Lewis Baltz's late-1970s and early '80s photo projects, brought to astringent perfection in the pristine, gelatin-silver prints of the black-and-white trilogy The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California (1974), Park City (1981) and San Quentin Point (1986), made him a hero to a generation of landscape photographers searching for a way to capture the rapid post-World War II suburbanization of the land. “I don't think it's possible to pick up a camera and shoot a landscape without thinking of Lewis Baltz,” says L.A.-based photographer Steven Callis. “He doesn't just look at landscapes,” adds Mitchell Coolidge of L.A.'s Center for Land Use Interpretation. “He's not an environmental photographer. He has a global economic palette. He's sort of a geo-systems photographer.”
Baltz's “New Topographics” described a banal, treeless, marginal world. Baltz took pictures of industrial buildings, raw real estate, cheaply built resort homes, bleak mud flats under bleached skies. Few people ever penetrated Baltz's frame; piles of rock, shattered fluorescent tubes were his subjects. Everything in his pictures looks incomplete, under construction, provisional. Marvin Heiferman, former director of Castelli Graphics and long Baltz's dealer, has written of his photographs, “The sky is blank, and the sun comes up bright, nasty, and blinding.”
The only child of an alcoholic mortician and his wife in Newport Beach, Baltz was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute when Ed Ruscha was photographing Every Building on the Sunset Strip. He was finishing his MFA at Claremont the spring Chris Burden locked himself into a locker 2 feet high, 2 feet wide and 3 feet deep at UC Irvine. All Baltz's American work shared that ineffable streak of Southern California noir, a menacing ambiguity, as if he were photographing a crime scene. Austere, drained of overt meaning, Baltz's images still were able to evoke powerful emotions. His empty motel rooms and unfinished tract houses betrayed not only an outsider's loathing, but an outsider's broken heart. I also detect a magical intent – an attempt to ward off demons, to neutralize the sources of his own paranoia.
Baltz was deeply influenced by Joseph Beuys, the great German shaman/teacher/artist/politico who helped found the Green Party, and his work has always bristled with social critique. In his Park City photos, for instance, an unfinished resort-home subdivision rising from the tailings of an abandoned mine looks like nothing so much as garbage spilling across an indifferent land.
At the same time, Baltz shared with his great contemporary Robert Smithson an aesthetics of entropy, a sense that, as Smithson once wrote, “geology laughs at ecology.” As Smithson wrote in his 1968 essay A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects “One's mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion: mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason.”
In the mid-'80s, Baltz began, he says, to experience a sense that the world had ended, or that it had at least withdrawn from his apprehension. In 1986 he moved to Paris, where he still lives. For the first time in his life, he began shooting in color because color film, he felt, gave him the distanced quality that his earlier, “artier” black-and-white photos were starting to lose. “Although the world is in color,” he wrote, “it is not in those colors.” He also made a CD-ROM, which became a graphically illustrated book, used a digital camera and made videos. Increasingly, his work focused on issues of surveillance and high technology. “With the increased technical possibilities of surveillance, and even more important, the use of information-processing technologies to collate and distribute information,” Baltz wrote, “the state and its subjects/citizens could become one to a degree only dreamed of by past totalitarian societies.”
Now Baltz is back at MOCA through July 19 with a trilogy of large, rectangular photo-murals never before seen in the U.S. It's his first major L.A. museum show since his 1992 retrospective “Rule Without Exception” at the Los Angeles County Museum Art. The “New Topography” has become the “New Technologies.”
Produced between 1992 and 1995, The Politics of Bacteria, Docile Bodies and Ronde de Nuit are concerned primarily with power in the form of surveillance, and the relationship of technology to the body. The montages employ a range of photographic techniques, including video stills, images appropriated from endoscopic surgery, and film. The technical virtuosity that informed so much of Baltz's earlier work has disappeared. The two dozen Cibachromes that make up each montage are glued, unframed, on thin plastic piping. Nothing about the work, looming over the viewer in the narrow galleries, invites contemplation. Some images are close-up. Others look far away. Some of the panels are high-definition. Others are low-definition. Everything is bathed in video blue.
