Lewis Baltz

Only Exceptions

‘I was born and grew up in the heart of a region whose urbanisation was one of the fastest in the world, South California in the post-war period. You could see things changing right before your eyes. It was astounding. A new world was being born, no doubt a very enjoyable world, but this world was the new homogenized American environment that was spreading throughout the entire country and would be exported everywhere else’. Witness to this radical transformation, in 1967 the artist Lewis Baltz began creating isolated, silent, compact and precise photographic images that recorded, in black and white, the emergence in the countryside of tentacular signs and objects, the proliferation of commercial, anonymous and commonplace forms of architecture. These first photographs were given the title The Prototype Works and published in 2005 by Steidl.

Shortly thereafter, dividing the wall into squares, he organized his images in series, in sequences, and carried out an impressive set of works – Track Houses (1969-1971), The new Industrial Park near Irvine, California (1971-1974), Park City (1978-1981), and San Quentin Point (1981-1983). These works’ meanings did not emerge from a specific point of view, but instead from their inner passage or progression from one image to the next. In 1975, he participated in an exhibition called New Topographics, Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, a mythical exhibition that worked to revive documentary aesthetics thanks to its new approach to the landscape and the territory. Questioning the nature of reality, Baltz’s interest turned to ‘obscene’ things, ‘off scene’ and out of frame things, and he photographed dead zones, sites under construction or abandoned, no man’s land, non-places. Little by little, colour came to prevail in his work. In a recent interview, Baltz refers to Stanley Cavell’s observation in his writings on cinema according to which black and white images evoke the past, even if it is a matter of a very recent past, whereas colour addresses a future that has already begun. In Candlestick Point (1984-1990) it is this temporal effect, ‘a sensation of times gone by and of now’, with which Baltz experiments.

At the end of the 1980s comes a ‘paradigm change’, wherein Baltz carries out a series of works with deliberately more explicit social and political implications. In The Power Trilogy (1992-1995), an extension of Baltz’s Sites of Technology (1989-1991), presented in this exhibition as models, the artist questions the uses and abuses of new technologies – of surveillance, dependency, and power – by putting together images from diverse sources. He says: ‘The machines themselves do not resemble anything (…) in reality it is they that reign over the world. By working on these technologies, I became increasingly aware of the use made of them for the purpose of social manipulation and the uninterrupted surveillance of the population’. Baltz evokes this situation in a metaphorical way in Ronde de Nuit (1992-1995). In front of this twelve-metre long, twelve-part canvass, no single and unique position presents itself for viewing. A subject of the work, the spectator is captured by the zoom-in and scanning effect. Made of back and forths, the piece arouses curiosity, anxiety and discontent. As he puts it, ‘one no longer knows (…) who surveys and who is surveyed’. Ronde de Nuit was carried out mainly on the basis of video images from surveillance cameras, but its ongoing relevance since the times of Alphaville – a film made by Jean-Luc Godard in 1965 – was confirmed by the recent NSA phone-tapping scandal. With Docile Bodies (1994), whose title makes direct reference to the writings of Michel Foucault, he questions our dependency and vulnerability in the face of the power of science and medical technology. The Politics of Bacteria (1992-1995) is about power, control and organization. For this third work he again juxtaposes high-resolution images, details, and static shots from observation cameras.

Visually close to the above-cited works and to the first Generic Night Cities (1989-2000), Gladsaxe (1995) comprises two juxtaposed nocturnal images, taken in Copenhagen, a fuzzy one and another with violent lights. They recall the early work Prototypes as much as the geometrical and serial structures of American minimalism. Baltz here sets his gaze on the nightmarish monotony of a repetitive and disembodied architecture.

Seeing photography as a ‘narrow, profound zone between the novel and the film’, Baltz, this informed and untiring observer of the transformation of the world, displays a fascination for architecture and the impact of technology, as it turns upside down the conditions and limits of our modes of representation. His approach is further sustained in several texts published in reviews and catalogues.

The Deaths in Newport (1989-1995) and Venezia-Marghera (1999-2000) are both made up equally of texts and images. The first work was begun in 1988, when Baltz returned to his town of birth and submitted an idea for a unique project about the site of the future museum of contemporary art – the Newport Harbor Museum. Going over his own traces and recalling his father’s role as an expert witness, Baltz began delving into the archives of a never-ending criminal case. On the basis of the media-hype surrounding this news item, Baltz established a genuine plot, indeed a scenario worthy of Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s film from 1950. Any impression of certainty or truth proved elusive. Refused, The Deaths in Newport would be exhibited some years later. This work of non-defined narrative forms has since existed in the form of four books and an interactive CD-Rom. As forVenezia-Marghera, published in the form of a portfolio by Steidl in 2013, it is without a doubt the last of Baltz’s opuses on the devastation of the landscape. Once again, it contains many various images, including some taken from cinema − Senso (1954) by Luchino Visconti − photographs taken by the artist himself, archival images from Venice, the reproduction of postcards, and so on… A response to a request, Baltz explores in this work the devastating proximity between La Serenissima city-museum, the floating cities of leisure, the cargo-ships in disrepair, and the toxic industries that all share this same laguna.

Lewis Baltz was born in Newport, California, in 1945. He lives in Paris and in Venice. At the age of 26, he exhibited his work at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, which also exhibited the works of many artists from Pop Art, minimalism, and conceptual art, tendencies that all impacted his work strongly. He participated in a large number of exhibitions and his work is present in several museums and private collections. Recently, a spate of exhibitions have been devoted to rediscovering this essential œuvre: Lewis Baltz, Albertina, Vienna, Austria (2013), Lewis Baltz, Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover, Germany (2012), Lewis Baltz, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Germany (2012), Prototypes/Ronde de Nuit, National Gallery of Art, Washington, United States (2011), Lewis Baltz: Prototypes/Ronde de Nuit, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, United States (2010), and Lewis Baltz/Donald Judd, Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne, Germany (2010). The Los Angeles Getty Research Institute recently acquired all the artist’s archives.

Only Exceptions is the title of the second yet-to-be-published volume of the new edition of Rules Without Exceptions, published in 2012 by Steidl publishers for the Lewis Baltz exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bonn. The title of the first volume being a direct reference to the Wim Wenders film The American Friend (1977), it was Urs Stahel (co-fonder and Director of the Fotomuseum Winterthur from 1993 to June 2013) who suggested that for Only Exceptions.

Une conversation avec Lewis Baltz in Des livres et des photos (LeMonde.fr)