Robert Adams Retrospective: The Poet/Sage’s Pictures

May 9, 2012

Robert Adams is on the road, on the great American blacktop falling into that infinite horizon. Nearly three hundred photographs from his forty-year career are on view now through June 3 in BCAM in the exhibition, Robert Adams: The Place We Live, a Retrospective Selection of Photographs.

Installation view, Robert Adams: The Place We Live, a Retrospective Selection of Photographs, March 11–June 3, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

For Adams, it’s Colorado in all directions: north of Keota, Box Butte County, Bowen, Arriba, Otis, Weld County, Boulder County, Niwot, Lookout Mountain, Pueblo County, Colorado Springs, Denver, on and on. In his black-and-white pictures we visit the past and big prairie skies. His sentimental journey traveling in a west of vast plains, of felled forests, of fledgling townships, grand trees, and a people among an indifferent nature resolutely and unpretentiously there. Robert Adams knows, instinctively, that life is the size of memory, grand but postcard size like his photos, or a letter, or a diary. Memory is black and white, while dreams are cinemascope and Technicolor. Memory is nostalgia doubling back, past lives that somehow Adams’s melancholy visions render intimate and vaguely personal.

Installation view, Cottonwoods, Robert Adams: The Place We Live, a Retrospective Selection of Photographs, March 11–June 3, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

His literary background seems to inform each composite title of his picture books, invariably suggesting, “once upon a time,” or “as a result,” or “in the meantime,” and “They lived . . . ” And it should be said that you must peer into them. In their frames they’re art, while in their books they’re a kind of poetry. To my senses, photography has at least two lives. One is that of the photographer and the other is that of the onlooker. In the middle of nowhere, the interstate exit sign “Eden” cannot easily lose its ironic reference, though Adams wishes otherwise. In America, breeding irony is practically unavoidable. He is of the earth-bound reality principle, passionately. Charlotte Cotton wrote in The Photograph as Contemporary Art: “What is significant . . . is photography enduring capacity to transform even the slightest subject into an imaginative trigger of great import.” And to that degree, this is my guiding light for Adams’s work, without the over-pressing need that it be somehow more.

Interstate 25, Eden, Colorado, 1968, printed 2006, Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund, © 2012 Robert Adams

With his tough, serious simplicity matched by a seemingly guileless affection for what was before him, Adams takes the land and human disruption at face value. Here the 1960s modernist’s glint, the social consciousness, the land and its wreckage, proved magnetic and the felled forests have a killing field aspect that is inescapable.  For Adams’s photos to make sense of them, to relive their quiet drama, he must make a poet of us, distilling this sometimes beautiful, fragile world, a land and a people without reservations—fierce, implacable, and clashing where silence reigns. Sometimes the work feels anachronistic, like that other America: The frontier of “white” America moving inexorably west, impervious of damage, and yet somehow not taming this ocean of bush and rock that bakes in the hot sun, though the sprawl tirelessly expands. One gets the feeling that through these images, a deeply lamented past we experience, while paradoxically the future exerts its power on the present. Maybe this is the reason we look back with some regret.

In a New Subdivision, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1969, Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund, © 2012 Robert Adams

His topographic comes with an odd detachment.  Maybe it’s not unusual, as if their actual presence, people that is, altered something.  Perhaps unfairly, it seems to me people are sort of “by the way,” interesting, casual, but not the real drama—more the collective presence. Not that it’s not beautiful without people, the night shot of the empty chairs at the back/front doorway as the light glares down and through their windows, a theatrical scene, surely about place.  Maybe it’s inevitable, the intrinsic mystery of the night.  By contrast, the tension of the daylight record of storefronts, debris, and the carpets of tract housing deny such mystery, suggesting an environment in dire alteration.  The German photographer couple Bernd and Hilla Becher, with their cool and formal documented water towers, made an enormous impact on American art.  Robert Adams’s churches—iconic, isolated, and idealized in their structural elegance where the light, a key to his work, enhances them to a degree of glorification—manage something more than the cool distance for a place of worship. But he seems most at peace in those photos of Clatsop County, Oregon, where the ocean and sky blend in swathes of shimmering silver.

Southwest from the South Jetty, Clatsop County, Oregon, 1992, Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund, © 2012 Robert Adams

After all, the real stars in this pictorial journey are the trees, with their stark personalities, their tonal range, and the sheer power of their presence. Almost always on the edge of ruin, the palms that hint at some disaster or merely oversee the distant freeway, or the pines that sit at the top of a ridge beneath a felled forest, or a mere stump in the middle of a field, or as a night shadow thrown as a ghost across a white garage—the trees all live an electric life in his lens. One half expects T. S. Eliot to rise from the pages of his books. The intimate face of those poplars and the unbelievable Cap Blanco State Park, Oregon, and the tender record of the cottonwoods transmit Adams’s photographs as wordless poems to each image. Considered as a whole, his art, his west though real and filled with reverence, has the feel of a fictive place where we’ve lost our hearts in search of them.

