Just off of a hallway-cum-gallery of American modernism at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, across from a Marsden Hartley and a door down from the museum’s children’s activity room is a little office. For the next few months, for the duration of “Zoe Strauss: 10 Years,” the PMA’s exhibition of and about Philly native Strauss’s “Under I-95″ project, Strauss will hold regular “office hours” in this space. Anyone can make an appointment and wander in to talk with the artist about, well, whatever. This past Monday, when the museum opened for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Strauss held office hours from 1-3 pm. She ever-so-slightly nodded to the dignity of her new office by dressing a little more tidily than usual. Today she wore a maroon t-shirt, a grey button-up sweater, jeans and bright-teal tennis shoes. This is a sartorial step up from the hoodie she wore to her press opening.
Conversations with the artist tend to begin with, “How did you get that picture where…” and end with a vague reference to a specific picture, one that Strauss inevitably, immediately understands. This time the question was posed by one of three 40-something women who burst into Strauss’s office with the familiarity of long-lost friends. Their “How did you get that picture where…” featured a quick-but-noticeable pause, before it finished with , “…that bearded guy who took his dick out?”
“I know!” Strauss says, validating the women’s notion that two Mummers showing off their manhoods to a photographer in the middle of a Philly street, in the middle of the morning, in the middle of a parade, is indeed uncommon. [Image: Tattooed Penises, Philadelphia, 2008.]
“I’m pretty sure that’s the right response,” Strauss says, nodding. “So disgusting. But also…”
Strauss trails off and looks around the room and at her visitors. Her arms come up from her side and she extends them as if she’s expecting a hug. “But also… so awesome!”
Everyone laughs. Strauss tells the story: “Years ago I’m at the Mummer’s Parade and I met this bearded guy who had a Harley[-Davidson] tattoo on his dick.”
Strauss pauses. It is not clear how she went from being at the Mummer’s Parade to seeing the bearded guy’s junk, but everyone nods.
“So a couple years after that, I saw him again at the parade. He comes running up to me and says, ‘I met another guy with a Harley tattoo on his dick!’ I said, ‘Hey, that’s great!’ And he said, ‘Yeah, somehow I discovered this other guy!'”
Strauss pauses while everyone laughs. “Somehow discovered,” one of Strauss’s visitors says.
“Oh, I know.” Strauss rolls her eyes in agreement.
“You know, these guys have been pounding beers since they woke up, right? So the guy offers to show me, and how can I say no to that? So we walk down to Broad and Wharton and there he is. They just pull ‘em out and show ‘em to me.” Strauss gestures in a way that says, ‘And there’s the picture.’ The women nod. Strauss’s story makes sense.
A woman who had been silent up until then suddenly speaks up: “And the one with the scar! I think that would hurt.”
Again, Strauss intuitively knows which picture she’s asking about. “She was really proud of that scar. She’d had a hysterectomy and she was really proud that she’d kicked cancer’s ass.” One of Strauss’s skills as a photographer is that she photographs things or people that the viewer reads as horrifying, as a sign of disaster and sadness, but that the subject of the photograph considers a personal triumph. The woman beat cancer, right? [Zoe Strauss, Victoria, Hysterectomy Scar, 2005.]
At least one of Strauss’s three visitors went to high school with Strauss at the Philadelphia High School for Girls. Strauss graduated in 1987, the other woman in 1986. Everything Strauss and her guests is punctuated by references to Philly neighborhoods. One friend’s high-school hair-do was “so Roxborough,” which prompted a discussion on White Rain hairspray, how the ‘dos were constructed, and how hair-dos were different a couple of neighborhoods over.
Strauss signs the women’s catalogues and they leave. Her energy level remains high.
“Can you believe this was Anne d’Harnoncourt’s office?” Strauss asks, referring to the late former director of the PMA. Strauss skips over to the window to point out the view of the Schuylkill River. “This is so great!” she says. She scoots back across the office, which is no more than 20 feet deep and about 12 feet wide, to pull back part of a wall. “Look! It’s a hidden closet!”
A museum-appointed assistant walks into Strauss’ office and asks her what should be the policy on people taking pictures in her exhibit. (The museum has acquired every photograph in the show, but the pictures on view are exhibition prints.) Strauss says she doesn’t care except for one detail: If anyone who is in one of her pictures comes to see the show and wants to be photographed with the picture Strauss took, that has to be OK. The assistant says he’ll take care of it and exits.
