High, Low, and Straight Ahead

John Haber
in New York City

Walker Evans and Tilman Riemenschneider

If I could hold onto just one image of America and modernity, I would take the Brooklyn Bridge. Built as Monet watched engine steam rising in the Gare St. Lazare, it has soared in the twentieth-century imagination. Every summer I cross it, thrilling again to its span and the river beneath me, just as in so many American paintings, photographs, and Hart Crane's book-length poem.

A young photographer illustrated that book. Only he turned away from those signature arches and the fabled skyline stretching out before them. He ignored the Statue of Liberty off in the distance. He shot the Brooklyn Bridge from beneath. Walker Evans's Alabama Tenant Farmer's Wife (University of Texas, Austin, 1936)

Walker Evans caught the underside of twentieth-century America (and a related article looks at his "American Photographs," a landmark 1938 exhibition). In place of that solid, nineteenth-century stone, open air, and Gothic pillars, he saw a passage of modern materials that blocked the light. He left little more than a blackened strip.

Precision and respect

Walker Evans had a way with icons. He approached them, like the bridge, literally with both his feet on the ground. He photographed them roughly but with precision. He made them emblems of the Depression like Henri Cartier-Bresson, a founder of Magnum Photos, in Paris or Marc Riboud in Asia. And as a retrospective at the Met makes clear, he looked at them, too, with wonderment and respect.

"Only in darkness is thy shadow clear," Crane addressed the Brooklyn Bridge, and Evans came to it, like all his subjects, with the intimacy of that thy. He saw America in sadness and in rapid change, as "sleepless" as Crane's East River or, as in more than one photo, a cheap hotel's unmade bed.

In a half-century when American art could often stand for the word provincial, his images range from New York's subways to crushingly poor farms. One recognizes them instantly, but not from today's poles of the fine-art museum and pop culture. He worked on assignment—from Fortune magazine, from federal agencies—and he held his ground with them, too. He refused publishing when he had to. He insisted on printing in black-and-white, although bright color versions also at the Met add insight into his unsparing but joyful eye. In work with James Agee, he left off captions.

I think of that middle ground, much more than familiar notions of the avant-garde, as the prototype of Modernism. To define Postmodernism, one can argue over high art and low art, but Evans looked somewhere else entirely. Advertising posters often form the backdrop for his shots, but they crumble in the harsh light of day.

His collaboration with Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, aimed both for literature and for people, with all their hopes and fears for themselves and their nation. In its shots of one-room churches, it reminds me once again of his approach to icons. The Met quotes him and Agee placing them above cathedrals, even the modern cathedrals of New York.

Evans and Agee brought out the best in each other. I find Agee's Pulitzer Prize winner, A Death in the Family, unbearably sentimental. But one photo from their book together, set by the entrance to the Met's exhibition, could well stand for Evans's art.

An archaeology of the present

The shoulder-length portrait portrays a tenant farmer's wife in Alabama, Allie Mae Burroughs. She stands flat against the wooden shelter where her family lived and worked in unending debt. Evans leaves her unposed, but hardly at ease. She cannot spare a smile—or even a glare.

Later, Evans was to capture his subway riders in much the same way, totally free to stare back but with their guard down. There he got results by hiding his camera. To the woman in the deep South—or to impoverished blacks in other pictures—he opens himself freely, and they gain in dignity for it. One young, black man darts past the decaying billboard of a smiling white face. He puts his supposed role model to shame.

Evans approaches each person not as a clinical subject—or, conversely, like Richard Avedon's star performer—but as his equal. (Would he recognize the blurring of the two in Diane Arbus?) He hated sociology almost as much as mainstream journalism. The critique by Michel Foucault of Modernism's all-seeing camera eye suddenly seems a caricature itself.

Evans could never master fancy technique anyhow, making him a particularly intriguing influence on William Eggleston, the influential color photographer. To shoot tools without cast shadows, he had to ask for help from another photographer, Robert Frank. Early on he made postcards, and late in life he took pleasure in ordinary Polaroids. Splayed along a wall near the show's exit, they could as well have sneaked in from someone's family album. The tools and the faces, although rather less successful than his earlier photographs, attest to the brutal, moving frankness of Evans's love.

Behind the sharecropper's wife, with hardly a gap visible, the wood slats create an eerie juxtaposition. Their rigidity echoes her entrapment, as the crumbling home picks up the poverty in her eyes. In the angle of the slats, cut off brutally by the picture's edge, one can sense how her dress falls over her shoulder. She has no time left for appearances.

Often, as with those brittle slats and crumbling billboards, Evans selects objects for their decrepitude. Their fragility amounts to an alternative, darker history of a nation's progress. One series shows rusted swirls, the ornaments from buildings giving way in an ever-changing city. If the photographer refuses the role of sociologist, call him an archaeologist of the present.

