New York

Adam Bartos

Adam Bartos’s recent first exhibition at Yossi Milo Gallery—comprised of a dozen large-format photographs of Los Angeles—was a long time in the making. The New York–born Bartos moved to Ocean Park in 1978 and began taking pictures as a way of habituating himself to his new environs. Inspired by William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, Bartos shot in color (although his blanched, elemental palette was significantly muted relative to Eggleston’s garish saturation). In any case, Bartos only returned to his California images two years ago, publishing them alongside contemporary scenes from Paris in his book Boulevard, 2005. Newly printed for this show, and at a greater scale than what would have been possible at the time they were taken, the LA photos effect an anomalous disjunction between their uncannily crisp execution and their outmoded subjects. In this regard, Bartos seems to have unwittingly excavated a past from a city famous for doing its best to eradicate its own history.

The show is thus a variation on the theme of the work for which Bartos is best known. His book International Territory: The United Nations 1945–1995 (also the title of a series of photographs dated 1989–1993) documents the effects of the passage of time on this architecture, showing, with clinical exactitude, the entropic decrepitude of the building’s physical spaces as much as the waning of the ideology its form was meant to represent. Something worth mentioning, and indeed hard to ignore, is the fact that Bartos’s Southern California looks nothing like the sun-dappled wonderland it is ubiquitously imaged to be. To be sure, there are the requisite beaches and canyons as well as frequent nods to car culture, but more often than not, the tone feels familiar in a different, less cinematic way. What could be more perfectly mundane than Rose Avenue, Venice Beach, 1979, which focuses on an oil-dappled stretch of pavement, or Los Angeles (gasoline can), 1978, a composition marked by a patch of sun hitting stucco behind the titular red can. Works that foreground architecture, including Ocean Drive and 40th St., El Porto, 1979, and Figueroa Street, Los Angeles, 1978, are no more hyperbolic. Beholden neither to narrative nor to incident, others are nonetheless anticipatory while being totally still. Los Angeles (blue Mustang), 1978, for one, is revelatory in this regard.

Though his subjects can be parsed effortlessly—here a landscape with parked cars, there an interior shot of a kitchen or a view of a street running into the water (as though this were the edge of the world)—Bartos’s project is not a Becher-like typology or an Atget-esque archive. Instead it is a reorientation of street photography, and, equally, an object lesson in the virtues of patient observation. The gallery’s press release informs us that Bartos “methodically strips out the city’s scenic qualities in his images, offering instead precise formal arrangements of elements such as driveways, fragments of lawns, cars parked under an overpass, or telephone wires.” While this is true, I might suggest that he is not so much stripping scenic qualities away as locating them, like latter-day purloined letters, in the most obvious and thus unlikely of places. Like Eggleston’s mythic American South, Bartos’s California is gorgeously banal, and yet, too, weirdly unburdened. His approach echoes Joan Didion’s in Where I Was From (2003): “One difference between the West and the South,” she writes, that she “came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.”

Suzanne Hudson