During the later 18th century and into the 19th, most of Europe took to the countryside.
It is not clear how the trend emerged, but when people started to walk, they really started to walk. Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), speculated that poet William Wordsworth walked 180,000 miles during his lifetime. Art historian Kenneth Clark, amongst others, located this new fervor in the decline of religion, a spiritual vacuum that found expression in a new belief in the divinity of nature. Accompanied by ambivalence over the outcome of the French Revolution where idealism turned from hope to beheadings to Napoléon, this belief was accompanied by disillusionment, a lack of faith in earthly institutions. Some of the most arresting romantic images of the time (as in Caspar David Friedrich) feature the ruins of castles and abbeys lit dramatic by the divine light and landscape of the sky and mountains.
In the 1970s, America also had that strange mix of ambivalence and new religion which sends people into the hinterlands, this time in cars rather than on foot. Jarring events followed the Summer of Love and the revolutions of the 1960s: the Manson Murders, Kent State, the Munich Massacre, Watergate, the fall of Saigon, and the shame of Richard Nixon. Cities suffered a financial crunch and were unable to control crime. Land artists left urban areas and took their egos, ready to assert themselves onto nature. At the same time, photographers Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Joe Deal, and Lewis Baltz steered their camera towards the unapologetic documentation of the American West (and cities and people within the West) as an evolving historical reality. Humans loomed large in the landscape, quite the opposite of the sublime where they were small enough for the comparative friction to create a beautiful spark. The sublime of Ansel Adams (which he got from John Muir via Ralph Waldo Emerson, who subsequently got it from a misinterpretation of Wordsworth) was tested, proved artificially constructed, and destroyed.
The taste for the beauty of ruins and the sublimity of that impulse, however, lived on in the work of John Divola. He took the yearning for the sublime of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko (both in nature and as a product of consciousness) and the existential graffiti of Cy Twombly and Jackson Pollock into desert rat ruin and declared them beautiful. Divola, definitely, ranks as one of the key figures of this period of photography and his retrospective currently is drawn out over three venues: Pomona, Santa Barbara, and that awkward little afterthought gallery at LACMA. This is a small disaster, for Divola deserves top billing, a large monographic presentation in one location where people can see how amazing his work is and more properly register his insight and innovation.
John Divola, Zuma #23, 1977, 40 x 50 inches; Courtesy of the artist.
His Zuma photographs ache with romanticism, the ruins of Eisenhower's American Dream (our homegrown religion with its dream houses on the beach) found soiled and crumbling and vandalized. All of the Zuma shots are taken in one house (used by firefighters for test missions) but they seem as universal as Friedrich’s abbeys. Divola added to the defacements with spray paint and all manner of interventions while at the same time allowing the most unusual and spectacular sunsets to emanate through shattered glass and broken doorframes, sometimes beaming calm and glassy blue, other times ominously impaled with blood red.
Divola’s interventions are not based in anarchy but instead are rooted in melancholic purpose. Compare the Zuma series, for instance, with Matisse’s interiors from his Nice period (1917 to 1930, like his Vase of Flowers from 1924). Both use pattern to flatten out the picture plane; both squeeze space while bringing the ocean forward as a matter of immersive color. For Matisse, the arcadia of the Mediterranean presents the possibility of pure pleasure; the slow collapsing patterns mimic the lackadaisical urgency of the good life. In Divola’s hands, however, the same device makes the limitlessness of the Pacific register as a remote, desperate wish.
Curved cracks in windows function like Ellsworth Kelly triumphal arcs; door and window frames collect like a number of Newman zips; the parade of modernist longing for beauty, its surrender to space and pure color bumps against the reality of ruin in Divola. These sly references are not criticisms of modernist painting, but instead, the use of the formal power of those artworks to intensify feelings of sorrow and ambivalence. Consider Dark Star, B (2008) where Divola’s often used spray painted black dot becomes a floating Rothko orb. At first, the dot is all there is; it’s shiny and registers the cheap particle board surface like fine etching; it’s big and all you see. Viewing time, however, moderates the dot’s intensity and we discover the place where we are having this vision—in a closet, in an abandoned house. There is a sadness to Divola, and his belief in the power of the sublime, not in mountains or the grandiose but in the intensity of ruin, seems to place him with those 18th and early 19th century walkers, who would delight in talking to a migrant while clutching their copies of Byron.
And what does Divola’s walking speak of? He finds a strange country. He finds places of extreme poverty, places where people are either barely hanging on or have already left. He finds a culture that allows the pillaging of nature, while at the same time, builds fake movie sets of the very same nature on studio back-lots in Hollywood. He burrows through archives to find little birds and rabbits captured by happenstance on film, in the background of something built for another purpose, and highlights them by re-printing the photos. He sees our destroyed pasts hanging around while the menacing power of our future comes forward with a bullet. And in all of this, he lets art do its thing, lets his knowledge of art history enrich his vision. He throws baking flour in the air in front of a black wall and it registers a type of formalist grit which rivals Christopher Wool.
One of my favorite Divola references is Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of animals in motion, which stunned viewers with their dazzling mix of raw aesthetics and scientific rigor in the 19th century. In Muybridge, people could suddenly see the mechanics of movement in way that their naked eye couldn’t, the fundamental beauty of reality. For photography, it not only affirmed its status as the mirror of real life (a belief which lasts, stubbornly, into the present), but put it into a sort of joust/dance with painting. The two have been tangoing ever sense, that good Argentine tango which is a mixture of love and violence, the dust-up of street gangs mixed with sex.
John Divola, From, Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert, D24 Run Sequence, 1996 – 2001, Inkjet Print; Courtesy Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert (2004) is Divola’s take on Muybridge. We get multiple views of a beautiful but menacing black dog. We can feel his swift energy, his intensity against the passive desert background. Installed in Santa Barbara, we are surrounded; it is definitely clear that, unlike Muybridge, this dog cannot be captured and is resistant to study. There is no rationalism here, just energy, just raw beauty. We see something we would never see in Muybridge, the dog turning to the camera, his eyes glinting like two diamonds, deep and dark and bright. Somehow, I think Byron would like that.
(Image on top: John Divola, Zuma #9, 1978, pigment print on rag paper, 40 x 50 inches; courtesy the artist.)