His work still amazes because he fetishized process to almost absurd lengths. The first adjective that leaps to mind is painstaking, and if you take that word seriously — the pain in it — suddenly, what he was doing, the sheer anachronism of it, doesn’t seem that different than certain kinds of performance art.
Arms also made prints, live, in front of rapt audiences. He was proselytizing for printmaking, but one might call it performative — a mixing of media, an infusion of the temporal into the supposedly timeless. With a good public relations firm and some deftly vaporous verbiage, Arms might recast himself in terms congenial to even the most postmodern of critics.
Not that he’d be amenable to the fiction. But there is an intellectual seriousness to Arms’s work that transcends the superficial nostalgia and prettiness of some of his prints. The exhibition’s wall text includes a comment from one of the highest mandarins of modernism, Alfred Stieglitz, who said Arms’s images “are so dead, they are almost alive.” There’s a great deal of truth in that, even if it was meant unkindly.
Arms wasn’t just pining for a mythical, bygone age; he was registering the substantial costs of modernity. In one 1925 image, of Notre Dame in Paris as seen from across the Seine, the smoke coming from a motorized boat obscures the detail of the building, effacing the past rather than complementing it. His image of the Woolworth Building suggests a desire to contain and contextualize what was once the world’s tallest structure — it wasn’t just Gothic, it was a grand Gothic excrescence overwhelming everything around it. He titled one of his New York bridge images — filled with metal cables — “Cobwebs.” And in the exhibition’s most famous image, a tower from the Brooklyn Bridge, you can see a certain anxiety about what all this metal webbing is doing to the world. Is it holding up a bridge or tying down some outsize invasion into our once Lilliputian landscape?
Arms once took one of his most detailed plates, “In Memoriam 1939,” showing the north portico of Chartres, and had it gold-plated. He kept it as a memorial to a deceased family member, and it’s one of the highlights of the exhibition. Along with another plate, left unfinished at his death, it gives a powerful sense of another seemingly postmodern oddity to Arms’s work.
The plates physically embody his handiwork, yet they are mechanical tools, the means of making multiple images. The plates look a bit like fine, medieval metal work, sui generis in their beauty. It’s tempting to believe that they became private devotional pieces for the artist, hidden artworks that appealed to the mix of spirituality and pragmatism that animated the neo-Gothic imagination.