Ronde de Nuit, or Night Patrol, is composed of 12 panels, mostly taken with a video camera in Roubaix, a depressed industrial suburb of Lille, the “South Bronx” of France. The city allowed Baltz to take charge of its police surveillance system as part of a municipal art project. Most of The Politics of Bacteria (the title is taken from Thomas Pynchon) was made in the new French Ministry of Finance building in Bercy, Paris' largest office building. Many depict men in attitudes of power: feet apart, knees locked, at parade rest. The images of Docile Bodies (title from Foucault) were mostly made in French hospitals, often with endoscopic surveillance technology. As you study the pictures, you begin to notice that surveillance cameras in the gallery – in every gallery – record your every move. The pictures, too, seem to want to drive you from the room, filled with a sense of dread.
In a burst of curatorial generosity, MOCA's Connie Butler, has hung Baltz's Park City series and his now more-than-two-decades-old New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California, both long part of MOCA's permanent collection, in a nearby gallery. At the show's opening, I got the strong impression that many first-nighters felt much more comfortable among Baltz's older, more familiar landscapes.
Thrice divorced, dressed entirely and elegantly in black, the very picture of the successful bohemian artist, the now 52-year-old Baltz is clearly an American who doesn't live here anymore. A hard-working veteran of over 50 one-man shows at places like the Leo Castelli Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Tokyo Institute of Polytechnics, Baltz regards nomadism as essential to his state of vigilance, the vigilance of the eternal outsider. There is no more brilliant, heartful, courageous witness to the Corporate State's nearly total hijacking of our time, and, over coffee and cigarettes at Bergamot Station, as he took a break from hanging his show, Baltz seemed pleased and eager to bat ideas back and forth over a tape recorder.
Lewis MacAdams: Do you think that one's ability to survey another is the criterion of power?
Lewis Baltz: It's one of them.
MacAdams: What are some others?
Baltz: I would contend that the ability to process the information you survey is one of them. You've got to be able to process it to make it useful, to be able to process and return it as spectacle in some way. As much as people like to say how fascist America is, nobody's going to drag you out in the snow and beat you and throw you in a cattle car and take you off to a gulag in Montana. They don't have to. The government can enforce its will in much simpler ways.
MacAdams: You wrote, “Surveillance is about the erotics of power.” Could you talk about that?
Baltz: There are certain elements in probably any photographic project or video project that are voyeuristic. But what's interesting to look at is the manufacture of desire. Most everything in the United States is channeled into consumption. The process is two faceless suits from two faceless political parties telling you what you want to hear. What's better, they'll make you believe it's your idea, so that you'll die for it.
MacAdams: What's the difference between information and art?
Baltz: I don't know.
MacAdams: What is art?
Baltz: As a friend of mine says, “It all depends on how you define the word is.”
MacAdams: Why does critical theory seem to have become the central art of our time?
Baltz: It was the hope and task of the generation preceding mine and my generation to investigate the dematerialization of the object. I'm not an objects person. I don't like stuff very well, and I don't see the reason for stuff anymore. Today one of our greatest problems is getting rid of this stuff: where to store it, how we can recycle it, how we can unload it. It's also true with images. Five hundred years ago, the only place you were likely to see an image was in a church. If you were a peasant, you might have seen the image of the Virgin once in your life and walked two or three days to see it. Now you can't avoid images. What has to be done now is to try to achieve some kind of understanding about how we use those images, what they are, how they affect our lives, how we are to think about them, how we are to use them in the ordering of our consciousness.
MacAdams: In our time, what is a photographer?
Baltz: In our time, it's irrelevant to speak about this. It really doesn't exist anymore. Or if it exists, it exists in a vestigial form. There are no photographers. There's photographic technology for people to use. Or not. It's just a technique. Once it was practiced as artisanship – when it was very difficult to do – so it became a privileged activity, because of the tremendous amount of craft involved, the same as being a painter 400 years ago, knowing enough alchemy to mix colors.
MacAdams: So, what is a photograph?
Baltz: That gets more difficult in the digital age. I guess it is a lens-produced image – for the moment. It certainly isn't a chemical image anymore. A lens-produced image is something different than a hand-drawn image. That's a working definition. Today, anybody can take images. Video cameras are automatic and they're just fine. Still cameras are automatic and they're just fine. Pre-highschool kids work in Photo Shop. It's all easy, and why shouldn't it be? It really does make Joseph Beuys' prediction possible: Everyone can be an artist. In a certain sense, the category disappears. If everybody's an artist, nobody's an artist.
MacAdams: But you continue to make art.
Baltz: I still smoke, too. Old habits are hard to break.