James Welling

Published in Artforum, November 2012. For more information about and images from the exhibition, click here.

James Welling, Installation view at David Zwirner, 2012

James Welling, Installation view at David Zwirner, 2012

There are two dominant ways in which photographers have envisioned the landscape of the American West. One, glorying in the land and emphasizing descriptive specificity, is rooted in government-survey pictures of the 1870s; the other, wry and admonishing, arrived a century later under the banner of New Topographics. But outside its well-documented urban areas, how have American photographers framed the country’s eastern half? Eliot Porter rendered Maine foliage in Technicolor, Paul Strand spent time in New England, and Joel Meyerowitz caught seaside towns based in rosy Cape light, but prevailing themes can be difficult to discern. In these parts, painters have had the upper hand, from bucolic Hudson River School scenes to Winslow Homer’s churning waves to the bonhomie captured by Porter’s brother Fairfield. It makes sense, then, that James Welling, a photographer born in Connecticut but long identified with the Los Angeles he calls home, has used a painter as a route back to the landscape of his childhood.

As do many exhibitions of Welling’s photos, this show blithely intermixed visually dissimilar works, and here there were two abstract series—one of ink-jet prints, one of gelatin silver prints derived from photograms—that evoker painterliness in a general way. The stronger works, which comprised the majority of the show, were exceedingly specific and representational, engaging directly with the life and legacy of Andrew Wyeth. Several years ago, Welling began visiting Wyeth’s homes and studios in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Cushing, Maine. One of his aims was to re-create some of Wyeth’s most well-known canvases, including the iconic Christina’s World, 1948, The Revenant, 1949, and End of Olsons, made in 1969, just after Christina’s death. Varying in their fidelity to the original paintings, the resultant images show the ways in which the landscape has changed since Wyeth painted it and depict these places in different seasons, encouraging viewers to meditate on the passage of time. So, too, does Welling’s use of a mechanical eye highlight the imaginativeness of Wyeth’s “conservative” realism; the painter rendered domestic details in his own idiosyncratic way.

In addition to his photographic reconstructions of Wyeth’s famous vistas, Welling attempts to show what Wyeth saw from day to day. Many of these photographs offer close-up views of the buildings’ interiors: a weathered door at the Olson house; a dark-painted cabinet hanging high on a wall; Wyeth’s easel, studio mirror, and collection of dry pigments. Desiccated northern light, somehow at once pale and bright, is a leitmotif, and is what makes Glass House, 2010, my favorite photograph in the show. Interior and exterior merge: Three windows spanning the corner of an upper story are caked with a thin layer of frost that matches the whitewashed walls and window frames. Yet for all its confusion of space, Glass House also offers comforting protection from the elements. Perhaps such shelter defines one iconic vision of the New England landscape.

James Welling, Glass House, 2010

James Welling, Glass House, 2010

Those familiar with Welling’s work will recognize the title of this photograph as the site of another recent series: the iconic modernist retreat designed by Philip Johnson as his own Connecticut home and completed, a year after Christina’s World, 1949. In Johnson’s building, too, windows both admit nature (visually) and keep it at bay. For his “Glass House” works, 2006–2009, exhibited at this gallery in 2010, Welling used filters to metaphorically transform the expansive plate glass into a prism throwing psychedelic colors onto Johnson’s immaculate gardens.

Barney Kulok

Published on Artforum.com on October 5, 2012. The exhibition remains on view at Nicole Klagsbrun until October 27.

Barney Kulok, Untitled (Cobble Constellation), 2011

The austere geometry and muscular presence of architect Louis Kahn’s late designs infuses the photographs Barney Kulok has taken of the Four Freedoms Park. In this exhibition, however, one won’t find conventional documentation of the park’s allée of linden trees, its open granite “room” at Roosevelt Island’s southern tip, or its bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt created by Jo Davidson. Kulok, who was granted access last year to the construction site, has instead brought back chiaroscuro fragments—moody gelatin silver prints that demonstrate remarkable tonal range and control but explain little about the late master’s final design. As often as not, Kulok seems simply to be photographing whatever was resting at his feet. The results, however, are quietly thrilling.

In addition to distilling something of Kahn’s design principles, these twenty-three images also demonstrate that Kulok has deeply internalized the legacy of Minimalist and post-Minimalist sculpture. One can walk through the gallery’s two rooms assigning to individual photographs entries from Richard Serra’s 1967–68 Verb List. “To scatter”: Untitled (Cobble Constellation) (all works cited, 2011) depicts a chance array of loose granite paving blocks resting atop those already laid in neat rows. “To suspend”: Untitled (Improvised Plumb Line), an image of a dangling brick, isolated against a dark, pockmarked wall. “To heap”: Untitled (Joint Filler), a pile of the eponymous material that exhibits such sharp contrasts between light and dark as to seem unreal, like a Photoshop tweak or a darkroom mistake. Others, with their bent wires and bits of stone and wood and earth, call to mind Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, or Carl Andre. The photographs’ charcoal-rubbed wooden frames give them a solidity, an objectness, that further aligns them with this sculptural precedent—and with Kahn’s resolutely tactile architecture. Visitors’ experiences of the park will undoubtedly range widely. For viewers of these images, Kulok has expanded that range still further, and tapped into something elemental that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Interview at Design Observer

The writer Mark Lamster interviewed me about “The Permanent Way” for Design Observer. We discuss revisionist histories of Gilded Age America, the difficulty of choosing photographs for an exhibition, and the “visual rhetoric” of westward expansion, among other topics. Click here to read the transcript of our discussion. The exhibition remains on view at apexart in New York until July 28.

“The Permanent Way” Brochure Essay

This essay accompanies “The Permanent Way,” an exhibition I have organized for apexart. It opens Wednesday, June 6, with a reception from 6 to 8 PM, and runs through July 28, 2012.

Famous Horse Shoe Curve, on Main Line P.R.R., ca. 1910. Collection of Luc Sante.

July 1 is the sesquicentennial of the Pacific Railway Act, the federal legislation that enabled the development of the first transcontinental railroad. The law, in conjunction with the Homestead Act (passed just six weeks earlier), signaled the government’s commitment to westward expansion even as the union itself was imperiled by civil war. It provided thirty-year government bonds and extensive land grants to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies, which used these concessions to build over 1,700 miles of track. In May 1869, the two roads were joined at Promontory Summit, in the Utah Territory. Other transcontinentals followed soon thereafter.

Historians have long debated the economic and political value of these railroads. For Alfred Chandler, the growth of the railroad companies required an important “managerial revolution” that pointed the way to modern corporate capitalism. For Richard White, writing recently, the transcontinentals were thoughtlessly built ahead of demand, and the dramatic failures of these companies at the end of the nineteenth century unjustly imposed punitive costs on the public. All scholars of the railroads, however, agree that their amazing growth during the second half of the century fundamentally reshaped the American landscape. As White notes, “these railroads formed a lever that in less than a generation turned western North America on its axis so that what had largely moved north–south now moved east–west.”

The shift wasn’t only in the movement of goods, but also in the picture of America that its citizens carried in their minds. In recognition of the Pacific Railway Act’s anniversary, “The Permanent Way” considers the centrality of railroads to Americans’ understanding of the country’s landscape. Today, trains are a “natural” component of that picture, as essential as broad, grassy plains and mountain peaks in the distance.

That we take trains for granted was not always the case. Cultural historian Leo Marx’s important book The Machine In the Garden (1964) opens with the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne enjoying the tranquil environs of Sleepy Hollow, near Concord, Massachusetts, in 1844. Hawthorne’s pastoral reverie is rudely interrupted:

But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive—the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumberous peace.

The smoke-belching engines were an unfamiliar incursion, and Marx catalogues the affronted responses of numerous writers upset by the recognition that railroads would permanently alter their environment. Yet by the time of the Pacific Railway Act, just two decades later, the railroads had become an integral element of American life, for better and for worse. Time and space collapsed as people were able to travel further, faster, than ever before, and places without benefit of direct connection were woven together in a mesh of steel. The costs of such convenience, we now recognize, were enormous: the lives of the railroads’ (often immigrant) construction crews; the livelihoods of those pushed aside by the entering wedge of westward expansion; the political ideals corrupted by back-room business negotiations; the savings erased when lines failed to materialize or collapsed. Yet there was no going back. In the eight years after the end of the Civil War, the mileage of operating railroad track more than doubled, to seventy thousand. As landscape writer John Stilgoe notes, “Emerson and his contemporaries knew the train and the railroad as novelties; subsequent generations were born into a world in which trains seemed as commonplace as spiderwebs.”

Justine Kurland, Doyle, CA, 2007.

Photography was itself a new invention in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and as a technology it grew up alongside railroads—especially in America, where the first accurate representations of a given place were often made by photographers working on behalf of railroad expansion. Surveys of this vast, largely uncharted territory were commissioned by the government and by the railroad companies themselves, and sent photographers like A.J. Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson out into the field. Their images, widely distributed through government documents, news-media reproductions, and tourist publications, played an especially important role in refashioning the imagined American landscape.

This exhibition includes a small selection of such materials, encompassing railroad maps, lithographs taken from illustrated magazines, other prints, and turn-of-the-twentieth-century photo-postcards. From them, one can discover how quickly fresh observation gave way to visual convention. Axial views quickly become a stock-in-trade, whether depicting tracks receding to a single vanishing point in the distance or bisecting the frame parallel to the picture plane. So, too, one can repeatedly witness railroad engines, marvels of human ingenuity, overcoming adverse natural elements, as in the two nearly identical prints, from separate publications, depicting a train struggling through snowdrifts, its headlamp a beacon of progress.

Subsequent generations of photographers have walked the same trails, navigated the same canyons, forded the same rivers, and ascended to the same peaks as these men did during the “Era of Exploration.” They have also responded to the visual tropes inherited from earlier eras. The artists included in this exhibition are not exclusively engaged with depicting railroads, or even solely concerned with the American landscape. Nonetheless, at various points in their careers each has found the railroads—or their ruins—a subject worth exploring.

Of the five artists included in this exhibition, Mark Ruwedel, based in southern California, is most closely identified with railroads. His series “Westward the Course of Empire” (1994-2007) documents with taxonomic precision the remains of North American lines. In a gesture reminiscent of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruwedel exhibits small black-and-white photographs as grids arranged by type: trestle bridges, cuts through rock faces, tunnel mouths, paths through field and forest. The Bechers survey industrial plants, and Ruwedel’s adoption of their signature technique highlights the “industrial” nature of even the most rural Western outpost. Despite focusing upon abandoned rail infrastructure, his lens necessarily captures evidence of the land’s other uses, thereby demonstrating how the rails were but one human use of the landscape in an unending succession of uses. Even when the environment is seemingly pristine, as in the photographs by Jeff Brouws presented here, one can’t help but be aware of human incursion, of the fact that human places are necessarily palimpsests. Best known for his photographs of the signs, buildings, and infrastructure of vernacular and decaying American landscapes, Brouws’s images here are by contrast remarkably restrained. Working near his Dutchess County home in upstate New York, the artist sought out traces of the competing agricultural and dairy railroads that helped feed New York’s hungry mouths and slake its thirst. The resultant works show no evidence of this bustling industry save for their pathways, the quiet negative space an inversion of the sites’ former bustling activity.

The complexity depicted in these photographers’ landscapes can have economic, social, political, and cultural manifestations. In many of her photographs, Victoria Sambunaris manages to reveal several such entanglements at once. She seeks “phenomena that are ubiquitous and familiar to a particular region but are anomalous to an ordinary eye,” and often finds an elevated or distant vantage point from which to highlight incongruities. So it is with a photograph included in this exhibition.Untitled (VS-10-10), Train from Cristo Rey, Sunland Park, NM, from her ongoing series “The Border,” depicts a rail line bending dramatically as it skirts the US-Mexico border. At this site, robbers from nearby Anapras, Mexico, had regularly thrown items onto the Union Pacific tracks to force the trains to stop, after which men would sieze the cargo and carry it directly across the border. The FBI organized a sting in 2000 that went awry, leaving two agents badly injured. The railroad still operates along this corridor, funneling millions of dollars worth of goods through dangerous borderland territory and highlighting, with each run, economic disparity and social tension.

Justine Kurland’s images often feature people who have oriented their lives to particular places. They become, frequently by choice, socially marginalized, interacting as much with like-minded communities as with the broader population. In her recent series “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” Kurland focuses upon the subculture of the nomadic hobo—as both romantic American myth and quotidian lived reality. In the unpopulated images from the series chosen for this exhibition, one can sense the landscape as these particular inhabitants view it, with trains accorded a central role.

Jeff Brouws, Railroad Landscape #56, former Poughkeepsie and Eastern right-of-way as ingress to private hunting presere (abandoned 1938), MP 92, view south, Winter, McIntyre, New York, 2010.

James Welling’s railroad photographs, made two decades ago, are but one facet of a prismatic career that encompasses abstractions, architectural photography, and experiments with the properties of the medium. In this exhibition they offer the closest look at the infrastructure of working railroads, and by extension the trains themselves. The engines move through a space that Stilgoe dubs the “metropolitan corridor” to indicate both its technological sophistication and its sense of in-betweenness and linkage. In Welling’s documentary images, one can witness how the complexities described above are mirrored in an intricacy manifested along the route.

Permanent way is a term for the track on a railroad, from roadbed to rails. Here it is shorthand for the epochal shift these railroads caused in our picture of America. This exhibition commemorates the momentous decision, taken 150 years ago, to commit to the railroads’ expansion, and reflects upon how even its greatest champions could not have predicted how transformative such a choice proved to be.

Further Reading

Chandler, Alfred D. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1977).

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 [orig. 1964]).

Naef, Weston J. Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West, 1860-1885 (Buffalo, NY: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1975).

Sandweiss, Martha A. Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002).

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986).

Stilgoe, John R. Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983).

White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

Exhibition: “The Permanent Way”

Mark Ruwedel, San Diego and Arizona Eastern #7, 2003. (C) Mark Ruwedel, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery

“The Permanent Way”
Organized by Brian Sholis
On view at apexart, 291 Church Street, New York, from June 6 – July 28, 2012
Opening reception: Wednesday, June 6, 6–8 PM
Featuring art by: Jeff Brouws, Justine Kurland, Mark Ruwedel, Victoria Sambunaris, James Welling

July 1 is the sesquicentennial of the Pacific Railway Act, the federal legislation that enabled the development of the first transcontinental railroads. This exhibition marks the occasion by bringing together American landscape photographs by living artists with archival material charting the expansion of railroads during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Permanent way is a term for the track on a railroad. Here it is shorthand for how railroads dramatically reshaped Americans’ notion of the country’s landscape. Cultural historian Leo Marx related Nathaniel Hawthorne’s horror, in 1844, at the intrusion of smoke-belching locomotives into his beloved Sleepy Hollow. Yet by the time the Pacific Railway Act was passed two decades later, railroads were pervasive and inextricably woven into Americans’ lives. Even the most isolated rural residents were tethered to urban centers by the steel rails running through nearby fields. This ubiquity guaranteed for railroads a seemingly permanent place in the American unconscious. Ask someone today to describe an iconic American landscape and you’re likely to be told of fields stretching away to mountains at the horizon and a train passing through in the middle distance. This image was fixed in part by now-celebrated nineteenth-century photographers like A.J. Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson.

