The City Lost & Found: Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, 1960-1980

Vito Acconci (American, born 1940), Following (Two Works), 1969. Gelatin silver print and chalk on paper, each: 50.8 x 40.6 cm. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund © Vito Acconci / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkOn October 3, 1969, the artist Vito Acconci began a month-long performance and conceptual art piece sponsored by the Architectural League of New York. The work, Following Piece, started with Acconci taking a step off the front stoop of his residence in Greenwich Village. It then used a set of instructions to direct his daily path: “Each day I pick out, at random, a different person, in the street, any location: Each day I follow a different person as long as I can until he/she goes off into a private place—his/her home, office . . . ” By tracking the movement of people between public and private spaces in New York, Acconci focused attention on the routines and experiences of urban dwellers, making the city itself the canvas of artistic exploration.

Acconci was one of a host of different actors— artists, photographers, architects, filmmakers, planners, and activists—who responded to the city and the activity in the streets. Their work is featured in the groundbreaking exhibition The City Lost and Found: Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, 1960–1980, which examines creative responses to dramatic urban changes through the intersection of photography, film, architecture, and urban planning. Organized in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibition focuses on the interconnections of art practices and civic life in the nation’s three largest cities during the 1960s and 1970s.

More than 150 objects—including photographs, collages, films, architectural renderings, planning documents, and publications—highlight a period of seismic physical and social transformation, as American cities witnessed shifting demographics and widespread political protests as well as reshaping through massive infrastructure and urban renewal projects. The exhibition reframes work by renowned artists and architects, such as Martha Rosler, Paul Rudolph, Edward Ruscha, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Garry Winogrand, and the firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, while showcasing pivotal works by underrepresented artists, including Ralph Arnold, Oscar Castillo, Jonas Dovydenas, Arthur Tress, and Shadrach Woods.
A major scholarly catalogue accompanies the exhibition to further explore how critical practices in art and architecture responded to and helped define the political, social, and geographic realities of American cities during this period. For example, Bruce Davidson’s two year study of a single block, East 100th Street (1966–68), and Romare Bearden’s photo collage The Block II (1972) reveal complex portraits of race, poverty, and community in Harlem. With more than three hundred illustrations, the book features contributions from more than twenty noted scholars in the fields of art history, urban planning, architecture, and cultural studies.
Though arranged by city, the exhibition is structured around three themes that frame common directions of creative response and artistic engagement: demonstration, preservation, and renewal. For instance, New York Times photographer Barton Silverman captured protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as they occupied Grant Park and took over a public monument. In Los Angeles, an array of materials—a student film, a documentary survey map, photographs by Julius Shulman and William Reagh, and architectural renderings—chronicle the dramatic “renewal project” in Bunker Hill that transformed the area in the 1960s and ’70s from a hilly neighborhood of blighted Victorian homes to a flat expanse of corporate towers. The exhibition presents a variety of visual responses found in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in order to argue that an important shift occurred in photographic, cinematic, and planning practices during these tumultuous decades, one based on the close observation of streets, neighborhoods, and seminal events.

Craig Lee
2014 McCrindle Intern in Photography, Princeton University Art Museum 
Ph.D. candidate, Department of Art History, University of Delaware