In one scorching 1973 performance, jazz drummer Milford Graves unleashes a maelstrom of thunderous high-speed slams upon his kit. This display, captured on black-and-white film and recirculated as the opening to the 2018 documentary Milford Graves Full Mantis, shows the recently departed percussionist thrashing wildly as he arches over a snare-stripped set of gongs and cymbals, holding his sticks tight at the center. At certain times, he strikes the tom-toms with such velocity and precision that no roll emerges; at other moments, he beats down with his elbows instinctively, as if playing a bongo. Embodied in this solo are elements key to the free-jazz pioneer’s music: improvisation, the balance between technique and intuition, and the tendency to treat an instrument as though it were an extension of the heart. We saw a similar approach in the photographic work of his pupil Yuji Agematsu for “Times Square Times (Kodak All-Stars),” the artist’s solo exhibition at Miguel Abreu Gallery.
Agematsu moved to New York from Kanagawa, Japan, in 1980 and met Graves a year later, while studying at the erstwhile Friends World College. But where Graves sought to free percussion from its temporal restraints, Agematsu’s best-known work has been characterized in part by an insatiable obsession with the passing of time. As part of a practice that began in the 1990s, Agematsu gathered detritus—rain-melted lollipops, pigeon feathers, bundles of hair—from Manhattan’s streets while taking daily exploratory walks. With a little resin, he glued these materials into cellophane cigarette-box sleeves, creating miniature ikebana-like sculptures; each work was labeled with the dates Agematsu collected the items. “Self-Portrait,” the artist’s first solo show with this gallery in 2017, featured a year’s worth of findings arranged as monthly calendars inside Plexiglas vitrines.
Yet in this presentation the specifics of time have nearly dissolved, leaving behind a vague sense of place. In 2003, Agematsu began bringing a camera on his routine travels, taking hundreds of 35-mm nighttime photographs around Times Square over the course of four years. These pictures, edited and condensed into a fixed series of 391 snapshots, streamed from six slide projectors spread across the gallery’s three darkened rooms. At their most abstract, the grainy images reveal painterly rivers of neon light within a black sky. And at their most exacting, they home in on the minutiae of static ground-level details, such as a shoe print sealed in concrete, the frost-chewed grating of a cellar door, or a puddle that forms a gray blot over the chalky-white lines of a crosswalk while refracting the illuminated city at dusk.
Interspersed within these images is an assortment of seemingly candid pictures of pedestrians traversing the urban landscape. Due to long exposure times, faces and bodies are blurred and virtually merge with the streaks and streams of man-made light emanating from shopwindows or bright signs overhead. By the time you recognize the dark silhouette of a woman carrying an umbrella or the plaid pattern on a shirt in a crowd, the slide flickers, shifting to the next vista. But that transience and anonymity imbue Agematsu’s shots with an esoteric appeal, like that of New York itself, a city of constant change. An amorphous aggregate energy takes the place of particular details.
Selections of these photographs were previously showcased as visuals for multimedia presentations incorporating live music at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, SculptureCenter, and Whitney Museum of American Art (and, in one case, even at a gym in Portland, Oregon). In all of these presentations, including this one at Miguel Abreu, sound has been a key component. Playing from the gallery’s deepest chamber was audio recorded from a tape deck in the midtown thoroughfare—we heard the honking roars of traffic, the noise of construction. The clicking of the slide projectors throughout inserts a beat, not metronomic but irregular. Agematsu has distilled the rhythm of the city into a sonic and visual harmony, frenetic and ever evolving. Like jazz, street photography favors the accidental and finds integrity in the incidental.