Framing the Wild

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The New York Sun

There are no landscapes until someone puts them there. Or, at least, not until that someone puts a frame around part of the terrain and says, “See!” The various ways several contemporary photographers go about this business is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in “Landscape: Recent Acquisitions.”

The sociologist David Halle has a chapter on landscapes in his book, “Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home.” He writes, “Asked what attracts them to the landscapes on their walls, residents mention above all the tranquility of the subject matter. They like these pictures because they are ‘calm,’ ‘restful’; they offer ‘solitude’ and ‘quiet’; they soothe.” By far and away the picture at MoMA that comes closest to fulfilling this traditional expectation of the landscape is Clifford Ross’s “Mountain IV” (2004).

The subject is a snow-capped peak reflected in a wide lake surrounded by woods and surmounted by majestic sun-lit clouds. Mr. Ross says he is “obsessed with the 19th-century notion of the sublime,” so it is not surprising his work puts one in mind of the Hudson River School of painters. “Mountain IV” also resembles their paintings in its monumental size, 6 feet 3 1/2 inches by 12 feet 3 inches. Mr. Ross uses a view camera of his own construction, the R-1, to take huge 9-inch-by-18-inch negatives that are then digitally scanned to create multi-gigabyte files. These in turn are massaged pixel by pixel to produce prints with incredible amounts of detail. The result is a picture that requires one to step back to view in its entirety, but then encourages the viewer to come closer to discover more and more minutiae.

Mr. Ross says his intention is to “fill the eye with so much information that it overflows and reaches the heart.” But art is more than data. For me, nature is what there is between cities — you just have to put up with it — and I am more impressed with his technology than moved by Mr. Ross’s kitschy sublime.

Scott McFarland’s “Orchard View, Early Spring: Rubus Discolour, Prunus Nigra, Prunus Serrulata” (2004) is also close to traditional landscape. (The Latin is not a rune, but the names of plants.) It, too, is large, 3 feet 3 3/5 inches by 9 feet 10 7/8 inches, and the product of digital manipulation: Several views of the orchard were stitched together to create a scrolllike image. The first impression is of the beauty of the flora, but up close one sees through the foliage a tennis court with its net down, a drinking fountain, street lights, shingles missing from the roof of the small structure to the right and, in the far distance beyond a body of water, a dimly visible city. The dissonance between near and far, nature and the hand of man, tempers the “Orchard View.”

Mr. Halle writes in “Inside Culture” that figures are largely absent from modern landscapes. “A common view is that people destroy landscapes.” They pollute, build condominiums, etc. “Path with Puddles, Meerbusch-Büderich” (2001) by Simone Nieweg has no people in it, but, like “Orchard View,” shows evidence humans have been about. The puddles were formed by water filling in the depressions made by tires, maybe the tires of the tractor that plowed the field that takes up most of the picture. Man-made puddles reflect the sky no less than naturally occurring lakes, and agricultural improvement is not disfiguring as dumped garbage is.Tilled fields have an honored place in the history of landscapes, and Ms. Nieweg’s work respects that history.

Garbage, however, is the point of “Civitas” (2001) by Karin Apollonia Müller. In the center of the foreground of her picture is a midden of the junk modern humans abandon by the side of the road, stuff they don’t have the courtesy to properly dispose of. In this case the road is a limited-access superhighway with a generic city of high-rise buildings in the background. The landscape here is far from the sublime, and seems to hector viewers not to litter.

There are four urban landscapes by Sze Tsung Leong among MoMA’s “Recent Acquistions,” pictures of the new China that is abuilding. Tightly clustered skyscrapers trample an older — and one expects, more humane — physical culture into oblivion. “Suzhou Creek, Putuo District, Shanghai” (2004) is particularly effective: Rather grand old buildings stand abandoned in the foreground with the coming megapolis emerging from a haze beyond.

Olafur Eliasson returns us to nature with his “Jokla Series,” 48 chromogenic color prints, each 14 3/16 inches by 21 5/16 inches, arrayed six deep and eight across and hung close together. Because they are pictures of glaciers or ice fields they appear to be black and white, rather than color, and since many of them are so similar, they are hard to view as individual images. One senses there is lots of ice and that it’s cold, but not how the parts relate to a whole.

Landscape implies a wide perspective, so some of the 12 pictures by David Goldblatt challenge their definition as landscapes. Mr. Goldblatt, a South African, is known for his blackand-white photographs documenting apartheid. Here there are color pictures of the after-effects of apartheid, as much a social landscape as a geographical one. “Crosses Erected on June 16, 2004, in Commemoration of and Protest Against Farm Murders, on the N1, Near Polokwane, Limpopo” (June 19, 2004) is certainly a landscape: a vast sweep of arid savannah strewn in the midrange with hundreds of uniform crosses. The deep perspective of the terrain adds to the sense of solemnity and the adamant call for justice.

But is “Advert, 11th Street and 11th Avenue, Lower Houghton” (November 27, 1999) properly a landscape? It is a picture of a hand-painted sign advertising “Tennis Court Repair” set in the roadway. The macadam is a background, but not the vista associated with landscape. Several of Mr. Goldblatt’s works defeat our expectations by being exhibited under the landscape rubric rather than alone or in some other category.

David Halle found that “landscapes are broadly popular among all social classes.” MoMA’s “Recent Acquisitions” demonstrates everyone likes to get out and about, to stand at an overlook and have the wide world before him.

Until September 4 (11 W. 53rd St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-708-9400).

The New York Sun

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