Hylan Booker

Robert Adams: The Place We Live is on view now through June 3 in BCAM. Members get free admission to this exhibition and others all year round. Recently, author Susan Straight also gave her impressions of Robert Adams at LACMA and discussed the influence of landscape and nature in her own work.


Taking a Break with Otherworldly Toad, Jaguar, and Serpent

May 8, 2012

I am fortunate to work directly below the galleries in the Art of the Americas Building at LACMA. In rare instances of downtime (or even when I just need a little break), I climb the stairs to the fourth floor, home of our permanent collection of Latin American art. These galleries never get old to me because they contain an astonishing range of art in terms of both time and space. From ancient Peruvian featherwork textiles to contemporary Venezuelan political paintings, the art in these galleries is a diverse representation of many Latin American cultures, and it’s nearly impossible to absorb it all in just one visit.

Recently, I came upon a group of Mexican and Guatemalan codex-style ceramics that feature detailed mythological tales. These ceramics were made by the Maya, dating around 650–800, and they initially baffled me. At first glance, the style used looked similar to early nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock prints. Being half Japanese, I constantly sought these prints out as a young child. You may be familiar with them as well—they are sort of comical and often feature grimacing samurai warriors, sometimes with their eyes crossed, who are posed in a sort of stern three-quarter profile.

Arashi Rikan II in a Samurai Role, circa 1819, gift of George T. and Margaret W. Romani

Though this was my initial impulse, I soon realized the art here was more like something else. Upon closer inspection, I decided that the illustrations on these ceramic vessels were whimsical, cartoonish even, and seemed to be almost animated. One piece in particular, Drinking Vessel Depicting Otherworldly Toad, Jaguar, and Serpent, was particularly captivating in that the animals appeared to be involved in a march or ceremony of some kind. I learned from the didactic label that the animals were often avatars of human rulers, each representing different realms of the natural world, and the scenes often depicted Maya royal ritual performances.

Drinking Vessel Depicting Otherworldly Toad, Jaguar, and Serpent, Mexico, Maya, 650–800, gift of the 2006 Collectors Committee

Here, the plump toad represents the watery underworld, wearing a headdress and making a generous offering of a bone, an eyeball, and a human hand. The jaguar, symbolizing the earthly plain, is hunched on one cocked leg—a loaded spring ready to release. I had to blink once or twice to make sure they weren’t actually moving. It doesn’t take much to imagine the icy smooth body of the serpent (the celestial sphere’s delegate) coiling and uncoiling, advancing along in this strange parade. I also learned that the apparent movement of the scenes can be attributed to the use of the whiplash painting technique—a method by which artists thicken and thin lines to alternately imbue them with and siphon off energy and motion. With this knowledge, I paid more attention to those lines, and I was mesmerized by the illusion of locomotion. The vessel is displayed among others in a clear case in the middle of the gallery, so you can literally view it from all angles. As you walk around the vessel, the vessel moves the story.

Drinking Vessel Depicting Otherworldly Toad, Jaguar, and Serpent (detail), Mexico, Maya, 650–800, gift of the 2006 Collectors Committee

While this particular piece is a strong example of this type of codex-style ceramics, it certainly isn’t the only one on view. I observed many more that were equally as detailed and equally as enthralling. Next week and the week after and the week after that, I’m sure I will discover even more inconspicuous treasures in the Latin American galleries.

Jenny Miyasaki


Watts Towers and Los Angeles Artist Mark Steven Greenfield

May 7, 2012

Mark Steven Greenfield is an artist from Los Angeles who served as the director of the Watts Towers Art Center from 1993 until 2002. Much of his artwork deals with blackface images from the early twentieth century and other purveyors of African American stereotypes. Intern Lucas Casso recently visited him at his home/studio, where he was able to see some of his completed artworks, as well as those in progress, and he sat down with him to discuss the Watts Towers. Last year, LACMA partnered with the City of Los Angeles’s Department of Cultural Affairs to develop a long-term preservation plan for Watts Towers.

Mark Steven Greenfield, photo by Jaimie Milner

Lucas Casso: What was your first experience with the Towers, and how did that eventually translate into your connection with them?

Mark Steven Greenfield: My first memory of the Towers was actually in 1967. After the Watts rebellion, they had an art show at the Watts Summer Festival, which was very close to the Towers. I would participate in that, then I would go over and spend some time in the Towers just to visit them. I just kept coming back periodically. The City [of Los Angeles] was often working on them, so sometimes scaffolding would be up.

