JAY MYSELF (Stephen Wilkes, 2018)
209 West Houston St.
Opens Wednesday, July 31
In 1966, Brooklyn-born photographer Jay Maisel moved into the 1898 Germania Bank Building on the corner of Bowery and Spring, purchased with a now astonishing $25,000 down payment. Nearly fifty years later, in early 2015, after decades of taking pictures and collecting tens of thousands of random items, he was forced to sell the graffiti-laden, six-floor, 36,000-square-foot property because of rising maintenance costs; at fifty-five million dollars, it was the largest private real estate deal in New York history. One of his protégés, Stephen Wilkes — who back in the 1970s knocked on Maisel’s door and showed him his portfolio — documents Maisel’s months-long exit from the landmark building as he and a team of assistants sift through the maelstrom and Maisel regales him with stories from his career, which has included shooting for advertising agencies, Sports Illustrated, New York magazine, and jazz legends. “Objects are there for you only if you really see them. If you don’t, they don’t exist. And a lot of people don’t see things,” Maisel philosophizes. “Before you’re going to be able to see, you have to look. And before you can look, you have to want to look. And art is, to some effect, trying to make others see what you see.”
Maisel, a calm man with a penchant for littering his sentences with curses, leads Wilkes through the six floors, showing items from his vast collection, one that borders on hoarding. “Each floor represented a certain partition of his mind,” Wilkes explains. Wilkes speaks with such other photographers as Jeff Dunas, Duane Michals, Dan Winters, Peter Murphy, Matt Dean, Hale Gurland, Barbara Bordnick, Jamie Smith, and Melchior DiGiacomo, who rave about Maisel’s influence and his iconoclastic personality. “He sees all this potential in things that no one else would. He just has such a sense of play,” his daughter, Amanda, says. Maisel, who carries a camera everywhere he goes, constantly snapping pictures, adds, “What I’m trying to do all the time is to try and see things anew, to see things the way a child would see them.”
The quintessentially New York documentary doesn’t dig too deep into his personal life and tends to be overly worshipful, but Maisel, who turned eighty-eight earlier this year, is an engaging character, chomping on a cigar, telling of his studies at Yale with Josef Albers, and going through boxes and boxes (and boxes and boxes) of stuff — what many would call junk — that he refuses to part with as the team from Moishe’s is faced with a virtually impossible situation. “I think there’s a delight in the perception and the enjoyments of objects,” he notes. There’s also a delight and enjoyment in watching this mensch over the course of seventy-eight minutes. Jay Myself opens at Film Forum on July 31, with Maisel and Wilkes participating in Q&As at several shows from July 31 to August 4.