“Viewing Olmsted”

Why do we equate images of open space with democratic ideals? And what role has Frederick Law Olmsted, the extraordinarily prolific nineteenth-century landscape architect who carved green spaces in the middle of so many North American cities, played in the construction of this visual fantasy? Though not explicitly articulated, these questions haunt the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s exhibition “Viewing Olmsted: Photographs by Robert Burley, Lee Friedlander, and Geoffrey James.” Mounted on the 100th anniversary of Olmsted’s retirement, as if to test his prediction that it would take his parks a century to mature, “Viewing Olmsted” presents a critical survey—its title foregrounding the act and apparatuses of vision, and its selection of three idiosyncratic photographers yielding deliberately disparate views of the landscape architect’s work. The product of a seven-year commission during which the three photographers documented 74 representative Olmsted sites and produced 940 photographs for the CCA’s permanent collection (160 images are on view here), the show reveals a crucial tension between the Olmsted that the landscape architect wanted us to see and the Olmsted (or Olmsteds) the photographers attempted to bring into view. It is this tension that gives critical weight to an exhibition that might otherwise be mistaken for a nostalgic tour. The pictures in “Viewing Olmsted” attest as much to the power of the photographer to construct vision as they do to a peculiarly American optical unconscious that conflates images of public space with democracy itself.

Olmsted’s role in the formulation of this fantasy should not be underestimated. Through careful manipulation of space and pedestrian movement, Olmsted, easily the most influential inheritor of the eighteenth-century English garden tradition, exercised profound control over the way his landscapes are imaged. “Even when I was very aware of it, and even when I tried to find alternative routes, I found myself following a kind of itinerary that I think he had probably developed,” Robert Burley commented in an interview, adding later, “If Olmsted had put ‘X’s’ on his plans to indicate vistas ... I think [every visitor] would be standing on one.” If anything, Olmsted seems to have haunted the photographers more than the photographs, which can be read as half-conscious attempts to exorcise him. Despite Lee Friedlander’s insistent inscription of Olmsted’s intentions within his pictures (“I figured if what he did was worth its salt, it will be in the pictures”), the photographer actively refused the panoramic views the landscape architect conceived over a century ago. Just as Friedlander’s American desert photographs deny the expansive vista—and its connotations of manifest destiny—in favor of the vibrant, almost dematerialized cactus surface, his pictures of Olmsted’s urban landscapes generally placed swirling branches, not discrete trees, in the viewer’s face. Transverse Road No. 4, Central Park, New York City, 1989, superimposes the contorted geometry of branches onto the more regularized system of skyscrapers, with the two occasionally, even rather alarmingily fusing—“a jungle dreaming of civilization,” as John Szarkowsky characterized Friedlander’s effect on Olmsted’s work.

Robert Burley and Geoffrey James found quieter ways to challenge the tradition of landscape photography through which Olmsted is generally viewed. Burley, who works in color, faced perhaps the most daunting task: how to avoid producing calendar-ready images. Even a cursory glance at Rizzoli’s 1995 coffee-table monograph Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape—with its pretty flowers and brilliant fall foliage—reveals the profound subtlety of Burley’s nearly monochromatic early spring and late autumn palettes. Burley’s occasional inclusion of people somehow kept the pictures from slipping into easy sentimentality. For instance, the scattered placement of figures across The Tennis House, the Long Meadow, Prospect Park, New York City, 1990, one of whom appears only as a shadow, recalls Edgar Degas’ compositions in the way that it suggests a public space devoid of public encounters. Or consider the homeless person’s shopping cart in The Terrace Bridge, Prospect Park, New York City, 1990, that—paradoxically—disrupts the winter landscape by blending in, both compositionally and chromatically, with its silver branches, cobalt blue bridge, and pale gold foreground. In another exhibition, this photograph would come across as a textbook case of second-rate documentary photography, but here it attests to the power of Olmsted’s photogenic landscapes to overwhelm the very objects that might threaten their serene abstraction.

