Friday, April 24, 2009

Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A total of 165 photographs, from over 70 photographers, variously matted and framed, hung in a single long gallery, loosely divided into six spaces, on the 3rd floor. All of the works are hung thematically (rather than chronologically), in pairs, groups and grids. One space also includes a single glass case displaying two folding panoramas. The images in the exhibit range from the 1850s to the present. The show was curated by Eva Respini, and an accompanying book is available for $45. No installation pictures (beyond the title text at right) were allowed.

Comments/Context: The American West has always had a special place in the collective psyche of the nation. Its massive skies, huge open spaces, and unparalleled diversity of natural beauty have made it a constant source of mythology: of frontiers to be settled, of limitless opportunities, of mavericks and risk takers who made their fortunes out in the wilderness. This current exhibit at the MoMA takes stock of how photographers since the birth of the medium have seen and documented the West, in both its grandeur and its reality.

The story starts with the staggering documentary efforts of Watkins, Muybridge, Jackson, O’Sullivan and others, who ventured out into the vast untamed lands with their glass plates and chemistry tents to explore the new territories, bringing back astonishing images to share with the nation. In many ways, this narrative remains the largely same all the way through Ansel Adams, who tasked himself with capturing the romantic natural beauty of the West, as part of a larger effort to convince the powers that be that we ought to protect and cherish these lands.

Another version of the history of the West runs in parallel with this “nature” story, and tells the tale of entrepreneurship, cowboys and settlers, industrial growth, mining, and rapid expansion. This is the tale of how we as a people set out from the East, moved West, and scratched out a new way of life, taking full advantage of what the land had to offer; it is a narrative about how people “fought” and “tamed” the land, how new opportunities were available for the taking. While many photographs were taken of this activity, this particular show generally skips over much of this early history (I did enjoy the Kinsey logging image which fits in this category), in favor of a heavier dose of imagery of what came after, as cities and towns grew into suburbs and sprawl.

The overall disillusioned tone of this exhibit is drawn most clearly from a large number of images that focus on the aftermath of growth and the downside of our collective movement West, almost a “before” and “after” kind of portrait. Gas stations, billboards and mind numbing tract housing now distract us from the open roads and endless skies. William Garnett, Ed Ruscha, and Robert Adams all expose the ravages of endless “planned communities” of suburban development. Lewis Baltz’ grid of San Quentin Point images is especially harsh, filled with littered close ups of abandoned detritus. And the lives of the people now living in these wastelands (captured by Robert Frank, Bill Owens, Joel Sternfeld, Larry Sultan, Henry Wessel and others) is depicted as dreary, marginal, and potentially deviant, a woeful collection of losers, a far cry from our original optimistic hopes and heroes. Images by Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince turn these dreams into caricatures. And while these are all fair characterizations of the reality, together, they form a pretty depressing view of our ability to build a meaningful life.

While this exhibit is truly brimming with exceptional photography (from all periods) and effectively holds up a mirror to how we have seen ourselves over the past decades, I think the show missed the chance to tell a more complicated, multi-faceted story about the West and its continuing evolution. Here are some of the topics or subjects I found either altogether missing or underreported by this show:

  • Silicon Valley
  • Hollywood
  • The borderlands of the Southwest
  • The farmlands of the California Central Valley
  • Hispanic culture in general
  • Las Vegas
  • The Pacific Northwest
  • San Francisco counter culture
  • The importance of water
  • Modern ranching

It’s clear that to cover all of these would require lots more gallery space; editing was required to synthesize the narrative down to its essence, and many of these likely ended up on the cutting room floor. That said, I don’t think the show is as even handed as it could have been in its presentation of the artistic facts.

In many ways, given the deep historical roots of the country on the East coast, the West has always been defined in contrast to the East. Having lived a good portion of my life out West, this show, both in its individual examples and its overall feel, has an undertone of East coast dominance, a view of the West by distant observers who are looking down from a position of perceived superiority and offering mostly sarcastic judgments. There is plenty of excitement and positive activity in the West, much of it running counter to the conventional wisdom and traditions of the East, and I think this exhibit misses it entirely. Perhaps the point was to dispel the historical mythology, but America is a nation that constantly reinvents itself, and that reinvention is often more vital and active in the West.

Overall, despite the flaws outlined above, this is a very thought provoking if less than flattering show, with superlative photography on view, ably curated into small groups of pictures that resonate with each other in unusual ways. The Ansel Adams versus Stephen Shore, and Ansel Adams versus Joel Sternfeld, John Divola, and Richard Misrach wall combinations are particularly striking. Find a time to see the show on off hours, as it was nearly overrun with visitors when I went.

Collector’s POV: As a collector, I was most struck by the geometric purity of William Garnett’s aerial pictures in this show. These would fit extremely well into our city/industrial genre. We’re also still on the lookout for just the right Robert Adams work; many of his images are excellent, but only a few would fit well into our current mix of pictures. And as a random aside, I’ve enjoyed some of the modern cowboy/ranch portraits made by Kurt Markus; they might have been a good inclusion in a variant of this show.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Reviews: NY Times (here), Village Voice (here), Cowboylands (here)

Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West
Through June 8th

Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019


Joe Reifer said...

The juxtaposition of early photographs with New Topographics is certainly thought provoking. I've only seen the book, not the exhibit, but agree that the material is only skimming the surface of the idea of "West." After reading your "what's missing" list, I felt like the material is a greatest hits record that could easily have been a box set.

Bucko said...

The "what's missing" list would fill in many of the gaps that this show had. A beautiful show, as you described, sobering as well. But definitely heavy on the despair. The real West, at its best, has what you describe, that vital reinvention.