In many of his photos, Lewis Baltz pulls off an unlikely trick: He beguiles the eye with images of buildings that, in reality, are depressing eyesores.
“Prototypes/Ronde de Nuit,” the Baltz show on view in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building through July 31, presents an exquisitely controlled vision of Southern California in the late 1960s and early ’70s. In the 50 or so “Prototypes” included here — black-and-white photos, all roughly six inches by nine — Baltz created an aesthetic that seems at odds with traditional photography. Instead of recording facts, these tiny, flattened images of desolate commercial spaces appear abstracted, anonymous, interchangeable.
At first glance, this work might seem unlikely to provide any aesthetic kick. Baltz depicts his subjects through a weirdly anti-picturesque strategy: The stucco walls of shoddy retail buildings are shot head-on so that they fill the frame and block out the sky. Nearly all visible lines — sidewalks, windowsills, gutters — are parallel with the top, bottom or sides of the composition, creating a world of 90-degree angles and blocks of rough texture. There is no background, and few or no objects in the foreground — just a fixed middle distance that stops the eye dead.
In other words: If a photo is a window on the world, then Baltz’s window has been bricked in, and the viewer is stuck examining the mortar.
Baltz’s treatment of surfaces is meticulous. In a picture like “South Laguna” (1972), the car that’s ostensibly parked in the foreground seems less present to the eye than the whorls, grooves and craters in the wall immediately behind it.
Baltz’s subjects may be dull, but through his lens, they feel almost sumptuous.
It’s clear Baltz wants these photos to read like objects. The artist carefully trimmed the white border off each print, blackened the edges and affixed it to an off-white board. As a result, his photos appear to float inside their frames, begging to be handled. These are not invitations to lose oneself in imaginary worlds, but to be fully, physically present.
The show’s curator, Matthew Witkovsky, has a knack for showing how photography has operated at the leading edge of upheavals in visual culture. He is currently chair of the photography department at the Art Institute of Chicago, but Washingtonians might remember his previous stint as associate curator for the NGA. He helmed “Foto,” the excellent 2007 show of Central European photography between the two world wars.
“Foto” showed how modernism altered living spaces, bodies and even the nature of vision itself — and how photographers were quick to champion or decry these transformations. “Prototypes/Ronde de Nuit” explores a different moment in the history of modernism: when the promise of radically remaking the world for the greater good seemed to have run out of gas.
Earlier in the 20th century, brutalist buildings could suggest Utopian values. By the time Baltz began shooting his images of the West Coast, concrete boxes were just plain cheap: warehouses, dive motels, real estate offices.
Yet Baltz’s photos are not anti-sprawl one-liners; they record a feeling of lost possibility, dissipated shock. Unlike Ed Ruscha, who published photo books of Los Angeles during the same period in a cool, almost documentary style, Baltz reinvigorated what had become dull or usual, with new visual intensity.
Witkovsky’s inclusion of sculptures by Donald Judd and drawings by Richard Serra in one room of the show seem to confirm Baltz’s desire to transcend his subjects. Serra’s large sheets of white paper, filled with equally large, shimmering planes of waxy black pigment, stop the eye, dazzle with subtle texture and draw attention to the edges of the page in a manner very similar to Baltz’s “Prototypes.”
And yet Baltz’s images can never altogether cease being representations: They are inseparable from the effects of the built human environment. This dependency becomes clear in the exhibit’s final room, housing “Ronde de Nuit” — a piece executed some 20 years after most of the “Prototypes.”
“Ronde de Nuit” is not tiny, but massive, stretching 35 feet along a dimly lit corridor. The title is drawn from Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”; the piece is a combination of grainy blue images gleaned from security cameras and close-ups of bundled cables, wires and places for surveilling and storing data.
Whereas the “Prototypes” showed a world in which our living and working spaces were cheaply molded for speed and convenience, “Ronde de Nuit” shows a world transformed into pure data. Information, much of it hidden away, controls us.
Many familiar formal elements are here: Banal spaces rendered in textured patterns, thanks to digital noise; lines of cables leading the eye along vertical or horizontal pathways.
But it becomes clear that Baltz dazzles here not to delight us, but to jolt us. For Baltz, seeing the world with fresh eyes is the only way to understand our condition — to see the traps we build for ourselves. Ultimately, Baltz beguiles us not for the sake of simple pleasure, but to show us our complacency.
Cudlin is a freelance writer.