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A Wake-Up Call: Alvin Baltrop at the Bronx Museum of the Arts

Cameras, assorted identification and ephemera presented as part of “The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop”, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (August 7, 2019-February 9, 2020); courtesy of the Alvin Baltrop Trust, Third Streaming and Galerie Buchholz. Photograph by John Drury

The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop

Bronx Museum of the Arts

August 7, 2019 - February 9, 2020

By JOHN DRURY, February 2020

There is little that irks me in the visual arts like the blatant disregard a great talent. Proof is right before your eyes. And while visionary photographer Alvin Baltrop’s work has just received long overdue and expansive recognition with an exhibition at the Bronx Museum of Art, I decided to hold these metaphorical cards close to the chest and heart until afterward, rather than rush you out to see it with a concurrent review – thus requiring a bit more effort from those amongst us, who are yet unaware of Alvin’s invaluable documentary effort at this late point in the game. Do your homework; there is plenty available online now about this important artist and exhibit, including a lengthy “Critic’s Pick” piece in the New York Times, by Holland Cotter. The art world tends to respond in feeding frenzy.

Primarily focusing on the derelict warehouses on Manhattan’s West Side piers, Baltrop’s photographs memorialize New York City at a breaking point; here including the ghostly capture of the Twin Towers. Photo in-situ, as included in “The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop”, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (August 7, 2019-February 9, 2020). Photograph by John Drury

It is fitting that this first museum celebration of his work in such a broad spectrum of examples, should happen in the borough of his birth; a homecoming of sorts, for a talented maker whose name is now uttered on the same breath as Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar and other photographers of international acclaim. Consisting of well more than one hundred of Baltrop’s captured images, including many original prints from the artist’s own archive, the exhibition served as an expansive look at just what such unique insight a visionary persistence might yet offer. It is shameful that at the time of his death in 2004, that thousands of unprocessed rolls of film were left behind in his downtown apartment, for Alvin’s lack of funds to have them developed. Bi-sexual, impoverished and black - Alvin Baltrop was virtually ignored during his brief 55 years, dying of cancer in 2004; Alvin Baltrop’s a story of systematic exclusion yet all too common.

Alvin Baltrop’s photographs take the viewer back to a conflicted era when the city was on the brink of financial crisis. Baltrop neither titled, nor dated his photographs. Photograph in-situ, as included in “The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop”, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (August 7, 2019-February 9, 2020); courtesy the Alvin Baltrop Trust, Third Streaming and Galerie Buchholz.

This then, is another sort of mention. As our museums, curators, critics and galleries backpedal desperately in this post #Me-Too and #Black Lives Matter atmosphere of (feigned?) corrective behavior, let this be a word to the wise. Enough is enough. There remains shame in your game. Yes, our art history surely bleeds the rotted corpses of past denial and until genius is recognized in all its sometimes gritty and difficult being, baby-steps seem only laborious and painful. The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop at the Bronx Museum of Art was a brutal call to remember that art need not be pretty but, a factual if uncomfortable reflection humanity, warts and all. And while so much talent is still with us, languishing frequently at the sidelines the bright and shiny emperor’s new clothes in oft-ragged repose, let us remind ourselves that in this time of Trump-fueled hate and division - the perceived “other” is our brother. Entitlement is an ill with a cure. We chose it. And until due recognition is bestowed upon the worthy recipient by our too often self-righteous and bloviating gatekeepers - regardless race, orientation or status, we have cheated only ourselves. WM 

 

John Drury

John Drury is a multi-media artist, published author, independent curator and instructor. Drury holds a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from the Columbus College of Art and Design (1983) and a Master of Fine Art Degree in sculpture (1985; including a minor in painting), from Ohio State University. John is the father of two teenagers, living in New York City since 1989 and has received the prestigious Louis Comfort Tiffany Award for his work in sculpture.

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