The artists Romare Bearden and Hans Haacke are not normally considered together in conventional histories of art, nor are they typically associated with urban planning. But in 1971 they simultaneously made distinctive contributions to our understanding of urbanism, revealing the centrality of the city – both its problems and its promise – to public discourse and artistic practice during the 1970s.
In March of 1971, Romare Bearden’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art featured his monumental, eighteen-foot-long mural The Block. On the one hand, The Block is a documentary representation of a particular stretch of Lenox Avenue between 132nd and 133rd Streets in Harlem, which we know Bearden observed from his friend Albert Murray’s apartment across the street. On the other hand, The Block is not just a representation of this section of Lenox Avenue but is also a stand-in for “the city,” of which this block is a part, and a general reference to urban communities, with which city blocks are associated.
Importantly, The Block is composed of cut, pasted, and visibly manipulated photostats, newspaper and magazine images, fabric scraps, and bits of paper combined with paint, pencil, and even ballpoint-pen marks. This piecemeal approach to fabrication is similar to the ways in which Harlem residents themselves modified their built environment or adapted spaces like front stoops into temporary living rooms, as seen in Bearden’s mural.
A year later, in 1972, Bearden took this process even further with The Block II, which extended itself into three dimensions through the use of subtle but noticeable layers of Masonite paneling to establish a low bas-relief surface that mirrored the slightly uneven setbacks of the buildings along a street like Lenox Avenue. As such, The Block and The Block II alternate between seeming like representations of buildings and being seen as “built things” themselves. Together, they subtly argue for the success of older neighborhoods and their human-scaled, street-oriented environment.
The same spring as Bearden’s The Block was finished, the Guggenheim Museum had planned to open a retrospective of conceptual artist Hans Haacke. The show was cancelled, however, on the grounds that two of Haacke’s pieces exceeded the museum’s definition of artistic practice by exploring concrete structures of property relations in the city and that these works also presented possible legal problems for the museum. These two pieces – the Real-Time Social Systems – identified various strategies by which a few real estate cartels controlled massive amounts of property that they neglected to maintain but through which they profited greatly via a series of internal real estate transactions.
Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo, Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, for example, juxtaposed textual data from the files of the County Clerk of New York County with maps and photographs by the artist that help to locate these abstract social systems within the built environment and temporal experience of the city. Each property is indexed by a single frame on the roll of film (sometimes horizontally, sometimes vertically), which makes visual Haacke’s action of walking by each property in sequence, an act that itself visualizes a social system—a real estate cartel—that was previously hidden among the records of the county clerk’s office.
Although their practices are certainly distinct, the shared depth and complexity of Bearden and Haacke’s engagement with the city lies at the very heart of The City Lost and Found, a collaborative project originated by a desire to transcend traditional divisions in artistic mediums, curatorial specializations, and scholarly fields by reflecting on America’s three largest cities in the 1960s and 1970s. The project initially grew out of my own writing on Bearden’s Harlem photomontage murals as well as Katherine Bussard’s research on Martha Rosler’s New York City street photographs, and it was further contextualized by Alison Fisher’s work on architecture and urban planning in the same years. As a team, we created a book that addresses a diverse selection of artworks and other materials in relation to the broader social, economic, and political narratives during an era of upheaval in American urbanism.
Greg Foster-Rice is associate professor of photography at Columbia College Chicago, and a co-editor of The City Lost and Found: Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, 1960-1980.