WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY is a courtly, modest, intense man. His ambitions as an artist are almost boundless. A good listener, he's a W better talker. He can fix you with his one good eye--the right one was damaged in an accident when he was 14--and make you believe in places you've never been. His stories, like the many pieces of his art now on view at the Corcoran Gallery, are mainly autobiographical.
The Corcoran exhibition, organized by Walter Hopps and first shown at Rice University in Houston, is but one of the many good things that have happened to Christenberry of late. There are two recent books devoted to his work: an Aperture monograph dealing with his photographs and a limited edition livre de luxe containing 17 of his frightening color photographs of his eerie Ku Klux Klan materials. And late last year Christenberry received a Million-Dollar-Man-type telephone call from the Lyndhurst Foundation of Chattanooga, Tenn., informing him that he had won a prize for which he had not even applied: $75,000, to be paid in three annual, tax-free installments of $25,000.
Since 1969 Christenberry has lived and worked in Washington. His life is centered upon his family--his wife, Sandy, their three children, his parents and relatives still living back home in his native Alabama--and upon his art. Most days, and many nights, too, after a family meal at home, Christenberry can be found in his Connecticut Avenue studio, one of Washington's special art places. It is a room of spotless cleanliness filled not only with his art but with hundreds of old, weathered signs and other artifacts hoarded from the haunts of his boyhood--a place of memory and dream, an outpost of another world.
Christenberry was born 46 years ago in Tuscaloosa. As a young man he often traveled the back roads of the southern countryside with his father, who sold insurance and later got into the milk business. The young Christenberry was absorbing the complex sensations that, as a mature artist, he would appropriate as the raw material for his art. Today he states with unself-conscious intensity, "Everything that means anything to me--morality, integrity, close family ties, my heritage, the land--comes from the South, from the places where I grew up."
THERE IS a story to go with every sign Christenberry has made away with, T and every photograph he's made. Some of the stories were recorded for the Aperture monograph. One is the martin story:
"Once when visiting friends overnight in West Virginia, I started going through a copy of 'West Virginia Wildlife.' I read a story that one purple martin will eat about 2,000 mosquitoes a day. Indians first started hanging the gourd trees poles with hollowed-out gourds , as birdhouses, hoping to attract martins.
"Back in Alabama, I was driving along and spotted this beautiful gourd tree. No one was around, but about 25 yards away was a house trailer. Just as I was positioning myself, a man and woman came storming out of the trailer . . . and he was angry! I'm trespassing.
"He shouts, 'Hey, what are you doing,' and I tell him, photographing his tree. He glowers at me and yells, 'I'll bet you can't tell me how many mosquitoes a purple martin eats in a day. I bet you can't tell me!'
"I knew I had him then. I hesitated a moment, and said, 'I reckon about 2,000.' That man jumped straight in the air and said, 'Son, photograph that tree all you want to.'"
THE CORCORAN exhibition is so beautifully selected and installed that it T makes the whole Christenberry enterprise seem almost effortless, as if the vision had been born neatly, all at once. This isn't even remotely true. Bringing his art and life together took years of uncertainty and hard work.
The key event, in retrospect, was Christenberry's first encounter with the book "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" written by James Agee, with photographs by Walker Evans. This took place in the spring of 1959, when Christenberry was a graduate student in painting at the University of Alabama. He was browsing in an old book store across the street from the Tutwiler Hotel in Tuscaloosa when he picked up a copy of the book and leafed through it. What amazed him at first was the people in Evans' memorable photographs: They were people he remembered from growing up in Hale County, in west-central Alabama.
Christenberry became fascinated with the parallels. To do the book, Agee and Evans had traveled and lived in Hale County in 1936, the year Christenberry was born. The people they immortalized as the Ricketts family were tenant farmers near a farm owned by Christenberry's grandparents. In his earlier travels, Christenberry had passed by some of the exact places Evans photographed. In his off hours he began to search the terrain again and again, making pictures of these places, and others, with a Brownie camera.
There was a passage in Agee's text that took Christenberry aback. He read it over and over. "If I could do it," Agee wrote, "I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art."
