U.S. Intellectual History Blog

William A. Christenberry and Democratic Art

 Guest Post by Richard King

Though Southern writing and music, of whatever sort, remain among the significant achievements of US cultural history, the region has much less often been associated with the visual arts, especially painting and sculpture. That is why the death of William A. “Bill” Christenberry (b. 1936) on November 28, 2016 deserves to be remembered. A long-time resident of Washington, DC and faculty member at Corcoran School of Art, Christenberry’s art was rooted in Hale County, Alabama, where he grew up. But Hale was also the country which writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans visited on assignment from Fortune magazine in the mid-1930s. The result of that stay in the Alabama Black Belt was an unclassifiable book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), which contained around thirty photographs by Evans, followed by an intricate, eloquent and at times unreadable text by Agee. It was a public confession, a documentary in word and image, even a treatise on visual aesthetics and the ethics of investigative journalism.[i]

When he was in his early twenties, Christenberry, who had a BA and MFA from Alabama, began making photographs around Hale County with a Brownie camera and using color film. Thus his own artistic interests (he was drawn to the work of Jaspers Johns and Robert Rauschenberg) were given a boost by the republication of Famous Men in 1960, an edition that included a sixty-two Evans photos, double the number in the first edition of 1941.  Christenberry was not alone in being influenced by it. It was a formative 1960s text, one which young college students were devoted to, not so much for the way its striking black-and-white photographs, signifiers of authenticity and seriousness, reminded william-christenberryreaders of the 1930s, but precisely because it sought to escape the documentary tradition of fact gathering and policy programming that emerged in the 1930s by New Deal agencies such as the FSA, along with free-lance radicals, socialists and communists, who published in magazines such as the New Masses. Put another way, Famous Men emerged in, but sought to escape the clutches of, the popular/ cultural front of the 1930s. Strangely, Agee and Evans were also out of step with the political ferment in the 1960s South, since their subjects were three white tenant farmer families in Hale Country, Alabama not the political and social struggles in Black Belt Alabama so central to the Civil Rights Movement.[ii]

Still, by the early 1970s, a new tradition of southern visual culture was emerging. Though not  a southerner, Evans’s work was crucial to younger photographers such as William Eggleston, a Southerner from Memphis, and Christenberry. Rauschenberg himself was a southerner from Port Arthur, Texas. In fact, he was so ashamed of the fact that he sought to lose his accent when he moved to New York after World War II. For a time in the 1950s Rauschenberg and South Carolinian Jaspers Johns were a couple in New York and jokingly nicknamed “the Southern Renaissance” by their friends. The work of Rauschenberg and Johns sought to escape the rigorous, anti-representationlist aesthetic of Abstract Expressionism, but without embracing the affectless, textureless, hermetic aesthetic of Andy Warhol and Pop Art generally. As things turned out, Christenberry got to know Evans and even travelled around Hale County with him in the summer of 1973. To his great credit, Evans, rather than scorning the hyperreal, almost lurid color of the photographs Christenberry took with his Brownie camera, encouraged the young Alabamian, now living and teaching in Washington, DC to follow his own inclinations not his (Evans’) example.

The cumulative result was a body of work by Christenberry that reflects a kind of a  “democratic” aesthetic. “If democracy were a work of art, what would it look like?” one student of this tradition, Alexander Leicht, has asked. The answer, he suggests, would be something like the works of Rauschenberg and Evans. Their art was about the objects, buildings, settings, we make and then use up and, wear out. It was never glitzy or affluent; even the suburban world of Eggleston’s photographs jar a bit when put beside the tougher neighborhoods evoked by Evans or Christenberry. Christenberry, much more than Eggleston, was obsessed with re-capturing the washed out and abandoned Black Belt fields, dotted with barns, stables and out buildings draped by the omni-present kudzu vine, a green plague that (still) chokes suffocates all life underneath it. Put another way, Christenberry’s color photographs explore the ravages of time. Facades of old filling stations or country stores testify to lost worlds. What Christenberry got from Evans in particular was an obsession with iconic American images and inscriptions on the metal signs scattered throughout the countryside—Nehi soft drinks, patent medicines and tonics, Pure Oil and Texaco gasoline, Coca Cola and Dr. Pepper, Beechnut chewing tobacco, not to mention the license plates nailed up year by year on garages to mark the passage of time. Sometimes they are photographed head-on; at other times the actual objects are incorporated into constructs. The photos are also fond of showing us things like the remains of old cars, often up on blocks, and sitting in front a tin-roof house, generously stained by rust. Christenberry also returned several times to photograph a sign advertising a palm reader, framed by a glassless window, partially covered by vines. This was and is the raw material of pop culture roughed up, even decimated, by the workings of time.

There is also a reconstructive dimension to Bill Christenberry’s work, one that does more than show us “the fragments”, as TS Eliot referred to them, “I have shored against my ruins.” In the 1980s, Christenberry turned to building small scale versions (he hated the term “model”) of the dog trot houses, the country stores, and the simply churches scattered throughout the Black Belt. Sometimes he just constructs figures of wood or tin with pointed tops shaped like the Washington Monument (or the Klansman outfit). Boxes filled with red dirt brought from Alabama to DC provide the bases for these reconstructions. It is a heightened art of the vernacular. Finally, Christenberry amassed whole roomfuls of Klan regalia, ranging from hooded, long-white garments to Klan dolls and medallions. It was all arranged in his studio, which was broken into and all the material stolen in 1979.

