William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

William Eggleston and the Relativity of Red

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“Where I got the color red—to be sure, I just don’t know.”Henri Matisse

“In recent years color images have dominated in many fields… In interpreting color in an abstract manner we can literally ‘paint’ with color, creating departures-from-reality in great variety.” —Ansel Adams

The long-on-the-road William Eggleston retrospective has touched down at LACMA. Eggleston is known as the first color photographer to rate a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. At that time (1976), serious photography was black and white, and color was for for prosumers and Mad Men. Eggleston’s Greenwood, Miss. (1973, upper right), called The Red Ceiling, is often compared to Matisse’s The Red Studio (upper left). Besides the color scheme and general claustrophobia, both feature nudes in flat, unnatural colors. For Matisse, the nudes were his own masterpieces-to-be. For  Eggleston, they were posters of novel sexual positions, displayed for handy reference in some Red State swinger’s rumpus room. (Ironically, MoMA’s John Szarkowski said his first encounter with Eggleston was “out of the blue.”)

Art’s inflection points often leverage a new technology in the service of “realism” (in scare quotes, for every formal innovation, including non-objectivity, has been pitched as the New Realism). The LACMA show juxtaposes chromogenic and dye transfer prints of some of the same early images. The chromogenic pictures are pallid, like a TV dinner’s Salisbury steak. The larger dye transfer prints, for which Eggleston became famous, are fantastically lusher, not so different in tone from a Crewdson, or HDTV. Was The Red Ceiling that Eggleston shot that red? “I don’t think anything has the seductivity of the dyes,” Eggleston said. “By the time you get into all those dyes, it doesn’t look at all like the scene, which in some cases is what you want.”

Eggleston’s talking point was that the new technology allowed him to dial up the saturation, and that presumably helped make the case for it being “art.” The art audience bought it—gradually—and even that old curmudgeon Ansel Adams, bless his heart, did. Photographs could be color, Adams conceded, as long as they were “abstract” and departing from “reality.”

But what is reality? That’s one of the questions art asks and never answers. At top are digital photos I pulled off the web, of the Matisse and the Eggleston. Side by side, in .jpg, the Eggleston’s wine-dark red blows the Matisse red out of the water. Before the objects, could they ever be shown together, the advantage would be to Matisse—right? “Red” is partly a technology of reproduction. It makes you wonder whether future artists will be able to show us red in a way we’ve never seen it before; whether the fauve revolution could be an ongoing thing.

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  1. Sorry Mr Poundstone, but i dont see, or more importantly FEEL these worksvthat way at all. For one, the Matisse is incredibly open, it flows and the pieces are in subtle movement. It is about the relationships of the lines, colors and forms within the sea of red, NOT about the red at all. It is a modal piece, as Miles Davis and most jazz was from his Kind of Blue album on. Same with the blue in Matisse Conversation, and most importantly, in the great Harmony in Red. Though much of the power comes from the blue undercoating as Matisse was disatisfied and changed it to red. It creates depth and violet hues that swirl with the blue/black design swirls and green, yellow framed window.

    Art is about the energy and life force created from relationships. Egglestons have none. They are but cutouts of mediocrity printed and shown in grandiose ways. Ansel was talking about how film had changed and was able to create CHORDs of color, and also modal subtle variations that create a richness of color, much as Constable and Delacroix variated their tones.

    Any fool can go into Photoshop and over saturate for pretty pics. But they lose interest quickly, and become dull as the senses acclimate. Academic works now use only one color at a time, or when multiple are garrish and sterile, as they have no feel for life, being creating in laboratories of irrelevant ideas. Having been both a photographer who went as far as the medium allowed, in the vein of Brett Weston and Minor White. And then onto color and painting as the textural richness and organic flow allowed for bringing harmony and human passion into the work, a more musical way of working rather than the more poetic work of BandW of examining nature and finding God only. The three must be there for art to live, and be of relevance to humanity.

    Eggleston work is superficial and relies on a technical trick for impact, one that wears off quickly. Adams was talking about how digital allowed for more control, that photoshop allowed one to bring out even more in the negatives when scanned, which i have done and greatly enhance the works without distorting for effect, all Band W. Now i can print up to 30×24 from 4×5 negs with great clarity on my Lighjet laser digital printer at work, if not the deep rich blacks and longevity of Oriental paper. The control allows me to sell in volume, as small editions of prints are only for profit and Gallery retail purposes. Who cares? More can afford for work that is actually better, if not archival, though the paper is Fuji Crystal Archive and will last longer than the buyer. Inkjet printers like our Epson are now almost as good in tone, and better blacks and permanent.

    Adams sensed this coming, and was greatly supportive of new technological advances. He knew the BandW vein of work had pretty much been mined out. There is far better work in design, as my wife does in her magazine Soluv, than “art” photography now. Design is Modern art based, and sometimes, when it goes past serving the immediate purpose of the article or client, can become true creative art, when it has its own living support system, reflecting life.

    Color is musical. To be powerful it must be in chords of supporting color that swirl and are organic. Or modal, fluctuations that create a flow, a sense of life. Even when atonal it is still based on a hidden structure, just not as obvious, and built upon our common human culture and history. One must master the obvious,the fundamentals before one can get beyond them. Coltrane could play out, the young upstart Pharoah Sanders couldnt, not then, he hadnt lived enough.

    BandW is more poetic, quiet, yet flowing through inner evocative images, color photo is almsot always banal, and only technical affects can bring an immediate impact that quickly wears off. It is great for interior designers to use, to create an ambiance to please the owner, or address their need for self grandeur and significance, as contempt art does. Eggleston is but academic drivel, a one trick pony to grab the eye, but quickly shrivels into insignificance. Matisse work grows on one, it feels alive,and so always feels fresh, as it not only reflects life, but has become one with it. The goal of all true creative art.

    Save the Watts Towers(Nuestro Pueblo). Tear down the sterile and superficial Ivories.

  2. Reading LACMA, Eggleston is NOT a poet. He is a one liner, when put together in a book they are OK. When alone, they are nothing. It’s that academic context thing, and why 99%+ of humanity doesn’t care. Creative art is about the highest common denominator, bonding us as one, This seperates for market share just like all contempt “art”.

    art collegia delenda est

  3. Alfredo Jaar’s “The Marx Lounge” (2010) at this year’s Liverpool Biennial provides a somewhat odd, and possibly comedic take on red rooms. The set-up is in an old, spacious hardware store, walls soaked in red, the room branded by neon. Scores of humanist philosophy books are piled neatly on what could be any old sales table in the front part of a Waterstone’s, or Barnes and Noble. Surrounded by plump sofas, one gets the feeling insurrection isn’t what it used to be. Have a peek at Jaar’s site (www.alfredojaar.net) or Liverpool’s biennial site (www.biennial.com), or my own view (www.contemporarymonkey.com).

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