The photographers in this exhibition are not concerned exclusively with railroads, or even with American landscapes. Nonetheless, they are sensitive interpreters of their environment, and each has at some point noticed the continuing power and imaginative pull of railroads—or of their ruins. “The Permanent Way” uses an important anniversary to celebrate their work and to place it in a historical context.

Victoria Sambunaris, Untitled (VS-10-10), Train from Cristo Rey, Sunland Park, NM, 2010. From the series "The Border."

Wreck in Yard, Port Arthur, ca. 1910, real-photo postcard. Collection of Luc Sante.

Henry Gannett/US Census Office, Railroad Systems, 1890, printed 1898.

Interview: Carol Bove

Published as the cover story in Art in America, May 2012. For more information on Bove, contact Maccarone.

Detail of W.A., 2010, shells, steel, concrete, and bronze

Carol Bove’s considerable reputation rests upon more than a decade’s worth of refined and culturally literate artworks. Her early sculptural installations, often taking the form of plinths or wall-mounted shelves laden with period books and knick-knacks, evoke memories of 1960s- and 1970s-era bohemianism, and the individual and societal soul-searching that accompanied the period’s wrenching social transformations. That many viewers have no firsthand experience of that historical moment and know it only through publications, films, and other cultural objects is part of Bove’s point. Born in 1971 in Geneva, Switzerland, and raised in Berkeley, Calif., she too experienced this cultural ferment at a remove, filtered as it was by the preferences of her parents and their milieu. Because of this, her ability to capture what seems like the essence of the era results as much from an understanding of how we construct history as from a feeling for the lived texture of the time. Her deft juxtapositions—of Playboy centerfold images, paperback copies of Eastern mystical writings and Western psychological treatises—both frame a worldview and reveal the act of framing.

Bove came to New York during the mid-1990s and graduated from New York University in 2000. She began exhibiting immediately thereafter, and her carefully calibrated arrangements of objects were widely acclaimed. In the ensuing years, Bove has broadened the range of materials she works with, the forms her artworks take, and the historical antecedents she repurposes. Though “the ‘60s” (a time not coterminous with the 1960s) remain a touchstone and one of the period’s emblematic art movements, Minimalism, a preferred esthetic framework, today her art has been drained of much of its cultural specificity. Bringing together materials both luxurious (peacock feathers, gold chains) ad rough-hewn (driftwood, steel), Bove has elaborated an esthetic at once unique and capable of rehabilitating artistic precedents that have fallen into disfavor.

The artist works in a large studio a few blocks from the industrial waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The location is important: she scavenges urban detritus from her immediate environs, and produces work in collaboration with artisans whose machine shops are within walking distance of her building. At present she is working on her first two large-scale outdoor commissions. One sculpture will be exhibited in Kassel, Germany, from June 9 to September 16 as part of Documenta 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The other will be presented later this year at a New York City location that is yet to be announced.

* * *

[Two excerpts from the middle of the interview]

SHOLIS What has it been like to scale up your work and, given the unpredictable circumstances of the setting, to build for contingencies?

BOVE It’s totally, totally different from what I’m used to. Most of the time I’m very dependent upon everyone in the exhibition space taking care of the work, ensuring that no one touches things … and now I have to think about the work being rained on, or people climbing on it.

SHOLIS Is it difficult to accommodate yourself to that?

BOVE No, it has actually been stimulating to revisit my early experiences of outdoor sculpture, to realize how formative and exciting they were.

SHOLIS In the past you’ve mentioned childhood experiences playing with the Arnaldo Pomodoro sculpture on the Berkeley campus.

BOVE Yes, the sculpture garden at the Berkeley Art Museum was very important to me. It does not exist now—I think because of earthquake concerns. Anyway, later I had the idea that outdoor sculpture was simplistic because of its need to be accessible, and now I’m realizing how wrong I was about that. There is something fascinating about placing out in the world an object with no instrumental purpose, something provocative about the gesture.

SHOLIS How far have you traveled along a path from, on the one hand, artworks that require knowledge of cultural references to, on the other, artworks that are easily accessible?

BOVE In terms of how I conceive of the works’ intellectual contexts, I don’t think there’s a big difference between my gallery shows and my new outdoor projects. In both instances I’m interested in the open-endedness of the situation. In an outdoor environment, especially one used for numerous other purposes, viewers’ initial indifference requires something different of the artist, a novel way to hook people. The benefit, of course, is that viewers don’t come to the work with preconceived ideas of what it should be or do. How can an artist communicate through a public artwork, even on an unconscious level? These are interesting questions to try to answer.

* * *

SHOLIS Can you discuss your relationship to Berkeley, where you grew up?

BOVE There are wonderful hills and parks in Berkeley, but I also always loved the city’s more industrial areas.

SHOLIS Near the water?

BOVE Yes. Even as a teenager, making artworks—my juvenilia, I guess—I was really attracted to industrial districts. I collected rusty junk. Decades later I realized, “Oh, I’m still doing what I did as a teenager.” The use I make of these materials is different but the impulse is consistent.

I have a kind of romantic attraction to liminal spaces. I feel they are underappreciated. They feel wild, and the lack of care for them is attractive to me. Somehow I identify it with 1930s-era Farm Security Administration photographs—shabby America.

SHOLIS So it’s the atmosphere surrounding the materials more than the act of rescuing. You’re not a hoarder?

BOVE [laughs] No, I’m not obsessive-compulsive. I’m not a collector; I don’t like to hold on to things. I spend time with them and then allow them to continue their lives elsewhere.

SHOLIS Though it’s a very carefully thought out path that you send them on.

BOVE Right. For now, at least. But down the road they may end up unbecoming sculpture. I can imagine them losing their sculptural form. In a way, I build for this. My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.

Untitled, 2009, peacock feathers on linen

“Peripheral Visions: Italian Photography, 1950s–Present”

Published in Artforum, April 2012. The exhibition remains on view at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College until April 28. For more information, click here.

Mimmo Jodice, Church of San Marcellino, Naples, ca. 1977

In the half-century after World War II, cities across the United States and Europe underwent structural transformations. In America, middle-class whites fled downtowns for the safety and amenities of suburbs, leaving behind a minority “underclass” to struggle through the shift to a post-industrial economy. In Europe, it was the poor who were pushed to urban fringes (think Parisian banlieues) while central districts became jewel boxes cosseting the wealthy. On both sides of the Atlantic, cities themselves sprawled outward, yoking an increasing number of once-independent suburbs to the larger metropolitan framework. “Peripheral Visions” gathers photographers who have examined the liminal zones these developments created in Italy—places neither wealthy nor extremely poor, not quite suburban yet with enough wildness to offset their urban density.

This concise, well-edited show, curated by Hunter College faculty member Maria Antonella Pelizzari, moves quickly through the decades, encompassing Mario Carrieri’s grainy late-1950s pictures of Milan’s edges and, just a few feet away, Vincenzo Castella’s ambiguous 2009 photograph of that city’s Pirelli tower, into which a small plane crashed in 2002. Pelizzari identifies Luigi Ghirri as the show’s presiding spirit, whose own work and 1984 curatorial effort, “Viaggo in Italia,” translated the postwar work of Carrieri, Paolo Monti, and filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni and Vittorio De Sica into a more playful, witty, conceptualist language that later practitioners would mimic. The absurdity that characterizes many of Ghirri’s pictures reaches its apotheosis here in Olivo Barbieri’s site specific_CATANIA 09, 2009, in which an enormous matte black orb rests incongruously amid brick industrial exhaust towers. The menacing egg is symbolic of very recent attempts to rehabilitate these peripheral spaces: it is a performing arts center located at the site of a defunct sulfur mine.

In contrast to the strange iconicity of Barbieri’s image, smaller gestures, unadorned observations of everyday life, predominate. Mimmo Jodice captures the dented corrugated sheet metal imperfectly covering a stone column in Church of San Marcellino, Naples, 1977. Mario Cresci, who envisions southern Italy as a “foreign” space within the country’s borders, transforms wires snaking along walls into poetic abstractions in Martina Franca, 1979. Guido Guidi, working a decade later, positioned himself directly at the leading edge of human incursion into the natural environment, his pictures juxtaposing messy construction sites and, in the distance, unpopulated mountain ranges. Other inclusions suggest one need not even travel to find incidents worth recording. Franco Vaccari simply shifted perspective for his 1971 film I cani lenti (The Slow Dogs), for which he crouched down and tried to see what the animals saw. Likewise, Marina Ballo Charmet’s digital slide show Con la coda dell’ occhio (With the Corner of the Eye), 1993-94, finds a stoic beauty in the weeds and debris that accumulate on dozens of street corners, turning curbs into walls against which her quarry is positioned.

Few of these images are populated, yet the insistent focus on textures seems like an attempt to reveal what such neglected spaces feel like to their inhabitants. Here are the loose, ragged edges of the urban fabric, the places that have suffered for decades the indifference of authority that in today’s economic climate, with its calls for austerity, seems our common fate. “Peripheral Visions” offers knowledge of a subject that increasingly occupies the minds of scholars and policymakers. The lessons to be drawn from such work remain unclear, but the sense of urgency is palpable.

Robert Bourdeau

Published in Artforum, March 2012. To learn more about the exhibition, click here to visit the Edwynn Houk Gallery website.

Ontario, Canada, 1981

Robert Bourdeau trained and worked as an architectural technologist before an influential encounter with Aperture magazine and its editor, Minor White. A ten-year friendship with that elder statesman of photography encouraged Bourdeau to pursue the medium and embrace the emotional expressiveness on which White placed so much importance. Now in his eighties, Bourdeau is best known for landscape photographs in which the subject fills the entire frame, a compositional choice that emphasizes texture and occasionally creates odd spatial effects. Two pictures in this exhibition, his second at the gallery, exemplify this style. Yorkshire, England, 1985 is a straightforward depiction of scruffy northern fields, yet a low stone wall that divides the image horizontally adds a sense of strangeness. The wall masks a slope so that the land behind it appears as if a giant hand is pulling it upward, drawing it parallel to Bourdeau’s lens. Ontario, Canada, 1981 guilelessly portrays logs floating in a placid river. Yet the graphic contrast between the lightly colored bark and the water’s dark surface creates a pattern that Bourdeau must have known would recall Jasper Johns’s then-new crosshatch paintings.

The majority of the two dozen photographs in this show, however, depict industrial sites in varying states of disuse and decay. Despite the modest size of his prints—none exceed fourteen inches on their longest side—Bourdeau’s large-format camera allows him to describe these scenes with remarkable detail. Pennsylvania, USA, 1995 is a frontal view of a cylindrical tank. A stairway that cuts diagonally across the composition is the only straight line amid swirls of corrosion marking the tank’s surface, which bring to mind Gustave Moreau’s fanciful Symbolist backgrounds. Elsewhere, Bourdeau seems attracted to pairs, as evident in the twin silos and boulders in Virginia, USA, 1993, the double tuba-shaped metal piping in Lorraine, France, 1999, and the nearly symmetrical balance of Saarland, Germany, 1999. The most dramatic image is Pennsylvania, USA, 1997, in which an X-shaped metal brace stands before another cylindrical storage tank. The brace crosses in front of cascading rust and piles of debris, as if Bourdeau wanted to negate the scene—an X, after all, is what you might draw on a contact sheet to mark the photograph you don’t want to print. That some of the background detail is reflected in a pool of water at the bottom of the image is a virtuosic touch.

The attention granted these hulking machines and metal surfaces may bring to mind 1920s-era photographic celebrations of the power of industrial machinery, such as those by Albert Renger-Patzsch. But Bourdeau’s series, made in the 1990s across northwestern Europe and the United States, is opposite in feeling: With Romantic melancholy, he documents the demise of the era that Renger-Patzsch’s New Objectivist images heralded, offering evidence of globalization’s effects on first-world manufacturing economies. Perniciously high unemployment has once again brought the erosion of traditional manufacturing centers to the forefront of international consciousness. Such dilemmas make Bourdeau’s depiction of the material ruins of these changes all the more relevant.

Pennsylvania, USA, 1997

Richard Benson

Published in Artforum, December 2011. For more information about the exhibition, click here.

Richard Benson, California, 2009

Puerto Rico, 2007, despite being one of only two photographs in this large exhibition to have been made outside the continental United States, is emblematic of photographer Richard Benson’s series “North South East West.” The image’s subject, an isolated fan palm tree at the edge of a parking lot, is representative in its humbleness and outdoor, out-of-the-way location. The sky behind it, as in many of the show’s photographs, is a rich cerulean, the clouds near the horizon puffy and white; shadows are nonexistent. And the palm’s visual similarity to a peacock’s tail feathers metaphorically represents a central element of Benson’s achievement: the rich and varied colors he creates with his “multiple impression pigment prints.” The slash of orange wending across the bottom of the frame is a bit unsettling in its brightness and purity. It must be seen in person to be believed—more so than usual, JPEGs on the gallery website do this work no justice.

We regularly encounter such saturation out in the world, yet when captured by a lens it has a tinge of surrealism, as if through digital manipulation the photographer is trying to trick us. Instead, Benson has devised a novel printing technique by which he isolates the image’s constituent parts into different layers, printing each separately after making minute color adjustments. (Benson even adapted his process for the related book, running each page through the press twice.) Traveling the country in an RV, Benson regularly stops to photograph what catches his eye—and sometimes, one suspects, what he thinks might make good use of his printing technique. There is a picturesque village of clapboard houses surrounding a village green clothed in snow. There are disused railroad cars and signage, as well as an image of tracks receding towards a far-off horizon. There is a mid-century commercial truck, parked alongside the highway to advertise Butch’s Place, and a row of roadside mailboxes, both with mountains in the distance. And a pile of hay bales is surmounted by an American flag. Each is rendered with precision, often from an oblique angle that invites the eye into the photograph.

