Why the Suck?

The Getty fumbles the American Dream

It was raining softly when we arrivedat the Getty. At the top of the hill, at the door from the tram, was a box of umbrellas free for the taking. At each door to the museum's many galleries stood another box, so one could pick up an umbrella for the short walk between wings and drop it back off when one came out of the rain.

The umbrellas were even a complementary beige to the Getty's billion-dollar, Richard Meier-designed flagstones. Detail, detail, detail.

So that's what it's like to be the richest museum in the country.

Lovely.

So why, then, the crappy Cezánne andthe underwhelming "American Album"? When a museum spends hundreds of millions on acquisitions (and in fact director Deborah Gribbon quit last week over differences with the president, who wouldn't let her acquire morePoussins, and wanted to keep the Getty flush for grants programs, conservation, scholarship and other philanthropic endeavors), why the suck?

The Cezánne is what it is—his wan and pale watercolors were studies for his richly verdant paintings—and as such has some small pleasures, like a pretty flowering geranium and a spooky death's head. But standing before this Cezánne doesn't have the impact it should. I have little more to say on the exhibit, because it's almost completely unremarkable. I consider the cop-out theirs, not mine.

Better but worse is "Close to Home: An American Album." It's better because, in places, it is more visually arresting than the Cezánne watercolors. And it's worse because putting together a show of anonymous American photo portraits from the '30s through '60s should be a sight easier than borrowing and insuring a trove of Cezánnes, so there's not really an excuse for such a tepid show.

Charles Phoenix has pioneered found snapshots of Southern California: his America is full of Thunderbirds and beehives and Googie architecture all scavenged from garage sales and thrift shops. The Getty clearly has him to thank for the idea of found photos, and in fact it's pretty well crediting him by hosting his cult-favorite slide show on Nov. 5 (and selling a couple of his books right outside the exhibit as well).

But the curators of "American Album" weren't paying attention when Phoenix showed his shit: there's none of his flashiness, none of his bright color, and fairly little of his John Waters-ish gentle (and loving) irony.

There is some, however. In the first gallery, Guy Stricherz and Irene Malli offer large, lush dye-transfers from photos they collected from around the country. There's a scaryish (but creepily handsome) dude in front of his Pontiac. There's a table full of sweet oldsters in a decrepit, tiny kitchen that would be reminiscent of Richard Billingham, if there were only a dog lapping up vomit and a man throwing a woman and a lot of broken glass. Most of these are compelling—in a scary conformo zombie way. They just all seem so very nice and normal—so normal that they take on the whiff of freak in the very same way photos of regular people at MOCA did this year once they were placed amid a slew of portraits by Diane Arbus.

In fact, the only problem I have with the portraits is that Stricherz and Malli's names are next to each work as the work's creators—by virtue of their dye transfer/blowup technique. I feel—forgive me if this is simplistic—that this is akin to Xeroxing a Dali and signing your own name. And Duchamp and Derrida in a tag team couldn't have convinced me otherwise.

In the middle gallery, the flash and color are gone, and it's time for art to be Serious Work. The small black-and-white snapshots are packed close together, like homework. In deciding to show the teeny originals instead of blowing them up, the Getty's curators have maintained their objects' intrinsic integrity at the cost of a migraine; by the time one has focused on the snaps, one (if one were me) would expect to be repaid for the effort with startling beauty and profound meaning.

One (if one were me) would be profoundly disappointed.

The small pix are neither particularly trenchant illuminations of the sands of time (in a bottle) nor particularly witty send-ups of past eras' sartorial sillinesses and hilarious bathing costumes. Their most successful aspect is that the curators (successfully!) integrated lots of folks of color instead of forgetting—as is so easy to do when one is informed by the dominant media and narratives of the eras—that they in fact did lead lives in the '40s and '50s, and even had their pictures made! And that's pretty much it: the rest is mostly uninteresting and seemingly completely unedited and unfiltered shots of the middle and lower-middle classes being utterly and completely dull.

In the smallest room of the exhibit's three rooms are fewer than a dozen shots by the giants of photography: Stieglitz, Lange and Weston. They shoot their kids, their husbands, some other people. Weston, in particular, shoots his son lying on the ground naked with his ass sticking up and glowing. It's nice that we have such big hitters in the exhibit, but again . . . are they an afterthought? Are they meant to evoke the commonalities between artistic photography and the democratic photo-booth masses who make up the bulk of the show? (One panel in the middle gallery holds only photo-booth pictures of men in hats.) Or the many and woeful differences?

Can this show be saved? Short answer:No. But say we were to use the big dogs (Weston, et al.) as a starting point, focusing on their nude figure studies. (I know the Getty keeps a treasury of Man Rays as well, because I've seen them. They'd be perfect!) And suppose we were to then follow the democratization of artistic nudity through happy, regular kids in bath tubs all the way to its logical end: pictures of suburban swingers and '70s Valley backyard porn.
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