Photographer Ryan McGinley—the youngest artist ever to be granted a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art—focuses on the blending of a New York identity with that of the great American unknown. He talks to Isabel Wilkinson about filmmaking and finding adventure.
Ryan McGinley is ready for summer. The kind of summer where you get in the back of a pick-up truck, let your hair stream over your face in the wind, and road trip through great expanses of American landscape: the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, maybe; White Sands, New Mexico, or Marfa, Texas.
For McGinley—who was born in New Jersey but has become a poster child for the youth culture of Manhattan’s Lower East Side—there is an excitement about this wild terrain. His dreamlike photographs, which are collected this month in a new monograph published by Rizzoli, Whistle for the Wind, depict lithe men and women frolicking naked through wheat fields, climbing trees, and scaling rock quarries. He explains that his work is about the great American road trip: “It’s the idea of seeing where the road takes you and running away from home.”
McGinley began as a documentarian of downtown New York, producing dark images filled with graffiti and sex. “This is the same skin that showed up in the pages of Vice and in the first American Apparel ads,” John Kelsey says in the book’s introduction. But in the summer of 2003, when a collector loaned McGinley and his friends a summer house in Vermont, a shift took place. Suddenly his subjects were uprooted from their natural environment and placed in nature—and the results were beautiful. Thus began McGinley’s interest in the great American outdoors. (When asked about artists he admires, he cites everyone from Mark Twain—“I must have read Tom Sawyer 100 times”—to Andy Warhol and Woody Allen.)
His recent pictures are as much about mixing the DNA of libertine New York with wild America as they are about movement—a constant shifting and evolving. A boy collapses onto a lawn, the handlebars of a bike zip over asphalt, a group of kids wearing only sneakers run across a highway towards a mountain range. McGinley describes the way he works as directorial, or, as he puts it, “planning everything and planning for everything to go wrong.” He says that next he would love to work on a movie, and that filmmaking is “definitely on the radar.” If he could photograph anyone new, he says, it would be Lena Dunham, star of Girls, who “is a really good representative of New York City and downtown and girls in general.”
At 23, McGinley, who was the youngest artist ever to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, has just closed two shows and is currently prepping for another in Tokyo. But for the summer, he says, he will live like one of his photographs: exploring “rock quarries, sand dunes, wheat fields, old ruins, and churches.” After all, McGinley says, “New York is in the way that I walk, and so is America. The road trip is a thing, but it’s also a state of mind.”