The quality of light necessary to best achieve Benson’s chromatic splendor means that photographs taken in different parts of the country, or at different times of year, begin to look the same. Rhode Island, 2010, echoes New Mexico, 2006, which in turn echoes Nebraska, 2011. Because of this, our preconceived notions become what orient us in space: clapboard houses signify “New England,” while a lone utility pole in a vast, flat expanse of land signifies “The Great Plains.” Benson’s images rarely challenge our assumptions. And as the above list of his subjects indicates, Benson offers a vision of America that verges on kitschy Americana. There’s a glittering blue Ford Mustang on a lift at a mechanic’s shop in Virginia, a sailboat resting in a Rhode Island boatyard, and three small cabins abutting a Vermont lake. The colors in the latter photo are almost hallucinatory. Benson captures the precise moment when the setting sun turns both the sky and the lake’s surface cotton-candy pink, and at the same time describes accurately how the green of the grass differs from that of the painted cabins. The photograph is a compositional and technical achievement of the first order. It’s a disappointment that, cumulatively, this selection of Benson’s lovely travel images comes across like an antiques roadshow.

Richard Benson, Vermont, 2007

Arizona Politics, Considered Twice

By coincidence I’ve just read two sharp analyses of Arizona politics in separate publications. At The New Inquiry, Alex Aums and James Broulard discuss the #OccupyWallStreet-influenced protests in Phoenix, and meditate in the process upon geography, demography, and “symbolic politics.” Meanwhile, in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding reports on the state’s transformation into a “militarized desert principality.” His thoughtful presentation of first-person accounts from both sides of the border is well worth the time it takes to read his 11,000-word essay.

Victoria Sambunaris

Published in Artforum, May 2011. To see additional photographs from this series, see this post on Time‘s Lightbox blog. To learn more about the exhibition, visit the Yancey Richardson Gallery website.

Untitled (Santa Elena Canyon), 2010

The border between the United States and Mexico has been contested since 1848, when the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended war between the countries. It took survey teams six years just to draw the line, then marked with small obelisks and stone mounds. Disputes arising from population growth and other forms of development necessitated that this survey work be redone in the 1890s, when more than two hundred additional monuments were erected. During the twentieth century, as towns and cities along the border grew, five hundred more markers were dedicated; in recent decades, they have been connected by fences, owing to fears of illegal border crossings. Throughout this history , images have played an important role in the recognition and policing of this boundary, from Arthur Schott’s ink drawings, created for the initial surveys, to contemporary video surveillance footage. Victoria Sambunaris, who drove twenty thousand miles along the border to take the photographs in her new, ongoing series, “The Border,” 2009–, aims to “transcend political, ethical, or environmental ideology.” Yet political questions give these serene, large-scale, mostly uninhabited views a palpable undertow.

What one notices first are the broad swaths of blue sky; the dun-colored Rio Grande River, wending sluggishly across the diptych Untitled (Boquillas del Carmen, Big Bend National Park), 2009; and the striated rock faces of Untitled (Santa Elena Canyon), 2010. The natural environment dwarfs the eighteen-foot-high fence that cuts through several of Sambunaris’s compositions like a rusty scar, and which, contrary to expectation, rarely serves as their primary focus. Sambunaris achieves this effect in part by taking her pictures from elevated vantage points, always situating the ostensible subject of her compositions within a much broader context. Though her work employs the visual clarity of nineteenth-century survey photographers like Timothy H. O’Sullivan, such practitioners served a government that saw the American West’s natural landscape as an untouched site of expansionist fantasy. Arriving more than a century later, Sambunaris can’t help but acknowledge that “the frontier” is now “the border”: Man and machine have transformed this landscape and its meaning, of which the fence is but one manifestation. This sentiment is in line with her recent images of the Alaskan oil pipeline and of western dams and mines, and helps to situate the pictures included here that feature freight trains and industrial-scale farming.

David Taylor, whose photographic series “Working the Line,” 2007–, began with an attempt to photograph all the remaining nineteenth-century boundary-marking obelisks, has come to incorporate border patrol agents, migrants, checkpoints, drugs, and guns into his photographs. Despite the fact that such subjects do not appear in her images, and that in some pictures she downplays the fence or even leaves it out altogether, Sambunaris’s series is nonetheless conditioned by political realities. She would not doubt acknowledge this if queried, since each of the eight photographs presented in this exhibition was shot from the American side of the border. For unstated reasons, she has yet to shoot from Mexico. Though she grants viewers visual access to the “other side,” as it were, the fact of her remaining in the US is nonetheless a reminder of what’s at stake in even the most tranquil of her images. Even where there isn’t a fence, as in her magisterial 2010 view of grasslands in Hereford, Arizona, there’s a divide. After all, swim halfway across the Rio Grande River, and you’ve illegally crossed into another country.

Christopher Gray’s “Streetscapes”

For several years I have enjoyed Christopher Gray’s “Streetscapes” column in the New York Times. This morning, looking online, I discovered Gray has been writing about buildings and blocks in New York for over two decades. These pieces comprise a huge and diverting archive, from which I learned, for example, that until the early 1990s my block housed an Episcopal church constructed in 1838 on land donated by Clement Clark Moore. Moore is the author of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (more commonly known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), and his family estate, Chelsea, is the source of my neighborhood’s name. Click here for the archive with a brief introduction to the column by Gray. Two books, Changing New York (1992) and New York Streetscapes (2003), also contain materials from the column.

Eirik Johnson, “Sawdust Mountain”

Published on Artforum.com on April 23, 2010. To see the review in context, click here. For more information about the exhibition and related book, click here.

Eirik Jonson, Below the Glines Canyon Dam on the upper Elwah River, Washington, 2008, color photograph, 50 x 40"

Wandering, Pac-Man-like, along Manhattan’s street grid on a sunny afternoon, it’s easy to romanticize the Pacific Northwest: air heavy with moisture, smeary gray sky, carpet of deep green foliage on every nearby hillside. Such pastoral imaginings are obviously deficient, not least because human traces so rarely intrude upon them. A recent spate of creative work, however, emphasizes more complex negotiations between people and this corner of the national landscape. There is, for example, the dreary, anonymous Portland depicted in Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 film Wendy and Lucy, or musician Phil Elverum’s emotionally freighted relationship with Mt. Erie in rural Washington State. Photographer Eirik Johnson’s series “Sawdust Mountain,” 2005–2009, the subject of this exhibition and a related book, depicts sites located somewhere between a colorless urban fringe and a mystical rural retreat: Nature predominates, but it is heavily worked. Shot over four years in Washington, Oregon, and northern California, the series concentrates on logging and fishing. Johnson’s lucidness about environmental despoliation and economic finitude manifests itself most clearly in pictures taken from elevated vantage points, which allow viewers to see how landscape is constructed. This distance is nicely counterbalanced by the intimacy of Johnson’s portraits, which betray sympathy both for his human subjects—hatchery employees, ecologists doing fieldwork, independent shopkeepers—and for the region in which he was raised.

The overall narrative is of decline and germinating hope for renewal. This point is made explicit in Johnson’s juxtaposition of photographs depicting a stack of logs in a multinational company’s sort yard and a nursery of western larch seedlings. It’s visible as well in the rust-stained, dilapidated former Masonic lodge now rehabilitated as The Sweater Store, South Bend, Washington, 2005. It may not be much, this picture seems to say, but it’s a living. The building itself is centered in the frame and depicted frontally, echoing Walker Evans’s churches and storefronts. Other images play with reflections in windows; stagger objects from foreground to background; or present pictures within pictures. The influence of older photographers, from Carleton Watkins to Robert Adams to Joel Sternfeld, can be detected in these works. But no forebear dominates, and Johnson’s vision of a Pacific Northwest resilient in the face of difficulty is clearly articulated and entirely his own.

Mitch Epstein, American Power, Take Two

Last December I wrote a brief review of Mitch Epstein’s remarkable new book American Power (Steidl). The photographic series it presents was also meant to be presented in public, and a few days ago Pentagram, the design company, announced the launch of the American Power website, located at WhatIsAmericanPower.com. Epstein’s images have been placed on twenty-three billboards in Columbus and Cincinnati with the URL superimposed upon them. Viewers (and website visitors who haven’t seen the billboards) are encouraged to answer the titular question, and the responses are being folded in to the site to create “an immersive context for the project’s content and … a public forum about notions of power and energy in America today.”

“Joe Deal: New Work”

Published in Aperture 199, Summer 2010. “Joe Deal: New Work” was presented at the RISD Museum of Art, Providence, September 4, 2009–January 3, 2010. A version of the show is on view at Robert Mann Gallery, New York, until May 8, and will then travel to the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, June 5–August 1, 2010. Deal’s West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains is published by the Center for American Places.

Joe Deal, Flint Hills, 2006, carbon pigment print, 24 x 24".

Joe Deal, Flint Hills, 2006, carbon pigment print, 24 x 24".

It is not hard to see how the Great Plains might have driven early American pioneers to agoraphobic distraction. Photographer Joe Deal hails from this empty region, and after several decades cataloging the interaction of people and landscape, often in the farther American West, he has returned here for his new series West and West. At first glance these square-format black-and-white photographs, twenty-three of which were installed close together in one room of this exhibition, appear relatively characterless, their uniform horizon line encircling the space. But, like Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ostensibly simple photographs of open seas, upon closer inspection Deal’s images reveal a landscape full of incident. The land is threaded with streams, or is interrupted occasionally by a knotty rock formation. Small hills calve and fold. A random tree punctuates one scene like an exclamation mark.

Deal has compared the camera’s imposition of a frame on this environment to the mechanical act performed by surveyors. Yet early rationalist grids—such as Thomas Jefferson’s proposed division of the land west of the Appalachians, or the Kansas-Nebraska Act—caused speculators to disregard the landscape’s variety. Deal’s camera, by contrast, lovingly catalogs its diversity. The startling incongruity from picture to picture is highlighted by a trio of images hung close to one another in the show: Wash, Red Hills (2007), in which a shall natural depression reveals stratified layers of rock; Horizon and Night Sky, High Plains (2005), in which thin clouds hover just above a featureless black expanse; and Flint Hills (2006), which is strewn with lunar-looking rocks. The tension Deal achieves between strict regularity and variety, between grid and ground, is in large measure the source of these photographs’ power.

On another level, the minimalist compositions of West and West—each print is perfectly bisected by the horizon line—comment on what constitutes “landscape” to the human eye. A swipe of sky and swipe of ground: it’s as simple a definition as an artist can deploy. That Deal may have such abstract questions of representation in mind is underscored by the pictures from another recent series, Kars and Pseudokarst, installed in a second room. In this project, which takes its name from the two often indistinguishable types of caves it depicts, Deal has chosen to shoot both from the inside and the outside of the caves, resulting in two very different types of prints. When he peers in, the allover compositions give the impression that the cave mouths, whether dusty and rocky or fringed with green, allow passage through the surface of the print, literalizing the cliché about representational pictures being a “window onto a world.” Even more striking is the sensation, felt when looking at the images taken from within the caves’ dark interiors, that one is positioned inside a camera lens as it admits the light of day. In these two series, Deal, an integral part of the New Topographics cohort, subtracts the signs of humankind’s incurions into the “natural” landscape, which he is well known for recording. Yet he does not sacrifice the complexity of his meditations upon that landscape—upon not only the land itself, but also his particular means of representing it.

Joe Deal, Horizon and Night Sky, High Plains, 2005, carbon pigment print, 24 x 24".

Joe Deal, Horizon and Night Sky, High Plains, 2005, carbon pigment print, 24 x 24".

Mike Davis on the Environmental Crisis

Writing in the current issue of the New Left Review, Mike Davis offers a two-part meditation on the environmental crisis. The first part, “Pessimism of the Intellect,” uses the recent announcement that we have left behind the Holocene epoch and entered an Anthropocene period, made by Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London, as the hook for a survey of current climate-crisis literature. The second part, “Optimism of the Imagination,” notes “innumerable examples” that “all point to a single unifying principle: namely, that the cornerstone of the low-carbon city, far more than any green design or technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth.” Glancing back at Kropotkin, Ebeneezer Howard’s Garden Cities movement, and the radical plans for public space offered by Constructivist and Bauhaus designers, Davis suggests that the conversations about a “socialist city” of a hundred years ago “provide invaluable starting points for thinking about the current crisis.” To read the full article, which was originally delivered one year ago as a talk at the UCLA Center for Social Theory and Comparative History, click here.

Michael Ned Holte on James Benning’s Ruhr

I’m jealous of my friend Michael Ned Holte, a talented art critic and film enthusiast, for he has seen James Benning’s Ruhr (2009), the filmmaker’s newest work and first foray into high-definition video. Thankfully, he has also written about it, for Artforum.com, and in the process has offered a thoughtful meditation on some of the differences between digital and celluloid images. It’s “not simply the difference between the ‘purity’ or indexicality of photographic grain versus cold, clinical pixels: Ruhr suggests that, for Benning, the true promise of HD is in its capacity to capture images at durations that push the limits of the viewer’s attention toward an almost-inhuman scale of time—albeit in a physical way that an all-too-human viewer, seated in the theater, will surely register.” Ruhr receives its US premiere at REDCAT in Los Angeles on January 11. To read the rest of Holte’s piece, click here.

Black Metal Is a Shamanic Journey

From an interview with Wolves in the Throne Room drummer and organic farmer Aaron Weaver: “I think that black metal fundamentally is an attempt to reawaken an ancient spirit. It’s an attempt to touch some sort of transcendent primal knowledge…. I think that black metal is an artistic movement that is critiquing modernity on a fundamental level saying that the modern world view is missing something. It’s missing acknowledgment of a spiritual reality. That estrangement from spiritual knowledge is the source of very deep sadness and alienation.” I’ve been listening to WiTTR’s 2007 album Two Hunters on repeat for the last few days. It’s a pretty exceptional record; read the Pitchfork review here. The band describes itself as combining “an eco-spiritual awareness with the misanthropic Norwegian eruptions of the 1990s.” If only we all could do that.

Mitch Epstein, American Power

Published on Bookforum.com on December 14, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. To see additional images from the series, click here. To read more about the project, click here and here to read interviews with Epstein and here to read an article published in the New York Times last October.

