The Literate Art of William Christenberry

By  Randall Curb |  January 11, 2017
Palmist Building (Summer), Havana Junction, Alabama, 1980. All images © William Christenberry, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Hemphill Fine Arts, Washington, DC Palmist Building (Summer), Havana Junction, Alabama, 1980. All images © William Christenberry, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Hemphill Fine Arts, Washington, DC

This profile was originally published in the Oxford American’s 25th issue, January/February 1999.


 

For some fifty years, the artist William Christenberry has doggedly investigated the evolving mysteries of a very particular place—rural Hale County in west central Alabama—and his development as an internationally renowned chronicler of that postage stamp of the world has been uniquely linked to the traditions of both writing and storytelling. Christenberry is not simply a visual artist who reveres writers, especially Southern ones, his artistic vocabulary is directly shaped by them. His largest theme, like that of many novelists, is time, and he has a poet’s sureness of imagery and tone. He is perhaps the South’s most literary artist.

William A. Christenberry Jr. was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in November of 1936—only a few months after his eventual mentor, Walker Evans, had been in neighboring Hale County to photograph three tenant-farming families for an article meant to run in Fortune magazine, for which Evans was working at the time. Those pictures would never appear in Fortune, but in 1941 they accompanied, without captions or comment, a brilliantly eccentric text by James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book had virtually no impact at the time, but a second edition, brought out in 1960 with even more of Evans’s remarkable photos, drew greater notice. Just out of graduate school at the University of Alabama, where he took a degree in art, Christenberry discovered the book in that year. Some family members, who lived not far from the sharecropping subjects of Evans’s work, even recognized some of the images. Christenberry, trained chiefly in painting (notably the abstract expressionists) and searching for a style of his own, fell in love with the book. “I was overwhelmed by the words,” he has said, and somehow he wanted—at first on canvas—to create something comparable to Agee’s multi-textured prose and overlapping techniques. Agee’s prose seemed almost manically subjective; in literary terms, the writer nearly immolated himself in passionate identification with his subjects. This intensity riveted the young painter, but he feared that he could never match it.

In time Christenberry came to look more closely at Evans’s achievement, which could hardly have been more temperamentally opposed to Agee’s. Evans’s clenched objectivity in photographing—both close up and at a remove—the Tingle, Fields. and Burroughs families, gave them a dignity that the more empathetic Depression-era work of, say, Dorothea Lange, wasn’t tool enough to convey. His interiors—the one-chaired comer of a kitchen, a fireplace mantel with a few desultory ornaments—are matter-of-fact, and all the starker for it.

By the time Christenberry went to New York in 1961, Agee had been dead for six years, but Evans was very much alive and still working at Fortune. Christenberry eventually summoned the nerve to request a meeting with Evans, and the two soon developed a friendship beyond the usual roles of protégé and mentor. Evans looked admiringly at the Kodak Brownie snapshots Christenberry had taken, purely as references for paintings, and told him he knew “exactly where to stand,” and that he should “take [photography] seriously.” Their relationship lasted until Evans’s death in 1975. It was only with Christenberry that Evans ever agreed to return to Alabama, in 1973.

That said, Christenberry’s own photographs, from the beginning, are markedly different from the master’s. For starters, they don’t often have a social or documentary feel (though at times Evans certainly transcended the limitations of those forms, as well). What one notices immediately about Christenberry’s images is that they never contain any people. They are also primarily in color (Christenberry and the Memphis-born, Mississippi-raised William Eggleston are often cited as the key “legitimators” of color photography as an art form). But Evans’s pride in Christenberry’s work is obvious in comments he made on a 1973 exhibition of the latter’s Brownie photographs:

I want to indulge myself in the truly sensual pleasure of savoring these things in their quiet honesty, subtlety, and restrained strength and in their refreshing purity … each one is a poem.

