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American Beauty

Among the many iconic images on view in the Getty‘s two exhibitions devoted to American photographer Walker Evans is a humble little picture of a tea kettle on a stove, its spout basking in a stream of quiet sunshine. Taken in 1971, four years before Evans’ death, it is an eloquent image that speaks of serenity, maturity, and the capacity for refinement that one develops over a lifetime of work. It has a curious historical significance as well, having been taken by Evans in the Nova Scotia home of Robert Frank. The image of Evans and Frank -- two of the greatest photographic chroniclers of modern American life -- sitting down for tea in a quiet house just beyond the U.S. border is wonderful to imagine. What must they have talked about?

The two exhibitions -- “Walker Evans & Company” (organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York) and “The American Tradition & Walker Evans” (assembled from the Getty‘s own collection) -- imagine such a conversation on a grand scale, presenting the work of Evans alongside that of Frank, Eugene Atget, Berenice Abbott, Robert Rauschenberg, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus, and more than 70 other artists of various eras and media. The MoMA show, organized by chief curator Peter Galassi, is divided into eight loosely thematic sections, arranged without regard to chronology or medium. Galassi is clearly wary of easy labels, and this makes it difficult to pinpoint the themes exactly (in the catalog’s table of contents, the sections are titled with images rather than words); but the continuities between the works in each section are surprisingly clear: One involves cars, another people, another interiors, and so on. The Getty show -- really more of an appendix to the other than a concept in itself -- is a basic but solid survey of documentary photography in the first half of the 20th century. Arranged in a sober chronology, it fills in some of the historical gaps that the other show overlooks.

The aim of these shows is not so much to expand the viewer‘s understanding of Evans himself -- there are actually relatively few of his own photographs on display -- as to survey the tradition of “descriptive” (more commonly known as “documentary”) American photography and explore Evans’ impact on its development. The curators look through Evans rather than at him, in other words, tracing his resonance throughout art rather than documenting his place in it. The exhibitions also intend, in Galassi‘s words, to “tinker with tradition,” charting the influences that the various artists have exerted directly upon one another as well as -- and I quote here out of respect for the eloquence with which Galassi conveys this complex point -- “the relationships between works of art that may owe nothing directly to one another but that together provoke us to see each in a new light, and thus to revise our sense of tradition.”

It is a clever approach that avoids both the crowd-pleasing redundancy of a typical retrospective and the futility of a broad historical survey. And it’s convincing. It conveys Evans on an appropriate scale -- managing neither to exalt him beyond reason nor to bury him beneath the cacophony of other artists -- and draws scores of compelling connections between unlikely works. Even the nonphotographic art in the MoMA show seems to make sense in the mix because each piece, chosen with care, responds so clearly to the section in which it‘s located.

The tradition of documentary photography that emerges in these exhibitions was cultivated largely in reaction to Alfred Stieglitz and the Pictorialists, whose work emulated the ideals of painting, focused on traditional subjects like nature and domesticity, and valued beauty above all else. Evans and his contemporaries, on the other hand, looked to vernacular forms of photography and commonplace subjects. Inspired, Galassi suggests, by the Civil War photographs of Mathew Brady, the souvenir post cards produced around the turn of the century and Atget’s exhaustive cataloging of Paris street life in the early 1900s, the tradition was formally mobilized by the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s to document the rural poverty of the Depression. Though government involvement dwindled away before the Second World War, artists working in this tradition have gone on to explore nearly every aspect of American life in every region of the country. The breadth and consistent astuteness of this work -- beyond the familiar images of dust-bowl children and their harrowed mothers -- are impressive. It‘s hard not to feel at least a small pang of patriotism for the honest, gritty, sometimes absurd but sometimes poetic nation these photos depict.

Some of the images are personal, articulating various states of solitude and interaction. In a 1968 photograph by Robert Adams, a woman stands sadly silhouetted in the window of an impeccably manicured tract home, the loneliness of suburbia echoing all around her. In an Edward Hopper etching from 1922, a woman at a sewing machine peers out an urban apartment window, clearly longing to step away from her labor and into the life of the city. In Garry Winogrand’s Los Angeles (1964), a man with a bandaged nose gazes possessively at the woman in the passenger seat of his convertible; in William Eggleston‘s Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background (1969), a white and a black man stand in a field of dead leaves, unconsciously enacting some not-quite-definable aspect of America’s troubled racial history, their postures uncannily identical despite their difference in dress and position.

Parallels flow throughout these works, linking subjects but dramatizing the differences between them. The boys in Joseph Sterling‘s Teenagers (1960), for example, are tough, with unbuttoned collars and greased hair. In Joel Sternfeld’s Summer Interns, Wall Street, New York (1987), boys of similar age are soft and bland, eating sidewalk-stand hot dogs in their ties and suspenders. Those in Robert Frank‘s East Side, New York City (1955) are made up and feminine, their hips jutting into curves of solicitation.

Other photographs explore the physical environment of the country. There are barns, factories, storefronts, gas stations, churches, and interiors of all sorts, the varieties of which exemplify the difficult diversity of American life. The humble wood floors and rickety furniture of Evans’ Depression photographs pose an uneasy contrast to the spotless carpet and plastic-covered lampshade of Diane Arbus‘ Xmas Tree in a Living Room in Levittown, Long Island (1963); Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) is a far cry from the lonely storefront in George A. Tice‘s South Main Street, Hannibal, Missouri (1985).

The works are filled with signs, billboards, movie posters and advertisements -- images that chart the enthusiasm and anxiety accompanying the ravenous evolution of consumer capitalism. There are cars everywhere, in all states of newness and decline. An Art Sinsabaugh photograph from 1964 depicts a seemingly endless sea of cars in a lot, lapping up against the Chicago skyline; another, from Walker Evans, 1931, shows dozens of identical black Model T’s lining a rainy street in Saratoga Springs.

And on and on. Every one of these 300 images has a story, and they elicit new stories from one another hanging side by side on the gallery walls: from the poverty of the 1930s faces to the senseless abundance of the 1950s, the candy colors of Eggleston‘s ’60s to the hazy grays of Atget‘s ’teens, the heavy loneliness of urban life to the vast loneliness of suburban life. It is a dense and illuminating visual history, of which Walker Evans is not a “father,” but a prominent and influential scribe.

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