The question has become, "Was Minor White minor?" From the 1950s to the '70s, the photographer was regarded as something of a spiritual guru to serious camera artists. His abstract-leaning images of nature came freighted with elaborate mystical and poetic theories derived from such esoteric sources as Zen Buddhism and Georges Gurdjieff's philosophy.
He had an additional platform in the magazine Aperture, which he helped found in 1952 and captained until the year before his death in 1976. This breadth of interests made him more than just a denizen of the art-photographic subculture. He was an authentic actor in the Bay Area Beat Generation along with its poets, artists and cool jazz musicians. If Robert Frank became, so to speak, photography's colloquial on-the-road troubadour, White was its mystical Allen Ginsberg.
Yet White has become something of a cipher, his reputation fading like a photograph left too long in the sun. Recent attempts to salvage his memory have included an issue of Aperture devoted to his work. Now the California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside unveils an exhibition of 100 prints surveying White's career. Remaining on view to March 11, the survey puts enough cards on the table to allow decent evaluation of this sometimes-elusive sensibility.
Two things are simultaneously self-evident about the photography of Minor White. It is technically superb in its precision and--with the significant exception of some politely erotic male nudes--it is virtually devoid of images of people. There are American Gothic doorways with peeling paint, farmhouses standing proud and lonely in the gloaming, snug little harbors and waves crashing on rocks. Rare indeed are urban images, such as the noted juxtaposition of a '40s Cadillac and a Neo-Classical San Francisco bank with its dignified social criticism.
White's art is notably lacking in memorable "signature" images, bespeaking a curious reticence of self-assertion. The closest White comes to trademark work is a general aura of brooding in sequences of related pictures, such as a group of gnarled-wood images called "Everything Gets in the Way" or a set showing mainly icicles or frost on glass and titled "The Sound of One Hand Clapping."
Increasingly, these beautifully printed textural close-ups become as "typical" as White ever gets. Curiously, one does not initially tumble to their real expressive meaning. When a painter produces such combinations of compulsive detail and convoluted form, it instantly reads as an expression of tangled agony, a desperate attempt to hold chaos at bay. Because a photograph is presumably a partly objective record of something that exists out there in the world, we do not immediately identify it as reflecting a subjective state.
White himself would have been the first to contradict such an idea. He believed in photography's ability to create "equivalences," to stand for more than the thing represented, such as in the ghostly implications of "Windowsill, Daydreaming." He cloaked theoretical notions in all sorts of poetic and mystical jargon, but it boiled down to an art that evidently externalized White's own tortured psyche through twisted, fluxing forms.
According to the artist's biographer, White, despite his renown, suffered from a general sense of inferiority and from homosexual attractions that remained largely suppressed and sublimated.
Attempting to explain anybody's art in such oversimplified terms does it a disservice. At the same time, stylistic evidence supports the notion that this is the work of a troubled guy rarely able to attain the peace or transcendence of his mystical longings.
What is disturbed and haunted in White's art is also what makes it work. The cross-like shadow of a telephone pole falling on a field imbues the image with religious longing. An anchored boat becomes a convincing metaphor of a soul aching for safe harbor. A crashing wave convincingly parallels forbidden sexual ecstasy. When the visage of one of White's inner demons seemed to appear in a frosted glass, he couldn't just take its picture and let it go at that. He had to dramatize his sense of absurdity by titling it "Dumb Face."
(In the last days of his life, White had a young photographer friend make a pathetic record of his wasted body, half-nude or in clownish punk-like costume, making ludicrous or sexual gestures. The series is not in the UCR show.)
Obviously White's sensibility walked a tightrope between expressive self-indulgence and academic convention. Those ingredients are very hard to blend into superior art. Today his subject matter has been reduced to classroom exercises in "straight" photography, his inner turmoil robbed of its heroic dimension. No wonder White tends to fade with passing time, and no wonder he will almost certainly retain a niche in history. He imbued photographic classicism with fervid intensity, he lent dignity and resonance to visual cliches. That is a hard act to follow.