At first glance, Lewis Baltz’s photograph Newport Beach (1970) appears to be astonishingly dull. It shows a boarded-up window surrounded by stucco, presumably a wall. Stucco is a common building material in Baltz’s native California. A coating for buildings and walls, it is laid on wet and dries hard. It is traditionally applied with a trowel, leaving a bumpy, ridged surface that leaves topographical evidence of how it was applied. When applied poorly and cheaply, it cracks and stains quickly. Baltz’s photograph features cheap stucco.
After a moment, Newport Beach comes to life: The texture in the stucco seems to stand up from the photograph kind of like oil paint often stands up from an abstract painting. The stucco field in Baltz’s photographs recalls Donald Judd’s paintings of the early 1960s: It is a big, textured empty space with a simple, plain shape in the middle. The square in the center of Baltz’s picture, a big square of white paint-on-board — the paint is cracking and you can almost see brushstrokes — recalls Robert Ryman. Newport Beach is a classic example of Baltz’s Prototypes: It simultaneously explores details of new, cheap American buildings and it riffs on the history of 20th-century painting.
Newport Beach is included in an outstanding exhibition titled, “Lewis Baltz: Prototypes/Ronde de Nuit” is on view at the National Gallery of Art. Curated by Matthew S. Witkovsky of the Art Institute of Chicago, where the show originated, ‘Prototypes’ reveals Baltz as one of America’s foremost examiners of our built environment and a witty, wise synthesizer of 20th-century painting history. The exhibition features 60 of Baltz’s 84 Prototypes works as well as Ronde de Nuit, a colorful Baltz mural from 1991-92. On the occasion of the exhibition, Steidl and the AIC published a book of the entire Baltz Prototypes series along with an essay by Witkovsky. (A beautiful tome, it’s not available through the usual online outlets but may be purchased from the AIC.)
Baltz began his Prototypes series in 1967 while an undergraduate at the San Francisco Art Institute and continued it after earning his master’s degree at Claremont Graduate School in 1971. (In a smart catalogue essay, Witkovsky calls Prototypes “one of the most impressive bodies of student work ever assembled.”) With the series Baltz introduces the two major subjects that he would examine for much of his career: An interest in buildings constructed cheaply and quickly and the relationship between photography and painting. (Today we’ll look at the first theme. A future post will look at the second theme.)
Witkovsky’s exhibition and book reveal how Baltz began his practice, building toward the work that would would make his reputation, most famously The New Industrial Parks Around Irvine, Calif. (1974). That landmark series documented America’s profligate land-use during a period of affluence, in particular the way America built ever-more outward from its cities, ever-more cheaply with ever less regard for the land. Along with Robert Adams, Joe Deal, Hank Wessel and others, Baltz’s art engaged sociopolitical debates about land use and helped re-ignite American artists’ fascination with landscape.
That starts here, as does Baltz’s careful, clever use of titles and names. Just as the individual pictures in Prototypes explore multiple themes, Baltz’s title for the series reads on several levels. It refers to both how he used the body of work as prototypes for themes that would interest him for the next two decades, including in New Industrial Parks, but also for the way the (mostly) buildings he photographed functioned: Suburban land-use was a prototype for the next wave suburban land-use. Baltz was also prescient: The land-use and buildings he chronicled in the 1960s and 1970s were prototypes for exurban development (and land-use issues still dominate suburban county-planning meetings). [Image: Baltz, Dana Point No. 2, 1970.]
The most frequent pictures in Prototypes are close-ups of buildings. For the most part, Baltz isn’t interested in landscape — yet. After starting the series with a picture of California’s lush coastal mountains in Gilroy, 1967, No. 1 (1967) a coastscape (1967’s Drake’s Bay) and Fort Ross (1967), a picture of a 1950s enabler (a Bel Air), Baltz gets to the buildings. (None of those three pictures are in the exhibition, but they open the book.) In picture after picture Baltz he details cheap, recent-but-already-cracking stucco construction, boarded-up windows and doors, fresh, cheap black-top, empty parking places and piles of crushed, discarded corrugated metal. Mostly there are walls, mostly stucco walls but also masonry walls, siding and even a granite wall. By my count, 65-70 of Baltz’s Prototypes pictures are entirely or mostly of walls.
There are also two pictures of farms at Irvine Ranch, which remind us that California’s most common land use was (and remains) agricultural. Today, 41 years after the Baltz pictures of Irvine Ranch that are in Prototypes, I wonder how much of that farmland has been developed into tract houses or, well, industrial parks near Irvine, Calif. [Image: Baltz, Irvine Ranch, 1968.]
As is evident in Newport Beach, Baltz’s pictures of walls are surprisingly beautiful. In Laguna Niguel (1970, above left), four bleach-white, smooth lines painted on black-top so as to denote parking spaces stop just short of cement parking barriers and a concrete sidewalk. Rising up from the sidewalk is a stucco wall with a whit door and some ductwork and pipes sticking out of it. The picture sounds horribly bland, even mistaken, but Baltz’s print mixes exacting composition with surprising tactility. One of the pleasures of seeing Baltz’s work in an exhibition as opposed to in book form is to see people become pleasantly astonished as they realize they’ve spent a minute soaking in a photo of a seemingly bland stucco wall.
However, it’s evident that by the middle of the Prototypes, which were shot between 1967 and 1976, that Baltz was beginning to think about not just structures, but to question how they got there and why they look the way they do. There is a glimmers of Baltz realizing the relationship between his buildings and landscape as early as 1969. In 2000 Bridgeway, Sausalito (1969), Baltz shows a building made up of rows of vaulted corridors, each with rows of vents sticking out of the roof. (Picture a down-market version of Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum.). Beyond the building lies a sliver of San Francisco Bay. Across the bay are hills, the natural roll of which contrasts with the starkness of the building in the foreground. As my eye moved through the picture, I found myself asking the question to which Baltz had led me: Who would but a light industrial building in such a beautiful spot, here on the edge of the bay?
I remembered that picture later, when I saw a 1972 photograph of downtown San Francisco, perhaps shot out from the roof of a skyscraper. The picture recalls both photographs and paintings of between-the-wars downtown New York, already thick with skyscrapers. The dense verticality of those pictures – think of Charles Sheeler’s famous 1920 photograph of New York, which he also made into a painting – is absent from Baltz’s image, which reveals lots of empty, available, undeveloped space. Dropped into the middle of a series of sprawl-requiring stucco, it’s a raised eyebrow.
Baltz’s Prototypes is very much an investigation of the West. Only six of the 84 pictures in Prototypes were evidently shot outside California. One of them is Fayetteville, Arkansas (1976, above right), a late addition-to-Prototypes of a cheap, bland, mid-century-built storefront that features an advertising display for Muzak machines, complete with a sign that apparently explains what Muzak is. (There are only three works from 1976 in Prototypes. None are in the exhibition.) It looks like Baltz, who uses words in his photographs and series names oh-so-carefully, added Fayetteville, Arkansas to the series as a way of tilted his head toward all those cheap, proliferating, stucco buildings in the other 83 pictures: They’re all visual background noise that we barely notice, and when we do it’s to notice how poorly they are arranged. The picture and its late inclusion point to Baltz’s by-then-intense exploration of not just buildings, but land-use.
The picture before it in Baltz’s sequencing of works is another 1976 picture (above, left). It shows a word in cursive script, evidently painted on a polished stucco building wall. It is a wincing, almost wise-ass smirk at the previous 81 pictures and of the ‘Muzak picture’ that follows it. The word is “Ideal.”
To be continued in part two: Baltz addresses painting.