On the corner of McClellan and Fifth streets in South Philadelphia, a group of young boys pass the afternoon executing daredevil flips off a stack of old throwaway mattresses. A woman driving by, a novice photographer, glimpses the small bodies somersaulting through the air. Startled, she pulls over, and winds up snapping seven or eight quick photographs.
In the best shot, a boy hangs upside down in the center of the frame while another boy stands off to the side. He’s gazing directly into the camera’s lens, shyly hiding the smile lighting up the rest of his face with a fist curled in front of his mouth.
The wall behind the boys is painted deep red, darker than the natural brick beneath. About 10 feet up the wall, the paint line looks like the high watermark of a recent flood.
The picture was taken in 2001. Since then, the photographer, Zoe Strauss, has become recognized as one of America’s top living artists and the photo, “Mattress Flip,” is one of Strauss’ most famous and beloved pieces, seen and appreciated all over the world.
“Mattress Flip” was an integral part of Strauss’ magnum opus, Under I-95. Every year from 2001 to 2010, Strauss converted an empty lot at the intersection of Front and Mifflin streets in South Philly into a temporary public-art gallery by displaying 231 photos—mostly street portraits, signs and architecture—on the concrete pillars holding up the I-95 overpass. Each aisle had a specific theme and every walking path presented narratives rooted in interconnectedness of the city, its denizens and art. Every installation is a fresh edit of an ever-expanding story: Strauss has repeatedly defined Under I-95 as an epic narrative exploring the beauty and struggle of everyday life.
“Mattress Flip” is a bestseller. At Under I-95, every print was sold for $5 each, while larger copies produced with fancier inks and papers have been sold through the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York City for up to $3,000. A giant vinyl version of the photograph hangs inside Lincoln Financial Field.
On Jan. 14, a mid-career retrospective of Strauss’ work—a rare honor, especially for an artist who picked up a camera only 12 years ago—opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition unfolds in three parts: inside the museum, in a companion book, and on 54 billboards all over the city. In a project built on the premise of the intersection of worlds within worlds, even the parts have parts, including a slideshow inside the museum.
This week, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will drape a 70-foot-wide version of “Mattress Flip” across the pillars atop its famous steps. The image of the boys playing will announce the opening of Zoe Strauss: Ten Years.
It will also serve as a memorial.
The name of the boy in Strauss’ photo, the one watching the action, is Lawrence Edward Rose Jr., but everyone called him Boo. On June 17, 2007, six years after Strauss transformed his smiling face into a work of art, Boo was shot on Seventh and Mifflin streets, three blocks away from where he and his cousin, Botty (pronounced “Boo-dee”), flipped on mattresses that summer afternoon. The first bullet entered Boo’s stomach; the second, his knee. Boo died on July 12, the 214th homicide out of that year’s 392. He was 19 years old.
For 10 years, Boo’s family didn’t know the photograph existed, never mind that it was printed in books, exhibited in museums and hanging in homes all over the world. And Strauss, who lives four miles from the boy’s family, never knew about his murder.
Now, Strauss’ work and Boo’s memory are intertwined forever, frozen in one moment of bliss under the sun. It’s as if the series of chance encounters that led to Boo’s family’s discovery of “Mattress Flip” proves Strauss’ point: big or small, everything is connected.
Sa’ddiya Suku is a librarian at Haddington Branch on 65th and Girard. The 30-year-old grew up on the same corner the photograph was taken, which is just a block away from Boo’s grandmother, Gloria Richards’ house. Boo spent a lot of time at Gloria’s house as a kid, and was living with her when he was shot.
One day this past July, Suku was busy shelving books when she glanced down at a children’s book titled A is for Art Museum. In it, each letter of the alphabet is illustrated by a famous piece of art. “B” is for bridge, and features Monet’s “The Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny, 1899.” “S” is for sunflowers, and features Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” “J” stands for jump, illustrated by “Mattress Flip.”
Written by the PMA’s senior curator of education, Marla Shoemaker, and museum educator Katy Friedland, copies of the book were given to every library branch in the city courtesy of the museum when it was published in 2008.
The PMA purchased “Mattress Flip” in 2003. Three years later, it was exhibited as part of a show called Summer Vacation. Friedland had to pass through this particular gallery to get to her office, so the image was on her mind when she started selecting artwork for the book in 2007. “I had to walk by it on my way to work every morning,” says Friedland. “And it made me smile.”
The cover of the book is a checkerboard pattern sampling of the artwork featured inside. A small version of “Mattress Flip” fills one of the squares. Boo was cropped out, but Saku recognized the painted brick wall as the one on McClellan Street. She opened the book.
“The first page I turn to is that exact picture,” says Saku. “I notice Lawrence. Boo. I knew he passed away.”
She had never met Boo, but recognized him from the neighborhood and knew his mother, 51-year-old Dorothea Richards. She took the book to Richards.
Employing massive shifts in scale and proximity, Strauss’ exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art features both modestly sized photographs in the gallery and an expansive installation of billboards that chart an epic voyage throughout the city.
It’s Thursday morning, and a small group of writers and photographers gather at the back entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Zoe Strauss’ first PMA solo show, Zoe Strauss: Ten Years, kicks off with a dance party next Saturday, Jan. 14. We’re here for a mini tour of the Billboard Project, a re-telling of the “Under I-95” narrative across the cityscape. As of yesterday, 54 billboards featuring Strauss’ photographs have been installed on billboards all over the city.
"Linda [right] worked at Sunoco right at I-95 and Allegheny Avenue, and I made the photo of her a few years ago. Kelly [left] was made about a year after in Vegas. When I was traveling it was somethin...
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