A friend of mine came to visit from Denmark once in the mid-1980s, and I took her out to see them. I think the significance of them really sunk in once I saw her reaction to them. She fell down on the ground and started worshipping them, and I thought, “Oh, that’s the way it works.”  Then I started to look at them a little differently. At the time I was working for the police department as a police artist. I was desperate to get away from the police department. I applied for the position of arts center director through the Cultural Affairs Department, not knowing where they were going to put me. I think I had applied three times, and by the third time, they had exhausted everyone else on their list! So I was hired and they put me at the Watts Towers.

Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, 1921–1954, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

LC: What is it about the Towers and the Arts Center that brings people together in a way that otherwise wouldn’t happen?

MSG: I think the whole spirit of the Towers is one of the things that brings people together. I think everybody that has a creative sense knows that creation comes from little or nothing. It’s one of those things that if you’re working on paper, it’s something that you pull out of the air or out of your mind. I think you see the embodiment of that in the Towers. In so many instances they’re an inspiration to people because it was such a spontaneous type of creation. We’ve never been able to find any plans that Simon Rodia had, so each day that he approached it, he was pulling his inspiration out of the deep recesses of his mind. People can relate to that from just about anywhere.

The Annual Drum and Jazz Festivals [which take place right outside the Towers], which at this point have been going on for over thirty years, draw people from all over the country. We’ve had groups of Native Americans, groups from Sri Lanka, groups of Japanese Taiko drummers, everything you can imagine. Of course, those communities would come to support their musicians, so it wouldn’t be unusual for people from Fiji or Tahiti showing up because there was a Polynesian dance group that they wouldn’t otherwise see. Those festivals would bring people to the Towers, and then they would come back. They would tell their friends, “You should have seen these sculptures that were there! They were over a hundred feet high!” And that would make people curious.

LC: Have you, and other artists you know, been inspired by the Towers not in a literal sense, but more in a creative way?

MSG: Absolutely. The Towers radiate inspiration. You can’t be in their presence for too long without being inspired to do something—write, draw, make music. Metaphorically it’s kind of an antenna, and the creativity just zooms in on the area and spreads out all over the campus. I feel it. And that’s one of the reasons I like to go back so often. I like to go when there’s nobody there. It’s the best time, when you can just be alone with the Towers.

Mark Steven Greenfield in front of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, 1921–1954, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

LC: Why did you continue to stay at the Towers? What did you think was your role there?

MSG: I’ve always been big on the idea of the arts supporting the quality of life. Going back to my high school days, I saw a play one time called The Day of Absence that made a real impression on me. The premise of the play is a day back in the 1960’s when all of the help, the maids and cooks, disappeared from the white community, and then the white people didn’t know how to act or do anything by themselves. And I think that play can be a metaphor for the whole idea of being in society without the arts. Without the arts, there is so much we would be missing. Whatever I can do, or whatever I would do, was always geared toward not only exposing people to more art, but trying to figure out a way to bring up a generation that would then continue on in that tradition.

The arts in most cultures of the world play a very, very important role. Much more so than in Europe, where they were decorative and, to some degree, religious. But in the rest of the world, art was always incorporated in everything they did—from tools and cooking utensils to spiritual practice and medicine, not just religion. Art was infused in all of these things in Africa, in Asia, in South America. This tradition of creativity in so many instances is being compromised now.

LC: How did your perspective on the Towers change over all the years that you were there?

MSG: It takes a while to really understand the magic of them, and I had a unique advantage of being able to see the Towers at different times of the day and night. There is a point just before sunset when light hits the Towers—you’ve never seen anything like it. I realized when I looked at the Towers up close that I think that he put most of the reflective surfaces facing west.

If it is overcast, the concrete radiates something very different. If it is a very hot day, you can almost see steam rising off the Towers. The reflective surfaces change according to the light. The Towers have a completely different character when it rains, because the concrete soaks up some of it and gets darker, so the pieces themselves are more pronounced. They change character all the time.

Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, 1921–1954, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

LC: Are there any stories that you learned or had heard about Rodia that are kind of out there?

MSG: Well, there’s a bank in there that most people don’t know about. It’s the place he used to hide his money, right next to one of the barbecue pits. Basically what he did is pour cement, put a hole in it, then put a stone in it before covering the space with more cement. So all you have to do to open it is push the stone up, but the hole is only big enough for your hand.

And then there are always people who will talk about when they would bring him some broken pottery and he would give them a penny or a cookie for each piece they would bring him. That started the whole idea of community involvement with the Towers. There are people who can point to it and say “I gave him that piece up there.” Some kids got really smart and went home and started breaking the dishes. Parents came over and said “Simon, you’ve got to stop that.” And there are people who say that never happened, but there are other people who will tell me, “I gave him some pottery and he gave me a penny!” You never really know what the truth is, but I tend to lean toward the people that say it happened.

