One Fine Show: Robert Frank and Todd Webb at Museum of Fine Arts Houston

A new show that juxtaposes the two photographers' works makes a strong argument in favor of the national aesthetic.

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

Todd Webb, ‘Cowboy, Lexington, NE’, 1956, printed 2023, inkjet print, courtesy of Todd Webb Archive. © Todd Webb Archive

Ed Ruscha’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art is too full of colorful delights to linger on his photography books like Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) and Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), but even in black and white, these are just mind-blowing. They appear to be books of photography but you can’t help but notice that the photographs inside aren’t that strong. They’re not nice to ogle. Five of the gas stations are out of order. All you really come away with from these conceptual projects is an unsettling mind meld with the guy behind the camera—a man who is completely stoned or maybe just going insane. And in the case of the latter can you blame him? He’s trying to capture the genuine beauty of this too-big and very stupid country without coming off as corny. Americana is like Halloween candy. It’s basically the only thing we’re generous with and too much of it gives you a tummy ache.

SEE ALSO: A Review of “Speechless” at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno

A new show at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, however, makes a strong argument in favor of the national aesthetic. “Robert Frank and Todd Webb: Across America, 1955” collects works from the year the two photographers received grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation to document “vanishing Americana, and the way of life that is taking its place.” This show brings their resulting works together for the first time, and it’s one of those shows where you can’t believe nobody’s thought of doing it before because there’s so much to be learned by the juxtaposition of the two approaches. (The museum has also published a nice catalogue for the show with the snappy title America and Other Myths.)

Robert Frank, ‘Rodeo, New York City’, 1955–56, gelatin silver print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Jerry E. and Nanette Finger.

But let’s return to gas stations. In Frank’s Santa Fe, New Mexico (1955) the pumps are not evenly spaced. Somehow. But they brim with personality and, if flawed, are still eager to serve, like Minions. Meanwhile, Webb takes us to a lonely train station in Garden City, KS (1955), where the antiquated signage outside the station house, proclaiming where you are, clashes with the font of the boxcars coming through that display their origin or destination in curled script: “Sante Fe, all the way.”

It’s hard to say who’s more romantic. If you compare their highway shots—Frank’s U.S. 285, New Mexico, (1955), Webb’s Between Lovelock and Fernley, NV (1956)—Webb’s has more of a sheen while Frank’s has a dull glow. The first beckons with possibility; the second is more or less resigned to optimism and comes straight at you. It’s cool that Webb has caught a cowboy in his natural environment of Lexington, Nebraska, but no less cool that Frank has caught his outside a rodeo in New York City.

What I’m getting at is that Webb can make a junkyard look like a place you’d want to explore, with Wrecked Car Lot, Stoystown, PA (1955) depicting a lush field filled with curvy Packards. Frank has a harder eye. He seems to see more of what’s coming, compared to what’s been. The pairing is stellar.

Robert Frank and Todd Webb: Across America, 1955” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through January 7.

One Fine Show: Robert Frank and Todd Webb at Museum of Fine Arts Houston