Walker Evans at the Met: A Devotion to High Art

Has it ever been observed that the American photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975), whose work is now the subject of a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, belonged to the same generation as the painters and sculptors of the New York School? He was born the same year as Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, and in the same decade as Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newman and David Smith. That his own artistic career traversed a very different course is perfectly obvious. Yet on the occasion of this important retrospective it is worth recalling some of the things Evans had in common with the artists of the New York School. For they are not the things usually associated with Evans’ work.

There was first of all the common debt to the esthetics of the School of Paris. It hardly matters that Evans remained a dedicated Francophile while the artists of the New York School struggled to emancipate their work from the authority of French taste–a project that held little interest for Evans. However differently the debt to Paris came to be negotiated and discharged on this side of the Atlantic in the 1930’s and 40’s, it remained the central challenge and point of departure for American artists of a modernist persuasion. Of equal importance, however, was the need to come to terms with what were seen to be the rebarbative conditions of American life. These, too, may have prompted a variety of responses, ranging from the political to the psychoanalytical. But central to them all was a quest for authenticity–an authenticity to which the esthetics of modernism were seen to be the key.

Thus, as attitudes toward the artist’s medium were revised in the light of modernist esthetics, attitudes toward his subject–which was bound by circumstance to be derived from American life–were similarly altered in the crucible of experience. It was in the resolution of these countervailing interests–a resolution that Evans achieved a good deal earlier than his contemporaries in the New York School–that the art of this American generation made its mark.

What did set Evans apart in that generation were the opportunities that enabled a photographic talent of his quality and ambition to flourish so much earlier and for a far longer period than was possible for most of his generational peers among the painters and sculptors. Owing to the support of Lincoln Kirstein, who first exhibited Evans’ photographs at the Harvard Society of Contemporary Art in 1930 and published Evans’ essay on “The Reappearance of Photography” in the magazine Hound and Horn in 1931, this theretofore unknown photographer became something of a favorite at the Museum of Modern Art almost from the outset of its operation.

His pictures were first exhibited at MoMA in 1933. Then, in 1935, Evans was commissioned to photograph an exhibition of African sculpture at MoMA. (These pictures are currently the subject of a smaller, separate exhibition at the Met called Perfect Documents: Walker Evans and African Art, 1935 .) In 1936, he was represented by three pictures in a major survey exhibition titled Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at MoMA, and in 1938 he was given a major solo exhibition, Walker Evans: American Photographs , for which Kirstein wrote the principal catalogue text.

In the decade of his greatest work, then, Evans enjoyed the support of the greatest museum of modern art in the world. It’s a fairly amazing story, for no American painter or sculptor of Evans’ generation enjoyed anything like this level of support at MoMA. There were complaints about that, of course, and in 1940 the American Abstract Artists group picketed the museum to protest its neglect of contemporary American modernism. Yet the fact is, no American painter or sculptor of Evans’ generation had yet produced an oeuvre comparable to his in quality or ambition. What came to be called the New York School did not begin to emerge until the early 1940’s, by which time the bulk of Evans’ greatest work had already been completed.

In the retrospective that Jeff L. Rosenheim has now organized at the Met, it is the work of the 1930’s that commands attention above everything else: the pictures of American vernacular architecture and common objects, of urban street life and rural poverty and the iconography and detritus of American commercial culture. The sensibility that Evans brought to these subjects was not that of a social documentarian or political sentimentalist. It was a sensibility that had been shaped by an immersion in French literature–especially Flaubert and Baudelaire–and French pictorial art. Even when he worked for the Department of Agriculture’s Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) in the 1930’s, he was, as Mr. Rosenheim writes in the catalogue of the Met show, “a most unlikely government employee.” The rule that Evans set for himself even in his celebrated photographs of rural poverty in the American South was, in his own words, “no politics whatever.” Or, as he also wrote, “Never make photographic statements for the government.” And he didn’t.

This was an issue that came to be widely misunderstood about Evans after the publication of the book called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , his collaboration with James Agee. Published in 1941, it came to be regarded as the great book of its kind to document the Depression era in the American South. But Evans’ photographs weren’t conceived to be illustrations of Agee’s prose. In the original edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , Evans’ photographs weren’t even captioned. They formed a parallel but independent pictorial narrative determined by his esthetic interests. Which is why, in my view anyway, Evans’ photographs for the book have proved to be of enduring interest while Agee’s overwrought text is now almost unreadable–certainly, in my case, unreadable.

For myself, the Walker Evans retrospective that Mr. Rosenheim and his colleagues have mounted at the Met definitively establishes this photographer as the greatest American pictorial artist of his generation. If such a judgment remains a controversial one, it is probably because we are not used to thinking about photography in such terms. Evans was certainly ahead of his time in resisting the political cant of the 1930’s in favor of high art, a response to the ethos of the Depression era it took the artists of the New York School a decade longer to achieve.

This is, in any case, an exhibition that is not to be missed. It remains on view at the Met through May 14, and will then travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (June 2 to Sept. 12) and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (Dec. 17 to March 4, 2001).