William Eggleston: 2¼, David Zwirner London, review: a nonchalant, insouciant approach to picture-making
April 21, 2019
It is more than four decades since William Eggleston insisted that fine-art photography didn’t have to be black-and-white, in his epochal exhibition held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1976.
At the time, the bourbon-swilling dandy from America’s Deep South, who, these days, aged almost 80, is rarely seen in public without a silver-topped cane and bespoke suit, caused widespread offence for the banality of his subject matter (a dog lapping at a puddle, the greasy interior of an oven, a child’s tricycle upon a pavement), as well as the “shocking” fact that he chose to print such trivialities in dense, saturated colours – using the “dye-transfer” process that, previously, had been associated exclusively with commercial photography.
Today, of course, Eggleston’s pictures no longer flabbergast anybody – if anything, in our era of smartphones and social media, in which ephemeral colour photography is so ubiquitous, it is surprising that his work seemed startling as recentlyas the Seventies.
For those familiar with the artist’s oeuvre – and, these days, there are lots of Eggleston acolytes in Britain, following exhibitions at Tate Modern, in 2013, and the National Portrait Gallery three years ago – William Eggleston: 2¼, a tight, resplendent show at David Zwirner’s gallery in an 18th-century Mayfair townhouse, offers few surprises, even though the 17 pigment prints on display have never been seen in this country.
This is because the images – shot using a 2¼in square-format camera (hence the exhibition’s name), but carefully enlarged, to avoid any loss in resolution, in a lab in New York – were taken in California and the American South during Eggleston’s heroic years, i.e. in the same decade as his famous MoMA show.
As a result, they feature many of his favourite motifs, as well as stylistic and compositional tics. The biggest surprise, therefore, is that these photographs are not better known: several, impossibly, elicit a strange shiver of recognition.
On every wall, we encounter “vintage” Eggleston. A portrait of an anonymous black man, in skewwhiff glasses and a stained shirt, evokes the artist’s longstanding interest in the social history of the South (Eggleston, himself, was raised on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta).
Faded, rusting signs for iconic brands (Cadillac, Coca-Cola), as well as a dilapidated storefront encrusted with cheap advertisements like thick graffiti, remind us that, in Eggleston’s America, despite his privileged background, life is usually situated on the margins.
Meanwhile, the red-haired, blissed-out girl in a flowery dress lying back rapturously on grass in one of his most famous photos, shot in 1975, reappears here, in a more straightforward portrait. It turns out that she was the heavy-lidded dancer Marcia Hare, who had a penchant for “bluebirds”, or Quaalude sedatives.
Above all, though, the Zwirner show is testament to Eggleston’s love affair with the American automobile. A boxy red bonnet bulges out of one picture as if it has been sculpted in relief. An orange pick-up, with raised bonnet and battered headlights following a collision, has the presence of a blue-collar brawler fresh from a barroom scrap.
An aggressive-looking juggernaut, liveried in brown and yellow, faces us head-on: at first glance, it looks like one of those hard-edge abstract paintings that were all the rage in America during the Sixties.
The last image, closing the show with the finality of a full stop, depicts the rust-bucket carcass of an old Chevrolet, without wheels or windows, flipped upon its roof: an emblem, surely, of the oil crises of the Seventies.
Muscle cars, meanwhile, inspire the two most radiant images in the show. In the first, a low-slung, primrose-yellow motor, with “super-wide” rear tyres, is parked irresistibly in front of a matching yellow corrugated wall, animated by dynamic, swooping horizontal lines, like a cartoonist’s sign for “speed”. It is dusk, so the colours are imbued with sensuous richness, while a wedge of magical pinkish light rakes seductively across the composition.
In the second stand-out photo, which appears towards the exhibition’s end, we see the blue-and-yellow-striped rear of a sports car also parked at dusk, this time in an empty lot. The sweetness of the colours, the visual gorgeousness of the scene, is offset by elegiac notes: a “For Sale” sign in the car’s window, and the fact that the surrounding tarmac is strewn with rubbish. Garbage often figures prominently in Eggleston’s vision – a reminder of his interest in society’s fraying edges.
Eggleston claims that he barely bothers to look through his viewfinder, and if anything characterises his aesthetic, it is a nonchalant, insouciant approach to picture-making.
Typically, his photographs have a peculiarly low vantage point, as though they were taken spontaneously, down and dirty near the tarmac, by someone swaying and inebriated, mid-fall.
At the same time, Eggleston instinctively structures his photographs (which he calls “the exact reverse of a snapshot”) with any lines that catch his eye – the dark squiggle of a petrol pump’s hose, taut black telephone wires, fuzzy white road markings – so that, for all their seeming informality, they have a robust, and satisfying, compositional complexity, undergirding the much-mentioned saturation of his colours. This, I believe, is the mark of genius: to render effortless what lesser talents would make laborious.