The “poetic look” of many Christenberry photographs is partly a matter of form.While in Hale County this summer, he told a group about how he had long resisted classification as a formalist but that when a critic said Christenberry was just being obstinate, he reluctantly had to concede. Perhaps the most formal of his pictures are those of the vernacular architecture—the makeshift barns, the tumble-down outbuildings, the old stores or filling stations—that he sees vanishing from the Southern landscape. The beauty he admires in these structures usually rests in asymmetry, crookedness, and a weathering of woodgrain and paint. Locals have sometimes complained that he ought to photograph antebellum mansions instead, speculating that his choice of subject matter represents a form of condescension. But Christenberry seems to feel something that could only be called a genuine love for the subject of Green Warehouse, Newbern, Alabama and for the old house with a ringer washing machine on the porch and a rusted blue car in the front yard. “I’m not being critical of things in my childhood,” he has said. “I see fine poetry in them.”

A good example of a Christenberry photograph as poem is one evocatively titled Black House, Red Roses and Rooster (for William Eggleston). The image is of exactly what its title describes—plus a window (in which the rose bush is reflected) with irregularly parted curtains. Yet there is an ineffable something about this image, so utterly unto itself—in the way that, as in William Carlos Williams’s famously terse poem, “so much/depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens.”

Christenberry claims not to be all that conscious of color, and perhaps his sense of it is somehow instinctive. But into the small frame of this photograph, appropriately dedicated to another colorist, he has compressed a little lyric of mystery and darkness (the window, the black wall), of blood and life (the roses, the rooster). Eudora Welty, perhaps our foremost anatomist of place and its integral relation to art, could easily have had a Christenberry photograph in mind when she wrote:

Surely place induces poetry, and when the poet is extremely attentive to what is there, a meaning may even attach to his poem out of the spot … and the poem signify the more because it does spring so wholly out of its place, and the sap has run up into it as into a tree.

 

A professor at the Corcoran School of Art and resident of Washington, D.C., since 1968, William Christenberry continues to follow an obsession. Every summer, he returns to Hale County, where he photographs again and again the same sites—documenting, as he does so, the ravages and vicissitudes of time. No artist of his generation comes close to matching him in this intense involvement with years passed and passing. This involvement has almost nothing to do with nostalgia, even if Christenberry does have a vast collection of old car tags, road signs, tin-plaque advertisements for Nehi and RC Cola, and all manner of consumer goods and nostrums. (He stole his first such sign, an advertisement for Grapette, in 1964 and incorporated it into a multimedia piece called, simply, Advertisement.)

“I don't want to wallow in the past,” Christenberry says, and when an old store disappears between one August and the next or a beloved country church is radically remodeled, he accepts the loss. He may photograph the empty space where the store had been and where, perhaps, only a stand of kudzu remains, or he may continue to chronicle the church in its altered state. This obsession results, of course, in a continuing documentary of change and decay in the landscape. Yet it is, at the same time, an act of preservation, of keeping certain things alive.

Christenberry’s rather Faulknerian concern with time, memory, and narrative can be seen most patently in a personal discovery he made and has memorialized as Calendar Wall. This piece, too light-sensitive to be exhibited permanently, consists of the twelve individually framed pages of a Cardui calendar, once a ubiquitous presence in rural Southern homes. It was kept by his grandfather, D. K. Christenberry. The calendar is from 1947, but the year is irrelevant. In the square blocks of nearly every date, D.K. put down remembered family and local events dating back to the 1860s. (The entry for January 12 reads: “1932 Cyclone passed through here.” The first song of a whippoorwill is noted one spring.) D.K. maintained the calendar beyond 1947, with the family’s greatest tragedy penciled into the May 28 square: “1949 Robert [D.K.’s youngest son, a World War II veteran) killed himself with gun in boys’ room.” A different hand writes, in the September 5 space, “1951 D.K. Christenberry died.” At the center of the framed calendar pages, which are rowed in groups of three when Calendar Wall is exhibited, D.K.’s grandson has placed a receipt for his grandfather’s taxes for 1949, indicating his net worth at $1,925. Below the receipt, leaning against the wall, is D.K.’s tall hickory walking stick, of suitable length for a man of six feet and three inches. The critic R. H. Cravens has called this piece “Hale County’s folk Book of Hours.”

