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Exhibition Review: Robert Adams: The Place We Live, A Retrospective Selection of Photographs

Longmont, Colorado, 1979 -- Robert Adams courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery
Since I moved to Santa Fe, there are only two men for whom I have driven to Denver and back in one day (720 miles roundtrip): James McMurtry, who played a show at the Bluebird last year, and Robert Adams, whose work was recently on view at the Denver Art Museum (DAM). McMurtry is unlikely to be bested by anyone but I was excited about seeing Robert Adams: The Place We Live, A Retrospective Selection of Photographs, 1964-2009, a traveling exhibition organized by The Yale University Art Gallery. After almost six hours in the car, I was road weary and ready for the visual pleasure of the maestro’s poignant, gelatin-silver stylings. The show was featured in the DAM’s special exhibition space and I was delighted to see that photography and Mr. Adams were given that honor and that Adams’ work would have room to breathe. For those of you who haven’t yet seen it (it now travels to Los Angeles, then Yale, before a generous tour overseas), the show offers selections from Adams’ major bodies of work (twenty!) throughout his long career. Given Adams’ significance, it’s a worthy and ambitious undertaking, one that resulted in a three-volume publication that accompanies the exhibition and an informative, easy-to-use website that I particularly admire.

Nebraska State Highway 2, Box Butte County, Nebraska, 1978 & Neahkahnie Mountain, Oregon, 2004 -- Robert Adams courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery
While I am not the rabid Bob-o-phile that many of my friends are, I oversaw a large collection of his work during my years at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I recently included two of his photographs in Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment, which I organized at the New Mexico Museum of Art. I love that Adams found a way to visually express the tension he felt between the miraculous beauty of our earth and the dubious addenda made by mankind. I love that if you take the time with each picture, it continues to unfold and never gives you a definitive answer. I love his simplicity (in the best sense of the word), his eloquence, his lyricism. I love an English major who makes magnificent photographs. The show is classic, understated, perchance elegant, and in that sense respects the artist’s esthetic. DAM’s photography curator, Eric Paddock, did a good job of creating individual spaces for the bodies of work, offering small helpings of pictures with pauses in between. The walls were painted in sherbet colors that were somehow both anemic and distracting but served to differentiate the galleries. I enjoyed seeing many of the photographs, some old favorites and some new discoveries, especially the work from the series Along Some Rivers and the very recent Alder Leaves.

So I’m glad I saw the show but I didn’t like it. That is not meant to denigrate the considerable efforts of my colleagues to put together a comprehensive survey of work by an important photographer. My inquiry is more about how exhibitions work, what they are for, what they can offer. In this case, quality isn’t the issue but quantity is; it’s about a big retrospective not feeling like a good fit for an artist of such subtlety. Certainly the idea of examining the depth and breadth of Adams’ considerable oeuvre is a good one, offering the opportunity to assess
covers of Robert Adams: The Place We Live and What Can We Believe Where?
what it adds up to. Creating a retrospective book that will undoubtedly be indispensible for reference and reflection is also surely a great service to the field (it’s $250, so neither I nor my museum’s library has it), as is Yale’s commitment to reissuing Adams’ monographs and publishing books for some of his newer bodies of work. But the book Adams and his wife Kerstin put together on the occasion of the exhibition, What Can We Believe Where? Photographs of the American West ($25, with an afterword by exhibition curators Joshua Chuang and Jock Reynolds), also spans Adams’ career and reminds us that less is more.

Adams is known for his books as much as his photographs and over the years has put together a group of remarkable publications characterized by their careful selection and sequencing. They are small books, easily held by human hands, easily picked up and put down while thinking. In their structure and their pacing, these books invite leisurely, contemplative consideration, which is probably the best way to apprehend Adams’ work. A retrospective exhibition is, almost by definition, antithetical to that kind of ease, intimacy, and thoughtfulness. All of Adams' work is black-and-white, all of it is the same size, all of it was matted and framed identically in the exhibition. While that kind of consistency of presentation is standard in a museum show, with the intention of keeping emphasis on the pictures themselves, what tends to happen is that they all look the same. It’s hard to fight that effect, especially with small pictures that require the viewer to get up close to view each one individually. Adams’ work demands and indeed merits that kind of attention, but the march of frames across pastel walls wasn’t particularly enticing, even for someone as invested in seeing the show as I was that day. Seeing all those pictures didn’t support the message of Adams’ work for me, it diluted it.
Northeast of Keota, Colorado, 1969 and From the South Jetty, Clatsop County, Oregon, 1991 -- Robert Adams courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery
What would I have done differently? If each room held just one picture or three, it would have been too precious. If some bodies of work had been left out, it wouldn’t have been a genuine retrospective. I guess what I’m most interested in is what connects the bodies of work, what does seeing them together add up to. Perhaps the essays in the three-volume publication address this in depth but I’d like to see a summary of that for museum visitors. I’d like to come out of that show with a clear sense of why Adams' work warrants a retrospective, why it was important when he made the work and why it is relevant now. Each viewer can and should address that question for himself, but a lifetime of work aspires to be rich enough to require more than an hour or so to digest. That’s part of why it takes a lot of time to write a catalog, to organize a show. Perhaps the curators, and perhaps Adams himself, prefer that we each bring to and take away from the work an unmediated individual experience. But I’d like to benefit from their considerable thought on the subject.