Earlier this decade, prompted by a lawsuit his father was facing, photographer Mitch Epstein returned to his western Massachusetts hometown. Holyoke had become an unfamiliar landscape in the years since he had left as a young man, so he decided to document the changed circumstances of his parents’ lives. The resultant photographs and video installations in the series “Family Business” can be understood as an attempt to render visual the tectonic social and economic shifts the United States has undergone since midcentury.Epstein_cover American Power, Epstein’s new book, attempts something similar, but on a much broader scale. He began with a straightforward if ambitious premise—to depict our nation’s varied energy infrastructure—but quickly expanded his remit to include several notions of power that course through American society as invisibly as does electricity through the national grid. Cooling towers and reactors factor in many of the images, yet each kind of power—not only literal, but also political, economic, and the power of nature—impacts upon the others. All are scrutinized in the dozens of color photographs Epstein took in twenty-five states over the last six years. He has suggested that this book is a “testament to and investigation of the Bush-Cheney era,” but rather than revel in anger or anguish, the measured, elegantly composed photographs admit complex readings. What results is a picture of America both enormously blessed and seemingly jeopardizing its own well-being.

I came away with a renewed awareness of our society’s class divisions, which are a subtext that gives the book a plangent tone. Half of the people who appear in these photos are seen defending the interests of energy corporations or enjoying their status as reckless consumers in a land of material abundance. Epstein has crafted a lovely full-length portrait of a young woman, automatic rifle slung over her shoulder, working at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant in Mississippi, as well as an unaffected image of logo-plastered father-and-son dirt bikers in Midland, Texas. Yet the other half suffers unduly from being disempowered. Witness the residents of Raymond City and Poca, West Virginia, whose lives play out beneath the white smoke rising from the Amos Coal Power Plant, or those who are baptized in or fish from California and Florida waters potentially fouled by the conspicuous power plants hovering in the distance. Fences predominate in the book’s many unpopulated images, testament not only to the partition between the powerful and the weak, but also to the difficulties Epstein faced in trying to uncover this submerged current. Other photographers working in this vein, including Alex Maclean, Michael Light, and Emmet Gowin, often shoot their pictures from the air. Epstein, however, stays resolutely on the ground. It mustn’t have been easy to portray a sense of a nation and its relationship to power in transition, but it was worth the effort.

Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007

Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007

Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004

Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004

Robert Kinmont

Published in Artforum, December 2009. For more information about and to see additional images of Kinmont’s work, click here.

Robert Kinmont, 8 Natural Handstands (detail), 1969.

Robert Kinmont, 8 Natural Handstands (detail), 1969.

For those who arrived in the art world during the past three decades, Robert Kinmont was known, if at all, through the photograph of him performing a cliff’s-edge handstand reproduced in Lucy Lippard’s 1973 book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. That picture is part of Kinmont’s 8 Natural Handstands, 1969, which also finds him upended in desert grasslands and in a shallow river. The work is emblematic of the small but potent body of sculptures, photographs, and performances Kinmont created in the late 1960s and early ’70s, many of which were also on view in this exhibition, his first solo show in thirty-eight years. He stopped making art in 1975, initially taking care of his children so that his wife could finish a cookbook, and later studying Buddhism and working as a carpenter. In 2005 he picked up where he had left off. Sculptures of hollowed-out logs, one filled with peacock feathers, made in 1973, and one, from 2007, filled with dirt and children’s toys, point to continuity. But two other recent log sculptures—filled, respectively, with “fear” and the “sound of sawing”—suggest a change took place after all during his Zen-inflected intermission.

In both a literal and an abstract sense, an intimate connection to the northern California landscape marks Kinmont’s practice. Besides the hollowed-out logs, the show included Weed Container, 1964, a small, glass-framed box holding a collection of weeds; Wait, Wait, Wait, Grasp, 2008, a round cake made of walnut husks that was formed by their decomposition after they were collected in a plastic bucket; Hidden Meaning, 2006, a piece of willow that Kinmont whittled so that its two forked forms are joined only at their end points; and Willow Loop, 1972/2005, a delicate willow rod that Kinmont has formed into a circle by inserting one end into the other. My Favorite Dirt Roads, 1969/2009, a suite of sixteen deadpan black-and-white photographs and a framed text piece bearing the title, contains no organic material but nonetheless discloses an easy familiarity with a region that, without markets, might be impenetrable to outsiders. (In a recent interview, Kinmont speaks fondly and at length of the memories associated with just one of these roads.)

The amateurish aesthetic, the serial presentation, and especially the subtle traces of absurdist humor in works like My Favorite Dirt Roads and 8 Natural Handstands bring to mind roughly contemporaneous camera-based explorations by Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman. Similarly, some of Kinmont’s sculptures suggest the work of post-Minimalist or process-oriented artists. Source Support, 1970-73, in which four wooden legs each support two crossbeams, would collapse were it not for the joints swelling with water seeping into the wood from copper funnels. In a roundabout way this structural clarity and precariousness evokes Richard Serra’s “prop” sculptures while simultaneously prompting a unique kind of mindfulness—one must, after all, keep the work hydrated.

Corollaries for Kinmont’s recent output in today’s art world may be harder to find. Yet the artist’s infusion of late-’60s and early-’70s artistic strategies with a Buddhist concentration on the fullness of immediate experience seems more promising than most of today’s aesthetic and political rehashings of that earlier era. And, of course, unlike many of those now trading in nostalgia, Kinmont was actually there.

Timothy Egan, The Big Burn

Published in Bookforum, December/January 2010. To see the review in context, click here. To hear the author discuss the book on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” click here.

Stewardship of the land remains as contentious an issue today as it was one hundred years ago, when Theodore Roosevelt laid out his vision for conservation and ran into opposition from corporate lumber and mining interests. In The Big Burn, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Timothy Egan tells the story of Roosevelt’s prophetic vision for America’s landscape and the debates he gleefully exacerbated. The book focuses, with cinematic flair, on the August 1910 forest fire that ravaged three million acres in the northern Rockies, while providing an opportune challenge to the newborn US Forest Service.

Egan_Big_Burn_coverUnlike The Wilderness Warrior, Douglas Brinkley’s nearly thousand-page chronicle of Roosevelt’s conservation consciousness that was published last summer, Egan’s portrait moves swiftly. It emphasizes the president’s relationship with Gifford Pinchot, an enormously wealthy friend and adviser who bankrolled the Yale School of Forestry after studying the practice in France. On walks through Washington’s Rock Creek Park and during swims in the Potomac, the duo would reminisce about formative years spent in the American West and the restorative capacity of the region’s soaring mountains, dense forests, broad plains, and crystalline rivers. Building on the ideas of naturalist pioneers like John Muir, they vowed to shield millions of acres from irresponsible forms of clear-cutting, strip-mining, and other harmful development. Past presidents had rarely thought about such issues, much less acted on them. In 1905, Roosevelt appointed Pinchot the first chief of the Forest Service, and Pinchot immediately assigned graduates from the initial forestry class at Yale—who would come to be known as “Little GPs”—to begin surveying swaths of Idaho, Montana, and neighboring states. It wasn’t easy: Gilded Age robber barons hoping to profit from the West’s natural resources had stooges in Washington, among them Idaho senator Weldon B. Heyburn, who scrapped with Pinchot in congressional hearings and strangled the Forest Service’s budget.

Political obstacles left the rangers poorly paid and underequipped, and they were no match for conditions in the summer of 1910. Extremely dry weather, regular lightning storms, and the sparks thrown off by trains rushing along newly constructed tracks ignited thousands of little blazes. On the evening of August 20, a strong wind called a palouser descended from the mountains and unified the smoldering patches into a firestorm of hurricane force: “What had been nearly three thousand small fires throughout a three-state region of the northern Rockies had grown to a single large burn.” Egan’s patient reconstruction of the devastating fire, drawn from Forest Service archives, journalistic accounts, diaries, and letters, is the heart of the book. Cutting back and forth across the region—one wishes the book contained more maps—Egan tracks the efforts to save remote outposts like Wallace, Idaho, undertaken by little-known rangers like Ed Pulaski, Elers Koch, and Joe Halm. Working with a motley assortment of townsmen, laborers imported from across the West, and even prisoners—and shielding themselves against flames that looked like “an airborne stream”—the rangers dug fire lines and set backfires while helping thousands of terrified residents flee to safety.

After several days, the fires diminished. Eighty-five people were dead. The devastation, Egan implies, provoked Roosevelt into open confrontation over the necessity and purpose of the Forest Service with President Taft, his handpicked successor, who increasingly seemed an impediment to the cause of conservation despite pre-election promises to further Roosevelt’s vision. The final section of Egan’s book tracks the legacy of the “big burn,” highlighting the triumphs (increased Forest Service budgets, increased respect) and setbacks (continued logging, a later Forest Service chief who drifted into corporate arms) that attended Pinchot’s protection campaign well into the presidency of another Roosevelt—Franklin Delano. Did the burn “save America”? Based on the evidence Egan presents, a case can be made that, however important his politicking on behalf of his rangers, Pinchot’s belief that fire should always be contained was harmful to his cause in the long run. Egan’s impressive account makes clear that Pinchot and Roosevelt cared deeply for the land—a concern they shared with the rangers who heroically faced down towering walls of flame.

NB: Amazon is pushing the book; to see photographs from its pages, read an excerpt and an interview with Egan, and buy the hardcover for just $14, click here.

STACKD

Designer Sidney Blank created STACKD, a website that allows registered users to get in touch with other tenants in their office building, when his design company moved into a new twenty-story building on 28th Street in Manhattan. He describes the project at Urban Omnibus: “On a map, it shows which buildings belong to the network. [...] Once you are logged in and click on a building you can see – listed in a vertical stack – the businesses located there. Selecting a particular business reveals contact information and industry as well as what the business offers and needs on a regular basis. If that’s all you need to know, then click on the contact email address and send the business a note or give them a call. Above this directory listing is an area that we call the feed. This is where the building does its talking and where you can listen in. Every building is set up with a twitter account so that others can tweet to it and follow the collective conversation.” To read the rest and see images of the interface, click here.

John McPhee

This afternoon I chose to stay in rather than venture out into the thick, sweltering New York air. Having finished my work for the day, I picked up my copy of The John McPhee Reader and read excerpts from a few of his books—Oranges, A Roomful of Hovings and Other Portraits, and Pieces of the Frame. “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” published in the New Yorker in 1972 and reprinted in the last of those three titles, is a particular delight. The magazine only makes available an abstract of the essay, but I did manage to find McPhee’s June 1964 Time cover story on the New York World’s Fair. Click here for a little weekend reading.

David S. Brown on the Origins of “Beyond the Frontier”

At HNN, historian David S. Brown discusses how he came to write his recent book Beyond the Frontier, which I mentioned in an earlier post: “Briefly put, reading [Richard] Hofstadter’s critics drew me into an exploration of a midwestern historical consciousness that went ‘beyond the frontier’ thesis popularized by [Frederick Jackson] Turner to reject American Century capitalism, imperialism, and centralized power. More, the project offered an opportunity to rethink established historiographical ‘truths,’ observe the influence of localism on intellectual life, and study the impact of ‘place’ on the past.” More, including excerpts from William Appleman Williams’s scathing 1955 review of Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform, here.

Jonathan Franzen on the Midwest

An interviewer asks Jonathan Franzen about what regionalism means for his work: “If you ask what the Midwest means to me, it’s that myth of an innocence prolonged and then abruptly lost… And somehow this dynamic seems more like a Midwestern thing than a Lower East Side thing or a South Boston thing. I’m not enough of a social historian to have a good theory of why exactly this is true. I do know that, for a long time, you really were isolated in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, or Webster Groves, Missouri, or Oak Park, Illinois—it really was a long way from the Lower East Side. This is all rapidly changing with our new technologies, and our homogenized exurbs and suburbs, but some of the social and mental habits that grew out of isolation may persist in succeeding generations, leaving vestiges of a ‘Midwestern’ character…” Read more, and other excerpts from the interview, at Blographia Literaria. (Via The Second Pass)

Interview: Michael Sorkin

A car-free Times Square, New York. (Photo by Flickr user The B-Roll)

A car-free Times Square, New York. (Photo by Flickr user The B-Roll)

Michael Sorkin is a New York–based architect, urban planner, educator, and the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Variations on a Theme Park (1991), Exquisite Corpse (1994), and After the World Trade Center (2002). His latest book, which examines the history and changing face of New York through the lens of his morning commute, is Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on June 29, 2009. To see the interview in context, click here.

The idea for the book came about fifteen years ago. Walks are contemplative times and spaces, and going over the same territory day after day gave me the opportunity to see things over the relatively longue durée: construction projects, seasonal activities, changes in commercial life, in culture, in the population. After dilating internally on the happy accidents produced by the city and on the quality of my immediate environment, I thought I’d begin to write about it. Not only did I want to do something a little bit popular, but also to bring together discourses that are normally segregated: formal, economic, sociological, political, quotidian. I wanted to show, for example, how the ratio of a stair riser has ramifications up to the organization of property and beyond. Twenty Minutes turned out to be frequently delayed; I probably completed half a dozen other books while writing this one. I was also gentrified out of my old studio midway, which changed my route. But the walks were comparable and in the same neighborhood. The only historical event that doesn’t fully register in the pages of the book is 9/11, in part because I have dealt with it at length elsewhere.

In bringing together these various discourses, I hope in some small way to counteract architecture’s continuing obsession with narrow formal issues. The social side of architecture has been disastrously slighted for many years. Things are now beginning to change for the better, as social issues slip into architecture under the cover of environmentalism. If the moniker we use to recuperate ideas of equity and fairness is “environmental justice,” so be it. The risk is that many urban problems are more deep-seated and widespread than a narrowly constructed environmental idea, in which things are broken down into categories and considered solved. Aspiring to LEED certification is not enough. Architects—as well as critics and educators who contribute to our profession’s current myopia—need to see not simply constituent parts but how those parts interact as part of a larger and far more complex system. The book is predicated on the understanding that nothing in the urban environment exists autonomously, that the city is a web of fascinating contingencies.

Here in New York, we’re beginning to see glimmers of more enlightened thinking. Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, though vague, points in the right direction; Janette Sadik-Khan, our transportation commissioner, is bringing to the streets the first fruits of her fascination with Copenhagen, the poster-town for pedestrian planning. (That our plutocrat mayor believes deeply in the leadership of private initiative doesn’t help; public amenities shouldn’t have to sneak in a profit-making arrangement for private partners.) These positive developments have a lot to counteract: for over a century, cities have tried to redesign themselves in order to accommodate first trains and then cars, two modes of transportation that can be lethal for urbanity. We now need to start with the image of a desirable city and then imagine the transportation technologies that might produce it. Only neighborhoods and communities structured to eliminate the need to move long distances at high speeds will wean us from our automobile addiction. My book, like Jane Jacobs’s great The Death and Life of Great American Cities, imagines a city based on bodies and basic principles of affinity.

