Seldom have I seen a show as drab, desultory, downbeat and dimensionless as "Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West." It is about to open at the Museum of Modern Art but looks as if it had already closed.
The theme of alienation in the American West is an old one. Its incipient chaos was described in Nathaniel West’s novella Day of the Locusts. The fraudulence of its Wild West myth is imagined in Robert Altman’s film Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Its genocidal history saturates Dee Brown’s masterpiece, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
The question remains: does a room full of photos interspersed from all eras which monotonously beat the drums of depression (the mental kind) serve any purpose? I think not, except to remind us of the esthetic laziness which has regrettably marked the MoMA photography department as it has grappled with the hostile environment of a reconfigured building.
The show is not without some sporadic bursts of singularity. Ed Ruscha’s remarkable 1966 frieze Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) is affective in its raffishness. The small boy enveloped by a threatening sky in Garry Winogrand’s New Mexico (1957) is an oasis of hope in an otherwise gloomy exhibition.
Irving Penn’s Hell’s Angels (1967) and Elaine Mayes’ San Francisco hippie from 1968 project a formal normalcy, while Ansel Adams’ legendary Moonrise (a touchstone of MoMA’s permanent collection) and Richard Misrach’s Desert Fires (1983) are hymns of grim beauty.
More often, though, "Into the Sunset" reeks of the desperate and the clueless at the expense of any other vision, in Cindy Sherman’s butch cowgirl, Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s drag stripper and Robert Frank’s TV Studio (1956). One would never know from this narrow selection that Gail Albert-Halaban snapped an energetic and widely praised series of the young women of Los Angeles, a few years back. That series alone, with its barriastas, Malibu socialites, teen drifters and blue collar Moms, in its range of emotions and experiences puts the whole curation of "Into the Sunset" to deserved shame.
Because there is nary a beach or wave depicted in the MoMA show, I longed for duds like Beach Blanket Bingo and Ride the Wild Surf, two lousy movies full of romance, detailed hot rods, surf music, bronzed kitsch and foamy breakers. You won’t find these elements in "Into the Sunset" and you’ll definitely miss them.
"Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West," Mar. 29-June 8, 2009, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).