After I returned home, I found the statement I was missing, written by the curators as the afterword to the aforementioned book What Can We Believe Where? I don’t think I have ever had occasion to write these words before, clichéd as they may be, but the book is a triumph. Three paragraphs of words at the beginning by Robert Adams and a half dozen at the back of the book by Chuang and Reynolds are just right in offering clarity and resonance to the selection of pictures in between. The images reproduced are, again, from across the artist’s career. But this time they are unconstrained by chronology and are arranged with great sensitivity into a river of joy and sadness and laughter and shock, concluding with the inexorable tides that will surely outlive us all. What a beautiful testament to Mr. Adams and his work.
from the book What Can We Believe Where?
For me, the exhibition alone was too standardized, too factual, too neutral, too big. Before getting back in the car for another six hours, I would like to have tasted the wonder and the tears that motivate Adams’ art. His pictures work best when they are allowed to be in direct conversation with you, each individual, and I’m not sure that works well in a big exhibition. To be sure, his photographs are quiet and his approach is gentle, but that’s forged out of the artist’s conflict and passion on a topic no less monumental than the nature and quality of human life on this planet. Adams and McMurtry might not be so far from one another in that respect, come to think, both railing against a broken world while holding it in a tight embrace. Yes, broken windshield glass can glitter like stars, but so can actual stars, when you can see them through the haze of man-made pollution and electric lights. Adams’ work is ostensibly restrained and so is the show, honoring his style without interpreting his contributions. I would rather have seen a retrospective that revealed and illuminated the tremendous complexity of this artist’s life of work for museum viewers at its many venues.--KATHERINE WARE


Robert Adams: The Place We Live was selected as one of the Best Books of 2011 by Raymond MeeksKevin Kunishi and Anne Kelly
Read Antone Dolezal's blog post on Robert Adams: The Place We Live here
Purchase a copy here

Read Tom Leininger's review of What Can We Believe Where? in photo-eye Magazine here
Purchase a copy here


KATHERINE WARE, Curator of Photography, New Mexico Museum of Art. Before serving at her post at the New Mexico Museum of Art, Katherine Ware was the Curator of Photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ms. Ware served as Assistant Curator in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum during the 1990s. She has also worked with the photography collection at the Oakland Museum of California and began her career at the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in Washington, D.C. She is a frequent juror and reviewer of contemporary photography and has written essays on the art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

2 comments:

  1. I really can not talk about this exhibit analytically as it was too personal. For me it was a very different experience I think than you-a kind of pilgrimage. In the early 80's Robert Adams was a friend and mentor (not so obvious from my work I know). So I approached the exhibit with some anticipation, nostalgia, perhaps even reverence and I was not disappointed-I went twice. There was much of the post early 80's work that I had not seen first hand and that was a revelation. As always I "respected" more of the work than I "liked", but having said that I simply liked an awful lot of it. As an exhibit it was as thoughtful as he is by nature and sometimes, when he is at his best, very profound. I perhaps had more tolerance for the exhaustiveness of the exhibit than people who went with me-perhaps because it was like visiting an old friend and catching up on the lost years. Unfortunately (perhaps) I exhausted all my time visiting the prints and did not really look at the books. It sound like there is a real gem there.

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    1. Nice to hear you had such a positive experience, as others have. Every time someone compliments me on an exhibition I have on view, I figure there is someone else out there who thinks I'm a charlatan. We do our best and put things out there, hoping people will find something good or useful or interesting to take away. But sometimes it is more what the visitor brings with him when when he walks in the door, as you did, that makes the experience sing.

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