Richard Misrach, The Desert Cantos @Robert Mann

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 large scale black and white and color photographs, framed in white and variously matted/unmatted, and hung unframed against white walls in the main gallery space. 16 of the works are chromogenic dye coupler prints (1 has a laminate surface), made between 1984 and 1999. The other 4 works are vintage split-tone prints, made between 1975 and 1977. Physical dimensions generally range from 14×14 to 48×60; no edition information was available. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Spanning more than 15 years, made up of literally hundreds of photographs, and divided into 20 separate and distinct thematic subsections, Richard Misrach’s Desert Cantos were a huge artistic undertaking. Such a broad body of work can’t possibly be jammed into a single gallery show without trade-offs, omissions, and sacrifices, and so what we have here is really more of a jumbled appetizer plate of Desert Cantos ideas rather than anything comprehensive or in-depth. These core images have been bracketed by a few early and a few more recent photographs, spreading the focus of the exhibit even wider. For those unfamiliar with Misrach, the show provides a succinct overview-style introduction to his output over three decades.

A preliminary scan of the gallery provides a striking sense of tone and color; Misrach’s palette is full of expansive pastels and soft yellow sands. The intensity of a fire, the stillness of a flood, the wispy gradient of a massive sky or a clearing storm, all of these natural events are exercises in luscious color. But a closer inspection of the pictures opens up multiple lines of thinking beyond pure aesthetics: an abandoned atomic bomb pit, a burned out bus, a dead animal, a buried rocket, a deflated oversized globe (a Burning Man leftover), a Playboy magazine shot full of holes, these are the evidence of an active, not necessarily benign human presence in the desert. Misrach’s famous image of the orange dining sets in the middle of the blistering white salt flats caps this sense of puzzling intervention in the unforgiving landscape.

The show also includes several early flash lit night images (palms, monumental rocks), a vast, tumultuous Golden Gate Bridge vista, and even one of the Louisiana pipeline photographs from the recent Aperture show, albeit on a much smaller scale (review here). These pictures provide a skeleton framework for Misrach’s artistic evolution, perhaps overly simplified but at least offering a few reference points to help generate a continuum.

Overall, this little of this, little of that gathering is a solid reminder of the enduring strength of the Desert Cantos project. These pictures are now forever part of the history of the American landscape, still fresh and relevant even decades later.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The chromogenic dye coupler prints range in price from $12000 to $50000 (some are already sold), while the split-tone prints are either $22000 or $35000. Misrach’s work is routinely available in the secondary markets, with prices ranging from roughly $2000 to $80000, with his newer, much larger prints at the top end of that scale. Misrach is represented in New York by Pace/MacGill Gallery (here) and in San Francisco by Fraenkel Gallery (here).

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Bandini Books (here). Open spine softcover, 29×36 cm, 64 pages, with 22 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Erik Mootz (in English/Portuguese). ... Read on.

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