Jacobs was a tireless activist, and small-scale initiatives and community solidarity are both important. Neighborhoods and localities must be empowered; we need to leverage cooperation in tractable and inventive ways. This is something I try to do with Terreform, my nonprofit organization—to raise expectations, to show what the possibilities are, and to help give expression to dreams and desires that find difficulty reaching the mainstream. As I say in the book, the future of the city lies not in the superposition of the next great idea but in the careful articulation and expression of many fresh and familiar differences.

As told to Brian Sholis

The Burnham Plan Centennial

My hometown is celebrating the centennial of Daniel H. Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. The plan, which dramatically reordered the city—concentrating skyscrapers downtown, creating parks along the city’s lakefront, devising broad avenues that radiate outward from the city center—is available online here. As part of the celebration, architects Ben van Berkel and Zaha Hadid have created temporary pavilions for Millennium Park. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin has posted regular updates, including construction photos, to his blog, Cityscapes. Julia Vitullo-Martin wrote about the centennial in a June 25 article published in the Wall Street Journal; Paul Goldberger wrote about the plan in a New Yorker article last March. And, last but not least, an informative website details the official events and exhibitions.

Time-Lapse Videos of Massive Change on Earth

From Julia: Wired‘s science blog has published a series of videos, created by stringing together satellite images from NASA’s Earth Observatory webpage, that dramatically depict massive changes to the Earth’s landscape. In a few seconds one can see, for example, how Dubai has grown, the Amazon in the Brazilian state of Rondônia has been cleared, and large bodies of water such as the Aral Sea and Utah’s Lake Powell have shriveled.

Mark Ruwedel, “Westward the Course of Empire”

Mark Ruwedel, Denver and Rio Grande Western #4, 1996.

Mark Ruwedel, Denver and Rio Grande Western #4, 1996.

Published in Artforum, April 2009. To see additional images from the exhibition, as well as read the press release, click here. Last summer, Yale University Press published a book of Ruwedel’s photographic series, with an essay by Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery. It is a remarkable book; I recommend it.

At the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, there were 35,085 miles of operable railroad track in the United States. Eight years later that number had doubled. Midway between these dates, on May 10, 1869, a golden spike joined the rails of the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was near this site that photographer Mark Ruwedel was inspired to begin his series “Westward the Course of Empire,” 1994–2007. This exhibition brought together seventy-five of the small black-and-white photographs, which document the railroad lines, now abandoned, that knit together our country (and Canada) in an unprecedented wave of industrial ambition and governmental largesse. For centuries to come we will be untangling the ramifications of the historical process he charts.

Ruwedel is keenly aware of the palimpsest of physical interventions and imaginative representations that have altered both the landscape of North America’s western half and our perceptions of it. Anyone who depicts these arid plains and craggy mountains today necessarily enters into dialogue with a legion of antecedents, from late-nineteenth-century geographic-survey photographers to Earthworks artists who fanned out across the West a century later; from environmental pioneers like naturalist John Muir and photographer Ansel Adams to contemporary writers like John McPhee; and from atomic scientists seeking uninhabited test sites to real-estate developers hoping to turn ranchland into exurban subdivisions. Ruwedel’s carefully composed images, made with a large-format camera, bear traces of this complex legacy. In the foreground of Deep Creek #2, 1999, for example, a gate in a barbed-wire fence carries United States Air Force signs warning visitors to keep out and identifying the flat territory as a bombing and gunnery range. The lone wooden railroad tie in Carson and Colorado #6, 1997, is complemented by at least seven enormous upturned satellite dishes visible in the background.

The photographs also enter into dialogue with visual strategies familiar to viewers of contemporary art. Ruwedel’s installation of the photographs in small grids by type (tunnel mouths, cuts through rock formations, trestle bridges) recalls Bernd and Hilla Becher’s rigidly sorted documentation of heavy industry. So many straight lines proceeding toward the horizon, denuded first of vegetation and, decades later, of the wooden ties and steel rails themselves, bring to mind the photographic record of Richard Long’s walks in the landscape.

Despite these connections to other practices, Ruwedel’s photographs, with their magnificent placid compositions and unexpected details, encourage one to savor their intrinsic allure. In San Diego and Arizona Eastern #7, 2003, a trestle bridge spans the mouth of a canyon like a dark spiderweb. The tunnel entrance in Columbia and Western #21, 2000, seems like a portal to another world. The concrete pylons depicted in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific #30, 2005, stand like an industrial-era Stonehenge in an otherwise empty landscape. Other photographs emphasize how nature has reclaimed some lost ground, subsuming humankind’s hubristic gestures within an inexorable vegetal creep. The give-and-take between man and nature will continue for as long as we persist. “Westward the Course of Empire” is an uncommonly sensitive survey of the evidential traces of that relationship’s recent history and a formidable aesthetic statement.

Steve Nicholls’s Paradise Found and James William Gibson’s A Reenchanted World

Published as “A Natural Inclination” in the Brooklyn Rail, March 2009. To see this review in context, click here.

Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery
Steve Nicholls
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 536 pages. $30.

A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature
James William Gibson
New York: Metropolitan Books. 320 pages. $27.

Early 20th century environmentalist Aldo Leopold once wrote: “A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the community; and the community includes the soil, waters, fauna and flora, as well as the people.” This strikes me as an admirably inclusive statement of principles, and one that usefully elevates the natural world to the plane we believe humans inhabit—the necessary first step toward just environmental action. Steve Nicholls, a director of nature documentaries, quotes Leopold’s remark near the end of Paradise Found, a book that ranges across five centuries of North America’s ecological history and narrates a striking diminishment of earlier natural abundance. In doing so, Nicholls offers copious evidence that even today our society is far from embracing as members of our “community” all of the earth’s living organisms. Yet, in recent decades, the sense of connection to the natural environment felt by figures like Leopold has swelled into what sociologist James William Gibson labels a “culture of enchantment” that is potentially broad, deep, and socially transformative. Successfully reorienting American society’s relationship to the environment—thereby restoring its precarious biological equilibrium—will likely depend on our ability to bring together the modes of thinking documented in these two books.

Paradise Found is built upon the charming descriptions of teeming waters, verdant shorelines, dense forests, and broad grassy plains recorded by awestruck Europeans from the 15th through the 19th centuries. One early explorer of the Carolinas discovered nature’s bounty worked both for and against him: “We saw plenty of Turkies, but perch’d upon such lofty Oaks, that our Guns would not kill them, tho’ we shot very often, and our Guns were very good.” Across the continent in 1786, French naval officer Jean François de Galaup’s boat was encircled by whales: “One cannot put into words … their familiarity; they blew constantly, within half a pistol shot of our frigates, and filled the air with a great stench.” Nicholls arranges hundreds of such items geographically, moving from the North Atlantic’s tributaries down the east coast to the Caribbean, across to the Pacific, and then east into the country’s interior. This achieves his goal of illustrating the sheer natural abundance of North America at the time of European discovery. “Inevitably such a picture raises two related questions,” Nicholls writes in his introduction. “Why was it like this, and why isn’t it now?”

In narrating how we got from historic abundance to today’s troublesome environmental prospects, Nicholls attempts to account carefully for the reasons behind what is largely a chronicle of accelerating decline. He emphasizes the complexity of the evolving relationships between man and nature: American Indians, for example, are shown by historical reports and recent archeological investigations to have had varied impacts upon the landscape. Far from the popular idea of them “leaving no trace,” native populations at times enacted changes as dramatic as those that would later result from European interventions into the “natural” world. Indeed, complexity is the keyword underpinning much of Nicholls’s enterprise, and his book’s most important lesson is that humankind’s inability to understand the environment’s intricacies should lead to both a respect for it and a precautionary approach to interacting with it.

Nicholls’s wonderment at nature’s grandeur—even after centuries of environmental mismanagement—nicely counterbalances the scientific arguments he explicates and testifies to the persistence of the historical awe he cites. His expression of profound delight would also be recognizable to James William Gibson as an instance of the “culture of enchantment,” his term for changes sweeping through contemporary life with the ultimate goal of reinvesting nature with a sense of spirit. Gibson’s book is arranged in sections that assess the roots of this culture and its contemporary manifestations; problems intrinsic to it and external attacks upon it; and its future prospects. Gibson is a stronger synthesizer of information than a theorist, and A Reenchanted World is best when he summarizes, for example, the recent rise of “creation theology,” the history of the eco-warrior movement, or the attacks upon environmentalism led by right-leaning fundamentalist Christians during the last two decades.

The book is much weaker when Gibson marshals the words of sociologist and philosopher forebears (Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen, Mircea Eliade) as theoretical ballast for stories lifted from the science and human-interest pages of his local newspaper. It can be easy to cynically discount these tales of “a new and striking kind of yearning … in the ways ordinary people felt and talked about nature” as New Age hokum. In an early chapter chronicling certain people’s deep affinity for animals, Gibson writes: “In New Hampshire, a middle-aged, dyslexic gunsmith and naturalist named Benjamin Kilham decided in the spring of 1993 that he was ready for a new stage of life: motherhood.” In a small way, Kilham’s subsequent adoption of black bears may have contributed to awareness about the bears’ plight. But the mawkishness of his story—and the single-minded zeal of many other fringe figures Gibson profiles—makes it an unlikely candidate to spark comprehensive changes in thinking about our relationship to the natural world. Indeed, a lack of a scale is one of this book’s problems—rarely does Gibson explain how widespread are the sentiments and movements he describes.

Gibson suggests that the “quest for connection [with nature] indicates a fundamental rejection of the most basic premises of modern thought and society.” It is easy to agree that in order to survive, many such premises must be fundamentally reconsidered. Yet it seems that in order to find a way around many people’s demoralization concerning the environment, the lifestyles and outlooks chronicled in Gibson’s study, rooted deeply in emotions and a sense of spirit, must somehow be blended with the urbane, empirically minded reasonableness exuded by Steve Nicholls’s book. We are a nation, as historian Garry Wills has recently observed in the context of American religion, polarized between head and heart. Using both in concert to address the grave environmental problems we face will not be an easy task.

Three snapshots from Iceland

In May, 2007, I traveled to Iceland for the opening of a specially commissioned project by artist Roni Horn. (I wrote about the experience for Artforum.com.) While there I was struck not only by the feral beauty of the country, but also by the high cost of consumer goods. The American dollar was weak, the Icelandic kronor was strong, and, for example, the cheap Thai takeout I ate one night, which would have cost seven or eight dollars in New York, cost the equivalent of twenty-two. At the time I chalked this up to the currency discrepancy and the fact that many, if not all, of the ingredients had to be imported from some distance away. Fifteen months later, the Icelandic economy crashed in spectacular fashion, and the autopsy reports now being published suggest that I may also have been experiencing one side effect of an enormous bubble: According to journalist Michael Lewis, “From 2003 to 2007, while the U.S. stock market was doubling, the Icelandic stock market multiplied by nine times.” Lewis’s article, published in the April 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, follows Rebecca Solnit’s October 2008 report from “Iceland’s polite dystopia,” published in Harper’s, and accompanies Ian Parker’s dispatch, published in this week’s New Yorker. (The latter is available in full online only to subscribers.) Lewis summarizes the first part of the problem this way: “When, in 2003, [Icelanders] sat down at the same table with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, they had only the roughest idea of what an investment banker did and how he behaved—most of it gleaned from young Icelanders’ experiences at various American business schools. And so what they did with money probably says as much about the American soul, circa 2003, as it does about Icelanders.”

At one point, Lewis describes the harbor-front development I saw in Reykjavík: “The rocks beneath Reykjavík may be igneous, but the city feels sedimentary: on top of several thick strata of architecture that should be called Nordic Pragmatic lies a thin layer that will almost certainly one day be known as Asshole Capitalist. The hobbit-size buildings that house the Icelandic government are charming and scaled to the city. The half-built oceanfront glass towers meant to house newly rich financiers and, in the bargain, block everyone else’s view of the white bluffs across the harbor are not.” Here is a photo I took of this construction work on May 11, 2007:

reykjavik_towers_2007

Solnit was one of the first writers-in-residence at the apartment Horn constructed as part of her installation. (Horn’s photographs illustrate the article.) She mentions at the start of her essay that she bumped into the country’s president at an art opening–likely Horn’s exhibition at the Reykjavík Art Museum–and asked for a meeting. Solnit, too, notes an American strain in the contemporary Icelandic character: “ ‘I think the twenty-first century will be a fascinating period,’ [the President] said, a period in which we will ‘see the relevance as well as the renaissance of small states.’ But the vision he described as we ate our catfish and salmon seemed decidedly mainstream, even American. He celebrates small states mostly for how they function economically and in the international society of states.” Whereas Lewis focuses solely on the world of finance, Solnit, as has been the case with her historically, discusses the environment and political protest (or lack thereof). Parker, arriving to report for the New Yorker in December of last year, encounters the first flickerings of just that protest. From the article abstract online: “To see Iceland this winter was to be reminded of that queasy split second during which a spectacular injury decides on its accompanying level of pain. But if Iceland’s economic misery was largely still to come, its cultural and political trauma had been immediate. Iceland was having a revolutionary moment, if of a sometimes hesitant and self-mocking sort.”

Separating Detroit from “Detroit”

Scott Hocking, <i>Ziggurat</i>, 2007-2008, an installation in an abandoned building in Detroit

Scott Hocking, Ziggurat, 2007-2008, an installation in an abandoned building in Detroit

Throughout the middle of the 1990s, I made annual springtime pilgrimages to Detroit, where I attended a weekend-long hardcore music festival. Two years ago, while dating someone originally from the city who kept a book of former mayor Coleman Young’s sayings on her nightstand, I began paying attention to its fortunes once again. Last summer, at the invitation of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, I spent a week touring around the city and attempting to get a grasp on its art scene. Instead of writing a conventional catalogue essay that limited itself to discussing the artworks included in the exhibition, I had hoped to obtain a somewhat more nuanced understanding of how the art scene there constitutes itself, and how the city’s infrastructure impacts upon what kind of art the city’s artists make. The brief text I ended up writing was limited, of course, both by how little time I actually spent there and by the constraints imposed by the difficulties inherent in slipping one’s own perspective (in my case, the perspective of a Manhattanite prone to simple awe at the radically different physical landscape of today’s Detroit).

Now the Columbia Journalism Review has brought to my attention Matt Labash’s article on Detroit published in the December 29, 2008, issue of the Weekly Standard. The CJR writer, Elinore Longobardi, favorably compares Labash’s 10,000-word report with other recent analyses of “Detroit”—not the city, but rather the metaphor for the US auto industry. As the executives from the Big Three automakers were paraded in front of Congress, I thought back to my experience in Detroit and crossed my fingers that some enterprising journalist or writer would soon travel there and report back to the rest of us what it is actually like. (Or, of course, that someone in Detroit would be recognized as an apt chronicler of the city and widely read.) Such an endeavor seems important not only for understanding the current economic woes and infrastructural problems that beset us all but Detroiters more acutely, but also because the city may also function as a laboratory for testing solutions to those problems. Or so one can hope.

