Even in these days of twinkling superficiality, there are probably people around who think that a beat-up car and a tatty motel room in the desert are the height of romance. And if they have any sense of history, there are two dog-eared paperbacks in their glove compartment, Jack Kerouac's classic novel, "On the Road," and its photographic equivalent, "The Americans" by Robert Frank.
Once upon a time after World War II the American Dream involved tract houses full of gadgets and a busy bedroom where blonds that looked like Marilyn Monroe and Tab Hunter were fruitful and multiplied, filling the earth with masses of babies that now look like yuppies. After the exertions of the war everybody just wanted a juicy slice of the American pie, lots of friends, two Scotches before dinner and a refrigerator with tail fins. Life was to be Rinso clean, smiling Doublemint.
Somehow Lysol America did not penetrate all the cracks, and the remaining germs turned into the Beatniks, a scourge of scruffies who wrote poetry, smoked dope out of wedlock and wandered around espousing Zen and red wine. Their creations were an affront. Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" didn't make sense. Robert Frank's "The Americans" did, and that was worse. It showed America its own grit-grimed underside full of '34 Chevies and slack-jawed guys with pachuco haircuts leering at easy girls in tight white pedal pushers. These futile little dramas were acted out in an arid landscape where nothing grew except rusty oil-drum trash cans and crooked telephone poles.
At first no red-blooded Yankee publisher wanted to deal with this muck, so the French brought it out as "Les Americains" in 1958. When it appeared here it caused a sensation as such things go, and Frank became a cult hero. Ever since, he has stood as the quintessential street-tough camera loner, but broadly influential, especially on underbelly essayists like Danny Lyon.
Frank's image is so convincing that it is easy not to know other truths about his art. Luckily, the busy County Museum of Art gives us a chance to clear that up in "Robert Frank--From New York to Nova Scotia," a traveling retrospective organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and visiting here until Sept. 6. It consists of 150 still photographs comfortably crowded into one gallery in the Ahmanson building. There is also a schedule of screenings of his films and videotapes. They have a status similar to that of "Finnegans Wake." The cognoscenti have all heard of movies like "Pull My Daisy" but few have sat through them, and those that have often come away puzzled.
For the moment the stills are a handful. Thanks to "The Americans," Frank lives in memory as a grab-shot humanist detached from the world of art. In fact, he was always steeped in the professional and artistic photographic spheres to the same degree that he has been a loner within them. Born in Zurich in 1924, he was apprenticed to a photographer at 17. When he immigrated to New York in 1947, he became a fashion photographer for Harper's Bazaar, then did free-lance advertising work. Applying for a Guggenheim grant--which he got--in 1954, his references included such distinguished acquaintances as Walker Evans, Edward Steichen and Meyer Schapiro. There is nothing wrong with that, of course; it's just worth noting so that aspiring artists realize that even independent figures are usually wired to their worlds.
More importantly, it helps clear up any lingering notion that this man is somehow not an artist. His pre-"Americans" work reveals him as a master of the telling fragment. A 1951 shot of an arm holding a Bible in front of an American flag distills much of what he will do later. The rest, the desolation, is all there in a minimalist shot of the white dividing line on a New York street.
The guy was so hot in those days he must have surprised himself. On a trip to Peru he snapped a billboard advertising "El Ford" that communicates in about five layers, including all we need to know about dollar imperialism. It's the kind of shot that makes most "socially conscious" photographers look like cheap propagandists. It's an argument for the idea that you can't take message pictures on purpose, that they have to just happen or they don't ring right.
In Paris he made an off-center shot of a guy in a raincoat holding a tulip behind his back. A whole world of delicate French lyricism, conservative shyness and lovable absurdity comes tumbling out of it. In London he saw the shapes of English gentlemen in formal clothes striding along, and they make us know something almost frightening about the aloneness of being a man.
His vision of death is omnipresent and unforgettable. Its inevitability is a sword hilt in a bull's back on a Sunday afternoon. Its hiccuping grief is a girl fleeing from a hearse in London.