New York

Bill Dane

I’d been painting for ten years and then a year or so ago Burback showed me some Ed Ruscha photos. Oh Boy! I said.
4th January 1971

This is the start of Bill Dane, photographer, whose show of slides from his own postcards has recently been caned—I understand—by one photographic critic (the old photography/art dichotomy again) on the damaging grounds that Dane is a Johnny-come lately and has jumped a line of photographic worthies to show prematurely at MoMA. I don’t know the line, but I enjoyed Dane’s show. Apart from his funky but deadpan views of America—quite unlike Shore’s—looking more in the direction of the English artist Hockney, one of the nicest things about Dane is his irreverence about the information he presents with his photographs. Normally technically minded photographic information is such a pain—and useless. Who cares, knowing the variables involved, what the speed, aperture, film, etc. was for a certain shot? In painting it’s like saying Bocour color on unstretched No. 2 cotton duck leads to interesting art. Ever since Morris Louis showed it can lead to interesting stain painting, countless artists have been proving it not only doesn’t lead to interesting art but doesn’t even lead to interesting stain painting. Dane’s “Unfamiliar Places” shows 80 slides of postcards, all liable to offend photographic sensibility proper. Although these photographs are shown in the photographic section of MoMA, their place there is via the mailing ethos of Conceptual art; Dane sends these cards with their humorous and quirky observations like, “For some well-known reason I had this tragi-comedy fantasy of physic-aesthetic paralysis which left me sort of hysterically struggling to get the shutter released—pounding it with my fist, pressing it against the roof of the car—laughing to tears,” to his own mailing list of a hundred or so. I see the card context and observations as part of looking at the views themselves. The visual information is deadpan, the verbal manic. It’s the mix I like. Whether Dane’s subjects are public monuments, small town views, or forests, they all have, as the title aptly suggests, an unfamiliar look—aided here and there by nice accidents like a postmark actually on them. The look comes from the way Dane mixes information in the photographs. Dane likes his nature natural, but he’s always mixing the natural and the artificial, like the tropical forest being watered by jets of water coming from nowhere, bizarre shaped bushes in front of suburban homes, or letterboxes with animal heads around the top. People are missing; they generally appear in his photographs in a mocking way as dated figurative sculpture. Still, what’s nicest though is the jokey tautologous nature of the cards, which in true postcard tradition talk about themselves. Incidentally, the slides of the writing on the backs of Dane’s cards are as visually interesting as anything in the museum’s whole photographic collection.

James Collins