Labash’s article, to a Detroit outsider, is a solid start: He inventories the current state of the city’s infrastructure, schools, economy, and government through a depressing litany of facts; profiles Charlie LeDuff, a Livonia native who once worked for the New York Times but recently returned to the Detroit News; visits an dramatically underfunded firehouse with LeDuff and hears grim tales from the firefighters; talks with political consultant Adolph Mongo and Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson, a homeless man named Wayne, and an urban explorer and photographer named Randy Wilcox; and even mentions the urban farming that was one focus of Rebecca Solnit’s 2007 essay on the city for Harper’s (here’s a link for those without subscriber access). What’s good about Labash’s essay is that, until the very last line, he doesn’t get too sentimental. Nor, for that matter, does he optimistically transmute the city’s problems into little more than opportunities for outsiders to fix them, a line of romantic thinking I admit I succumbed to at various points while I was there. The CJR commendation notes the relative lack of this kind of on-the-ground reporting, and cites a few examples that I haven’t read but pass on:

Recent months did give us some, if not many, other examples of good national or international reporting on the city but, interestingly, they are almost all from European or Canadian newspapers. None of them drew us in quite as surely as Labash did. But The Irish Times had a notable piece. As did The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business (which also impressed us recently with reporting on Lehman Brothers). As did The Guardian. Like Labash, these writers see the effects of Detroit’s misfortune more clearly than its causes. But by going to the city, they all come back with some good material.

And what was everyone else doing? By and large, run-of-the-mill stories on “Detroit,” where the real Detroit tended to make only cameo appearances at best. And even on the rare occasions when the city moved to center stage, reporting tends to read more like a postcard—Be glad you aren’t here!, Regards, The National Media—than a serious portrait.

I hope that “serious portrait” continues to be written. You can read some of LeDuff’s recent Detroit News articles by clicking this link. The artwork depicted above is by Scott Hocking, who skillfully guided me through the city during my visit. And here is part of the introduction to my catalogue text:
In most cities, one takes building materials for granted. Fitted seamlessly into intact structures, whether new or refurbished, a brick is not a brick, a wooden beam no longer a wooden beam. Looking at a house or a storefront or a factory is a gestalt experience; one sees house, storefront, tower, factory. Here in Detroit, as beams weather and rot, bricks crumble and accumulate as rubble, and glass breaks off into shards, the individuality and tactility returns to each material. To move through this cityscape is not to be presented with composed images; the experience is far more haptic, sensuous. The space around each building adds to this sense of embodiment, as one can see them from all sides, like sculptures, as one circles the block. Given this, it seems like all artists in this city should naturally become sculptors.

This is not to wax romantic about ruins, but merely to acknowledge very real infrastructural differences between Detroit and many other metropolitan hubs. This city’s difference from Chicago, the place where I grew up, is obvious from the vantage point of a small oval window high above its streets. Whereas in Chicago the avenues are asphalt conduits spreading outward from the waterside outcropping of towers, linking broad swaths of indistinguishable gray rooftops, in Detroit empty lots surge unexpectedly close to downtown. Uninhabited space, not quite ready to be inhabited again, surrounds you as you drive out the broad radial spokes of Michigan, Grand River, Woodward, Gratiot, and Jefferson. Broad swaths of sky, rare in the Manhattan I now call home, loom above.

Any artist who practices in this environment, and who draws sustenance from the community it shapes and supports, must therefore have a different vantage point from those who work in innumerable, undifferentiated elsewheres. New York comes to mind as an abstract social field, an incestuous pileup of ambitions rather than an agglomeration of buildings, and a place you move through in a semi-disembodied manner; so do London and, increasingly, Los Angeles. Detroit, on the other hand, remains a very real place with history, a past that has not yet been paved over or didactically annotated for tourists. The empty space, of course, poses its own problems: Among other things, it is a centrifugal force that tugs at the social bonds with which an art scene comprises itself.

The work that remains to be done

This morning, while waiting for water to come to a boil, I read the brief titular essay in Wendell Berry’s collection What Are People FOR? It was first published in 1985. An hour later, opening today’s Times to the Op-Ed page, I came across “A 50-Year Farm Bill,” an editorial Berry coauthored with Wes Jackson. The similarities between the two are striking—and sobering.

1985: “The departure of so many people has seriously weakened rural communities and economies all over the country. And that our farmland no longer has enough caretakers is implied by the fact that, as the farming people have departed from the land, the land itself has departed. Our soil erosion rates are now higher than they were in the time of the Dust Bowl.”

2009: “Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. This irremediable loss, never enough noticed, has been made worse by the huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure of the agriculture we now practice. To the problem of soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has added pollution by toxic chemicals, now universally present in our farmlands and streams. Some of this toxicity is associated with the widely acclaimed method of minimum tillage. We should not poison our soils to save them.”

1985: “Equally important is the question of the sustainability of the urban food supply. The supermarkets are, at present, crammed with food, and the productivity of American agriculture is, at present, enormous. But this is a productivity based on the ruin both of the producers and of the source of production.”

2009: “Industrial agricultural has made our food supply entirely dependent on fossil fuels and, by substituting technological “solutions” for human work and care, has virtually destroyed the cultures of husbandry (imperfect as they may have been) once indigenous to family farms and farming neighborhoods. Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable.”

The two texts dovetail further. One can only imagine the frustration of sounding the same alarm, rationally and eloquently, for decades without the gratification of hearing it echo through the halls of power. I’m glad nonetheless that Berry keeps up the effort. I should add, though, that while I admire his brief essays, which are often published as opinion pieces, I prefer Berry’s longer efforts. See, for example, “Writer and Region” in the collection cited above. One of the most powerful I’ve read recently was titled “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits” and published in the April 2008 Harper’s.

Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, eds., State By State

Published in the Detroit Metro-Times on November 19, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, eds.
State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America
New York: Ecco, 608 pages. $29.95.

State by State re-creates, in condensed form, the American Guide series, a collection of 48 books published between 1938 and 1941 as part of the Federal Writers Project. Some of the greatest writers of the era—Saul Bellow in Illinois, Zora Neale Hurston in Florida and Eudora Welty, who took photographs in Mississippi—contributed to those classic guide books, which contained maps, essays on history and culture, automobile tour guides, and portfolios of photographs. In recent years, scholarly work at the Library of Congress has unearthed evidence of just how many literary luminaries participated as editors, writers, interviewers and photographers in this New Deal effort. State by State editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, who are on the staffs of The Paris Review and McSweeney’s, respectively, have likewise gathered a star-studded list of state chroniclers. Practicality, however, is set aside; whereas the earlier books were published by each state and intended for tourists’ use, State By State is a decidedly personal literary endeavor.

Much of the writing is affecting: Novelist Benjamin Kunkel’s evocation of his parents’ participation in the back-to-the-land movement, and of the land itself in Colorado, is superb, as is short-story writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s tale of her immigrant parents’ experiences in Kingston, R.I. While Kunkel, Lahiri and many of their fellow contributors mine personal experience for their contributions, others elucidate little-known aspects of a state’s history, as does Anthony Doerr in describing the travails—inhospitable conditions, disease, an 1879 battle with the U.S. Army—of the Tukudeka tribe in Idaho.

Platitudes inevitably creep in. Residents of both Maine and Michigan, as described by Heidi Julavits and Mohammed Naseehu Ali, espouse a gruff, independent-minded live-and-let-live philosophy, and Ali’s Michigan has rabid sports fanatics in common with John Hodgman’s Bay Staters. But inspired choices—chef Anthony Bourdain on New Jersey, musician Carrie Brownstein on Washington, filmmaker Alexander Payne on Nebraska—make up for the smattering of clichés and the occasional dud entry, among them William T. Vollman’s largely sour assessment of contemporary California (“Who believes in the ‘California dream’ anymore?” he asks) and Jonathan Franzen’s supremely ill-conceived imaginary interview with the state of New York and “her” handlers. While the strong emphasis on folkways, landscape and history so present in the earlier series is largely missing from this volume, at its best it elicits a desire to return to the original books and to learn more about our unwieldy, dynamic, variegated land and its people.

Interview: Michael Wolf

The Asia- and Europe-based photographer Michael Wolf is known for his fine-art and editorial photographs depicting rapid growth in Asian cities. A new series of photographs made in Chicago, “Transparent City,” goes on view this week at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and is collected in a book just published by Aperture. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on Artforum.com on November 14, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Michael Wolf, from the series "Transparent City," 2007

Michael Wolf, from the series "Transparent City," 2007

The experience of photographing in America was not much different from photographing in Asia, really. The challenge was more conceptual: After working so long in Hong Kong and China, I wasn’t sure I was capable of working somewhere else. I feel in tune with what is happening in the East, and am so inspired by the architecture, food, people, and flux of life there, that I was afraid I’d feel disconnected from an urban landscape in another part of the world. Luckily, when I came to Chicago in 2006 to install some photographs, I rode an elevated train into downtown from the airport. It was a wonderful visual experience, looking out and seeing everyone through the office windows. I remember arriving at the museum and meeting the curator, and by my third or fourth sentence they asked whether they could arrange an artist residency for me. A year later, the deal was done.

I had thought about working in New York, in part because I’ve worked so long with what I call “architecture of density” in Hong Kong. But there are logistic problems in New York that don’t arise in Chicago. In Chicago, the buildings are spread out, they’re more loosely structured, and ten- or twelve-story parking garages are interspersed between them. From the garages, you can look into buildings. I would go up onto the twelfth floor of a parking structure and get a nice view into the neighboring building. To prepare, I went onto Flickr and printed out every photo of the city’s downtown Loop, then drew red arrows pointing to all of the roofs to which I wanted access. In Hong Kong, every building has guards and you must apply for permission to get onto the roof, but researchers at US Equities, who supported my residency, were able to get me access to 99 percent of the rooftops from which I wanted to photograph.

I began my series “Architecture of Density” by photographing close-ups of vernacular subjects in the back alleys of Hong Kong’s downtown high-rises. I enjoyed the photographs but thought the series of seventy or so images was conceptually one-dimensional. I felt the series would be enriched if I could bring in another layer of meaning, so I began to take photographs of the buildings from a distance. In Chicago, I worked in the opposite direction, beginning with the architecture. I felt, however, that I was bumping up against the same problem. Then one evening I was looking at a photograph I had shot and I saw in it a man giving me the middle finger. In the exact moment he made that gesture I pressed the shutter, even though I had probably been standing there for twenty minutes.

It set off a chain reaction in me, and I began to look through every file at 200 percent magnification to see what else was going on in those windows. I saw hands on computer mice and family photographs on the desks of CEOs; I saw people watching flat-screen TVs in the evening. It was a bit lonely, particularly when I was photographing corporate office towers during the first banking crisis in November–December 2007—I could see through my telephoto lens the tension and stress those bankers were feeling. By zooming in on details, I manage to introduce a certain vernacular visual language as well as balance the faraway with the up close.

I don’t consider these works portraits; I’m not doing a portrait of Chicago. In fact, the city’s characteristics don’t really figure into my discussions of the series. It could be any large urban city. I simply proceeded by answering the question, Which vantage point gives me the ability to look into a building? One building that fascinated me was the very big courthouse downtown. The judge’s rooms are in the corners of the building, and I wanted to catch a moment when lawyers were standing in the hallways of seven or eight consecutive floors so that the image would depict them locked into little cells, like a Robert Wilson stage design. Despite the unpredictability of my process, I have very specific images in mind as I work. Edward Hopper was a particular inspiration for this series, and I was looking for the types of images he specialized in. I was trying to translate an idea—or, rather, to find it in reality.

—As told to Brian Sholis

Joel Sternfeld, “Oxbow Archive”

Published in Artforum, November 2008. To see images from the exhibition, click here.

In a passage in his journal dated February 5, 1855, Henry David Thoreau asserted, “In a journal it is important in a few words to describe the weather, or characters of the day, as it affects our feelings. That which was so important at the time cannot be unimportant to remember.” The thirteen large-scale color photographs in this exhibition chronicle the weather and the characters of the day in and around a single meadow in Northampton, Massachusetts, from July 29, 2005, to April 20, 2007. The site, famously depicted in a heroic Thomas Cole landscape that was painted in 1836 and is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is characterized by a small loop of water (called an oxbow) that juts out from the Connecticut River. It encircles a series of meadows, and similarly flat land extends away from the river’s outer banks.

At this site Joel Sternfeld has catalogued, with Thoreauvian attention to detail, the variety and bounty of what the photographs’ titles identify as the East Meadows. In these images, one glimpses the twisting silhouettes of denuded trees framed against a pink-gray March sky; a horizontal expanse of melting late-winter snow placidly reflecting the clouds massed above it; steam rising off puddles of water as the Earth, in spring, returns to life; and the tracks of truck wheels rolling off into the distance, bathed in an orange summer glow. Cole described the view from nearby Mount Holyoke as the “grandest prospect in North America,” but Sternfeld observes this place with an unsentimental eye. And, unlike his series “American Prospects,” 1978–86, which deliberately charts human incursions into the landscape, these photographs see Sternfeld largely ignoring the greatest of such intrusions—nowhere, for example, does one find Interstate 91, which runs north-south across the oxbow. (In a related catalogue, however, additional images depicting abandoned campsites, roads cutting through cornfields, and more truck tracks appear.) In this sense, the photographs in “Oxbow Archive” continue the placidity that characterized “Sweet Earth,” the series, mostly made in the mid-’90s, depicting American utopian communes that Sternfeld exhibited at this gallery in fall 2005.

Joel Sternfeld, March 4, 2007, The East Meadows, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Joel Sternfeld, March 4, 2007, The East Meadows, Northampton, Massachusetts.

To see this cycle of days and seasons unfolding ninety miles west of Boston would chasten any urbanite; while Thoreau and his peers were intimately familiar with this landscape and its intervals of growth and decay, many people today would be hard-pressed to identify its plant species. That such knowledge is now alien to a large share of the population highlights the disconnect between humans and their environment that is causing problems far greater than can be understood in two years’ study of one small patch of land. One at a time, these pictures prompt humility before nature’s variegated plenitude. In aggregate, as they chart how and when the seasons change, they bear witness to inexorable forces that will fundamentally alter such patterns in the future.

