William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1968-2008 @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 159 images (134 color and 25 black and white), along with 2 videos, and 4 cases of miscellaneous materials (books, catalogs, album covers etc.), hung in a series of 10 divided spaces, covering the entire third floor of the museum. (Memphis, 1971, at right.)

Comments/Context: So much has been written about William Eggleston’s original 1976 show at the MoMA (scandalous! boring! notorious! ground breaking!) and its subsequent impact on several generations of color photographers that it has taken on a legendary aura. So it is somewhat surprising that it has taken more than 30 years for any New York museum to give him another solo show. The comprehensive retrospective now on view at the Whitney covers the entire span of his career, from his early black and white images, through the famous William Eggleston’s Guide project/show, and on through a number of other strong bodies of work, up to the present.

Over the years, the never ending mantra on Eggleston has been his amazing use of color. Ah, the color! Lush color, subtle color, saturated color, color tuned by warm light, glorious color (and a staggering number of bad puns and word games using color: “local color”, “living color” etc.). In seeing all this work together for the first time, I came to see the color as part of a larger puzzle, where the real genius of Eggleston lies in composition, in the most mundane of questions about where to put the camera. I imagine his artist’s brain working something like this: out on a random walk, shooting pictures, his eye catches a glimpse of a breathtaking (insert color here – green, for example, as in the picture above right). The harder question then becomes, how to turn this mundane, ordinary subject (albeit with a graceful set of colors) into something interesting? Eggleston’s vision took him even a step further, where these commonplace scenes (primarily of the rural South) are somehow filled with an intensity of emotion, a Faulkner-esque dread in many cases. While not every image Eggleston has taken is a winner, there are far too many iconic compositions in this show for it to be luck. And while his work is often labeled as having a “snapshot aesthetic”, the consistency of his approach, across the years and in work that is lesser known, is the stunning takeaway for me from this exhibit.

All of Eggleston’s “greatest hits” are on view here: the tricycle, the red ceiling (Untitled, 1973 at right), the dog licking the puddle, the peaches sign, most of them displayed in the entry or in the cavernous central room (where images from the Guide, the 14 Pictures portfolio and the Troubled Waters portfolio are intermingled). The three galleries on the right side were of the most interest to me. In the first room, Eggleston’s early black and white images from the early 1960s are shown. In these pictures, you can see Eggleston experimenting with composition and exploring the everyday American subjects around him (diners, drive-ins, cars), as he refined his approach to the medium. The middle room on the right holds 20 pictures from the Los Alamos series, along with some other ephemera in cases. There were unexpectedly many more tremendous images in this group that I had remembered. In the far right room, Eggleston’s black and white video Stranded in Canton is shown on four stations, along with some less than remarkable large scale black and white portraits. The video is a wild, boozy, almost surreal vision of nightlife, fast food and other general weirdness. The scenes near the end of a rowdy group of men biting the heads off of chickens (the heads drop, the headless bodies jerk and twitch) are creepy and unsettling.

The rooms on the left side and back of the exhibit trace a variety of projects and commissions, picking representative samples and highlights from each. There are works from the Carter commission project, the Graceland commission, the Dust Bells portfolio, the Southern Suite, the Morals of Vision portfolio, the Democratic Vision portfolio, the True Stories project, a selection of new works (printed larger than anything else in the show) and a few portraits. There are winners buried here as well, although in lesser numbers and with lesser overall intensity somehow.

Beyond the work, a few comments on the staging of the exhibit are in order. In general, the structure and architecture of this show are weak, and make the work seem less inspiring than it is. While there is a general chronology at play, it is hidden and needed to be much more explicit. An opportunity to tell a much more linear narrative of the evolution of Eggleston’s art was missed. While there are some interesting juxtaposition of images, the scale of the rooms and the expanses of space in the middle tend to encourage scanning the images from 20 feet, rather than getting up close to engage them more intimately, so these interrelationships are lost. There is an aimless, wandering style to this exhibit, and a tendency to see your favorites from afar and “check them off”, thus all the works from various time periods wash together and lose definition. And why the Whitney didn’t do an audio guide, taking advantage of Eggleston’s marvelous gravelly Southern drawl is beyond me (there is a short video of Eggleston on the Whitney website however, linked below).

But putting these distractions and detractors aside, the work in this exhibit is forceful, novel, and memorable, and the retrospective format does a good job of covering all Eggleston’s periods of work. Simply put, it is a must-see show of a masterful career.

Collector’s POV: The recent auction of the Berman collection of Eggleston images at Christie’s is the best proxy for current market conditions for Eggleston’s work (preview post here, results post here). In general, demand and prices are both high and consistently strong. At retail, Eggleston is represented by Cheim & Read (site here), although there are 26 galleries listed on artnet that claim to have Eggleston inventory, so his work is spread around the market a bit. Beyond the original color dye transfers, some new digital prints are now available. The Eggleston Trust website can be found here.

Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)

William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1968-2008
Through January 25th

Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021

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