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Shepherd Steiner

Where World View and World Lines Converge

“Aesthetic ideology”—a term we borrow from the literary critic Paul de Man and which we can briefly describe as the treating of the literary or pictorial as art and not as material text or linguistic artifact—is a powerful fiction. 1 It has come under attack from various quarters, and no wonder. 2 It is not only something that one sees happening in the texts of Hegel and Kant, but is symptomatic of all critical methods, and inasmuch can be glimpsed in such otherwise opposing approaches to art and literature as the raising up of a spiritual content in the formal poetics of the New Criticism, and as the conjuring up of an ideal appearance or horizon of history in a wide variety of Marxist-based hermeneutic methods. “Aesthetic ideology” is a truly pervasive phenomenon, and judging from two recent installations of the same series of works by William Eggleston, it is a fine, highly wrought line as well; and one might add given the tenuousness of Eggleston’s Los Alamos, a fine line if, and only if, seen through a fine view.

Let me explain this somewhat cryptic and broad introduction to a rhetorical reading of William Eggleston’s Los Alamos (1966-74) through a brief detour that will allow me to set up the main argument in earnest; and by set up, I mean stage an easy and all too natural hermeneutic dialogue with the work, that the work itself calls up. The detour concerns my disappointment with the installation of Eggleston’s photographs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) after having seen the very same traveling exhibition in its prior incarnation at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark. My feeling was that if Los Alamos was a success at the Louisiana it failed to coalesce as an aesthetic whole at SFMOMA. To my mind the reasons for this failure are varied, and no doubt include factors ranging from a certain leniency or indecision with regard to the ultimate arrangement of works in the series by the artist himself, to a simple lack of exhibition space available to the curators at the time, and on to the relative explosion of a private market for Eggleston’s works in the past year or two.

The problem with the SFMOMA’s installation was the curatorial assumption (and again this could in part be an authorial slip) that the photographs could indeed function as singular works of art, and failing this that stacking works on top of one another in sets of two would provide a sufficient motor for the generation of meaning or affect, that any single photograph lacked. That each photograph at the SFMOMA was accompanied by a title (usually indicating location)—unlike the installation at the Louisiana where the more than one hundred and sixty works were untitled and displayed in single file across six broad walls—would seem a confirmation of this. Certainly Eggleston’s various portraits of people both indoors and out can hold their own, as Jeff Wall has commented. And I think there are a few other compelling moments of pictorial integrity in the series, but this still leaves a lot to be desired. To my mind, the installation at the SFMOMA left just too many loose ends, fragments, or unfinished sentences, if you will.

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About this Article

Where World View and World Lines Converge was first published in Fillip 1 in Summer 2006. For more articles from this issue, see the Table of Contents.

Shepherd Steiner teaches Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Florida. Recent publications include Snow Changes Everything: Unfinished Form in the Filmwork of Ibon Aranberri (Funadcio Tapies, 2009); “(Art and) Democracy | Hegemony (and Anarchy),” in Becoming Dutch (Eindhoven, 2009) and “Curatorial Formalism and Tinkering with the Political on the Far Side of the Subject at Documenta XII” (Journal of Visual Culture, 2008). His curatorial project focussing on American painting and video art, titled Acts of Non-Agression: 1960–76, opened at the Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, in September 2008. He is currently finishing a book on Modernism titled Mnemotechnical Bodies: Close Readings in Modernist Painting, Sculpture, and Criticism.

Notes

The views expressed in Fillip are not necessarily those of the editorial board or the Projectile Publishing Society.

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