Arts - Summer 2015

Southern Exposure

Inspired by the structures and landscapes of rural Alabama, photographer William Christenberry has spun a narrative that is long, rich, and universal

By Andy Grundberg | June 8, 2015
<em>Green Warehouse, Newbern, Alabama, 1978</em> by William Christenberry; gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Christenberry (Phillips Collection)
Green Warehouse, Newbern, Alabama, 1978 by William Christenberry; gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Christenberry (Phillips Collection)

 

In 2006, I traveled with the artist William Christenberry to his native Alabama, where we were to appear together on stage at the Birmingham Museum of Art. I was there as the Yankee interlocutor of the state’s most revered artist, and my job was to get him to discuss his work and career for the evening’s entertainment—that is, to keep the artist engaged and interested for all of 50 minutes. To this end, I prepared a list of questions, two pages long, hoping that this would suffice for the occasion. But one never knows: sometimes these kinds of public conversations peter out quickly, and I find myself having to to pick up the slack. Or, I need to keep the conversation on track, or, as has happened on other occasions, juice up the event with something provocative, to elicit some entertaining, if cranky, response.

After some introductions, I dived in and asked how it was that, after being trained as a painter, he ended up devoting so much of his energy to photography and sculpture. As if we had rehearsed the question in advance, or were happily sitting around the kitchen table with a bottle of bourbon, he launched into a recounting of his meeting the photographer Walker Evans in New York in the early 1960s, followed by a tale of concocting with his friend William Eggleston a performance involving a toilet and a Cadillac convertible when they both were young artists in Memphis, followed by the story of meeting the daughter of one of the tenant farmers whom Evans had photographed in Hale County, Alabama, during the Depression. For 40 minutes, during which time the audience laughed and smiled with every word, he wove together a narrative of his career that was itself a work of art. Finally, hesitantly, I interrupted, pointed to my list of questions, and asked if I could ask another. It proved to be my last contribution of the evening.

That, at least, is the story I tell.

Storytelling—more formally known as narrative—has become the creative sine qua non of our times. From reality television to photojournalism, from blogs to art gallery press releases, we are deluged with stories and obsessed with the people who tell them well. A century ago, this artful shaping of experience was the near-exclusive domain of fiction. But the camera, cinema, and the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson changed all that. Not to mention psychotherapy, which insists we each have one or more narratives to lend coherence to our egos.

It may seem strange to think of photographers as storytellers, but that is how I now hear them describing themselves. Even photojournalists. Gone is the aspiration to forge a career with a single great shot, the Iwo Jima flag raising or Saigon pistol shot to the head; instead, today’s photojournalists hope to create “stories” rooted in the photo-essay idea polished by Life magazine in its heyday and now elaborated with soundtracks, video, and various tricks of the digital multimedia toolkit. The result is a more immersive experience for the viewer than the pages of Life could ever produce, one more personally expressive and subjective. The once-glorified notion of the documentary image as a carrier of truth has gone the way of the flashbulb.

The art world has been slow to raise the storytelling banner, in part because of its attachment to single, salable images and objects but also because the formalist criticism of art, originating in a postwar era of abstraction, long forbade any whiff of anecdote or personal history in the interpretation of an artist’s work. Today, thanks to formalism’s demise, a widespread embrace of photography and video, and a generation of artists trained to plumb their own experiences for material, narrative is back and booming. There hasn’t been a return to history painting, at least not yet, but to the extent that artists today have embraced themes of cultural, racial, and gender identity, diaspora, religious and political intolerance, or simply their own place in the world, they too can be thought of as storytellers.


William Christenberry (b. 1936) epitomizes, more than any other artist of his generation, the triumph of storytelling in art, having put his memories of home and place into the foreground of his multifaceted work for more than 50 years. Known for his evocation of the rural South through photographs, sculpture, paintings, and drawings, and notably a storied installation called The Klan Room, he has extended our sense not only of how those visual mediums can be harnessed to personal and mnemonic ends but also of how they can interact and combine in wonderful, sometimes haunting, ways. A small white church in Sprott, Alabama, for example, exists in Christenberry’s world variously as a 1960s Brownie snapshot, a painting, a sculpture, and a series of large-format color photographs from the 1980s. It is an unforgettable icon of his world, and of a South that still bears the traces of its pre–Civil Rights, even premodern, past.

To say that Christenberry’s art exemplifies narrative impulse may seem paradoxical, since each individual work is focused on the particulars of time and place and its own materiality: rusted signs for long-discontinued products, buildings that age and fall over or that are consumed by kudzu, dogtrot tenant houses left leaning from the Depression years. Even the more recent drawings of what look to be Klansmen’s conical hoods, or the equally conical “dream buildings,” which are meant to be metaphorical and thus read as generic, are not easy to characterize as narrative. Looked at as a whole, however, the artist’s work tells us stories that are simultaneously about his personal experience as a product of a particular place, about a culture that remains rooted in its past (for better and for worse), and about how the passage of time inhabits and inflects human memory. In this last sense, his art can be understood as a metanarrative about the function of narrative.

Christenberry came of age as an artist when Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were breaking the stranglehold of abstraction on contemporary painting and sculpture. Their work—which incorporated three-dimensional objects, collaged reproductions, and frequent references to everyday life—encouraged younger artists to explore, and none, arguably, did so more thoroughly than Christenberry. Although trained as a painter in the abstract expressionist mode at the University of Alabama, he differentiated his work by including recognizable advertising signs and building forms from the territory around his hometown of Tuscaloosa. Like Johns and Rauschenberg, he was reducing the distance between art and life; unlike them, he was using representations that had resonance with his own past.