The passage was uncannily prophetic, concerning the ultimate direction Christenberry's art would take. But it took more than a decade for him to know with dead certainty that he had found his subject in that book and in the places of his youth. CC HRISTENBERRY is a tall man of old-fashioned looks and manners. He parts his C short hair way down on the right side, just above the ear. And he never swears. "That darn thing," he'll say, or "I could have kicked myself in the you know what." But being polite doesn't mean being simple. About art and the art world Christenberry is as sophisticated as they come.
His art education began in earnest, he recalls, when a painter named Larry Calcagno arrived at the Tuscaloosa campus. Calcagno was a good teacher. More important, he'd been around, he knew the New York scene and he'd studied with Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko in San Francisco. "He was the first real artist I ever met," Christenberry says. "His studio door was always open. I remember walking by there on spring nights, and he was there working away."
Melville Price was another model. Price was an ambitious, hard-driving, hard-drinking abstract expressionist from New York. Even though Christenberry was beginning to question total non-objectivity in art by that time (the late 1950s) Price's seriousness and drive appealed to him: The expressionist side of abstract expressionism left a lasting imprint upon Christenberry's work. And it was Price who goaded him to leave Alabama for New York in 1961. "If you stay here," he said, "you'll never know anything else. You'll be trapped by Alabama."
Christenberry's sojourn in the Big Apple lasted only a year and was not artistically productive, but it was important in many ways. He thought a lot about what he was doing, so that when he returned to the south he did his first Klan drawings and his first big paintings of southern shacks. Furthermore, the exposure honed his ambition and his habit of scrutinizing art with a deeply serious, possessive eye.
Another key thing that happened in New York was that Christenberry introduced himself to Walker Evans. He did this despite his innate shyness, thinking that Evans might be interested in the research he had been doing in Hale County. They became such good friends that much later, in 1973, Christenberry was able to talk Evans into returning to Alabama, where they went on photography outings together in the changed Hale County countryside. One of the amazing things about Christenberry's career is the number of important people who have become lastingly interested in his work--movers and shakers such as Price, Evans, Walker Percy, Walter Hopps, Jane Livingston, Robert Coles (the Harvard sociologist who was instrumental in getting Christenberry the Lyndhurst Foundation prize), William Eggleston and others.
These are people who are immune to importuning and flattery, things that in any case Christenberry doesn't do. But he's very, very ambitious about his work and he presents it very persuasively. "Like all artists I want to be remembered after I'm gone, a hundred years from now," he has said.
THE HARD edges of Christenberry's character are softened by his easy, self-T deprecating humor. He tells this story about his first New York exhibition in 1976, a show consisting mainly of small photographs at the Zabriskie Gallery.
Christenberry was staying at a room the dealer, Virginia Zabriskie, kept for such occasions down the hall from her East Side apartment.
"She invited me over for a drink that night," he recalls, "and we had a pleasant time, talking mainly about the installation of the show, what had to be done before the opening the next day. When I got up to leave she and her friend escorted me to the door.
"We were standing by the door and Mrs. Zabriskie asked, 'Are you nervous?' 'No, ma'am, I'm not nervous,' I said. I had my hand on the door knob and I opened it and turned to leave. I knew there was something wrong when I looked up and there was a whole shelf full of hats. I've never seen so many hats. I was so embarrassed that I just shut that door behind me.
"I was standing there in the dark--it was pitch black--and I could hear those women laughing. When I did open the door they were just doubled over. I could hear them laughing all the way down that hallway."
A different sort of story from the New York exhibition concerns Christenberry's reaction to a devastating review by Hilton Kramer in The New York Times. Kramer compared his photographs unfavorably to Evans' great works, and he called them "precious." Christenberry was crushed. His eyes were glazed. But he didn't stop working, not even for a day, and he didn't even think of changing directions.
