Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
August 26, 1998. All rights reserved.
Wild, Wild Photo West
The American West as a mythic land of opportunity,
exploitation, and struggle — both physical and moral — holds
sway as an abiding cultural cliche. At the Art Museum, Princeton
Toby Jurovics, associate curator of photography, opens his current
group show, "The West," with a view of Las Trampas, New
as seen through the windshield of Levi Lovato’s 1972 Chevy Monte
Alex Harris’ color photograph "Las Trampas, New Mexico"
strikes us emblematic of the clash of desire that is the West. From
the moment Europeans turned their sights westward, transportation
represented the key to conquest. Looking out from Lovato’s Chevy,
we see a hand-plastered adobe church built by 17th-century Spanish
settlers that is also an international tourist magnet. And we also
enjoy the view of a the car’s extravagantly vinyl-quilted dash
with its own wildlife population — a furry turquoise dog that
dangles from the rearview mirror.
"The West," an exhibition of 20 prints by 15 artists,
museum purchases made over a five-year period, offers a marvelous
vacation of the imagination from the hot and humid environs of New
Jersey to the fabled "wide open spaces" that are the American
West. The show explores the powerful myth of the West, looking back
at its history, and forward at the continuing power of its
That the resulting dialogue is so rich can be explained by the
art museum’s history of holdings in this area. Photographs of the
American West have long played a central role here, from the original
gift of hundreds of images by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Brett
and Wynn Bullock, from the collection of David H. McAlpin (Class of
1920), to the extensive holdings in the Minor White Archive, to the
acquisition of work by some pivotal photographers of the 1970s,
trailblazers Robert Adams and Louis Baltz of the New Topographics
movements. Adopting a pose of objectivity, these latter artists turned
their black-and-white attention to the mundane realities of highways,
industrial parks, and tract housing of the vaunted West.
Now, Jurovics explains, the New Topographics has evolved
and worked itself back into the American lyrical pictorial tradition.
While the 19th-century Wagnerian landscape portraits of the West —
the fecund beauty and sublime vistas of Yellowstone and Yosemite
by such photographers as Carleton Watkins — stirred the political
passions of an East-Coast based national legislature to create a
of the National Parks, so, too, their contemporary counterparts have
a political point to drive home. Today’s concerns revolve around
population and limited resources, with water the most contested
of the West.
One of the gallery’s long walls is devoted to six works by three
all members of the Water in the West Project, a group that explores
the use of water and its scarcity across the vast empire that has
been developed in the arid lands west of the Missouri River. "If
you’re an artist, how do you effect change? How do you inspire
asks Jurovics. The answer often comes in the form of cool, clear-eyed
views such as the three "president’s" dams — Hoover,
and Coolidge — depicted on this wall. Today the dams are Western
landmarks as well known as Old Faithful and Yosemite Valley. Nearby
is Len Jenshel’s view from inside a Best Western motel room in
Montana, its stark interior bathed in a lurid orange light. Seen
the frame of the room’s aluminum window, is a miniature view of the
sweep of mountain, pine-covered foothills, and drylands beyond
Titles serve an important function here to bring an entire universe
of meaning to some understated Western views. Two color works by Wanda
Hammerbeck fuse mystery and purpose. Her twilight view of a quiet
waterway meandering across an immense Western landscape, with
extending perhaps 50 miles, carries on it the running title:
Delineating National Boundary." More stern, is one showing
rushing waters behind another monumental dam; not one to mince words,
this title, also emblazoned across the width of the photograph is
"Living Beyond the Resources." More forceful still is the
Coolidge dam diptych by Martin Stupich in which the slash that runs
down the center of his two-print collage seems to threaten the very
integrity of the massive structure.
Given the blue skies, dazzling light, and hard edges of the American
West, it is surprising to discover how much strong, evocative work
about the West is executed in black and white. "Color photography
didn’t find a place in museums until the late 1970s and early
says Jurovics, noting that a number of the artists represented in
the show work in both color and monochrome.
Two black-and-white images by Drex Brooks from his
Medicine" series thrill us with the esthetic pleasures of the
graphic tradition at the same time that they allow us to read a
into the terrain. In the Bear’s Paw Mountains, windswept grasses flank
a road to nowhere, each stroke discreet and alive as if individually
incised by the artist’s hand. In Powder River, we gain an elevated
perspective (are we up in a tree?) over a small river valley of
and deciduous trees, and the lovely clustered hills of the ridge
Titles, here, inform us that we’re looking at the quiet, overgrown
sites of 19th-century battles between American settlers and Native
Americans in Montana.
Revealing titles also color an exquisite landscape by Richard Misrach,
a highly-regarded artist who has established himself as a master of
the color and light of the western deserts. Here his subtle,
color — gradations of sulfurous yellows and an anemic sky blue
— is almost hypnotic. The work’s title, "Truck Remains and
Eagle’s Nest, Bravo 20," comes as a shock — informing us that
we’re admiring the awesome beauties of the Navy’s Bravo 20 bombing
Also commanding the glories of color are Virginia Beahan and Laura
McFee (Princeton Class of 1980), two artists who have worked
over years, with series of works that include the volcanic landscapes
of Iceland, Italy, and Hawaii. The drama and saturated color of this
pair of prints — a windmill farm set against sand dunes and smoke,
and an artificial volcano tableau created for Las Vegas consumption
— are loaded with visual interest and biting irony.
Steve Fitch is another consummate colorist who knows how to conjure
a vivid sense of place. His amazing, highly estheticized images of
a ruined church and a ruined living room seem almost artificial in
their theatricality. Rather than a West unspoiled by human presence,
he records a harsh setting where people have tried — and failed
— to gain a foothold, a place where humans co-exists uneasily
— and temporarily — with the forces of nature. All that
of the church is the spatial relationship of roof and wall to altar
and broken pews. His domestic interior records the cruel meeting of
a genteel flower-and-foliage wallpaper with the actual dead, dry
that litter the abandoned dwelling.
Working both in the tradition and the footsteps of 19th-century
photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, Mark Klett presents the West in black
and white as a spacious landscape inhabited by the lonesome
represented in one picture by a traditional box camera on a tripod,
in another by the photographer’s feet, as he looks out across
Canyon, resting after a long hike.
Peter De Lory, a former student of Minor White, thinks
of his triptychs as "short stories that draw on the mythology
and iconography our culture has brought to the landscape," says
Jurovics. His three-part "Observations Contained" offers three
cool, objective views of the harsh meeting of nature with cheap
chairs, a slatted wooded sun porch, and the barbed wire along the
boundary of an Anasazi ruin. Although jarring, the contrasts ring
true to experience.
"While it may sadden us to realize that the ideal of an
wilderness is no longer tenable," says Jurovics, "one
that these images have been made with a deep concern for the West
and the hope that they will inspire an affection and appreciation
for the land as well as a new sense of advocacy."
— Nicole Plett
Art Museum, Princeton University, 609-258-3788. To September
6. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday from
1 to 5 p.m. Tours every Saturday at 2 p.m. Free.
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