Fillip 1 — Summer 2005

Where World View and World Lines Converge
Shepherd Steiner

“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.

One could say that if the high level of aesthetic taste that has emerged around contemporary photography is a contributing factor to the reappraisal and renewed interest in Eggleston’s work it also seems to be one of the main obstacles to the reception, curation, and understanding of this artist’s work. All of which brings me to my original experience of Los Alamos at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark where I first encountered the large suite of colour photographs apparently centered on the infamous location in New Mexico where the atomic bomb was invented.

What one noticed at the Louisiana is that making one’s way through Eggleston’s pictures is curiously impeded by a number of interpretative prejudices that hinge on questions whose importance is not often as central to Eggleston’s practice as one would like to believe from either general theories of photography presently in circulation, acquired modes of aesthetic contemplation, and paradoxically, by looking at the individual works themselves. Certainly, one has just cause to pause in front of any one of these photographs and contemplate their aesthetic value, but it is worth keeping in mind Hilton Kramer’s blunt response to an early showing of the works and one critic’s praise of them: “Perfect Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly.” 3 How Eggleston’s works can verge on the ‘banal’ and ‘boring,’ and more importantly how such determinations can precipitate a durational effect, at the same time as one can confidently describe individual photographs as paradigmatic moments of aesthetic experience, is a crucial problem, perhaps the central problem to be asked of Los Alamos.

Among the interpretative biases that lead one away from tackling this crucial tension in Eggleston’s practice is, again, the prominence typically allotted the singular photograph, the importance of the notion of the photographic tableau, and finally the current interest in documentary photography, all of which are believed to be, if not antithetical, at least divorced from issues of narrative flow or fictive continuity which have a persuasive effect in this body of work. We can add to this list the important lessons forwarded by John Szarkowski. In his book William Eggleston’s Guide, Szarkowski reminds us of the importance of balancing Eggleston’s own notion of “photographing democratically”— i.e., taking pictures of virtually anything without a discretionary principle or a favored motif in hand—with this photographer’s practice of editing and cropping on the fly, through the viewfinder as it were; how this relates to “the nominal subjects of his pictures;” and finally how Eggleston’s pivotal use of color as a formal resource of the medium ties all of this together. 4 In addition, Thomas Weski and Lars Schwander direct our attention to Eggleston’s complex darkroom technique. Generally accepted as one of the fathers of modern color photography, we are to be mindful of Eggleston’s use of the so-called dye-transfer technique, a system of color printing developed for advertising photography. Didactic panels in the exhibition space tell us that the technique makes it possible to separate the three primary colors, work them independently, and transfer them directly on to paper, thereby allowing one to emphasize or manipulate particular details in any one picture and/or to establish color harmonies across a spectrum of pictures. 5 In Los Alamos, Coca-Cola red is constantly attracting one’s attention.

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About the Author

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.

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