New York

Richard Misrach

Curt Marcus Gallery

Since 1983, Richard Misrach’s ongoing photographic explorations of the American desert have been organized into bodies of work he calls cantos. Misrach feels that his images, like Ezra Pound’s poems, are “free-associative,” and that, like an anthology of poetry, his collected work adds up to a greater whole. The artist recently exhibited large-format color photographs selected from three new series: “Desert Canto XV: Skies,” 1992–; “Desert Canto XXI: Heavenly Bodies [sic],” 1995–; and “Desert Canto XXII: Night Clouds,” 1994–. These radiant and technically accomplished images bridge the gap between painting and photography, between personal style and mechanical transcription, while at the same time challenging viewers to find meaning in the brilliant nothingness of desert sky.

The “Skies” selections are so painterly that it takes several moments to register that they are indeed photographs. Misrach used no special filters to create these sumptuous fields of color; they are recorded directly from nature, with variations and effects produced only by location, atmospheric conditions, and time of day. The matte texture of these prints, which were framed but not under glass, seemed to simultaneously hold and radiate light. But their real power, of course. comes from the subject matter: open skies with no reference at all to land or sea. The photographs of night skies in the “Heavenly Bodies [sic]” and “Night Clouds” series have more specificity. Created with long exposures ranging from three minutes to eleven hours, they record the movement of stars, planets, aircraft, clouds, and the moon. The result is geometry with a temporal presence: lines, arcs, and circles traced by points of light traveling across the sky. Misrach is able to achieve a variety of compositions without manipulating the camera: In his notes on the photographs, he explains, “When the camera is pointed north, the rectangle of the film plane records circular drawings; pointed south, horizontal arcs; pointed east, verticals curving up to the right; pointed west, verticals curving down to the right.” These works have a remarkable formal simplicity but, partly because they are smaller, are less powerful than the “Skies” photographs.

What all these images “mean” is the great puzzle of the show. In a related publication, The Sky Book (Arena Editions, 2000), the three cantos can be seen in their entirety; codesigned by Misrach, the volume also contains an essay (by Rebecca Solnit), maps, and etymological glossaries, all commissioned by the artist. But these bodies of information, like the place-name titles of the works themselves, are ultimately distracting, and while they bring the colorful skies down to earth, so to speak, they hardly constitute the “meaning” of the image.

For Misrach, the modern-day American desert is an emblem of the national psyche, a metaphor for America’s limitless opportunities as well as for its mistreatment of the land. He has recorded the desert’s light and atmosphere as well as scenes of its exploitation and destruction. The images here, so different from Misrach’s previous work (which included images of toxic-waste dumps, poisoned desert animals, and the ecological effects of federal weapons testing); seem to suggest a new desire for sublimity, even if the gorgeous oranges and reds of these twilit sunsets describe the effects of pollution. At the same time the emptiness in these radiant skies is brilliantly disturbing. Both expressions of transcendence and documentations of a particular desert sky, the photographs linger in the mind like the equally enigmatic sky works of artists as various as Constable, Stieglitz, and Rothko.

Justin Spring