- In the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, James Adams reports today is everything for Richard Serra’s early, landmark earthwork Shift.
Number of American publications that have written about Shift (other
than MAN): Zero? Could that be right? Zoicks. (Another sign of the decline of art
journalism.) Shift is one of the most important sculptures of the post-war era. Imagine the attention it would be receiving if it was Dia making a hollow announcement, eh?
- Now even overseas publications are writing in suspicion of the New Museum’s planned fluff-job exhibition. The UK-based Financial Times examines a range of questionable relationships between money and museums and ends with this: “As a museum director once said to me,” writer Georgina Adam says. “‘I always told my board when they were considering an issue, ‘ask yourself what it would look like on the front page of the New York Times.’” Well, you’d have to think that the NuMu board has to be getting tired of being called out. Critics who have questioned the NuMu’s ethics: Richard Lacayo, Martha Schwendener, Ken Johnson, James Wagner, William Powhida/Brooklyn Rail, Hrag Vartanian, Lisa Phillips circa 1989, Jerry Saltz. Critics giving the NuMu a pass: Only Jerry Saltz. (And his upon-further-consideration support for the NuMu came in a blog post that required four corrections, could have used one or two more, and that was substantially about another writer.) UPDATE: A reader reminds me that Regina Hackett also gave the NuMu a pass.
- Speaking of Lacayo, I’ll miss his Time-based blog.
- In the LAT, Kate Linthicum profiles Marilyn Minter.
- It’s Art Basel Miami Beach week. Posting will be very, very light. Unless news happens (see bullet-point No. 1), MAN will be quiet.
Tyler Green Modern Art Notes
Archive for November, 2009
For years Edward Burtynsky has claimed he is not a particularly political artist. He can no longer make that claim: The Corcoran/Steidl catalogue for ‘Edward Burtynsky: Oil’ is the most immediately political museum catalogue I’ve seen. It is a catalogue that may — should? — impact the way museums and kunsthalles approach contemporary art catalogues and exhibitions.
It includes the standard: A strong curatorial essay from exhibition organizer Paul Roth and an essay by a travel writer who has followed Burtynsky to the ends of the earth.
It’s the last essay that’s an unexpected doozy: Written by Dr. William E. Rees of the University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning, it argues that the way we’re treating the earth — particularly in regards to natural resources such as oil — is unsustainable. The essay puts Burtynsky’s work not in the context of art history, but in the context of research on recent environmental scholarship. It indirectly makes a powerful case for including artists among the ranks of our most significant public intellectuals. It aggressively pushes art out of the contemporary art ghetto and places it in the mainstream of discourse on the future of our planet.
The catalogue is also a challenge (even an embarrassment) to contemporary art museums that think that simply showing contemporary art — say, of a rich trustee — is acting in the public interest. Museums and curators are at their most thoughtful and influential when they point us to how contemporary art is part of a broader human discourse. Every director of a contemporary art museum and every contemporary curator should read this one and should grapple with its challenge.
Edward Burtynsky’s photographs about our reliance on oil (on view now at the Corcoran) include a kind of trap. The pictures are beautiful. A Burtynsky picture of the landscape near extraction facility outside Fort McMurray, Alberta, looks like a classic Western landscape, complete with big sky, a reflection of a just-right cloudscape and endlessly unfolding hills.
But look closely: That sky isn’t reflected in water, it’s reflected in a pool of something that isn’t nearly as pure. There’s an oil refinery in the distance. Other photographs nearby show the gross, toxic process by which oil is freed from bitumen deposits. The beguiling, deceptive beauty in Burtynsky’s photographs is effectively a metaphor for our fascination with, our at-almost-any-cost pursuit of, la belle vie. We’re hooked.
Once Burtynsky hooks us on his work, he shows us how the black gold has enabled our lifestyle. The Corcoran exhibition starts with Burtynsky’s pictures of how we get oil: Pumpjacks in the California desert, extraction from oil sands in Alberta and pictures of refineries. Then it shows us how we’ve used oil, how oil has helped us transform our landscape: Pictures of bizarre, artificial-lake-surrounding Las Vegas subdivisions, the Sturgis motorcycle rally, a NASCAR race and more. (I think that the NASCAR pictures is the one around which the show spins.) The exhibition ends with a section called ‘End of Oil’ that chronicles what happens to places and things after they’re used up. These pictures include a spent, abandoned oil field in Azerbaijan and shipbreaking photos from Bangladesh. The Azerbaijan pictures complete a rhyme: Abandoned oil fields leave pretty reflected skyscapes too.
