Ah, Americanness. Today, a word so hard to define. A word that conjures images of a nation divided, of a broad and growing gulf between opposing visions of just what America is and should be. But viewed through Walker Evans' lens, the eponymous exhibition at SFMOMA seems to say, America was once a united place, brought together by the charming features of small towns, misspelled placards, roadside advertising and cluttered window displays.
The problem, of course, is that America was never one united place. Evans himself captured this: One photograph from 1936 is titled Negroes’ Church, South Carolina while another from the same year is titled, simply, Wooden Church, South Carolina. The very premise of Evans’ work for the Farm Security Administration was to document -- for those unable to witness it firsthand -- the plight of poor American farmers in the heartland. Roy Stryker, head of the FSA’s Information Division, called it “introducing America to Americans.”
With approximately 400 objects on its exhibition checklist, SFMOMA’s Walker Evans retrospective spreads across both the Snøhetta and Botta sections of the museum’s third floor. Admittedly, it’s a lot to take in, even in an era when we can spend hours scrolling through Instagram, blinking past hundreds -- if not thousands -- of pictures a day.
Walker Evans is not organized chronologically, but thematically, grouping works by subject matter across the photographer’s 50-year career. The first show organized by the museum’s new senior curator of photography, Clément Chéroux, makes an argument for the late, great photographer’s particular focus on both vernacular subject matter (main streets, storefronts, hand-lettered signs, ordinary people and utilitarian objects) and vernacular methods of capturing those images.
In terms of expanding knowledge of Evans’ oeuvre beyond his most famous image (his 1936 FSA photograph of Allie Mae Burroughs), Walker Evans provides multiple (too many?) examples of other bodies of work. See his early angular images of New York City and his street photography, along with secret-camera snaps of unassuming subway passengers. Previously unknown to me: his catalog-like pictures of various hand tools. And paintings! Did you know Walker Evans sometimes painted?
Perhaps the most interesting sections demonstrate Evans’ preoccupation not with a spick-and-span version of Main Street America (though one such photograph was adapted into a 1942 government propaganda poster), but with the darker underbelly of American capitalism.
Evans was inherently interested in places and things on the verge of disappearing. In his long-held position as “Special Photographic Editor” of Fortune magazine, he focused on outmoded technologies and enduring systems of vernacular communication: New York buildings covered in graffiti, small business selling antiques, sidewalk displays, auto junkyards, his own picture postcard collections.
This focus on things -- often already antiquated things -- weirdly disconnects Evans’ photography from the time in which which it was made. His career spanned the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the free speech movement, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the women’s liberation movement and the gay liberation movement. Yet of those pivotal social and political moments in American history, only the Great Depression is pictured within Walker Evans.
In part, that's why I bristle at the SFMOMA press release that states “Walker Evans’ 50-year body of work documents and distills the essence of life in America” -- there is simply too much missing from Evans’ work to make that statement (add to the list above the immigrant experience, labor organizing, the growing number of women in the workforce, I could go on). A more accurate summary is found on the exhibition wall text: “Evans was passionate about the minute details of daily life, the invisible and unrecognized culture that he felt revealed a sort of Americanness.” It's Evans' version of America, after all.
In 1971, Evans told the Boston Sunday Globe that a good art exhibition is “a session of visual pleasure and excitement.” Including this quote at the conclusion of Walker Evans seems like a masochistic curatorial move, begging viewers to judge whether or not their experience of the show was in fact visually pleasurable and exciting.
For me, at least one element of the exhibition did fulfill those standards. It's not a Walker Evans photograph. It’s a 1975 picture by John T. Hill (taken either before or shortly after Evans died), a close-up view of Evans’ non-functional sink messily surrounded by papers and other detritus. A note affixed to its edge, presumably written by Evans, reads, “Please do not disturb the arrangement of tin beer caps in the washbowl.”
In the exhibition catalog, I learned Evans saved every piece of paper he wrote on. If he saw a sign by the road that he liked, he would photograph it and then remove it, sequestering it away into his private collection. In the early ’70s he admitted to essentially collecting trash. This is all strange behavior.
The idea that Evans was possibly a hoarder, that he was messy and obsessive and weird even with tin beer caps, thrills me. This, more than images of quaint streets and any misappropriated idea of the “good old days,” feels pathologically American. It's what's always lived in the cracks of this country, and it's what's found in the cracks — if you squint hard enough — of this exhibit at SFMOMA.
'Walker Evans' is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Feb. 4, 2018. For more information, click here.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED