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Getty acquires Lewis Baltz archive

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The Getty Research Institute has acquired the archive of Lewis Baltz, one of the most important artists of the post-war era.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Baltz’s photographs, first of the American West in pioneering black-and-white series such as “Prototypes” and “The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, Calif.,” typically examined the man-built environment. After moving to Europe in the 1980s, Baltz began to make work in color and expanded his focus to examine questions surrounding the power and impact of technology and states.

The archive was a gift from Baltz and his wife, artist Slavica Perkovic. At the GRI it will join numerous recently acquired archives related to contemporary art, including the archives of  Robert Irwin, Robert Mapplethorpe, Leo Steinberg and Harald Szeemann. The GRI is also home to this Ed Ruscha photographic archive. [Corrected: A previous version of this post suggested that the GRI was home to Ruscha's entire photographic archive.]

For much of the 1990s and 2000s Baltz, living in Paris and Venice, without a New York dealer and published by Euro-focused Steidl, was the most overlooked major American photographer. In recent years that’s begun to change: In 2010 Steidl published “Works,” a limited edition, mini-library of Baltz’s oeuvre. That same year Art Institute of Chicago curator Matthew S. Witkovsky presented “Prototypes/Ronde de Nuit,” which traveled to the National Gallery of Art in 2011. (No American scholar has been more interested in Baltz’s work than Witkovsky, who conducted the artist’’s 2009 oral history for the Archives of American Art and who wrote the introduction for the 2012 “Lewis Baltz Texts,” a Steidl-published tome of Baltz’s writings.) In Europe, where Baltz has long had a higher profile and thicker exhibition history, he was most recently the subject of a retrospective at the kestnergesellschaft in Hannover, Germany and at the Albertina in Vienna. That exhibition closed about 10 weeks ago.

“I visited the GRI in 1992, when it was under the direction of Kurt Forster, and was impressed with the ambition and quality of the work they were doing,” Baltz told me in email. “Everything and everyone I’ve spoken to since has supported that impression. Several museums in Southern California have substantial holdings of my work, so it seemed logical to have the archive material as close as possible to the original works.”

The archive includes a complete set of Baltz’s negatives and contact prints with meticulous printing notes (such as the example above, from “Nevada” (1977)  and at right, from “Candlestick Point” (1987-89), click to expand), many proof prints, examples of final prints, journals, videos about Baltz and his work such as “Contacts,” which was produced in 1998 by Studio ARTE, Baltz’s writing, numerous books, magazines and journals in which his work is discussed and ephemera.

“One of the real treasures of the archive is that you know when you see a Lewis Baltz installation that there’s a lot of thought behind that early American black-and-white work, but it’s not until you see the printing notes that you realize the depth and rigor of the work and that he is making a statement in terms of his printing,” GRI photography curator  Frances Terpak told me. “The result is a gorgeous image of something that’s absolutely hideous in our society.” Terpak also noted that Baltz’s twin interests in beauty and in acquiring technical knowledge of the subjects he has photographed connects his work with Carleton Watkins, the greatest photographer of the 19th century. The J. Paul Getty Museum holds one of the most significant collections of Watkins’ work.

Installation has long been important to Baltz — so much so that the recent kestnergesellschaft/Albertina catalogue and the 2012 Steidl books “Rule Without Exception/Only Exceptions” published on the occasion of Baltz’s first German retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Bonn, don’t just include the usual plates of Baltz’s work, but installation shots from previous exhibitions. Terpak said that Baltz’s archive includes many installation views as well. (“Rule Without Exception” is a re-issue of a book published for a 1991 Baltz retrospective.) [Image: Lewis Baltz, contact sheet related to The Black Freighter, The Frunzanesti, Marghera, Italy, 1997. Click to expand.]

“His work is known in the world and recognized but I think the archive is the fresh insight into Baltz and how important he is as what i consider a visual sociologist,” Terpak said. “He requires the viewer to think critically about image, and he has a visual narrative that is very complex.”

The Baltz archive also includes contact prints and material related toward Baltz’s shift toward color photography, a change Baltz made after moving to Europe in the 1980s. Among Baltz’s most significant color works is Ronde de Nuit (1992/95), a photo-mural about technology and government surveillance. (In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the American surveillance state, my column in the September issue of Modern Painters will examine Ronde de Nuit.)

The archive will open to scholars in 2014.

Related: I’m pleased to have written as much about Baltz in recent years as any other American critic, including:

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  1. [...] in case you missed it last week: The Getty Research Institute has acquired Lewis Baltz’s archive, a gift from the artist and his wife Slava Perkovic. « The Modern Art Notes Podcast: [...]

  2. [...] Don’t miss Getty Research Institute photography curator Frances Terpak (who recently helped acquire the Lewis Baltz archive for the GRI) and former MAN Podcast guest Christine Sciacca, whose recent “Florence at the [...]

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