Monday, June 15, 2009

William Christenberry

Yesterday I went to see a show at the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville that was a retrospective of the work of Willim Christenberry. Christenberry is a painter, sculptor, and photographer from Alabama, and his work is about rural Alabama and his memories of growing up there as a child.

Christenberry began as an abstract expressionist painter, and there were a few paintings in the show. He moved away from pure abstraction in the 1960s and began to make a kind of landscape painting about the subject that would obsess him for the next forty years: the house in the rural landscape. These houses are often abandoned farm houses, often derelict, and sometimes disappearing back into the woods of which they were made, over-run with kudzu vines. The houses in his paintings are pretty abstract, though, and it's hard to tell exactly what kinds of houses they are.

When you enter the Cheekwood show, the first thing you see are tall sculptures: white pointy steeple-like things that are vaguely menacing, but also rather like church steeples, arranged in a kind of installation. Christenberry calls these "dream houses." In the late seventies, after the theft of a body of work about the Ku Klux Klan, Christenberry had a vision in a dream of a tall, pointy house with no windows or doors, covered with signs like some of the old grocery stores in his photographs. This image has recurred in his work ever since. The tall white dream houses seem to evoke all the themes of his work: old buildings; the hooded head of the Klansman; and even the trees that surround the abandoned houses he loves to photograph. The lack of windows and doors seems to indicate a kind of blindness: the buildings have no "eyes" to see out of, and the viewer can't see into them. Perhaps this indicates a certain mystery, or a secret, about the Alabama landscape and its history.

Christenberry started photographing with a small Brownie camera that had been in his family. But Lee Friedlander persuaded him to try photographing with larger view cameras. He uses both a 4x5 camera and the 8x10 camera to shoot his color landscape images. But Christenberry uses the larger cameras in the same way that he uses the Brownie camera: he doesn't use the tilts and swings, or even the rise and fall of the front standard very much. His photographs have the very four-square look of the buildings themselves: they are simple, matter-of-fact, nothing fancy, but despite the surface simplicity, they contain a weird pathos and a kind of menacing tension.

After photographing some of these rural buildings for years, repeatedly going back to the same spot to rephotograph the building and record its changes, Christenberry started making "sculptures" of these buildings. They seem to the viewer like models of the buildings, although he insists that they are not literal models, because he often creates them from imagination as well as from reference photographs. But they looked like pretty meticulous models to me. At first I didn't understand why Christenberry felt compelled to make a model of the green warehouse that he had photographed yearly for 20 years. What did the model do that the 20 photographs, arrayed in a grid, did not already convey? Then I realized that the point of the photographs--that the warehouse is gradually decaying, being overgrown by vines and trees--is offset somewhat by the model, and that there is no inconsistency in this: human artifacts like warehouses are transient, and nature wins in the end, but art is a way to make something permanent out of all the flux. In the end, when the real warehouse is gone, the model will be a "dream house," a work of memory and imagination. On one of the wall panels in the show, there is a quote by Faulkner about this: "The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life."

The models may also have something to do with Christenberry's love of actual objects, as opposed to images of objects. Some of the most powerful pieces in the show are made from objects he has collected. There is a collection of nearly identical Tops Snuff signs, in various stages of decay. The wall panel noted that it was sort of like Warhol's soup cans, only the opposite. I guess that means that Christenberry did not make an image of a soup can label; he took commercial signs and made an image out of the actual signs. In that respect, he is working more like Rauschenberg in this piece.

In another piece involving found objects or "ready-mades," he framed the pages of a calendar that belonged to his grandfather. His grandfather had a 1947 calendar, advertising various patent medicines, hanging by his bed. Over the years, he penciled onto the calendar important dates in the family's history: the date of his mother's birth in the 19th century; the date of his son's death; the date a tree fell down in the front yard. It is a bit like the ledger books that the McCaslin family keeps in Faulkner's Go Down, Moses. The juxtaposition of the very personal family history with the artifacts of early consumer culture is somehow moving. One is exhorted by the calendar to take "Black Draught Laxative," on the same page that a marriage, a birth, or a death in the family is recorded.

This piece--the framed collection of 12 calendar pages, juxtaposed with the grandfather's handmade walking cane--turns both Warhol and Rauschenberg on their heads in a very Southern way: here we have Pop art, sort of (the advertising); we have a combine, sort of (the calendar pages plus the cane). But the impersonality and slickness of Pop art and the surrealistic humor of Rauschenberg's combines have been transmogrified into something that's both more serious and less "arty" than Pop art or postmodernist art: the piece is like a magical totem, something ancient, more like folk art than fine art, a piece of a person's family history that goes back a hundred years. It has almost nothing to do with Duchamp, it seems to me. Something that seems at first like an object on the wall of a Cracker Barrel restaurant, once one examines the tiny penciled-in narrative in the squares on the calendar, becomes more like an ancient book or epic poem.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sam Wagstaff

Mapplethorpe (standing) and Wagstaff

I watched a movie last night called "Black, White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe." Every photographer knows who Robert Mapplethorpe is: the creator of immaculate black and white photographs of flowers and naked gay men. But I had never heard of Sam Wagstaff.

Sam Wagstaff was only a casual photographer and probably didn't call himself an artist. But many of the people interviewed for this documentary thought that Mapplethorpe would not have had a career in photography if it had not been for his friend, mentor, and lover, Sam Wagstaff. (Both were also involved with Patti Smith in the seventies.) Wagstaff was 25 years older than Mapplethorpe and Smith. He came from a patrician New York family, went to Yale, served in the Navy during WWII, worked in advertising for a while, and then went to graduate school in art history. He served as a curator of painting and sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and then at the Detroit Institute of Art.

But then in 1973, Wagstaff suddenly decided that photographs were more interesting as an art form than painting or sculpture. When his mother died and he inherited quite a bit of money, he began collecting photographs frenetically, especially 19th century photographs. I was amazed to see, in the film, how many really important 19th century photographs he owned; I saw a lot of the photographs that are in textbooks about the history of photography. I kept saying to myself, "He owned THAT?!?"

In 1984 Wagstaff sold his collection of around 30,000 photographs to the Getty Museum in California for $5 million. He died in 1987 at the age of 65 from AIDS.

Wagstaff put together a book of photographs, the highlights of his collection, called A Book of Photographs from the Collection of Sam Wagstaff. But unfortunately, the least expensive copy I could find online was $250! Maybe the library at the University of Houston has it.

Wagstaff's great contribution to our modern understanding of photography stems first from his willingness to see it as an art form, which, in the early seventies, it barely was. As Bruce Hainly said in a review in Artforum of a 1997 show of Wagstaff's collection, he rehabilitated photography from its "disreputable position." Although Wagstaff embraced what he called "pleasure" and beauty in photographs, his collection contained some photographs that are still difficult to look at: medical pictures of deformed people and amputees, horrible skin diseases, and the bloated bodies of soldiers on a battlefield. Hainly wrote that "he ultimately foiled photography's domesticity by embracing its vicious nature." Mapplethorpe's study of these "vicious" photographs influenced his style, as we can see in his photographs of sado-masochistic sex.

It's nice to know that the man who made photography less "disreputable" also kept it from becoming "domesticated," and that a central part of his interest in photographs was the pleasure of looking at them. Since the mid-eighties, in certain theoretical circles, pleasure in looking has itself been considered "disreputable." But photographers photograph things that they long to look at again and again. We all have our "vice," as Wagstaff called his collecting, the vice of a compulsion to collect the things we love to look at in the world by photographing them. This may in fact be somewhat "disreputable," like so many pleasures.