneity with intent” to use Donald Cumming’s term, and inevitably they anticipate today’s era of documenting every moment of our lives.
In other ways, too, McGinley was way ahead of his time. He was determined to avoid a spirit-crushing return to NY suburbia, and friend after friend relates in the catalog how hard he worked at promoting himself and others – most notably, by distributing his ‘zines to contacts among artists and curators. “Now everyone promotes themselves all over the internet, but Ryan’s was done in a blood, sweat, and tears way that today’s artists can’t conceive of,” Abrams told me. Eventually, it paid off with his Whitney show at the age of 26. From then on, he changed direction. His friend Oliver Roberts relates that “he couldn’t take photographs in New York anymore because everyone knew who he was.” For those people in far away Denver, if you haven’t already, now is a good time to make his acquaintance.
The Kids Were Alright continues at MCA Denver though August 20. Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980 closes May 14, while a third related exhibition, Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence, closes May 7.
*All the quotes attributed to Ryan McGinley and his friends were taken from the exhibition catalog (Skira Rizzoli Publications, Inc. 2017).
Rupert Jenkins is a writer and curator based in Denver. rupertjenkins.com.