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Contemporary Arts Museum Houston announces Alvin Baltrop. Dreams Into Glass

The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston announces Alvin Baltrop. Dreams Into Glass, on view July 20–October 21, 2012, the first major solo museum survey of work by this African-American photographer. Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1948, Baltrop died from cancer in 2004 at the age of fifty-five. This exhibition serves to introduce audiences to Baltrop’s visionary talent as a photographer, one who captured the beauty and decay of some of this country’s most iconic urban landscapes as well as the pivotal moments of a society in transition. The survey features both vintage photographs and recent prints created by the artist over a thirty-five year period, including work from the mid-1960s to the early 2000s, a slide presentation of images shot by the artist that were not printed, and a sound collage taken from the artist’s many phone conversations and interviews, as well as rare archival and ephemeral material lent by the artist’s Trust.

Coming of age in the 1960s, Baltrop was aware of the seismic cultural, political, and social shifts taking place around him. Baltrop witnessed firsthand the Countercultural Revolution that also encompassed an unprecedented sexual liberation movement that upended a period of social conformity for heterosexuals as well as for gays and lesbians. Despite the sexual revolution, homosexuality remained widely detested and viewed less as a legitimate self-determination of one’s sexual orientation and more as a pathology from which one could be cured. A bisexual, Baltrop was aware of this unique moment in history and the growing wave of change that it would bring. Working with a twin lens Yashica camera, Baltrop captured these seminal and fleeting moments in the immediacy of a society in transition.

Baltrop enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he served as a medic from 1969 to 1972. He brought aboard with him his camera ostensibly to create a visual diary of his life aboard the vessel, though the substantial body of work preserved from this period reveals the artist’s growing articulation and evolution of his art. With equal aplomb, Baltrop made himself and his camera privy to the intimate moments as well as the very public routine of his fellow servicemen. The artist revealed both the complexity of life aboard the naval vessel—the homo-societal environment—and his own sexual desire for and among other men.

Returning to New York in 1972 with an honorable discharge, Baltrop once again turned his eyes and lens on the city that had become a post-industrial wasteland. With its economy in ruins and manufacturing companies moving out of the city, Manhattan’s West Side piers had become littered with empty and dilapidated buildings that stretched from West 59th Street down to Tribeca. For over a decade, Baltrop would obsessively photograph the piers. No other site embodied the microcosm of New York with its constituency of sunbathers, prostitutes, drag queens, artists, runaways, and gay men nonchalantly cruising for anonymous sex. The piers, with its complexity of lure, loathing, desire, and acceptance, became a magnet for the disenfranchised and empowered. And Baltrop would not only capture prostitutes plying their trade, sex acts between men, the plight of runaways, but also the intense beauty in the midst of what was construed by many as a dark, foreboding, and violent site.

Beyond the piers, Baltrop devoted himself to the decaying, urban landscape and in doing so, also created an extensive body of work of street scene photographs. By the late 1990s, Baltrop all but ceased making new photographs. In 2003, he was diagnosed with cancer and chronicled the last months of his life at a Manhattan hospital.

Alvin Baltrop: Dreams Into Glass is organized by CAMH Senior Curator Valerie Cassel Oliver. A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition, and includes essays by the exhibition’s curator, as well as Douglas Crimp, Fanny Knapp Allen Professor of Art History at the University of Rochester, and Randal Wilcox, Trustee of The Alvin Baltrop Trust.

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
5216 Montrose Blvd.
Houston, TX 77006
T 713 284 8250

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