A final observation about the tradition Christenberry helped develop. It also overlaps with a very strong strand of black Southern visual culture, which, like the Evans-Rauschenberg-Christenberry tradition, is fascinated by the detritus, the remains of houses, cabins, shacks, work places, churches and bars scattered across the region. I think here of the great work of Romare Bearden, yet another southerner gone north, which feeds into the contemporary work by South Carolinian Beverly Buchanan, who learned much from Bearden. What they share is the strong influence of the aesthetic of the collage: canvases, photographs, constructs, combines(Rauschenberg’s term) that juxtapose the modern and the traditional, the rural and urban, the secular and religious-visionary. This bi-racial southern tradition is more robust and tough than the modernist aesthetic, yet avoids the flatfooted representational aesthetic of pictorial realism. One critic has suggested the term “postmodern realism,” but this southern tradition of visual hybridity lacks the ironic and blank aura of the post-modern. Whatever we call it, the work of Bill Christenberry has a major place in this Southern tradition. It is the art of the everyday made from the ruins of the everyday; an art of the present gutted by the evanescence of the present. It is about what has been left behind as it is present in the work he left behind.

[i] Readers are advised to spend a few minutes googling the names of the artists and photographers mentioned in this piece, but particularly William Christenberry’s. Simply click on “Images” and the rest will be evident. The idea of “democratic art” has been developed by Alexander Leicht, The Search for a Democratic Aesthetics: Robert Rauschenberg, Walker Evans, William Carlos Williams, American Studies, v. 214 (Universitätsverlag: Heidelberg).

  Guest Post by Richard King, Professor Emeritus of U.S. Intellectual History at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. Among his best known works are
Race, Culture, and the Intellectuals (2004), A Southern Renaissance (1980),
and most recently Arendt in America (2016).

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I really enjoyed reading this thoughtful reflection. Always appreciate Richard’s writing and insights. It really helped me think about how Christenberry’s photos fit into the southern tradition. His aesthetic–like that in the work of Johns, Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, and Mimmo Rotella–also seems like the point where abstract expressionism shades into pop art. All those torn up signs, posters, and accidentally funny bits of text. (His “Double Cola Sign” from 1966 http://www.jacksonfineart.com/images/artists/largest/246.jpg )

    I wonder if Christenberry’s work takes on an even broader dimension now in the age of northern urban, industrial decay? The scale is different in these Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre pictures of the motor city. And it seems much more bombed out and grim. But some similar ideas explored, I think. http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1882089,00.html

  2. Thanks Randall for the comments taking off from the Christenberry posting. I checked Rotella’s work and can see how it fits into this tradition, although it is much more pre-occupied with the media world of posters, particularly of films. What this tradition in general seems to aim at is a disruption or undermining of a single image or scene, as though the world was always double or multi-sided, fragmented and hybrid.
    Thanks also for the link to the photos by Marchand and Meffre. I was stunned. This is on a different scale from Christenberry or Bearden or others we’ve been talking about. They seem to bear witness to the “end of the world”, a catastrophe that has emptied out the world. Note that there is no natural world counterpointed to the human-made one in these photographs. In fact, there are no human beings in the Detroit scenes. The world Christenberry re-represents is more variegated in mood and perhaps I stressed the theme of temporality too much and the celebration of hybridity and variety not enough.

  3. Richard, I love this essay. Part of my own secret research concerns post-Cagean aesthetics, and I did not think there were very many links between that stuff and the Popular Front/cultural workerist lineages that I also work on–this seems like a perfect point of convergence: Walker Evans meets Robert Rauschenberg, as it were.

    Interestingly, I have been reading lately about digital aesthetics, and one of the overriding themes (especially in writing about first-person video games) is that as the digital era supplants the analog one (alternately, as postmodernity supplants modernity) the *cut*–that constitutive gesture of montage and collage–disappears. Given your discussion above of the aesthetics of collage, I wonder if this provokes any thoughts on your part.

    Thanks again for sharing this with us.

  4. Thanks Kurt for your comment which immediately opens up several new areas for consideration. A couple of responses–in Agee’s “Collected Short Prose” there is a document from 1937 where he outlines his plans for future work and they read like prospectus for the new aesthetic I was gesturing toward in the piece on Bill Christenberry. Second, there is a famous passage early in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” where Agee wishes he could have just included dirt, faeces, pieces of wood etc rather than “merely” writing about them. The core of his project is to present things as they are rather than inventing them.
    Your second comment and question is really a hard one. But once you mention the fate of the collage and montage in the post-modern I can see the point to it. As Jameson once said, the post-modern work of art arises where modernity has completely done its work. Along the lines of your comment,think of the difference between Warhol and Rauschenberg in their handling of the images of mass culture. Yet there is also a problem of nomenclature–post-modernism is an aesthetic style, says Jameson, but also a “periodizing hypothesis.” Thus the problem of working out how the labels, concepts, designations square with each other is always a big problem.

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