New York

William Eggleston

William Eggleston’s color photographs were the first ever to be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1976. This breakthrough was shocking to some at the time, but the content of his photographs has generally been more interesting, not to say more provocative, than their use of color. In fact, Eggleston’s deployment of color rarely seems innate to the image, suggesting it functions instead as a sort of distracting camouflage for the real subjects of his work.

Of the twenty-four new images on view here—all made in the “21st Century,” as this exhibition was titled—there were some that suggest a voyeuristic curiosity about female sexuality. It seems apparent in the naked rear of a female statue captured in Untitled (Rear of Woman Statue in Window, Mexico), 2005; in the juxtaposition of a woman with a square black hole, suggesting a fantasy of the vagina as a dark abyss, in Untitled (Sign Factory, Square Hole, Pin-Up, St. Petersburg, Russia), 2002; and in another wall of pinup posters he photographed the same year (Untitled [Sign Factory, Pin-Up Posters, St. Petersburg, Russia]).

These mildly erotic pieces—for Eggleston keeps his distance from overt sexuality—were complemented by works, which tend to be more close-up, that suggest a fascination with dirt and with its opposite, cleanliness. Again their titles describe their content: Untitled (Water on Dirt Road, Las Pozas, Mexico), 2005; Untitled (Soap on Windshield, Car Wash, Memphis), 2004; and Untitled (Side of Brown Stone Wall, Arizona), 2000, which is paired with its squeaky-clean opposite, Untitled (Egg Crate on Wall, Cuba), 2007. These images push the mundane intriguingly toward the abstract—as evidenced in the juxtaposition of color planes in Untitled (Red Dumpster, Orange Building, Memphis), 2005; the contrast of the monochromatic tiles in Untitled (Door, White and Black Tile, Paramount Lot), 2000; and, perhaps most eloquently of all, the murky whiteness of Untitled (Freezer with Ice Bags, Kentucky) and the flat on flat in Untitled (Newspaper on Ground, Grass, California) (both 2000), which both look like muted and moody Color Field paintings.

Nevertheless, the emotional scope of these photographs remains limited. On the one hand, there’s the fantasy of the pinup, at once out of reach and intimidating—clean and all the more so because kept at the distance of slick artificiality—and on the other hand there are photographs that could be interpreted as “connected with the overriding of disgust,” to use Freud’s words, “as in the case of voyeurs or people who look on at excretory functions.” Indeed, Eggleston’s interest in out-of-the-way, quasi-“obscene” social scenes, with their banal, worn subjects—the kitchen of the Lamplighter Lounge in Memphis (in an image from 2000), say, or the orange window grille in Tuscany and the old television and lamps in New Jersey (both 2002)—suggests his attempt to overcome his antipathy toward them. Indeed, voyeurism, implicit in much photography, may be an attempt to override disgust while indulging in it.

Untitled (Leigh in Black Top, Memphis), 2000, seems the exception to the rule. Its subject makes no pretense at being seductive—she’s not part of the kitsch world of pinup beauty and, rather than being set back in the picture, as the commonplace things in Eggleston’s pictures tend to be, she stands out of the scene, confronting the photographer as though to challenge him with her stare, indeed, to question his whole voyeuristic enterprise with her aggrieved, defiant face. She’s a strong, individual presence, and she doesn’t need Eggleston’s color and abstraction to dignify her. To me, she represents Eggleston’s self-doubt as well as his doubt about the peculiarly dead lifeworlds he photographs.

Donald Kuspit