Strauss gives a quick tour of the rest of the office. She shows off the art she’s chosen, all of it from the PMA’s collection: A striking little Jacques Villon study of smoke and trees [at right], a mysterious Lucius Crowell side-portrait of a beautiful young man, and a terrific Alice Neel, The Last Sickness (1953). A low-slung bookcase sits under the Villon and the Crowell. The museum stocked it with books, and Strauss added one of her own: A new monograph on Vivian Maier, a 1950s street photographer who was recently “discovered.”
Upon request, Strauss sits under the Neel and mugs for a picture. She talks about the sold-out opening of her exhibition, two nights before: The Conestoga Angels drill team opened the party. They were followed by David Dye, the host of the Philadelphia-based public-radio music show “World Cafe,” who was the first DJ. (@WorldCafe to @zoestrauss: “I tend to get mushy but never seen so much love in the house & exhibit.”)
Dye was followed by a super-secret special-guest DJ: Questo from The Roots, who was at least as impressed with the PMA’s party as the party was with him. “Wow,” he tweeted. “About to do a set for #Zoe10years celebration at @philamuseum. Sittin in a room w/ Chagall’s & Kisling’s & Soutine’s. [A] regular saturday.” A few minutes later Questo tweeted pictures from the event [below] to his almost two million followers. “Best party ive spun in philly period,” he tweeted.
Strauss tweeted the opening too, sharing amazement and pictures with her 683 followers. Her tweets included camera-phone snaps of neighbors from her south Philly neighborhood who are featured in her pictures, one of the enormous crowd, and a tweet to @questlove that she was particularly thrilled he liked seeing the Soutines before DJing. “YES! this was my dream… the galleries OPEN during the OPENING!”
“It was just amazing, a dream come true,” Strauss says. “So, I’m 41 now. At the opening I saw my high-school girlfriend for the first time in 25 years. Then my next girlfriend was there too and so was Lynn [Bloom, Zoe’s partner]. Well, Lynn and I have been together for 22 years. So right there it was, like, the last three people I slept with. It was so nuts! Even my pediatrician showed up! I don’t have a kid, I mean the pediatrician who I saw when I was a kid! I went to high school with his little sister. We did political work together.”
Just then Strauss’s next appointment arrives: Strauss recognizes the two men from her “Under I-95″ project and tells them that she remembers that they’ve bought pictures there. Strauss and her guests compare notes on different flea markets around Philadelphia. (Strauss is a walking atlas-plus-Wikipedia on Philly neighborhoods.) It becomes obvious that one of the men has made this appointment during Strauss’s office hours so he can ask her something and Strauss, sensing this, guides him toward his question.
“So the billboards are so great,” he says. “I’m guessing they’re all made out of vinyl?”
Strauss explains what they’re made of and that they’ll be recycled, probably into railroad ties. The man sounds disappointed, but presses forward. “Well, I was wondering if you could save one and we could auction it off for LGBT centers.”
“I… love… it!” Strauss yells in slow motion. “I know just the one! The two women kissing in Northeast. It’s done. I’ll tell Clear Channel.” [Image: Zoe Strauss, Women Kissing, Beatty, NV, 2005.]
The visitor knows the picture Strauss means and says that’s perfect. When he doesn’t see Strauss take any notes, he asks if she’s concerned about the control of her images or anything like that.
“I don’t give a shit at all,” Strauss fires back. “I love it! It’s such a good idea. Thank you for thinking of it!”
The men rise to leave. “You’re really going to have regular office hours the whole time the show is up?” one of them asks.
“Yeah, and I’ve gotta add more,” Strauss says. “I want these visits to be more relaxed. I want people to be able to drop in without an appointment.”
“You’re going to have to be an extrovert for the next three months,” he says.
“Yeah, you know this is so hard for me,” Strauss says and strikes an innocent-girl pose before exploding into a head-to-toe snicker. “Yeah, right.”
Related: Strauss is my guest on this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast — and she was absolutely terrific. During the show she discusses many of her photographs, why she chose art over having children, and the double-murder that happened on her block the week her PMA show opened.
To download or subscribe to The Modern Art Notes Podcast via iTunes, click here. To download the program directly, click here. To subscribe to The MAN Podcast’s RSS feed, click here. You can stream the program and view images discussed on the program at this MAN post.