This is not to suggest such concerns prompted Sternfeld’s photographic journal, though by including the word archive in his title one is given some license to think so. It is, however, to state that the vocation of careful attention evidenced by these works prompted one viewer to attempt such diligent watchfulness of the world around him. The pictures themselves, with their flat, thin, dispersed northern light and their carefully considered compositions, are arresting, and function well both within Sternfeld’s oeuvre and as their own aesthetic statement.

Interview: Lance Hammer

Director Lance Hammer’s debut feature film, Ballast, won awards for dramatic directing and excellence in cinematography at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It opened on October 1, 2008, at Film Forum in New York and on October 17 in selected theaters nationwide. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on October 1, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Prior to making Ballast, I wrote another feature script that was called Alluvial. It was a Delta story as well, and my first attempt to write a story in the place I had grown to love. I shot short scenes excerpted from the script in order to raise financing, and that loosely cohesive presentation was akin to a short. It taught me two things. First, that Alluvial was not the story I wanted to tell. I loved the Delta region so much that I tried to speak with too much specificity about the place; the work proved to be too obvious for my taste. The second lesson was technical—I received my education as a filmmaker working on Alluvial. I didn’t go to film school; I was an architect by training. Exploring the mechanics of filmmaking—working with lights, using a dolly—gave me the confidence to discover that I actually hated them and could abandon them when I made Ballast. And I did; in Ballast, I had a completely different approach to recording both images and sound. What the two have in common, though, is the fact that they deal with mortality. Freud said he thought everything was about sex and only eventually discovered it was all about death.

I’m of the belief that if you can use one note to communicate something, why use three? One note resonating over the space where three notes should have occurred has more power, and that is how I now would approach any work. It appears particularly suited to the Mississippi Delta, where the pace of life is so different from New York or Los Angeles. More than anything else, I tried in Ballast to communicate with as much accuracy as possible what it feels like to be in the Delta during winter. Narrative was always secondary to that. In fact, I don’t like dialogue in films—or, rather, it’s tough to do really well. I’m not the Coen brothers; I don’t think I can write as well as they can. I’m much more interested in image, sound, and conveying tone, communicating something uncommunicable. Music and language would intrude on what is uncommunicable about the Delta.

I understand that to some extent this is an aesthetic construct, but I also believe that one’s personal aesthetic is a reflection of one’s life experience. I believe that life is very difficult—which has been my experience, certainly. I value persistence and think that one of the only avenues of hope in the darkest moments of life comes when you are making art. I’ve struggled with a sense of futility—not least with trying to get films off the ground. But nothing dims my strong desire to make them, and in a sense, the writing of the script for Ballast manifested hope. I think the story reflects this.

The interesting thing, then, was to give up on following the script closely once we were shooting. I’m a control freak; I confess to that readily, and I was expecting problems with not giving my actors dialogue to follow. But I wanted to bring real people’s words to the project and to watch those words be elevated and hopefully transformed through the process of filming them. In the rehearsal process, when I first saw that happen, I knew nearly immediately that there was a lot of power in giving parameters or instructions and letting the actors respond. I provided skeletons; they provided living tissue. When I saw them do that, there were magic moments for me. I admit to having no authorship and am satisfied by that as an artist. I realized I was incapable of doing what I wanted to do alone. The actors, and also Lol Crowley, my cinematographer, completed the work. It was a joy to behold.

When we were done shooting, I spent two years cutting the film. I tried everything—every iteration of every scene. I tried to turn my intellect off and use my intuition. The geese at the opening of the film, for example: I was unconsciously aware of a desire to start from chaos, to have a reflection of that in the form itself, and then have a slow progress toward stability. I’d like to say it was a conscious way of thinking about the film, but it was actually a filmmaker friend, Chris Gorak, who suggested I open with that shot. In a way, though, broad questions about intentionality are unanswerable.

Now that the film is done and has been seen by audiences, I can understand why people have grouped it with other recent films as offering a kind of “new American realism” or an “American regionalism.” I’ve seen Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, and it is certainly a joy to watch. There are affinities between the works—a reverence for subtlety, an appreciation of the power of small and ambiguous moments. But as much as anything else, perhaps this is a reaction to Hollywood. Speaking only for myself, I had a difficult time existing in the Hollywood system toward the end of my time there because I can’t stand its dominant narrative forms. The assumption in Hollywood is that audiences are stupid or need to have everything hammered into their heads. I think art is ambiguous. If we were still in the days when you could sell a film and make a lot of money for it, then perhaps that would tempt me. But for now I have nothing to lose. The only thing to be gained is from making something I can believe in.

–As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Robert Pogue Harrison

Robert Pogue Harrison, chair of the Department of French and Italian at Stanford University, is a literary scholar and translator whose interests include the Italian lyric, Dante, Renaissance humanism, and phenomenology. The University of Chicago Press has just published Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on July 25, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Several years ago, when I was invited to write a catalogue essay for an exhibition of photographs of gardens by contemporary artists, I had no intention to embark on a book on the garden. After writing a twenty- or twenty-five-page essay, though, I realized I had only scratched the surface of the topic; there was a rich cultural history waiting to be told. In a way, I could almost use the metaphor of the gardener going into the ground as a way to describe my own research. One thing I discovered is that gardens are the places where appearances draw attention to themselves as appearances. What appears in many gardens is put into relief in a way not dissimilar from how many artworks put into relief their own phenomenality. Gardens, like art, invite us to take the time to learn how to see them; they offer an education in ways of seeing.

In retrospect, I see that this book has enough in common with my two earlier books, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization and The Dominion of the Dead, to constitute a trilogy. All three can be seen as a sustained reflection on the humic foundations of culture. In the case of Forests, however, I had undertaken a more comprehensive history, moving through the epochs from ancient to contemporary. I wanted to avoid repeating that strategy with Gardens; I didn’t want this book to be a history, but more of a reflection or meditation—hence the subtitle. An essay evokes the sense of essaying, of trying to look at something thoughtfully but from a nonexhaustive point of view.

This created a number of problems about what to include and exclude. Since no one methodological principle seemed more justifiable than another, I felt free to wander. I learned a lot about things I didn’t know; I wasn’t just going over old ground. Two of the big heroes of the book were not well known to me before: Karel Capek and Epicurus. I lingered on Epicurus in chapter 7 because I found his philosophy has extraordinary relevance for our own times. I think our age is ripe for a creative rediscovery of Epicureanism.

In the book, I suggest that Epicurus’s garden was a place where human and social virtues, trampled on by the so-called real world, could reflourish under carefully husbanded circumstances. The arts can play a similar role today, I believe, especially when considered in light of the broad reduction of a three-dimensional world to two-dimensional forms, the impoverishment of the real through media technologies and new forms of virtuality. While certain forms of contemporary art make interesting use of those technologies, my belief is that one of the most important vocations of art in our age is to restore to reality its full-bodiedness. You can call this a rehumanization, a cultivation of the human in the midst of dark times.

The conversation of philosophy, or exchange of ideas, idealized or exalted by Plato, Epicurus, and others, remains, for me, one of the richest sources of human happiness. Writing—and criticism—can be understood as a prelude or preamble to the conviviality of that conversation. The fact that so much of it took place in gardens is not by chance. Conversation, philosophy, friendship, conviviality, serenity of mind—these are virtues that call for a sustained, almost daily cultivation of the self and its community. The garden for me is also a figure for this kind of cultivation—of taking into one’s care something that is not one’s self and being responsible for others and for the earth. The gardener does this in a way that is symbolic for many other human activities.

Gardening, like art, can counter the frenzy of our age, which is characterized by an aggravated consumerism that entails as its necessary correlate endless production and endless productivity. The daily turbulence that today’s capitalist economy requires militates against the sanctuaries of repose that I discuss throughout the book, of which gardens are typically a figure. My last chapter is titled “The Paradox of the Age.” The paradox is that, while the system is in a complete frenzy, what seems to be driving it is a desire to re-create a passive Edenic condition in which all the fruits of the earth will be provided for without care, labor, or pain—as if we could be consumer enjoyers of endless bounty. But the stories and myths that have come down to us through the ages, and which I treat in my book, tell us that the true source of human happiness is not consumption but cultivation, is not passive gratification but the assumption of active responsibility. That is why it’s all the more important to revisit the myth of Eden and to relearn its lesson, which I take to be the lesson of care. In my reading, the Eden story tells us that we needed to get out of that sterile, deathless environment in order to realize our human potential as mothers, fathers, husbandmen, statesmen, artists, friends, and caretakers of the earth.

–As told to Brian Sholis

Bill McKibben, ed., American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Published in the Detroit Metro-Times on June 4, 2008.

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
Edited by Bill McKibben
New York: The Library of America. 1,160 pages. $40.00.

The reality of climate change is now beyond doubt in the scientific community. We also now know that it will take more than technological innovation to stave off its potentially devastating environmental consequences. As academic and laboratory squabbles about our planet’s ills begin to fade, the arduous task of correcting past and current negligence becomes, to a significant degree, an effort of rhetoric. Environmentalism today is in large part a campaign for the world’s hearts and minds, which makes the present a useful time to think deeply about the literature that addresses these concerns. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, a 1,000-page anthology, represents a Herculean effort on the part of author and activist Bill McKibben, its editor, to bring together the texts most relevant to an audience unfamiliar with the topic. It is matchless in its heft, generous in scope (included are Sierra Club founder John Muir and Marvin Gaye), and, with a detailed chronology in its back matter, serviceable in its depth.

Environmental writing today stretches from detailed meditations on particular places, such as those written by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, to assessments, by writers active in the environmental justice movement, of the social and economic inequalities that cause environmental burdens to be distributed unequally (think of Erin Brockovich’s lawsuits). The bulk of McKibben’s anthology leans marginally closer to the wonder-of-nature end of this spectrum, and likewise skews toward the present. But nearly all of the writers we associate with the movement, from the middle of the 19th century to the present, appear here, including Henry David Thoreau, Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez and Michael Pollan. So do a handful of unexpected figures, from P. T. Barnum to Philip K. Dick to R. Crumb. A library that included this volume and Thomas J. Lyon’s utilitarian 2001 book This Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing would offer fragments from or information about many of the books important to mainstream discourse on the topic.

The environmental writer and transcendentalism scholar Lawrence Buell, who is not included in McKibben’s volume, has discussed the split in environmental writing mentioned above, between rapturous sighs and demands for equity, in sequential terms: the former is a “first wave” concerned solely with the natural world, and the latter a “second wave” that acknowledges the interdependence of natural and built environments. By choosing Thoreau as his starting point, McKibben may be subtly acknowledging this second-wave criticism, despite the shortage of it in his anthology’s table of contents, for not only was the Concord resident a naturalist and keen observer of his surroundings, he was also an ardent abolitionist, a tax resister and a development critic. Thoreau was one of the first in America to understand that environmental concerns are political concerns.

The writer Rebecca Solnit, whose brief essay closes McKibben’s volume, is an inheritor of both Throeauvian traditions, and she suggests that compartmentalizing him, as many contemporary thinkers do, “is a microcosm of a larger partition in American thought.”

“Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused,” she writes, “have undermined the connections for all of us.” In thinking of what a future rhetoric of environmentalism might sound like, Buell and Solnit’s words seem like a guiding light. Such writing would be persuasive but not hectoring, reach the ears of politicians and poets, and comprise ecologies and economies. Wendell Berry’s essay “Faustian Economics,” in the May 2008 Harper’s, is exemplary in this regard. That the public has been slow to recognize what confronts us is confirmed by the fact that Berry’s essay “The Making of a Marginal Farm,” originally included in a 1981 essay collection and reprinted in American Earth, shares the same kernel of insight as his most recent work: “The true remedy for mistakes is to keep from making them. It is not in the piecemeal technological solutions that our society now offers, but in a change of cultural (and economic) values that will encourage in the whole population the necessary respect, restraint and care.”

Diary Entry: Roni Horn

Published as “Bottled Water” on Artforum.com on May 14, 2007.

STYKKISHÖLMUR, ICELAND—Certain artists and writers mark a location with an indelible stamp. Venice, for example, is often filtered through the eyes of Turner, Mann, Ruskin, and the poet Joseph Brodsky. After a two-day journey to Iceland to catch the opening of “My Oz,” Roni Horn’s survey exhibition at the Reykjavik Art Museum, and a site-specific project by the artist in Stykkishólmur commissioned by Artangel, no image of the country will form in my mind without an accompanying picture of Horn’s art. The reverse is true, too. Indeed, much of Horn’s work discloses itself in the context of this variegated, severe landscape.

Horn has been visiting the island since the ’70s, and barely five minutes after my Friday-morning arrival in Reykjavík, I learned that my hotel was where she photographed Dead Owl, 1997, her well-known diptych of snow-white birds; bizarrely, the building is a veritable zoo for taxidermic animals. After a tour of town, I joined the artist’s sister Ona Lindquist, collector and MoMA board member Kathy Fuld, Hauser & Wirth partner Marc Payot, and curators James Rondeau, Donna De Salvo, Frances Morris, and Linda Norden on a chartered ferry to Videy Island, a mile or so out into the placid Faxaflói Bay. We wandered the uninhabited rock searching for Afangar, an easy-to-miss, “very De Maria” (by consensus) Richard Serra sculpture, comprising pairs of basalt columns driven into the hills so that their tops are a uniform height above sea level.

That evening, we admired the museum’s tightly curated, exactingly installed overview of Horn’s oeuvre. A new, two-part sculpture made up of large, physically improbable amber glass blocks anchored two adjacent rooms on the first floor; opaque from the side, transparent from above, the bottoms of their interiors are miniature topographies. Upstairs, a new series of restrained but striking portraits of a single woman formed a staccato horizon line around the walls of another gallery. Dinner—with artist Tacita Dean and her irrepressible son, Rufus; Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson; Payot; and a little over one hundred other of Horn’s friends and collaborators—was held on a catamaran that made another loop around the bay. It was still daylight after the meal, and those revelers not suffering jet lag barhopped until an hour traditionally reserved for breakfast.

The landscape’s otherworldliness wasn’t impressed on us until the next morning, when the group clambered aboard three buses headed north to the Library of Water. The green adorning the steep mountain faces and reflected in the silvery sea disappeared gradually, only to be replaced by lumpy black lava fields and patches of snow. We stopped at a hotel near a location used by Jules Verne in Journey to the Center of the Earth and decamped for lunch and short hikes. At the meal, Artangel codirector James Lingwood offered some brief, sincere remarks, describing his joy at first coming across Horn’s photo books (one included images of a glacier visible from the hotel) and, paraphrasing Keats’s epitaph, suggesting that Horn is an artist whose name is “writ in water.”