There are obviously a hundred other ways oil has impacted us and a hundred more ways in which our pursuit of oil has impacted the planet. Showing all of them would be impossible, so consider Burtynsky’s project an introduction to an enormous subject. Burtynsky’s inability to document the totality of all-things-oil should not be considered a fault of his project, but a reminder of how thoroughly oil suffuses human life on Earth.
Regardless, there’s a particular cleverness to Burtynsky’s approach: He has mixed the traditions of landscape art — scale, beauty and grand vistas — with the conceptual rigor of the New Topographics, the photographers who found smart ways to show us how humans were impacting the land. Burtynsky’s pictures are huge — four-by-five feet each — which helps to enable the detail that draws the viewer right up to the surface of the pictures. Photographs by the New Topos were typically much smaller, measurable in inches.
It is a connection that Burtynsky seems eager to encourage. Included in the Corcoran show is this picture, Industrial Parks (2007, at left), featuring a development in North Las Vegas, Nevada. The picture seems like a direct tip-of-the-hat to New Topo artist Lewis Baltz, whose The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California (1974) is one of the landmarks of 20th-century photography. Burtynsky’s intent is to show us not just what we’ve done, but to use beauty and scale to show us how massively we’ve done it, how we’re at the point of no return. It’s depression by seduction.
The last galleries of the show drive home the point: They include pictures of the third-world work-sites and workers who break up the giant oil tankers that ship crude around the globe. The conditions are nothing short of disgusting. They are ultimately lethal. It is possible, even likely, that the people in these pictures are dead. Burtynsky’s shipbreaking pictures are an appeal to conscience: Look what oil has enabled, but also consider the human cost of our reliance.
The exhibition’s final picture, installed just outside the suite of galleries in which the show is installed, is of oil that appears to have seeped up onto a beach in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The oil is in the shape of a footprint, a kind of literal, poisonous carbon footprint.
Related: In the NYT, Ken Johnson found the beauty of Burtynsky’s pictures to be problematic.
- Kenneth Baker looks at Gorky in Philly and in so doing explains why I almost never write about a show I haven’t seen under ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ circumstances.
- Ken Johnson is excited that Tim Burton’s films are being screened at MoMA but is befuddled by the Burton exhibition.
- Christopher Knight is enthralled by Kandinsky at the Guggenheim.
- In the Washington Post, University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham provides six reasons why arts education is not a luxury, but an imperative.
I’m taking a Friday off. I’ll have two more posts on Edward Burtynsky next week, plus I’ll kick off our 2009 DonorsChoose.org drive. (Last year you gave $3,000 to help provide art education to 1,300 students!)
In 2006 I wrote a post detailing some acquisitions at SFMOMA. Among the SFMOMA curators with whom I spoke was Sandra Phillips, who heads up the museum’s photography department. She told me this story. I’ve tried to interest magazines in it for years (maybe it would be a better book?), but because it’s a season of New Topographics at LACMA and because of the recent launch of a George Eastman House project, I thought now would be a good time to share it.
Robert Adams and Nick Nixon are two of the grand men of recent American
photography. Nixon has been recently celebrated in exhibitions at the
National Gallery of Art and at the Museum of Modern Art, and in the last few years Adams has
been the subject of solo shows at SFMOMA and at
the Getty Museum. Their work is in the permanent collection of
just about every major American museum.
The two men have been friends since they were included in a 1975 exhibit at the George Eastman House. Titled “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape,” the exhibition is arguably the most important photography group show of the last 35 years. This season it is being celebrated at LACMA via a reprise of sorts.
In 2004, Adams and his wife Kerstin celebrated their friendship with Nixon by giving SFMOMA a gift of 51 Nixon photographs. [Image above: Nicholas Nixon, View of the River Street Bridge, Storrow Drive, and the Charles River, Boston, 1975; gelatin silver print, 8 in. x 10 in. SFMOMA. Gift of Kerstin and Robert Adams.] All are gelatin silver prints. Some are four-by-six inch baby photos, some are classics of Nixon’s oeuvre. What distinguishes them is what’s on the back of the prints.
“Bob has had this very long relations with Nick Nixon,” Phillips told me. “The relationship exists not only in person, but in letters and through photographs. The wonderful thing about this gift is that on back of the photographs are letters to Bob from Nick.”
Phillips explained that for the last three decades the two men have exchanged old-fashioned, hand-written notes directly on the backs of their photographs. The notes are not written on paper taped to the back of the photos, but are on the photographic paper itself. The letters are about their families, their lives, and about their shared love of photography.
