Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West

Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West at the Museum of Modern Art is primarily a showcase for the riches of MoMA's photography collection, from the 19th century to the present, with a few loans from other institutions (the Getty, the Whitney, the Amon Carter). The exhibit mixes historical & contemporary work. Much of the work is familiar: Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams, for example. & among more recent & contemporary photographers there is work by Robert Adams & Lewis Baltz - perhaps a bit more dystopic in their vision, but working in black-&-white, in a seeming continuum of practices from mid-century (Adams, Minor White). These are all photographers w/ long associations w/ MoMA. What the exhibit does against the grain of grand old traditions is mix work which is unrelated to these practices, to include work which deals with the West as cultural myth & image, & to include work which is primarily urban & suburban, as opposed to the unmediated serene horizontal landscape associated w/ the photographed West.

Perhaps the idea of the "West" is too vague a concept. Where does it begin? Visitors to the Thomas Jefferson home Monticello in Virginia are told that the view west to the Blue Ridge Mountains represented the West, in the difference between charted & uncharted lands - what can be seen was once a view into absolute wilderness. The Mississippi River is a traditional boundary - what do St. Louis & San Francisco have in common? What do Promontory Point, UT, & Venice, CA, have in common? What does it mean to place the self-conscious work of Cindy Sherman & Richard Prince, which are not geographically specific, in the midst of work wherein the specificity is all-important? One sees the beginnings of an idea but not its culmination. The separate parts do not add up to a whole.

This seems like a very East Coast conceit to me, overall. It is vague platitudes about due west from the Hudson River. The original MoMA stalwarts such as Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Lewis Baltz, look best in a mish-mosh of banalities mixing exploratory wonderment with world-weary consumption. It bears some similarities for the show I saw last year at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Ca, This Side of Paradise, which dealt with images specifically of Los Angeles, mixing commercial work with artistic endeavors - also images which were not dependent on Los Angeles as contributing to their meaning (here thinking of the work of Lyle Ashton Harris & Laura Aguilar). & as opposed to the MoMA show, I thought the Huntington show rather extraordinary. As heterogeneous as "Los Angeles" may be - it is much more specific than "the West." That's all I can think of, comparing the 2 shows. Also, "Los Angeles" as a sequence of images, has little history, compared to "the West" which has an amazing iconography without it being necessarily photographic. It makes me long for what seems missing rather than what is there.