James, best known for his studies of European gardens, took a highly formal approach: tree, just off-center, perfectly contained within the picture plane with requisite horizontal perspective, as in The Country Park, Franklin Park, Boston, Massachusetts, 1991. The panoramic camera he used (and eventually abandoned midway through the commission, as he found it too “inclusive” of unwanted information) aggressively shaped nearly every space into a pastoral ideal. This seemingly steadfast reliance on the traditional tropes of landscape photography, however, strategically fell short of this ideal to expose the genre as a photographic conceit. Like the “painters of modern life” who fixated on the environs of Paris a century ago, James alternately documents and represses the physical traces of modernization. His standout work in this regard is Seaside Park, Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1991, which pits his typically anachronistic compositional strategy against a mongrel landscape—a telephone pole, an overly manicured tree, concrete barriers covered in graffiti, and a parking lot dissolving into a seashore at the horizon line—to subtly brutal effect.

However seductive their surfaces, the works in “Viewing Olmsted” arguably belong to a conceptual tradition that dates from Robert Smithson’s appraisal of Olmsted as “America’s first ‘earthwork artist.’” In the February 1973 Artforum essay “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape,” Smithson wrote: “Olmsted’s parks exist before they are finished, which means in fact they are never finished; they remain carriers of all levels of human activity, be it social, political, or natural.” He then turned to the 1972 Whitney exhibition “Frederick Law Olmsted’s New York” and noted that its mid-nineteenth-century documentary photographs could double as stills “from a hypothetical film by Vertov on the building process of Central Park.” The photographs in “Viewing Olmsted” extend Smithson’s critical approach from the politics of space to the politics of vision—that is, they seek not to reveal the processes behind Olmsted’s constructions but instead the processes at work in Olmsted’s own construction of vision. If “Viewing Olmsted” unmasks the apparatuses of vision, Smithson can be credited with having situated Olmsted’s parks in another, less visual tradition—that of “thick description”—by making explicit reference to John Rechy’s 1963 novel City of Night, particularly its account of gay men cruising the Rambles in Central Park. A more recent project, Mark Robbins’ Scoring the Park, 1995, featured in the group exhibition “City Speculations” last year at the Queens Museum, also relied on text, or, more accurately, on many competing texts. Drawing from lofty tracts extolling the virtues of (and necessary limitations on) exercising individual rights in public to various accounts of public sex (a largely secret history), Robbins conveys the way users of the Rambles have fulfilled Olmsted’s intention to provide democratic public space while turning its liberal ideology on its ear. Texts such as these seem to ask of an exhibition like “Viewing Olmsted,” Is vision the most illuminating lens through which to view Olmsted? What social relations do the photographs collected in this show reveal? Which do they necessarily obscure?

These same questions might be asked of the activist agenda reflected in the CCA’s exhibition program. As the third installment in the center’s ongoing “American Century” series, which aims “to cast a fresh eye on critical aspects of modern America’s architectural culture,” “Viewing Olmsted” is largely underwritten by an old-left political unconscious, evident in Phyllis Lambert’s catalogue preface in which she praises “the vast, civilizing Olmsted parks” that save us from the “relentless” city grids of Montreal and New York. Understanding the public park as an inherently civilizing force flies in the face of Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York (1978), which derives its own heterogeneous model of democracy from the skyscrapers, unlikely social condensers that they are, lining Manhattan’s relentless grids. It is significant that an architect who would later mastermind extra-large enclosed spaces espoused a model of democracy early in his career that relied not on the image of a single place but rather on the delirious effect produced by social congestion. More recently, Bruce Robbins revived an antiquated 1925 phrase of Walter Lippmann’s—“the phantom public”—not simply to critique liberal fantasies that locate their ideal public sphere in some irrecoverable past, but more importantly to argue that the public sphere, however we should choose to recast and complicate it, necessarily remains elusive. As the CCA pushes the “American Century” into the realm of visual culture, it would do well to question the visual forms that democratic ideals inhabit and annex in the name of the phantom public. “Viewing Olmsted” leaves us wondering why its most powerful, if not its most thoughtful images of Olmsted’s public spaces—open sites for the projection of abstract democratic ideals—tend to be empty of people.

Ernest Pascucci is senior editor of ANY and a regular contributor to Artforum. His essay “Moralism Over Manhattanism” is forthcoming in ANY’s Dutch Moral Modernism issue due out next month.

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