“Bob is a very important guy and he’s a very approachable guy among his peers,” Phillips said. “This relationship started many, many years ago and I think there’s a mutual admiration between Nick and Bob Adams. When you see Bob you know that when you talk to him that you know about his friendships. He very much values his relationship with Nick.” [Image above: Nicholas Nixon, Nina and John SZ, 1979; gelatin silver print, 8 in. x 10 in. SFMOMA. Gift of Kerstin and Robert Adams.]
I have not seen the correspondence, but I wonder if it’s a dialogue between two different Americas. Adams, who has lived in California, Colorado and now in rural Oregon, is arguably the most-admired photographer of the evolving, increasingly developed American West. There are not a lot of humans in Adams’ landscapes. Nixon has been an Easterner his entire life. Boston is his base. He has long made portraits and communities the focus of his work.
It may be that no one aside from Adams, Nixon and a couple SFMOMA curators has seen the correspondence. Maybe that can change: Earlier this year the George Eastman House, with the help of a federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, launched a new photo wiki called Notes on Photographs. (A detailed description of the project/wiki is here.) Among the features of the wiki is a section that will chronicle the marks on the backs of photographs: signatures, labels and so on. Digital images of such are and will be available on the Notes on Photographs website: Here’s a Margaret Bourke-White, a Weegee, and a lot of Hines. It seems like a good place for SFMOMA to begin to share with us the Nixon-Adams relationship in its collection…
Related: I reviewed the NGA’s 2005 ‘Brown Sisters’ Nicholas Nixon exhibition for the Boston Globe. Me on Robert Adams at the Getty in 2006. Thanks to Luke Strosnider’s Touching Harms the Art for the Eastman House project tip.
An artist interested in tackling a big subject — a subject such as mankind’s dependence on oil — has a tough job: You can’t do it in one picture. Photographer Edward Burtynsky understands that. For the last 12 years he’s taken hundreds of pictures in an effort to document our relationship with oil. A thrilling, haunting exhibition of 56 of them, “Edward Burtynsky: Oil,” is on view now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The show reveals not just the way we live and how, but it demonstrates that Burtynsky is a masterful story-teller. [Image: Talladega #1, 2009. For a screen-sized image, click here.]
Burtynsky’s pictures are more New Topographics than they are, say, Robert Frank. The best of Frank’s pictures have a self-contained narrative. Burtynsky’s pictures don’t work quite that way. Like the New Topos — more on Burtynsky’s apparent interest in them later in the week — Burtynsky prefers telling his story slowly, over dozens of photographs.
That’s not to say individual Burtynsky photographs are not tour de forces. They are. Consider the four-by-five-foot, detail-intense picture around which the Corcoran swirls: Talladega #1. Nothing about this photograph of the run-up to a NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway says much about our reliance on oil or our use of the planet in our pursuit of it… but considered in the context of 55 other pictures, the sentences that make up the book fall into place.
Acres of lawn fill the center of Talladega #1, a greenness made possible by petroleum-based fertilizer. Tens of thousands of people fill the stands. They drove to remote Lincoln, Ala. to see this race. The 43 cars that will run 499 miles around Talladega will burn through a gallon of gasoline every three or four miles. (Because a NASCAR sponsor wants to make sure you get the point, there’s a Sunoco ‘gas station’ behind pit road.)
At the top right of the picture, military jets are flying in the missing-man formation, a symbolic four-plane grouping that is intended to recall the memory of a fallen pilot. This act of symbolism — which, oddly, reinforces the recruiting the military does at NASCAR races — requires an enormous amount of jet fuel. The asphalt on which the cars will race is made from oil.
Finally, in the foreground of the picture, a gas-guzzling big-rig cab pulls a big American flag down the Talladega tri-oval. Fans stand and cheer. Many hold up cameras to take pictures of the truck and the flag. Burtynsky, with Roth’s help, is making a specific point by including this picture in the middle of a show about oil: Americans conflate consumption — specifically the consumption of massive amounts of oil — with patriotism. Talladega #1 is flanked by pictures that demonstrate the impact of the way we live, of how we have come to define the American dream.
Related: The personal story behind Edward Burtynsky’s interest in oil.
- I’m behind on posting a couple major items out of Los Angeles: Christopher Knight has reviewed MOCA’s two-building permanent collection installation. I’ve read his write-up and I’ve seen the checklist: Wow. LACM on Fire visits too. (The Walker is also launching a new, substantial permanent collection installation this month.)
- Christopher Hawthorne, the LAT’s architecture critic, considers the possible sites for Eli Broad’s museum. The paper’s Mike Boehm outlined Broad’s options.
