A Quarter Century of Anxiety

by John Haber

Alfred Gescheidt: New York Art Crit

New York Art Crit


A Quarter Century of Anxiety

Still trying to quit smoking? You could morph the end of the cigarette into a combination lock-or light it with sparks from sticks of dynamite. You could die, impaled on a cigarette, or go up in a puff of smoke. You could trap yourself forever in a vending machine wanting more. You could put the cigarette on the couch to analyze its appeal, your failure, or therapy itself. Then again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Alfred Gescheidt, at Higher Pictures through October 24, thought of all these and more back in 1964. He works seamlessly, with double exposures, overprinting, and shifting lenses. They leave the illusion laughingly obvious but the fakery impossible to tease apart. Like all his photographs, Thirty Ways to Stop Smoking is not about advice, but desire. A woman even reaches out from a billboard to offer a cigarette. Not that the man on the street, trapped in his suit and tie, can respond.

Photoshop has made manipulation a way of life, and art has responded by harping on rough edges. Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol insisted on them long ago. David Salle and the “pictures generation” made the edges rougher still. As Surrealism goes, one could call it a battle between Man Ray and Max Ernst, and Ernst’s mad collage has won out. For now, in dreams begin irresponsibilities. Gescheidt’s age still dreamed deeply but trusted surfaces.

Gescheidt in fact learned from modern photography’s finest artisans of the surface, in Henri Cartier-Bresson and Paul Strand. He also studied design, and his images appeared widely as commercial photography. They just peer beneath its surface. They also still feel alive. I mistook the woman’s slim offer of a cigarette pack for an iPhone. Yet Gescheidt may depart most from convention as photojournalism-as a chronicle of a quarter century of desire.

His postwar America seems confused by its own optimism, like his man with a bathing beauty at his fingertips. The Cold War brings irony and dread, from a woman quite literally walking on the head of a pin to a man clinging to the side of a skyscraper. The 1960s loosen up, even as the pressures build. The white shirt and narrow tie give way to the young urban professional-stuck in his own briefcase with a slide rule, too many papers, and “creative department classics.” Political upheaval peeks out through the horseshoe snagging the Washington Monument, with another on its way through the sky. Money looms large too, like the long shadow of the words mutual funds, but the sexual revolution increasingly dominates.

Frustrated desire was at the heart of Gescheidt’s special comedy and anxiety all along. The camera’s eye is always male, like the photographer himself looking back from a pair of binoculars, but then an anonymous hand grips them both. A drawbridge parts for a nude flat on her back like a barge. A man treads warily on a carpet of breasts, like walking on eggshells. Another naked man stares up in wonder at an enormous naked crotch, but there is no turning back. He is already well between her legs. Even without a cigarette, this work smokes.