Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Making a case for John Divola’s significance

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Yesterday critic Blake Gopnik posted his 1,000th daily picture to BlakeGopnik.com. It was Velazquez’s Las Meninas, which gave Gopnik the opportunity to trumpet his take on the painting’s place in the canon. “Back in August of 2010, I climbed on my new soapbox and suggested that the work might be ‘The greatest picture in the Western world’, without giving reasons. A few months later, I spent a solid week with the canvas, then argued my position at rather great length. And now, even after one thousand Pics, I don’t have much to add, except to note how brilliantly the picture has refused to turn into the empty icon that the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s ‘David’ have become.”

As I’ve noted here before, critics don’t much make the case for differenetiation — the separation of the very good from the good, the great from the very good or for the elevation of Artist X into a Level of Greater Significance — all that much any more. I think that’s too bad. I think that arguing for who and what matters and why is part of what good critics should do. I like the way Gopnik stumps for Las Meninas, that he builds a pedestal and argues for why the Velazquez belongs there.

In the February issue of Modern Painters I took a stab at arguing for John Divola, whose three-venue retrospective continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Here’s an excerpt:

Sometimes, perhaps too often, a museum retrospective functions as a celebration, a victory lap more for those who acquired the work than for the artist. But in the best case, a career survey is an excavation of an oeuvre, a presentation that reveals an artist to not just be worthy of a long-form treatment, but one of the leading figures of his generation. Such is the case with the recent retrospective of California-based photographer John Divola.

“John Divola: As Far As I Could Get,” which was presented between three Southern California museums—the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Pomona College Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it remains on view through July 6—makes clear that Divola should be considered alongside Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Joe Deal, Henry Wessel, Stephen Shore, Richard Misrach and William Eggleston as the most significant photographers to emerge in America during the Vietnam Era.

“As Far As I Could Get” shows that Divola hasn’t only made smart pictures for nearly 40 years, but that he has been a trailblazer since the early 1970s. From his first mature body of work in 1973, he has melded then-nascent conceptualism with references to performance, the history of photography and other media, all while keeping an interest in beauty as a key ingredient in what makes art tick, a focus of many California-based artists.

So why are so many of Divola’s peers significantly better-known than he is? Maybe it’s because each is associated with prominent movements in art and photography: Baltz, Adams, Deal and Wessel with the New Topographics movement, Shore, Misrach and Eggleston with the rise of color photography. Perhaps to his short-term detriment, Divola’s never been in sync with the in crowd.

Paradoxically, that’s what makes a retrospective of his work so useful: It provides the opportunity to examine Divola’s project removed from temporal trends or ad hoc alliances. The early-to-mid-1970s, when Divola got his start, was a time when American photography was led by the New Topographics’ focus on the incursion of man into the mostly Western landscape. Instead of following that path, Divola did something completely different: He focused on places where the built environment was breaking down, on the cheap houses quickly constructed after World War II and how readily disposable they were. While the New Topos focused on building, Divola’s pictures suggest how the building boom, the West’s biggest since the dawn of the post-war suburbs, might well end up. (Somehow this interest in entropy, which Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark were concurrently exploring, didn’t help Divola’s work catch on in the East Coast.) To that twist, Divola added elements of performance and conceptualism, a blend that has become so common that we forget that mixing it was once pioneering.

For the rest of the column, pick up the February issue of Modern Painters. Single issues are available on Zinio for just $5, and at newsstands too.

Related: John Divola on The Modern Art Notes Podcast. MAN’s 2013 top ten list.

[Image at top: Divola, Zuma #5, 1977.]

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