David Armstrong’s last show in New York

David Armstrong at Casa de Costa, 2014.
David Armstrong at Casa de Costa

David Armstrong passed away on the morning of Oct. 26, 2014. I was waiting to board a ferry on Fire Island when I received the news from Justin. Looking around the Pines, I imagined Armstrong initiating a conversation with people waiting for the ferry, and composing something dignified and subversive with a camera.

An internationally exhibited photographer with six published books since 1994, Armstrong’s work was also found in the pages of Vogue Paris, L’Uomo Vogue, Arena Homme, GQ, Self Service, Another Man, Vogue Japan, AnOther, Ten Magazine, among other titles.

David Armstrong always existed. He is the prodigal heir of modern photography and classic portraiture. The ray of his art landed on the geometric plane of Our Society like no other. He conveyed the mortality of our youth like a classically trained sculptor with an actuary degree. He wasn’t afraid to show a woman’s strength and a man’s vulnerability. He was our secret weapon. David saw the set up, the moment before the thought came into focus. He defined our chic before we did; becalmed our screams into arias. He captured our secret lip gloss; the glamour of our dirty sheets without a smirk or wink. Ours was a cohesive cultured cult, a downtown society whose sensibilities David defined in studied quiet. He was able to make our hangover look dignified when hung in a gallery. He carried grandma’s bag for her, he was a gentleman punk. David Armstrong always existed.
— Patrick Fox

“The Dark Parade,” his last exhibition in New York, closed May 22, 2014 at Casa de Costa. The gallery had then just moved to a secluded carriage house in a discreet uptown building on 61st Street. Away from New York’s busy art districts, the space still feels like an alcove of small comforts, arranged for repose and endless ease. Using photography as a point of departure, the show exposed facets of his aesthetic lineage that photographs can barely approximate: framed photographs, folios of rare and well-known prints, and sculptural arrangements in vitrines or in glass covers.

As a solo show, “The Dark Parade” presented both repose and complexity, activated by personally significant objects. Armstrong and close friend Nan Goldin had a custom of gifting each other Victorian dolls, and the first doll Goldin gave Armstrong was prominently displayed in the foyer of Casa de Costa. Looking around the arrangements, it was clear Armstrong was an avid thrifter and collector of objects with wildly diverse referents.

One night in 1970, after a movie and before Hungarian Goulash at the Blue Parrot, I decided to walk the other way, up Brattle Street, to window shop at The Sphinx. The store was closing, but they let me in anyway. In the back, the staff was collected around the most beautiful girl, trying on a Thirties lamé evening gown.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” the owner said, “I put it aside for you the second it came in,” and I could see she actually meant it. The girl turned, in the middle of this crowd of admirers, backlit by a pinspot, a halo of golden hair trailing down the gold, dolman-sleeved gown with cutout shoulders, and gazed at herself in the mirror. They kneeled around her, fussing with the train, and she looked like a screen star, or the subject of a religious painting.

‘But what about the bulge?’ she whispered, with a very soft laugh, looking at the crotch of the dress. It was the first time I saw David Armstrong, or had seen a boy in a dress.
—Avram Finklestein

Wide open in a vitrine was a recent artist book of 35mm cut-outs, a modest gesture of getting back to basics in the practice of visual arrangement. Outside the vitrines, objects were positioned in relation to each other in ways that made learning about these micro-histories a complete pleasure: each piece was a story leading into another and up the stairs into another sequence of discovery. Going up to the second floor made the viewer face a Victorian hair frame, in one of the upstairs rooms was a bed—Armstrong’s bed.

The notion of photographic space and its construction has been at the forefront of recent dialogues on photography, especially in work referencing today’s digital modes of output. Armstrong’s “The Dark Parade” presented a style of interactivity, connection, and accumulation that was processed over time—a distinct separation from compositions of photographic space where time is given a pedestal of immediacy, randomness, or total collapse.

The (often) flat world of photography intersects digital space as it does, but with “The Dark Parade” Armstrong gave us a much needed break from theory and guile. Armstrong’s last show was completely about connections made from our interior worlds. Was it sentimental, that word that art theorists dread? I didn’t think so—to believe that would be an easy seduction by an aesthetic deemed artificial. It was much more fun to tap into how blatantly against commodification this photography exhibition was.

I met David through Rene Ricard. They were both from Boston which created a special link between them. Rene treated David like a younger brother and was always very protective of him. He would come over and visit or we would go to his house/studio in Bed Stuy which which was a world of chaotic creativity. It was always exciting to hear about his new projects. His book “Day for Night” was about to be published and Rene ended up doing the cover. The last time I saw David was in May when we went with Patrick Fox to the internment of Rene’s ashes. We had a wonderful ride up to New Bedford. David with his special kind of wit talked about the different photographers he admired, meeting Lillian Bassman, his last shoot for Ukrainian Vogue, and the different memories of Rene through the years.
—Rita Barros

The one-of-a-kind arrangements—sometimes funny, sometimes provocative—were given the same emotional equity as photography. Each visual element was part of the same world of contrasts: natural versus artificial light, the ephemeral and the heavy, but really: how meaningless it all is to contemplate if we aren’t willing to confront intimacy. Armstrong photographed fearlessly aware that code is a basis for queer literacy, but intimacy is the language of recoding present time.

Lead Photograph: Nan Goldin: David at Grove Street, Boston, 1972, 1972; black-and-white photograph; 18 3/4 x 12 5/8 in