A composite of signs and shadows

The horizontals map Burroughs with unrelenting precision. One cannot turn aside from the wood until it has traced every inch. Here falls the line of her shoulders, there the turn of her lips, there her eyes. Elsewhere, Evans turns the grid of studio snapshots into a mathematical puzzle—or at least a high modernist's. Maybe Foucault has a point after all, and yet the woman gets her part in it all. In their exactitude, the slats merely pick up the firm beauty of her bone structure.

By her presence, she reminds one of the shed's humanity. Like Evans's art, it stands as a human product. His work is filled with such juxtapositions. Evans demands them to map the multiplicity of modern life, quite as much as the demotic America of Alfred Gescheidt, Lee Friedlander, or Joel Sternfeld decades later. He needs them to reflect his art's place—as the work of a man among his equals.

Again and again, he matches the human and the not quite inanimate. Sometimes he only implies a person, as on that church porch or in that empty bed. That need not reduce people to anonymity. The portrait in Alabama forms part of Agee's intimate chronicle of three families.

In early photos, Evans enforced the idea of the composite the hard way, by printing from multiple negatives. One photograph builds a dazzling montage of neon signs. Soon, however, as with the tenant farmer, things take far less deliberation to get the message across. Laborers in one simply lift another neon sign, "DAMAGE."

Evans often incorporates words. Rarely, however, does he pun on them. I see little irony, whether of Cubism or Postmodernism. For all his resemblances to generations of modern artists, as highlighted in a thoughtful exhibition across town, perhaps that is what makes his Modernism American. He does not privilege the now-fashionable idea of art as text. Signs can make use of words but also of things, second-hand images, or the haunting look in a southern woman's eyes.

I think back to the black strip of the Brooklyn Bridge and, as in another photograph, the dense flow of rectilinear barges underneath. "All over Alabama," wrote Agee, "the lights are out." When, as a budding photographer, Evans tried a self-portrait, he printed a composite. And he did it entirely with shadows.

Entering modernity four centuries apart

Dignity and despair, humanity and precision, rigid forms and a nation in turmoil, image and composite sign—one photograph opens up Evans's entire art. It also introduces an unnerving, if rather thrilling afternoon. The show can make for an ordeal to itself, at least on weekends. I could wait behind three or four people for a single one of its 175 photographs.

Still, the Met has rarely done better. Partly as an accident of the museum's endless construction projects, one leaves the show without a gift shop in sight. Wall labels, for once, supply information instead of special pleading. They give context for different commissions. So do glass cases, which display photographs in their first published form.

In fact, the Met must be on a roll, because another current show brings even more to the work. Not only that, the crowds have ignored it. Somehow or other, the museum has brought a Renaissance sculptor's career to America. In doing so, it has found another kind of classic art poised between high and low.

I never studied Tilman Riemenschneider, although I recognize the genre from churches and private holdings. Introductions to the Northern Renaissance, including my own or the Met's, prefer to argue over famous painters. These limewood statues of the Virgin get consigned to scholars and sidelights, images of daily devotion for the people. Riemenschneider even stooped to carving a chandelier.

The Met does a great job—giving the work space for one to walk around and live with. The show recreates altarpieces. It shows the sculpture's compositional models in drawings by Martin Schoengauer and others.

It makes clear that the art marks an awkward transition, like America's into Modernism. In the time of Albrecht Dürer, Germany could boast of great centers of learning. Commercially, politically, and artistically, however, it was just entering modern Europe. Around 1500, I like to think, the Renaissance in Germany happened almost all at once.

Jagged edges and inward emotions

Riemenschneider shows as well as anyone how it happened in art. Especially in his earliest work, figures bear the twisted poses and expressive drapery of older, Gothic art. Working in hard wood naturally contributes to the jagged corners.

In other respects, however, he transforms his models into something new. In contrast to the extravagance of the drapery, faces have a subtlety, range, and reserve. The figures keep their gestures, too, to a minimum. Like figures in Robert Campin and other progressives, they make one see an Annunciation as about accepting fate.

Earlier altarpieces crowd figures—even entire, distinct scenes—into a flat tableau. Here individuals gain distance, fullness, and volume. As one walks past the archangel and Mary, their emotional relationship seems to shift as well. Their faces begin to speak more and more.

In a moment, with the sculpture of Veit Stoss, the transition has run its course. Figures become fully in the round. Gothic sculpture is almost ready to tumble past Renaissance bronze or Mannerist sculpture and into Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the Baroque. I have to credit the Met for showing me a gorgeous moment of suspension in between. In two shows at once, it lets me see how nations in transition can never fit painlessly into textbook visions of progress or art's histories of high and low.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

The photographs of Walker Evans and "Tilman Riemenschneider: Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 14, 2000. A related article looks at "Walker Evans: American Photographs."

 

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