Lewis Baltz ‘Park City’ and the choice of Wallace Stevens

Lewis Baltz, Park City 19 (Prospector Village, Lot 41, looking Southwest) image courtesy Gallery Luisotti and Artnet

What happens if I look at Lewis Baltz’ Park City photos without searching for “the afterglow of the new dystopia?” Quoting from the press release which then quotes the final lines of Wallace Stevens poem, Gubbinal: “The World is ugly,/and the People are sad.

I ask my question as a sort of reverse-engineering of my own aesthetics: I find these photographs, and what they picture, to be beautiful – they are to my taste. The half-built landscapes don’t feel like disjuncture, I can imagine the scenes to be fairly interesting and beautiful. The particular and specific messes that are a byproduct of construction have charms for me – the chaos indicates actions being taken.

Lewis Baltz, Park City 42 (Prospector Village, Lot 102, looking West) image courtesy Gallery Luisotti and Artnet

Looking at these photographs, first I appreciate their clarity and the level of granularity that they offer – literally as with the mounds of disgorged earth on which I can sense, and almost see, each grain of sand, and metaphorically in the many ideas that the artist presents – these are landscapes of the American west where our dreams of heroics resides, and yet these are small, are black and white and they do not idealize in a direction of traditional beauty – in fact they give me another way to think about beauty, as a thing I need to seek and not simply accept. In the time these photos were being made, our concept of “ecology” was being born – these photos probably bolstered the nascent movement toward thinking of environment as other than milieu, as a thing to be protected from man, as something almost holy.

Lewis Baltz, Park City 90 (Park City, interior, 29) image courtesy Gallery Luisotti and Artnet

The 102 photos in the series are installed in three rows on two walls of the gallery, there are 41 that picture interiors and 61 exterior shots. (Is it meaningful that both numbers are Prime? I don’t know.) No. 1 shows a long shot of the Park City development from a hillside and No. 102 shows a developers map with colored pins demarcating “sold” “completed” and so on.

In the first photo at the top left, and in several others, blocky polygonal shapes on the ground resemble sculptures – maybe Donald Judd’s concrete boxes from the air, and John Mason’s installations of fired bricks stacked on the ground in hard, geometric forms. These objects – which must be houses or building sites – flatten as I look and become two dimensional, like abstractions. I notice now the way photographs flatten against a wall – despite my knowledge that pictures are flat, when I am looking my mind attributes depth to the image – and then depth disappears.

Lewis Baltz, Park City 89 (Park City, interior, 28) image courtesy Gallery Luisotti and Artnet

The light in these photos becomes as important as the objects the light shows. Around a gravel pile a luminous presence manifests itself and this appears in these photos again and again: in a dust cloud raised on a hillside, emanating from fat, twisted white electrical wires; several wide planks – cast off doors? – reflect harsh daylight like mirrors. My eyes continue dancing along this play of light and shadow and then I am stopped – at a picture of a window in a darkened wall. This window is hazy and is behind three 2 x 4″ studs, my eyes struggle to focus on it, to grasp this scene. Moving on I find a bathtub in a shoddy gyp-board surround – the tub reflects light upward on the gyp. (Or is this white paint I see, smeared and looking like reflected light? Vision is so tricky.) Then there is a blank wall that is a lovely, diffuse, depthless space – again perhaps it is painted and perhaps a function of light cast from some unseen window. Now I think of a Robert Irwin screen wall I saw installed at LACMA several years ago and how disorienting the experience was. This small photo has the same effect on me.

Lewis Baltz, Park City 101 (Park City, interior, 40) image courtesy Gallery Luisotti and Artnet

There are people, in at least one picture, but the lack importance, they are tiny, frozen and the buildings, the vehicles that surround them and the land have more power over my imagination than they.

The Wallace Stevens poem quoted in the press release reads in full:

That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

That tuft of jungle feathers,
That animal eye,
Is just what you say.

That savage of fire,
That seed,
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

I take Stevens to mean that the world is ours to take as we will – if we find it ugly and its people sad then they are.

Choice is central to the matter as Stevens sees it, and I think choice may be central to my understanding of Lewis Baltz’s famously dystopic landscapes.

I understand one of the tenets of early Modernism to be the perfectibility of humankind, and the Modern impulse – in architecture, in art – was a quest to better our situation. Baltz’s Park City photos indicate something else to me – something like, “Here is the world: find beauty in it or not – as you will.” Lewis Baltz’s photos, as works of art, do not represent the world we live in (remembering that photos lie and that understanding requires our presence), art represents the world we think in, art is ideas.

That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.

Gallery Luisotti: http://www.artnet.com/galleries/home.asp?gid=684

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