CLEVELAND, Ohio – You can forgive yourself for remembering the 1957 Broadway musical, “West Side Story,” inside the visceral, poignant and deeply engaging exhibit “Brooklyn Bandat the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The comparison is compelling, even if it is not entirely relevant.
The show, which focuses on 50 photos from a famous 1959 Bruce Davidson documentary series, chronicles the nihilism, boredom and lack of purpose of white ethnic teens adrift in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. , long before it became fashionable and expensive.
Davidson introduces viewers to the Jokers, a Polish and Irish gang who, like the Jets in the Bernstein-Sondheim musical, used chains, knives, baseball bats and, sometimes, homemade slide pistols, to fight with a rival gang.
The stiff bodies, petroleum-coated pompadours and crude tattoos sported by Davidson’s subjects evoke thoughts of Tony and Maria, Riff, Chino, Bernardo and Anita.
Yet there is no romantic redemption through art, song and dance numbers in Davidson’s images, which practically reek of ashtrays, sweat and diesel fumes, the salty flavor of Coney Island. and the suffocating heat of the tar paper roofs on a sweltering summer afternoon.
Living in the moment
Davidson’s subjects, including Junior Rice, Bob Powers, Lefty, Jimmie, DD, and Henry, are shown living uncomfortable for the time being as they have fun at a neighborhood candy store, take macho poses or take the neck with girlfriends.
When the mischievous Bob Powers smiles, he reveals a mouthful of rotten, broken teeth, which he would later describe as “green” because his family couldn’t afford to send him to the dentist.
When Jimmie comes out shirtless from his job under the hood of the car, smoking a cigarette, he uses a dirty rag in a futile effort to wipe off the grease that smears his muscular arms up to his shoulders.
Viewers learn on the show that “Lefty,” who was popular with girls despite his questionable appearance, has lost confidence after spending a year in prison. He “ate a lot of pills one night and never woke up,” according to a quote from Powers on a wall tag. “His mother found him dead. OD’d in bed at 19. He was the first in the group to die of a drug overdose.
Extended during the coronavirus pandemic and presented for one more week, the exhibition is an opportunity to gain insight into a subculture of youth on the fringes of the Beat Generation, at the height of the Cold War and in the day before the social revolutions of the 1960s.
Big city gangs, “delinquency” and unjust rebels were concerns of the day, elevated to mythical proportions by films starring James Dean or Marlon Brando. The menacing, leather-jacketed bravado of Hollywood antiheroes stood in opposition to the gray flannel conformity of the corporate culture of the day, criticized by sociologist William H. Whyte in his 1956 classic, “The Organization Man.” .
Davidson, who was 25 in 1959 and looking for a photographic project, persuaded the Jokers to admit him into their world, the opposite of Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and other ladders to middle-class success.
Powers, then known as “Bengie,” suggested that Davidson follow him to a rooftop in the gang’s neighborhood. “This kid is going to throw me off the roof and then rob me,” Davidson later recalled.
But Powers asked Davidson to look down at a stickball game below and pointed through a forest of TV antennas towards the Statue of Liberty, saying, “‘Get this.’ ”
Davidson’s photographs resonate today because he captured unattended, soul-revealing moments with his Leica. He had a knack for creating quirky compositions full of action and movement. And he recorded what he saw without moral judgment.
Images of Davidson’s Jokers communicate a sense of two-way acceptance rather than the searing alienation from Robert Frank’s 1958 portfolio, “The Americans,” or the unsettling weirdness of Diane Arbus’s 1960s portraits of people in the world. margin of American life.
In today’s journalistic parlance, Davidson has successfully incorporated his subjects. They got used to his presence and ignored the click of his shutter.
Davidson’s extraordinary access allows us to accompany the ride as virtual acolytes.
You can smell the moldy dampness of “the slit,” a space 30 feet wide, three and a half feet between two buildings, where Powers and his friends performed gymnastic tricks on a dirty pipe mounted six feet in the walls. tunes. Davidson positioned himself under the pipe, looking up through a dramatic V-shaped notch against the sky as Powers and his friends watched him.
Looking back from the front seat of a car on the way home from Coney Island, Davidson photographed Lefty as he slipped off with a young woman, creating an iconic image of youthful lust.
Curated by the museum’s curator of photography, Barbara Tannenbaum, the exhibit celebrates the recent anonymous donation to the museum of a large selection of Davidson’s archives.
The show skillfully contextualizes the Jokers series through a variety of chronological filters.
For example, the photo of Lefty Necking is featured in a new context on the cover of a 2009 vinyl sleeve for Bob Dylan’s album, “Together Through Life”. and danger and instead “conveys an alluring mood” that “seems to come back to a more innocent time”, as the exhibit indicates.
Throughout the show we hear the adult voice of Powers, who changed his life at 40 when he detoxed, learned to read, and became an addiction counselor. In 1998, he reconnected with Davidson and later wrote a memoir.
The show also dwells on the June 1960 article written by Norman Mailer to accompany a selection of Davidson articles published in Esquire magazine. The article traces Mailer’s experiences with Davidson and the Jokers in a way that mimics the photographer’s journalistic technique of recording what he saw as it unfolded around him.
Despite this, Mailer concluded his article with a surge of anti-conformist rhetoric that anticipated the countercultural ethics of the 1960s.
“Yes, there is now a place for everyone on the American scene,” he wrote, referring to the iconic “Somewhere” duo of Tony and Maria, “except for those who want to find the limits of their growth. by a life ready to welcome a little danger as part of the divine cocktail.
Mailer’s provocative tone rings hollow amid the overall emotion of the show, which stems from the retrospective vibe imposed by Tannenbaum’s curatorial voice and the memories Powers is quoted in.
Nothing embodies this older, wiser flavor better than a powerful image taken in Coney Island in which gang member Artie Giammarino, who later became a cop, rolls up his right sleeve to tuck in a pack of cigarettes.
Cathy O’Neal, who was “beautiful like Brigitte Bardot,” according to Powers, is shown next to Giammarino, striking a hipshot pose and admiring herself in the mirror of a cigarette machine as she fixes her blonde mane in streaming.
O’Neal, we learn, started dating Junior Rice, a member of the Jokers, at the age of 13 and became pregnant with him at 15. Years after the divorce, Cathy committed suicide by shotgun.
This information, laconically conveyed in a wall tag accompanying the Coney Island photo, transforms it from a sexy image of life on the fast lane into a memento mori.
In “West Side Story”, Tony dies young and handsome in Maria’s arms after being shot by Chino, in a variation of “Romeo and Juliet” by Shakespeare.
The Davidson exhibit shows – and tells – the more serious real-life story of what happened to members of a real New York gang, in life and death, during and after the long hot summer of 1959. It is is a story worth catching up on this week, while you still can.
What’s up: “Bruce Davidson: Brooklyn Gang.”
Location: Cleveland Art Museum
Or: 11150 East Blvd., Cleveland.
When: Until Sunday June 13.
Admission: Release. Call 216-421-7340 or go to clevelandart.org.