Some of the photographic sequences that Christenberry began making in the ’60s have less explicit stories to tell. A 1965 shot entitled Grave with Bed as Marker (View 1), near Faunsdale, Alabama clearly shows a white-painted iron bed standing in a field of tall grass. A cluster of crepe paper flowers is affixed to the headboard. But this is not a cemetery picture. Much of the story behind it is in the title: A man was so attached to his bed that he wanted no other monument for his resting place. Was he indigent or just modest and thrifty, not wanting his family to pay for a tombstone? Is the particular spot in the field—nearby is the shadow of a tree—significant? As Christenberry returned to the iron bed in subsequent years, it weathered and rusted, the white paint disappearing. And without proper tending, bushes encroached so that within a few summers the “marker” was barely visible at all. Though a few conventional graves began to appear close by, when Christenberry arrived to photograph the bed in 1991, it was gone. So, added to the initial human story was the universal one: rampant vegetation, an unstoppable force of life, obliterated the one memorial trace of an individual existence.

Time, of course, marches on in ways that are less profound as well. The 31¢ Gas Sign (1964) certainly seems amusing today. Then there is the Christenberry signature series, the sign for Coca-Cola on a brick wall in Demopolis, Alabama. He returned to this image again and again, watching the Johnson grass and shrubbery crawl toward the sign as Coke prices escalated. This is one of a few Christenberry pieces that suggest a certain pop-art influence, and the photograph possesses an inherent whimsy. For me, it inevitably calls to mind Eudora Welty’s slowwitted character, Edna Earle, who “could sit and ponder all day on how the little tail of the ‘C’ got through the ‘L’ in a Coca-Cola sign.”

The site, now thoroughly demolished, that for years most captivated Christenberry’s imagination is the Palmist Building, first photographed in 1961. This unsophisticated structure was once a crossroads country store belonging to the artist’s great uncle. After the business folded, the building was let out to some gypsies who, as gypsies will, eventually moved on. Among the things they left behind was a large, rather crude sign that pictured a reddish hand with the legend “Palmist.” No one else ever occupied the building, and the Palmist sign, turned upside down, was put in one of the broken windows to help keep out the elements. Years after Christenberry began to photograph it, a second, smaller sign of another hand appeared, right-side up, in the adjoining window. But the building, which he shot from many angles over two decades, gradually collapsed, and now he can shoot only the chinaberry tree that sheltered it.

At first the exoticness of the Palmist series may strike us as anomalous, though the vernacular architecture of the small building is “pure Christenberry.” But the presence of the foreign transients and their profession of fortune-telling is only superficially incongruous. Within the larger frame of Christenberry’s concerns, the Palmist sign (especially when we consider its setting) becomes a symbol and talisman, a signal card in Christenberry’s tarot deck. The sign is a true literary conceit; it mingles memory and mystery with the preordained, ultimately forecasting its own disappearance. Christenberry has tried often over the years to acquire the sign from the people who had the building torn down. It was even shipped, with the care given a precious work of art, to the Corcoran Gallery, where it was subsequently exhibited. But the owners wanted the sign back, believing that after such exposure it would be worth a small fortune.

So deep was Christenberry’s love of another favorite photographic subject, Sprott Church, that he couldn’t get it out of his head until he had built his own small version of it, the first of what he calls his “building constructions.” Sprott Church had been photographed by Evans in 1936, and when Christenberry came to it some twenty-five years later, the building had changed little, aside from having been painted white. An almost absurdly symmetrical structure, with twin steeples, the church looks surreal in Christenberry’s softly colored Brownie pictures. It is magically unlike the other, plainer clapboard churches—China Grove, Mt. Carmel—that the artist has captured. With a deep blue sky behind it, Sprott Church looks plopped down into the landscape, like a derby hat or a big apple in a Magritte painting. Christenberry, who admires the Surrealists (as well as the French partisans of l’art trouvé), recognized the uniqueness of Sprott Church, and because he “couldn't bring it to Washington,” took a full year, 1974-75, to finish his own re-creation.