To record the rural material he wanted to use in his paintings, Christenberry began to photograph with a Brownie camera in the 1950s. These pictures gained him a degree of recognition in the early 1970s, when photographs began to enjoy a resurgence in the art world, and more important, made photography a central element of his artwork. Color photographs, and sculptural buildings based on them, became his preoccupations as he pushed painting to the side.

Once Christenberry and his wife, Sandra, settled with their children in Washington, D.C., where he became an art teacher at the Corcoran School of Art in 1968, he began to make annual visits back to Tuscaloosa and environs to visit his family and make new photographs, often of landmarks from his childhood. As a consequence, he assembled a folio of photographs of buildings to which he would return year after year, charting their fortunes as nature and human intervention changed them. In Greensboro he found Coleman’s Cafe and the Bar-B-Q Inn; in Havana Junction, the Palmist Hand Building; in Newbern, the Green Warehouse and the Black Buildings. Over time, many of the sites he documented disappeared from the landscape entirely. The pictures of Coleman’s Cafe, for example, when displayed together in chronological order, tell the story of a community-based enterprise becoming first a relic and finally a memory. They also tell the story of the artist’s devotion to his origins, which are themselves relics of his imagination.


The day after the two of us appeared onstage in Birmingham, we ventured south to Tuscaloosa, and then on to visit some of the sites of his photographs. After passing through Greensboro, a town that seems to have come back to life compared with Christenberry’s pictures of its buildings (the now-vanished Coleman’s Cafe excepted), we came to the tiny village of Newbern, site of the still-standing Green Warehouse and Black Buildings. I had expected the Green Warehouse (see p. 109), which Christenberry has photographed on a number of occasions and is one of his best-known subjects, to be large, on the order of 25 feet high, but it turned out to be a meager one-story construction sunk into the Alabama red dirt, capable of housing a few tractor implements but not a whole tractor.

This misapprehension, I think, is not an accident. Part of Christenberry’s method, as you’ll see if you look closely at the pictures, is to keep the camera low, making his half-decayed shacks, shanties, and barns seem taller, or at least more imposing, than they are to the naked eye. But equally important, he isolates his buildings in the frame, so there is little context for judging size. In the sculptures, and such photographs as the one of Sprott Church, miniaturization is the key. His sculpture of the Green Warehouse sits in calculated isolation in an art gallery, on a platform not more than two or three feet on a side, surrounded by fine dirt he has mined and sifted from the Alabama countryside.

Modest little Newbern is also the headquarters of the vaunted Rural Studio, a program of Auburn University’s College of Architecture that is the ongoing legacy of the great Samuel Mockbee. Until his death in 2001, Mockbee would bring architecture students to Newbern to work on projects that engage the community and utilize no-cost or low-cost building supplies. The results, which can be seen along the highway running through town, include a fire station and community center made in a modern idiom of form but almost ramshackle in terms of material.

This coincidence—Mockbee did not choose Newbern because of Christenberry, and vice versa, but their work resonates richly—is in some sense typical of the fortuitous encounters that have enriched the artist’s career. None was more foundational for establishing his artistic independence than his meeting with Walker Evans in New York in 1961. Evans, then working in relative obscurity for Fortune magazine, was the co-author (with James Agee) of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the landmark book of words and pictures focused on Depression-era Hale County. Christenberry, whose family roots had been planted only a few miles away from the tenant farms on which Agee and Evans focused, discovered a 1960 reissue of the book and later credited it with changing the shape of his career. But so did Evans’s reaction to the young artist’s work: he admired the Brownie color photographs and told Christenberry to take his photographic talent seriously.

Then there is William Eggleston, whom Christenberry met upon moving to Memphis to teach art in the 1960s. Eggleston, then a committed but struggling black-and-white photographer, took his photography seriously but his art irreverently and shared with Christenberry a fascination with Dada. Together the artists put on the performance involving a Cadillac and a toilet for the amusement of the Memphis art scene and shared their photographs with each other. Eggleston soon switched to color, and by 1976, when he was the subject of a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art, he was being credited with giving the medium aesthetic credibility. By that time Christenberry was beginning to exhibit his own small color pictures in art galleries.

At the Corcoran, Christenberry encountered Walter Hopps, a now-legendary curator then fresh from California, where he had acquired a reputation for mounting, among other shows, a game-changing retrospective of Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963. Hopps became a great supporter of many contemporary artists, including Rauschenberg, but his interest in Christenberry and subsequently in Eggleston helped make him an important advocate for photography as a new medium of contemporary art. Lee Friedlander, another Hopps favorite and one of the most important living photographers, became one of Christenberry’s closest friends as well.

Evans, Eggleston, Hopps, Friedlander—these are only a few of the people who populate Christenberry’s social world, which is a far cry from the remote rural hamlets from which he has drawn the materials of his art for the past half century. They figure in the stories he tells as much as the characters of his childhood, but the story told by his art is something different: a meditation about time, memory, and the imagination’s ability to shape both. The South, home of some of the nation’s greatest storytellers, figures large in this story and provides a fertile ground for Christenberry’s narrative, yet the story itself is more universal than regional.

Christenberry’s use of a camera to reimagine a world of memory may seem unremarkable these days; however, we should remember that photographic description, indeed any kind of explicit representation, was a radical innovation when he started his career. His work traces the arc of art’s turn from a formalist agenda rooted in the specificity of each individual medium to today’s more capacious enterprise embracing individual identity, cultural differences, and social meanings. In a far larger sense, his work tells us that individual lives matter most when their stories are told well.

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