The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston can always be relied upon to produce exhibits that push conventional boundaries, exhibits that make us think and reflect on ourselves and society, and this collection of photographs by Alvin Baltrop does just that. CAMH Senior Curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, who put together the show, says, "Baltrop, who is no longer with us, still has a lot to say." I couldn't agree more.
Alvin Baltrop was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1948. Grossly overlooked in his lifetime, his work has finally become a focus within the art world over the last five years, including in Artforum magazine and The New York Times.
Perspectives 179 -- Alvin Baltrop: Dreams into Glass is the first major museum survey of this African-American photographer. Baltrop witnessed firsthand a major countercultural revolution, and this exhibit allows viewers to do the same.
Transforming street photography into social introspection, Baltrop glamorizes nothing as he captures sunbathers, prostitutes and runaways, heterosexual and gay men nonchalantly cruising for anonymous sex on the New York Piers in 1970s.
Working in the 1960-'70s, Baltrop was aware of the seismic cultural, political and social shifts taking place around him. These intimate portraits manage to capture these shifts in harrowing portraits of prostitution and even in the humorous spark in a sailor's eye.
Whatever you may think of them, Baltrop's images speak of the rising consciousness throughout the American nation of civil rights, women's rights and the unprecedented sexual liberation movement that upended a period of social conformity for heterosexuals as well as for gays and lesbians.
After a stint in the Navy, where we glimpse his examination of the homosexual community on board, Baltrop returns to New York 1972 with an honorable discharge and begins some of his most provoking works.
New York had become a postindustrial wasteland with a ruined economy. The empty and dilapidated buildings that stretched from West 59th Street down to Tribeca on Manhattan's West Side became Baltrop's obsession for more than a decade.
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Working in pre-AIDS-awareness America, Baltrop photographed prostitutes plying their trade, drag queens, penniless artists, sexual acts between men, the woeful predicament of runaways, and yet...amidst this chaos he manages to capture undeniable moments of beauty in a world so entrenched in darkness, poverty and violence.
The images in this exhibit grant us a fly-on-the-wall perspective of a society rarely depicted so honestly. Baltrop's New York provokes a web of contradictory emotions -- at once alluring, sexual and attractive for its acceptance of desire, and yet he never tries to hide the harshness of the reality.
So serious was Baltrop's commitment to his art that he once divulged to his then-assistant Randal Wilcox that he had "constructed a harness that allowed him to hang from the rafters and pursue his clandestine shooting with great accuracy and precision." If this isn't enough to get you interested, audio from Baltrop's interviews with some of his subjects accompanies the exhibit.
Dreams Into Glass runs through October 21 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose. Regular viewing hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, and noon to 6 p.m. Sundays. For information, visit the museum's Web site. Free.