- James Wagner considers the comportment of some NYCers who are trying to change the subject from the New Museum’s ethics problems.
- Speaking of which, here’s something intelligent about private collections and historicization. (I loved the recent Vollard show.)
- It’s nice to see the NYT and Randy Kennedy focused on some of the issues with Spiral Jetty. Kudos to art21’s blog and to Indianapolis Museum of Art conservator/writer Richard McCoy for writing about these same issues several months ago. I’m still hoping the NYT focuses on the broader conservation issues that impact the Jetty. Aside to the Times: Better enterprise reporting lately. Here’s what you might cover next. (Key deadline this month too!)
On a summer day in St. Catherines, Ontario, a 25-year old Edward Burtynsky reported for a temporary job at the local General Motors plant. He’d been around auto plants his entire life: his dad had been a line worker for GM and in the 1960’s and 1970’s and it seemed like everyone in St. Catherines worked for either GM or Ford. When Ed finished high school, he worked some stints in auto plants, stamping car and truck frames for GM, assembling front ends for Ford. He’d already worked at the Red Lakes gold mine too. Taking on the toughest jobs that no one else wanted was nothing new to Ed; he had to make enough money to help out his widowed mother. [Image: Edward Burtynsky, Recycling #2, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2001. Credit.]
On Ed’s first day at GM, a Company Man gave him the Company Spiel: Welcome Ed. Your dad worked here for a lot of years. He did damn good work. Sorry he died. Guess it’s been about ten years now, eh? Welcome to the family. Here are protective gloves. Wear them. Here is a protective suit. Wear it. Here are tanks of oil. Empty them into barrels. Simple enough, right?
Oh, and Ed, one other detail. Whatever you do, do not let the oil touch the cement floor of the factory. It will seep right through the cement, into the ground and into the water table. The oil has a half-life of decades. We don’t want oil in our water. Simple enough, right?
Oh, and Ed, I forgot the other thing. This oil, well, when some primates were exposed to it, you know, like monkeys and stuff, most of them got cancer and died. So you probably don’t want it touching your skin, or anything like that, OK Ed?
Ed looked at the Company Man, and then he looked around the factory. That oil, the stuff with what would come to be known as PCBs in it, wasn’t just in tanks or barrels. It was on the floor, it was squirting onto machines every time they piston-pistoned, it was all over all the people, the pipes, the bins. PCBs were a part the oily air. All of a sudden, Ed understood.
Ed walked over to the part of the factory where his father had worked. A bunch of guys were there, some working, some standing around. Ed asked them how many had known his father. One man raised his hand. Ed asked the others if they, too, had worked with his dad. Only the man who had raised his hand responded.
Where are the others?
They all died.
Cancer. They had all died from the same cancer that killed Ed’s dad. Soon Ed noticed that when he got home from PCB cleanup, he’d blow his nose and the tissue would turn black.
A few months later he quit the auto plants for good. He entered college, and later received a C$15,000 grant to begin his art career. Thanks to that first bit of support, Ed jumped in his 1981 Volvo station wagon and lit out across Canada, taking pictures of the industries he’d left behind. Inevitably, when Ed would call home from some far-off province, his mother would ask, “Eddie, who wants these pictures?”
“I don’t know mom,” Ed would reply. “I don’t know.”
Two decades after that trip, Ed Burtynsky is at the peak of his profession. In 2003 the National Gallery of Canada organized a retrospective of his work and now an exhibition featuring Burtynsky’s photographs of the impact oil has had on us and our landscapes in on view at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art.
This is excerpted/adapted from a profile of Burtynsky I wrote for Black Book magazine in 2005. Look for more on the Corcoran’s Burtynsky show tomorrow and on Thursday.
New York-based critic Ken Johnson via Jerry Saltz’s comments thread on Facebook (and re-published here with Johnson’s permission):
[I] don’t know if anyone has mentioned this, but what’s also at stake is the intellectual mission of the museum. Unlike a gallery, a museum is more than just a showcase for art. It should be a forum for points of view, and that’s one reason it has its own hopefully independently minded and even skeptical curators — to offer perspectives and familiar ways of thinking about art rather than to echo the commercial status quo. To have an artist who is deeply represented in the collection he’s curating necessarily casts doubt on the intellectual independence of the show. There can be little doubt, however, that it will be hugely popular and add much-needed coin to the [New Museum's] dwindling coffers.
Agreed. One minor note of dissent: Admission revenue made up only about nine percent of the NuMu’s operating budget in FY 2008 — a high percentage for a contemporary kunsthalle, a low percentage for a museum in a major tourist city. I don’t think one show will move the needle much one way or the other.