View Sophie Calle’s New York Debut, in the Bronx in 1980

  • Who would have thought that French artist Sophie Calle got her start in the Bronx? It seems like the stuff of legend. But as per Monica Espinel, the curator of “Urban Archives: The Rituals of Chaos,” an exhibition that opened recently at the Bronx Museum, Ms. Calle’s first exhibition of work “made consciously as an artist” was for a group show in 1980 called “Une Idée en L’Air,” which took place at various galleries in New York, including the storied alternative space Fashion Moda in the South Bronx.

    For this project, Ms. Calle approached strangers in the Bronx and asked them to take her to a place that “if one day, [they] could leave the South Bronx, [they] would remember,” as she described it in a 2011 lecture at the California College of the Arts. She was taken to a grammar school, a bank and a patch of land blessed by the Pope when he paid a visit to borough. She photographed each of the subjects and wrote an accompanying text, each one of which is placed next to its corresponding image in this unforgettable series.

    If you need further proof that these images were in that original show at Fashion Moda, look no further than the clear plastic box frames, which bear the graffiti to prove it. As the story goes, graffiti artists broke into Fashion Moda the night before the exhibition opened, and every inch of the gallery, including Ms. Calle’s images, got tagged. Ms. Calle’s series, tags and all, is now part of the permanent collection of the Bronx Museum, thanks to a recent gift from Fred Croton and Selma Holo in honor of Bill Aguado, a long-time member of the Bronx Council of the Arts.

    Like the work of Ms. Calle that would follow, this documentation of the artist’s intimate transactions with strangers will leave you wondering where the private sphere ends and the public one begins. And while this is only a selection of the series, each one paired with its relevant text, the entire group show “Rituals of Chaos,” which explores the human experience in the metropolis—with works by Mexican photojournalist Enrique Metinides, Gordon Matta-Clark, Robin Graubard and Jamel Shabazz—is well worth a trip to the Grand Concourse.

    If this whets your appetite for Ms. Calle’s early work, check out the upcoming publication of one of her most controversial works, The Address Book.