The Library of Water is situated at the highest point in Stykkishólmur, a village of twelve hundred, and looks out over the sea in two directions. Between last August and earlier this year, Horn and her collaborators extracted ice from twenty-four glaciers around Iceland, storing the results in liquid form inside glass columns scattered through the building. Preserving these disappearing glaciers (yet paradoxically not in their natural state) is a deliberate—and deliberately provocative—act. Other collaborators recorded locals’ weather testimonials, words from which are embedded—in Icelandic and in English—in the rubber floor. (They are also collected in a book and on a website.) An apartment was also built into the design for a writer in residence. Artangel secured a twenty-five-year lease, and the entire building is to be given over to the community. (The work’s optical effect mirrors its social intent: The surrounding landscape is drawn into the building, captured by each transparent totem.) “My authorship is done,” Horn said, with characteristic directness.

On Saturday night, to a subdued crowd of sock-footed guests, inaugural writer in residence Gudrún Eva Minervudóttir read from her newest novel. Horn followed with a fifteen-minute excerpt from her text Saying Water, its repetitions achieving an incantatory grace. In Horn’s cosmology, landscape is weather is a face is water is words. Each is but a sounding board for the measure of experience. William James, chafing at language’s inability to convey experience, once wrote, “We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue, a feeling of cold.” His adjectives are apt, and Horn aims for similar flexibility in her work, to better record our encounters with the land and one another.

We broke for dinner at a nearby restaurant that has the kind of rustic charm one pays for through the nose in New York, then returned for a performance by the singer-songwriter Ólöf Arnalds, who recently joined the Icelandic indie-electronica band Múm. She sang Irish folk songs, country standards, and her own compositions, while playing her charango, an eight-string guitar whose body is made from an armadillo’s shell. The Icelandic lyrics’ incomprehensibility didn’t make the performance any less moving. Thousands of miles from the capital cities most of us call home, with the sun dropping into the ocean behind us, one couldn’t help but marvel at how Horn has created a space for scrutinizing the relationship between viewer and view, between feeling and fact.

Agnes Denes

Published in Artforum, May 2007.

Agnes Denes is perhaps best known for planting a two-acre wheat field at the southern tip of Manhattan in 1982, during the development of Battery Park City. An iconic photograph of the artist—waist-deep in golden sheaves, skyscrapers looming nearby—appears in many surveys of environmental art. But this work, of seemingly simple generosity (Denes harvested one thousand pounds of the crop that August and planted it around the globe), was pointedly titled Wheatfield—A Confrontation, and can be understood as one of the first occasions on which Denes worked on a scale large enough and in a public location central enough to suit her outsize ambition. The intervention represented, in the artist’s words, nothing less than “food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger, and ecological concerns.”

By the time the Public Art Fund commissioned Wheatfield, Denes had been creating drawings that married Conceptual art to philosophy, mathematics, and science for fifteen years. Two dozen drawings, alongside documentation of Wheatfield and a more recent, long-term environmental intervention in Finland, were included in this exhibition, the artist’s first solo show in New York since a touring retrospective of her public projects arrived at the Chelsea Art Museum in late 2004. Dating from 1970 to 2006 but primarily created in the late ’70s and in 1980, the works on paper often feature abstract shapes centered on white or graph-paper grounds. Their precision betrays a fiercely analytic mind and a steady hand; their refinement highlights a conventional wisdom in the non-artistic disciplines her practice engages: The best solution to a problem is the most elegant.

Arguably the loveliest drawing in the exhibition was Colorburst: The Egg (longitude lines), 1980, in which variously hued ribbons of watercolor nestle side by side, bounded by meridian lines—drawn in ink on an overlaid sheet of clear acetate—that demarcate an egg shape not much larger than those found at a grocery store. The equipoise between seemingly freeform and rule-bound marks is splendid; the delicate colors worthy of Faberge. Yet Denes would disdain a purely formal interpretation of her drawings, even when they succeed so well at pleasing the eye. For example, other, similarly shaped drawings—not included here—are meant as studies for utopian, self-contained urban dwellings.

One series, “Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space: Map Projections,” predominated. In these drawings, which project mathematical forms—the cube, the dodecahedron, the torus—onto representations of the world, Conceptual rigor rubs against the myriad imperfections of the spatial environment we inhabit, and the friction highlights the contingency of how we understand space. These playfully idiosyncratic maps, Denes’s unrelenting seriousness notwithstanding, exhibit a dry humor: Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space: Map Projections-The Hot Dog, 1976, for example, shows an Earth that has improbably morphed into the shape of a hot dog.

Perhaps entering the territory of so many other disciplines made Denes’s position somewhat marginal in the contemporary art world. Likewise her shift, in the early ’80s, into the realm of public, environmental art can be said to have uprooted Denes from the gallery system that feeds mainstream art institutions. Yet without impinging upon other artists’ signature styles, the works exhibited here furthered many artistic concerns prevalent in the late ’70s; Denes was entirely of her moment. Given that her current concern with the environment is one we all share (or ought to), the exhibition left one hoping her will soon re-enter mainstream circulation.

Robert B. MacKay, America by the Yard: Cirkut Camera

Published in Print, January/February 2007.

The Cirkut camera, introduced just after the turn of the 20th century, charted—by means of a patented spring-arm rotation technology with a 360-degree range—the development of American society for the better part of 40 years. Military units, graduating classes, church groups, presidential inaugurations, car dealerships, rock quarries, and shipwrecks were documented by the panoramic prints, dubbed “yardlongs,” that the camera produced. This lavish volume, compiled by the preservationist Robert B. MacKay, is itself a yardlong, filled with more than 100 reproductions—many printed on foldout pages—scanned from original prints, which were themselves created directly from negatives and exquisitely detailed.

In his brief introduction, MacKay focuses on the development of the camera’s technology and how it was subsequently used, hazarding few observations about the broader cultural context into which it was inserted. This leaves the assembled images open to a wide range of interpretation. The smiling masses (or dour ones, like a 1924 Ku Klux Klan “Drill Team and Band”), pinned to lengthy scrolls of film with impressive particularity, remain anonymous examples of a society undergoing rapid urbanization, industrialization, and a dizzy ascent into scalelessness by every measurable index.

Alternately, the proud crowds speak to the cohesiveness of group identities—evidence of a country gathering steam as it glides into what would be dubbed “the American century.” These still pictures, cinematic in scope, were initially made around the time that filmed images were first screened to awed spectators. That panoramic picture-taking has become a quaint hobby while Hollywood proliferates endlessly lends these black-and-white documents a melancholy air that undercuts the triumph inherent in their wondrousness.

Helen Mirra

Published in Artforum, January 2007.

According to the press release for “Break Camp” (Helen Mirra’s second solo exhibition at Peter Freeman, Inc.), the artist’s practice “involves no power tools.” It’s a prosaic statement that nonetheless hints at two important aspects of Mirra’s reticent art, elucidating her devotion to the handmade while also suggesting her political conscience (she’s not on to wield power aggressively). Both of these qualities are often rendered subservient to form in critical interpretations of her exquisitely crafted works.

For those familiar with the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based artist’s modest oeuvre, this exhibition, which features sculptures made as she was about to “break camp” and return to the US from a yearlong residency in Berlin, will seem true to form. Viewers less accustomed to Mirra’s aesthetic might stop short upon encountering the eight ankle-height wood-and-pinecone sculptures spread across the floor of the gallery’s small main room. Like the wall-based sculptures that comprised the greater part of her last exhibition here, these low-slung compositions are made of planks from shipping pallets, this time mostly picked up on the streets around her Berlin studio. The weathered gray-brown timer bears evidence of its industrial past; the pinecones that nestle against it, taken from the nearby Grunewald forest, perhaps represent the opposite force, the pure potential embodied in their reproductive function.

Helen Mirra, Sarton, 2006.

Helen Mirra, Sarton, 2006.

At first glance, the sculptures are difficult to differentiate from one another. Up close, however, each reveals individual characteristics: Unirondack (all works 2006) is comprised of two squat stacks supporting a number of other wood pieces and a handful of cones, while Bartók is long and toothy, like one of Donald Judd’s lengthy, squared-off wall reliefs set on the floor. Star Route No. 5, partly brushed with the gray-green milk paint that featured prominently in Mirra’s last New York show, shields dozens of cones between its two horizontal slabs, one cut industrially and somewhat haphazardly, the other by the artist’s exacting handsaw.

These juxtapositions prompt consideration of the ends to which we direct elements of the natural environment, and the means by which we do so. A sense of time evoked by the past and (arrested) future lives of the materials calls to mind an early, atypically poetic 1967 Richard Serra sculpture, shown at this gallery in 2004, that features fifteen partially burned white candles spaced evenly along a wooden beam resting on the floor. And, as is almost always the case with Mirra’s works, those on view here evoke (through their titles) a peculiar mix of historical figures: not only the composer Béla Bartók, but also the prominent nineteenth-century American pacificist Adin Ballou, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the writer May Sarton. But whereas earlier exhibitions possessed a kind of intellectual site-specificity—works evoking Chicagoans John Dewey and Jane Addams made around the time that the artist lived in that city, for example—the relation of this constellation of influences to the site where she produced these sculptures remains oblique. The delicate equilibrium between place and conceptual underpinning seems slightly out of true.

A smaller room contains three of the narrow, hand-sewn cotton bands on which Mirra types a “subjective” index of books’ contents, a format she has previously used to offer veiled, self-reflexive investigations of her artistic process. Backbone, Crosshairs, and Downed, however, all drawn from a book about deer hunting, seem fixated on communicating content (BREASTBONE, 99 BUCKSAW, 128 BULLET ACTION, 37-8 reads part of Backbone). One upshot of balancing such bleak material with formal restraint is an emotional resonance—here, pathos—otherwise rare in Mirra’s cerebral oeuvre. The concerns about nonhuman life and the environment expressed in this exhibition are rarely addressed in contemporary art, and few artists are as well equipped to voice them as Mirra. But this newfound partisan clarity is not yet fully reconciled with the richly allusive ambiguity of her best works.

Mary Weatherford

Published on Artforum.com on June 19, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Mary Weatherford, after Hodler, 2006, flashe on linen, 37 x 44"

Mary Weatherford, after Hodler, 2006, flashe on linen, 37 x 44"

The three midsize canvases in this Los Angeles–based artist’s exhibition, each a slightly different view of the same rocky outcrop, would be of little interest were they not so well executed; instead, they argue convincingly for the value of painting directly from life. Each skillfully fuses two currently unfashionable artistic traditions: Look at them from a few feet away, and the compositions are reminiscent of the kind of by-the-sea plein air painting that Courbet and Monet practiced in Normandy circa 1870; zoom in on almost any part of a canvas, and your field of vision is filled with a harmonious, semiabstract chromatic reverie that evokes early-twentieth-century practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic, from Sonia Delaunay and Franz Marc to Georgia O’Keeffe and Joseph Stella. Rendered in flashe, a vinyl-based paint that doesn’t lose the intensity of its color when diluted with water (as Weatherford has done here), these works register changes in sunlight upon the rock formation by altering the composition’s dominant hue: apparition, 2006, is reddish pink; after Hodler, 2006, is reddish orange; shadow, 2005, is bluish green. These colors have been applied with diaphanous, mostly vertical, soft-edged brushstrokes, and the shimmering effect grants the hulking mass dreamlike airiness and grace.

Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA”


A photograph taken last week in Los Angeles

I began reading the first article in The Believer‘s April issue, titled “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA,” as my plane took off from LAX. The article, to be published in two parts, is taken from Land of Sunshine, an essay collection edited by William Deverell and Greg Hise, and postulates that Los Angeles “is the ideal place to tackle the problem of how to write about nature.” That’s a counterintuitive proposition, to say the least. Despite some rhetorical excesses—such as listing eighteen topics the Los Angeles Times has reported on before identifying them all as “nature topics”—her broadening of the definition of “nature writing,” in part through tracing “stories that follow nature through our material lives” and understanding the ways in which class affects one’s perception of (and access to) nature, is pretty convincing. A quote, from right after the eighteen-strong list of Times topics:

These are nature topics all, about how we live in and fight about nature, and about how we use it more and less fairly and sustainably, and about the enormous consequences for our lives in L.A., as well as for places and people and wildlife everywhere. And such topics beg for a literature—for a poetry, for an aesthetics—because to clearly ponder our lives in and out of cities, we have to be able to imagine and reimagine these connections to nature.

(A side note: Price ends by discussing the Los Angeles River, which I pass over on foot on nearly every trip to LA, since at one point it cuts between several art galleries on La Cienega Blvd. I’m fascinated by it, and by how the creation of its concrete straitjacket remains the largest public-works project ever undertaken west of the Mississippi. Doug Aitken once tried to take a boat up the river, as discussed with Ed Ruscha in this Frieze interview, a quixotic project if ever there was one . . . )

Sze Tsung Leong

Published on Artforum.com on April 12, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Sze Tsung Leong, Beicheng Xin Cun, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, 2004

Sze Tsung Leong, Beicheng Xin Cun, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, 2004

Sze Tsung Leong’s gorgeous, abundantly detailed, medium- to large-size photographs of Chinese cities undergoing cataclysmic change fuse Edward Burtynsky’s synoptic aerial views, Elger Esser’s blanched palette, and the patient attentiveness evident in underappreciated Japanese photographer Ryuji Miyamoto’s mid-’80s “Architectural Apocalypse” photographs. The works included here, from “History Images,” an ongoing series begun four years ago (and exhibited at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2004), were taken in Beijing and Pingyao, Xinjiekou and Xiamen, yet each tells roughly the same story, in which a rush to transform society—whether during the mid-century socialist revolution or more recent capitalist expansion—inevitably and irrevocably transforms the landscape. Low-slung, tile-roofed, imperial-era houses give way to drab, mid-rise, concrete apartment blocks, which are in turn supplanted by more-or-less shiny skyscrapers bearing corporate logos—sometimes all in the same picture. The nostalgic tint of the series title, which evinces a preservationist documentary impulse, is offset by Leong’s eminently rational compositions, in which new structures encircle old, or radiate outward symmetrically like a Rorschach blot. Two pictures in a second room lift the veil shrouding this hyperdevelopment: One depicts a construction site, curiously devoid of the machinery necessary to erect a tall building, in which workers stand in holes dug for concrete pylons; another shows horses, certainly anachronistic workers in an urban environment, carting trash bags on rickety wooden carts. Their inclusion adds an important counterpoint to the exhibition’s deceptively seductive force, reminding us that individual lives play out both in the crumbling shacks and behind the steel-and-glass façades.