New York

Lewis Baltz

P.S.1 Museum / Castelli Graphics

Lewis Baltz’s photographs are disquieting in their combination of espoused politics and Minimalist cool. This comes across more clearly in the work in the retrospective at P.S. 1, than it does in the more recent work shown at Castelli Graphics. The works at P.S. I employ a detached Minimalist perspective to depict a world of escalating ecological abuse that one would expect to elicit horror. The images themselves are clear enough; plowed-up topsoil can only hint at its former lushness, and details of tract housing evidence the cost to all those who must pay too dear an ecological (and esthetic) price for the small comforts they provide. In short, these images are blandly anonymous representations of everyday offenses.

The 102 small, unframed, black and white photos in the series Park City, 1980, that document the construction of the ski resort of Park City, Utah, focus on both the dreary architecture and the destruction of the natural environment during the project’s realization. Yet these pared-down views of interior Sheetrock, torn-up earth, and bland exteriors, displayed in a seemingly endless and arbitrary array, seem noncommittal.

The more recent work, some of which was duplicated and mounted in light boxes at P.S.1, took the form of large, lushly colored Cibachrome transparencies. Focusing on the urban landscape that is the denouement of ecological destruction, these images depicting street scenes, the inside of a Japanese factory, and a close-up of a worker attired in high-tech protective garb seem infused with a flaccid necrophilia; they are beautiful in mood, yet cold to the touch. For example, the title photograph, Rule Without Exception, 1988, a nighttime view of a city free of individuals and encumbering personal narratives, stands as a timeless urban archetype. Dispersed evenly from one side of the frame to the other, the visual noise of the picture is effectively canceled out. It is as though the city is being viewed through a soundproof partition. Disturbingly beautiful, these works register little moral outrage or political despair. Instead they have the elegiac self-sufficiency of a Dan Graham or a Jeff Wall. Are we still being asked to question the effects of technological advance? Assuming that the same intent that informed the earlier and less sumptuous black and white images is operative, the question again arises: how does this elegant and demure formalism function as criticism? It is this odd combination of a professed intention with a dispassionate vision—the hallmark of Baltz’s work—that engenders both their fascination and a sense of discomfort.

Baltz, like other Modernists, scatters the focus evenly throughout the photograph, denying priority to any one object. Our attention is not riveted on the salient fact, rather it is visually dispersed. The parameters of Baltz’s photographs seem arbitrary; the plowed-up topsoil can stop at the frame or it can seem to extend arbitrarily into all directions. This sense that the same panoramic view continues beyond the frame suggests that the photograph would have been more or less the same had he shifted the lens over a foot or two; it is the scanning of the scene that is the point and not the identity of any one object. What we are provided with here is the sense of the gestalt of environmental decay; the narrative remains vague. It is difficult to reconcile these empty locations with their supposed status as objects of social critique. As our vision fails to define and delimit, so does our language. Although presented within a context of social concern, the photographs provide no explicit critique of man’s abuse of nature.

Dena Shottenkirk