Like his subsequent building constructions, Sprott Church followed no formal architectural plans. Christenberry used simply his memory, his photographs, and his empirical knowledge of such places. It is not, in other words, a model or replication. The delight for the artist exists in having the piece correspond to what is remembered, and because he does not want his Alabama haunts to become commonplace, Christenberry rarely allows himself more than one trip a year back to the region. But so emphatic is he about certain aspects of authenticity that he asked his uncle to give him a load of the red dirt that in Hale County shares space with the darker loam of the Black Belt. This clay-heavy soil, a striking contrast to the building's white-washed wood, covers the pedestal base of Sprott Church and is integral to the look and texture of the piece.

When Christenberry returned to photograph the church again in 1983, he was shocked to find that both its steeples had been removed, resulting in an alteration so extreme as to render it unrecognizable. Now his construction is, in a sense, the true Sprott Church. As the writer James R. Mellow has said of Corley’s Service Station, another of Christenberry’s sculptures for which the inspiration is now gone, “It is a memory held hostage in art.” Besides memory, there is a loneliness about these pieces, exhibited as they are in isolation; it is a loneliness more profound than that in Christenberry’s many photographs of grave sites or in his images of ghostly dead kudzu.

 

Anyone who has attended one of William Christenberry’s informal lectures knows that he is a fine storyteller. A story he says he couldn’t tell for many years is of a one-armed black man who saw him taking a picture of Coleman’s Cafe in Greensboro, Alabama, the Hale County seat. The man asked him if he knew of any work around, and when Christenberry said he didn't live in the area but took pictures, the man said, “You ought to see my house.” The house, made of cinder blocks, was very small. Christenberry recalls, “You could see that he built it with one arm. The blocks were not level. Flat roof, door painted pale yellow, cinder block painted washed-out white. It didn't have any floor, just red earth.” Feeling sorry for the man’s plight, Christenberry expressed admiration and photographed the little dwelling. When he came back the next year, the man was gone. Another fellow noticed Christenberry outside the house and delivered the news: “He died last February. He froze to death.”

Christenberry’s response to this story is such that he has never had the photograph of the house reproduced, and he has never photographed the structure again, though he returns to it every year. Some stories have to wait, if they are to be told through art at all.

 

An ardent reader, William Christenberry immersed himself in Faulkner as a college student and loves the work of Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Penn Warren, Carson McCullers (Christenberry is drawn to sad cafés), and Eudora Welty (he counts two days spent with Welty in 1991 as a highlight of his life). Warren and Percy, in turn, spoke highly of his work. He says that nowadays he finds great joy in poetry—in the work of Charles Wright, Donald Justice, Dave Smith. and others. But it seems inevitable that he will go on turning to Agee for inspiration, integrity, and insight. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee wrote the words that form Christenberry’s professed credo: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.” As Agee had only words, he used them in all kinds of ways, and his book is a great literary collage—poetry and prose, myth, song, even snippets from school textbooks.

Christenberry is a collagist as well. Apart from the photographs that Agee could not take (though Evans could), he really has collected and presented the pieces of wood and iron, the lumps of earth, the signs and passing wonders of Hale County, Alabama. Recently, the artist told Preservation magazine, “What I’ve been attempting to do for most of my life is to integrate photography and paintings and drawings and sculpture and stories all cobbled together into a totality that expresses my life, where I’m from, and what I care about and react to.”

Christenberry once described his territory as an artist, his own Yoknapatawpha, as “sometimes terrifying and certainly intense,” perhaps too intense for the artist to live there. In manageable doses, however, he is fueled by the intensity of that place, which he uses to capture its fragility, lyricism, and mutable beauty. He takes single moments from the elusive narrative of time and lets them shine in the light of eternity.


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