Lucas Casso, LACMA Intern for Department of Curatorial Planning


This Weekend at LACMA: In Wonderland Closes, plus Dance, Films, Concerts, and More

May 4, 2012

This is it: you have just a few days left to see In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. The exhibition, which features works by Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Dorothea Tanning, closes on Sunday. Don’t miss it—reserve your tickets in advance to ensure your chance to see it.

Frida Kahlo, Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas), 1939, © 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo courtesy Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City

Enhance your surrealist experience on Saturday or Sunday afternoon by seeing the Mexico City-based theater group Laboratorio de la Máscara, with the choreographer from South Indian dance troupe Shaktala, perform Orion, The Great Man of the Sky, originally created by surrealist artist Alice Rahon but never realized in her lifetime. You have two chances to catch this incredible ballet this weekend—free for members or with museum admission.

Orion, The Great Man of the Sky

Friday night in the Bing you have the chance to see two incredible collaborations between composer Philip Glass and filmmaker Godfrey Reggio—Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi—on the big screen. These are two truly awesome pairings of music and image.

For the musically inclined, we have three different concerts on tap this weekend. Jazz at LACMA continues tonight with saxophonist Bob Mintzer and keyboardist Russell Ferrante (both of the Grammy Award-winning group the Yellowjackets). Last week’s free jazz concert drew more than 2,000 people, so get here early and get ready for a good time. (Don’t forget: admission to the museum is free after 5 pm for L.A. County residents).

On Saturday, members of the Long Beach Opera will perform excerpts from Ainadamar. The opera’s playwright and librettist David Henry Hwang will also be on stage to discuss the work with Long Beach Opera artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek.  Sunday night, the Colburn Chamber Orchestra performs works by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Przytulski for our free Sundays Live concert series.

A new month means a new theme for Andell Family Sundays —Korean art. Check out our Korean collection (including the recently restored XXth-century painting Buddha Seokgamoni Preaching to the Assembly on Vulture Peak), then take part in art-making activities as a family.

Buddha Seokgamoni Preaching to the Assembly on Vulture Peak, Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), 1755, Far Eastern Art Acquisition Fund

Sunday afternoon, curator Christina Yu Yu gives a talk on contemporary Chinese art, tracing its development from 1970 to today.

Ai Weiwei, Untitled (Divine Proportion), 2006, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee, photo: Giovanni Tarifeño, courtesy of Friedman Benda and the artist

Dance, film, jazz, opera, family activities, curator talks… all that plus Chris Burden’s Metropolis II, seven special exhibitions on view, and our encyclopedic permanent collection. Choose what suits you—see you on campus.

Scott Tennent


Susan Straight Reads Robert Adams

May 1, 2012

Robert Adams, Edge of San Timoteo Canyon, looking toward Los Angeles, Redlands, California, 1978. Gelatin silver print. Yale University Art Gallery. Purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund. © 2012 Robert Adams

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Susan Straight, an author with a keen ability to conjure location, is drawn to the work of Robert Adams, a photographer of oft-overlooked places. They seem to share a sensibility, and a familiarity with the landscape east of Los Angeles, and of the American west more generally. Take this passage from Straight’s 1996 novel The Gettin Place:

Hosea remembered how strange these trees looked to him when he came to Rio Seco. In Oklahoma, the tree trunks were rough and dark—oak and pecan and sycamore. Then he’d followed Oscar to Los Angeles, where there were only palms, it seemed, among the tiny stucco boxes where he’d rented rooms. Palms that swayed, distant above postage-stamp plots of grass and wavering heat and hard faces. The first time someone had told him about Rio Seco, out in the country to the east, he’d thought that the man, a welder at the assembly plant where Hosea worked, was talking about more palm trees, scrawny forest of bare trunks in desert sand. But when he came to Treetown and saw the orange groves lush and blooming, the olives and eucalyptus shimmering silver, and the pecans and cottonwoods along the riverbottom, he felt the cords in his neck loosen and he breathed the strange, shaded scents. (Susan Straight, The Gettin Place, p. 6. New York, Anchor Books, 2006.)

Robert Adams, New development on a former citrus-growing estate, Highland, California, 1983, printed 1988, Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund, © 2012 Robert Adams

There are a lot of trees in Robert Adam’s photos too: those same palms and eucalyptus that punctuate Straight’s stories, all of which are set east of Los Angeles.  Both artists cause me, and perhaps others, to pause and wonder “Why here?” and then to answer the question in the same instant, because, Why not? There is so much to tell.

Robert Adams, Interstate 25, Eden, Colorado, 1968, printed 2006, Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund

Straight came to see the exhibition, Robert Adams: The Place We Live, and curator Edward Robinson invited her to write something. Struck by Adams’s photos of Colorado, a place where she herself has a deep personal history, Straight wrote an autobiographical account of a pivotal trip with her brother:

“I think that my favorite parts of America are the places on the edges–the exact places that Robert Adams photographs,” she says.

Amy Heibel


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