There is little left unsaid about the long, slow demise of Detroit, one of America’s 20th-century powerhouse manufacturing cities, now overwhelmed by blight. Founded in 1701, the city has seen its ups and downs, including the Fire of 1805 and the culmination of the Civil Rights struggles in the Detroit Riots of 1967. Residential buildings by modernist architects Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Kahn still stand habitable, some with people living in them. When treating this particular city at this particular moment as an artistic subject, a consideration of its full historical context seems essential. “Detroit Disassembled: Photographs by Andrew Moore” almost did that.
The exhibition of 30 large digital chromogenic prints was curated by Barbara Tannenbaum of the Akron Art Museum, where it debuted in 2010, and was organized for this venue by Queens Museum curator Larissa Harris. Given the number and scale of the photographs (several over 5 by 6 feet), the three-room installation felt surprisingly sparse, partly due to the isolation projected by the dilapidated buildings, destitute interiors and emptied cityscapes. Many of the photos are grand, formal descriptions of decay. River Room, former Detroit Boat Club, Belle Isle (2009) is a shot of a large mirror that reflects the once opulent recreation space. The elegant mirror presents a frame within a frame, in which we see three tasteful beige chandeliers gracefully sagging over a gray-green carpet in a beige room; through a doorway is another room. Both rooms are basically without furnishings (save a red couch visible below the mirror) and filled with subdued natural light. Subtle bursting curves from the ceiling lamps enliven the straight lines and right angles of finish mouldings remaining in the room. Technically virtuosic and compositionally gorgeous, this and many of Moore’s photos focus attention on architectural deterioration. However, the works maintain a distance from frontline confrontation with the conditions of decline.
Moore’s esthetic insights overwhelm his sociopolitical ones. The near absence of people in these images is bound to be noticed. One finds a few more photos depicting actual residents in his monograph Detroit Disassembled (Damiani/Akron Art Museum, 2010), but generally people have been recessed into the motifs of decay, renewal and expanding urban prairies. It has been argued that estheticizing chaos, neutralizing the effects of decades of socioeconomic violence, is irresponsible, possibly dangerous. If the presence of Detroit’s resilient citizens could be felt in and around the buildings, it would add greater complexity to this collection of images.
Moore’s eulogies to architectural vestiges are not without pointed commentary. Birches growing in decayed books, Detroit Public Schools Book Depository (2009), both imperial and understated, posits the strewn books rotting under a highway ramp as a symbol of the city’s dysfunction and perhaps as a stand-in for the overlooked citizens. But taken as a whole, the show left one wanting a more complete picture of Detroit’s everyday reality.
Photo: Andrew Moore: River Room, former Detroit Boat Club, Belle Isle, 2009, chromogenic print, 45 1⁄2 by 36 inches; at the Queens Museum of Art.