It really was just a small test of his confidence as an artist. Christenberry is an obsessive worker, anyway, and by that time he was sure that he was going in the only direction that he could go. Through the 1960s his art had swung from pole to pole. Abstraction had lost its intellectual appeal for him, but he continued to experiment with it from time to time, and he was broadening the base of his skills. He shifted from painting to collage and three-dimensional works and at the same time continued to make, but not to show, the little Brownie camera photographs of Hale County.
At first he used the photographs mainly as sources for drawings and paintings, but somewhere along the line he began taking them just for themselves. After all, Walker Evans had encouraged him to continue. The breakthrough came in 1973 when Christenberry exhibited the photographs for the first time in simultaneous shows at the Jefferson Place Gallery and the Corcoran.
For the Corcoran show Evans wrote, "I need not proclaim the distinction in these unpretentious pictures . . . There is something enlightening about them, as ranged here; they seem to write a new little social and architectural history about one regional America (the deep South). In addition to that, each one is a poem." Christenberry felt understandably honored when, years later, the novelist Walker Percy wrote a blurb describing the photographs as "poetic evocations of a haunted countryside."
It was the photographs, and his years of foraging in the back country where his family still lives, that finally brought the many aspects of Christenberry's work together. Since then it has become more varied, technically and expressively, and more intently focused on the world he wants to re-create. It is not surprising that Christenberry discovered his subject only after moving to Washington to take a teaching job at the Corcoran School. The timing was right and the city vastly more active artistically than Memphis, where he had been teaching. But, mainly, living in Washington gives his imagination room--establishes a distance, psychological as much as physical, between himself and the raw materials of memory.
EVIL and death play important roles in Christenberry's work. He sees it E that way: good and evil and death.
"I'm still a very, very religious person," he says. "I'm not talking about church religion but in the sense of the way I was brought up. I guess I'm essentially a pessimist . . . People living so close to the land, being so dependent on the land, I guess that's where it comes from."
Graves were among Christenberry's first photographic images and he continues to take pictures of their stark, poignant beauty. He made his first Klan drawings in Memphis in 1962 and has returned to the subject intermittently ever since, developing an extraordinary environment he calls the Klan Room, including drawings, paintings, signs and a series of malevolent, fetishistic Ku Klux Klan dolls--GI Joe dolls dressed in chilling, authentic ceremonial finery.
In early 1979 someone broke into Christenberry's studio and stole all but one of the dolls--64 in all--while leaving everything else in the studio untouched. It was a frightening crime that affected not only the artist but also his wife and children. The motive was hard to figure, except that it clearly was skewed, unhealthy. The crime wasn't solved.
After months of uncertainty Christenberry characteristically set to work with a vengeance, expanding the piece to include more than 100 dolls and a series of powerful, large new drawings. In the preface to the book of his photographs of the room, the artist wrote: "Some people have told me that this subject is not the proper concern of an artist or of art. On the contrary I hold the position that there are times when an artist must examine and reveal such strange and secret brutality."
Nonetheless the strange, scary beauty of the work affects people differently. R. H. Cravens, author of the excellent Aperture monograph, reports two responses recorded in the guest book for the show at the Rice Museum, the first place the piece was shown in depth. "The KKK exhibit is in poor taste/Glorifies more than it degrades," was one. On the opposite page the message, "You nigger lovers can stick it," was signed "by a man who identified himself as a member of the KKK from Georgia."
ANOTHER Christenberry story, concerning a beautiful, truly precious little A image, a photograph of a shack with a string of Christmas lights around the door:
"On one of my few winter trips home, in December 1971, I drove around the outskirts of Greensboro and found this house, literally a shack. It was near dusk. Smoke was coming out the chimney.
"I knocked on the door, and an elderly black lady answered. I asked, 'Do you mind if I photograph your house?' And she said, 'No sir, but you must understand we could only paint as high as we could reach.' That set me back a little. It was rather funny and sad at the same time. I said, 'Yes ma'am, I understand.' I made a few pictures, and in a few minutes she opened the door again and said, 'Let me turn on my Christmas lights for you.'
"The next year, in the heat of July, I went back and photographed it again, and every year after that, too, until 1976, and it was no longer there. It had disappeared from the face of the earth, along with everything that had been in the yard."