At the Addison, going back to the land
ANDOVER — The tradition of a hierarchy of genres in the visual arts ended in the 19th century. From the get-go, Modernism was death on tradition and hierachies alike. Still, genres retain (for lack of a better word) affiliations.
The portrait is implicitly aristocratic, singling out and elevating the sitter. The still life is inherently bourgeois, celebrating as it does stuff. Landscape is uniqely democratic, or at least it is in an American context, depicting something shared by all: topography and space, lots and lots of topography and space. The most American thing about our brayingly American president isn’t his being a reality-TV star. It’s his money coming from property development.
Whether the specific American landscape is a national park or post-Katrina New Orleans doesn’t matter. It’s there. It’s available for inspection. It allows for at least the illusion of escape — the most basic (the most American?) form the pursuit of happiness can take. No landscape means no lighting out for the Territory, the Territory simply being landscape spelled differently and made both mythic and practical. Being at once mythic and practical is a pretty neat trick — pretty American, too.
“Contemplating the View: American Landscape Photographs” runs at the Addison Gallery of American Art through March 3. It’s a magnificent show, one that, like its subject, is thrillingly abundant and dizzyingly diverse. Its 224 images play no favorites. We see exploitation as well as exaltation. Real estate (landscape monetized) plays no less prominent a role than does redemption (landscape as religion). Yes, there are Ansel Adams photographs in the show, six of them.
Sometimes those two polarities coincide, as in Roger Minick’s deadpan-hilarious “Woman With Scarf at Inspiration Point, Yosemite National Park, California.” Inspiration: Yup, that’s the word, all right. For better or worse, the link between exploitation and exaltation is us. To make land into landscape requires a human presence — or at least human perception. The pair of feet dangling over the precipice in Mark Klett’s “Contemplating the View at Muley Pt., Utah,” makes that point quite marvelously (unless you’re afraid of heights).
Photography, more than any other medium, is an endless arm-wrestle between content and form. With content like the Grand Canyon and NASA satellite views and the mass gravesite at Wounded Knee, form is at a serious disadvantage here. Not always, though: As the show follows its mostly chronological course from the years after the Civil War (railroad building and the beginnings of what we now think of as environmental tourism), it devotes wall space to such purely formalist approaches as Pictorialism and abstraction (Minor White, mostly).
A key principle of “Contemplating the View” is that the manmade environment can be as sublime as the natural. Klett’s mighty view of Hoover Dam is a case in point. Conversely, Robert Frank’s photograph of a souvenir stand at the dam — with three postcards visible, of the dam, the Grand Canyon, and a mushroom cloud — makes a similar point, minus (really, really minus) the sublimity.
The show’s centerpiece consists of the 84 photographs in Lewis Baltz’s 1989 series “Candlestick Point.” Baltz, who died in 2014, may have had the bleakest — which is also to say the purest — vision of any American photographer. Training it on this dumping ground alongside San Francisco Bay, he found a subject absolutely worthy in its unworthiness. Stark and unblinking, the series is a documentation of violation. It could be a visualization of the Book of Exodus, only with no Israelites and all the bushes long ago burnt. It’s well that the individual photographs are small, 8 inches by 10 inches. Otherwise the overall effect would be not so much overwhelming, which it is, as unbearable.
The human body is a kind of landscape, with its own fleshy terrain. That being so, “The Body: Concealing and Revealing” nicely chimes with “Contemplating the View.” It’s just a different sort of view to contemplate. The show runs through March 31. The Addison’s estimable Allison Kemmerer curated both shows. There’s a further bit of chiming: More than a dozen examples from Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies are hung just outside the gallery.
“The Body” includes nudes, the body clothed, the body in part, and the body entire. The most landscape-like work in the show is John Coplans’s photographic triptych “Hand,” which is also a fingerscape, a palmscape, and a wristscape. At 49 inches by 120 inches it’s wider and longer than a lot of people are.
While mostly comprising photographs, the show also has among its 42 works paintings, an Alexander Archipenko sculpture, two John Singer Sargent drawings, and a very witty Judith Shea etching, “Venus.” It presents a nude statue of the goddess with a silhouette in which her outline looks like a dress. A close second on the wittiness front is Leon Levinstein’s 1965 photograph of a man’s black-clothed legs and torso standing on a New York sidewalk. Levinstein’s canting of the camera splendidly accentuates the angularity of the body.
The show’s biggest surprise consists of the six selections from Cindy Sherman’s 1976 series “Murder Mystery People.” Sherman photographs herself playing various roles — stereotypes, really — in a murder mystery. It’s a fascinating glimpse at how Sherman, just out of college, was already well on her way to being “Cindy Sherman” (photographing herself, playing croupier with a deck in which each card is a different identity) without quite being there yet (the images are on a smaller scale, the balance between character and setting is a bit out of whack). The half dozen pictures’ presence here has the slyest of justifications. After all, every murder mystery — just like this show — hinges on the body in question.
CONTEMPLATING THE VIEW: American Landscape Photographs
THE BODY: Concealing and Revealing
At Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover, through March 3 and March 31, respectively. 978-749-4015, addison.andover.edu