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America's post-World War II cultural crossroads are the subtext of Julius Shulman's photos in Palm Springs Modern. 

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Moods for moderns: Julius Shulman's 1947 photo of Richard Neutra's Edgar Kaufmann House. - COURTESY OF JULIUS SHULMAN PHOTOGRAPHY ARCHIVE,  J. PAUL GETTY TRUST.
  • Courtesy of Julius Shulman Photography Archive, J. Paul Getty Trust.
  • Moods for moderns: Julius Shulman's 1947 photo of Richard Neutra's Edgar Kaufmann House.

The ghostly figure, reclining poolside in the California dusk, summarizes the post-war attitude toward the Golden State. Looming above her are mist-topped mountains, with an implied stretch of desert between -- the motte and bailey to the castle she rests beside. But there's nothing forbidding about this landscape: It has been peacefully conquered by a house.

Cut away at the side, the house -- designed in 1946 by Richard Neutra for Pittsburgh's Edgar Kaufmann -- emits a Martian glow, with only its angles, and sparse furniture, separating it from its mountainous surroundings. Like its reclining inhabitant, the Kaufmann House idles away its nights tucked comfortably away in Palm Springs. 

This is the California that photographer Julius Shulman introduced to the world -- a land that had survived gold rushes and air-raid drills unscathed, and emerged as a mecca of modernism in the desert of Palm Springs. From the 1940s through his death at 89 last year, Shulman photographed the modernist architecture of this valley in work that succeeded as document, as artistry in itself, and as a cultural calling card.

In Palm Springs Modern: The Photographs of Julius Shulman, at the Carnegie Museum of Art, we can see Shulman's oeuvre in yet another light: as an attestation to the strange sublimity that defined the postwar American Dream.

Shulman's photographs of Palm Springs depict a time period readily identified. As second homes for movie stars and "mad men" -- houses for Sinatra and Doris Day join Kaufmann's in the exhibit -- these were designs uninhibited by desire for privacy or workspace. They were "machines for relaxing in."

In Shulman's photos, even the experimentalism of architects such as Albert Frey, whose 1963 house incorporated existent boulders into its walls, connotes leisure. Carefully positioned by Shulman for "Albert Frey House #2," a man and woman in white relax on their boulder veranda, gazing regally across swaths of Palm Springs. The house's glass-walled bedroom, also with native boulder incorporated, is photographed like a museum case -- to be pondered as a relic, or perhaps as a distinct lifestyle possibility, if you've got the loot.

In the 1920s, as a youth, Shulman had visited Palm Springs in its untouched state, romping on the mountains and desert floor, and befriending the Native Americans who knew it best. His love for that environment shows in photographs of Paul R. Williams' 1954 Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz House. Though ostensibly "of" the house, his shots star the cirrus clouds and barely-white-tipped mountains that halo the building. Even his interiors are framed such that the trees and mountains, visible through a glass door, pull the eyes -- the same effect sought by the buildings themselves. 

Yet these photos are still about people. When inhabitants are represented in his photographs, Shulman treats them with an airy decadence buffered by ephemerality. Call it postmodern pastoral: The manor house, like its attendants, is depicted as a grand but natural part of the landscape. But rather than laboring peasants, the attendants are cocktail guests. 

And the buildings' inhabitants can seem even more striking when they're not in the picture. Witness photographs of Albert Frey's Raymond Loewy House (1947), portraying the pool and courtyard as an uninhabited oasis. In Shulman's vision, it's all still water, cactus and clouds, an Ozymandian splendor more likely to be disturbed by a wild horse than a person. Like that other late genius of modernism, the author J.G. Ballard, Shulman's photographs sometimes imply the beauty of the empty swimming pool, and of the perfect home abandoned to the surroundings that inspired it. 

Palm Springs Modern works as a document of either a movement or of a peerless practitioner of an art form. But it also depicts a visionary moment in America's struggle with its own landscape and philosophy. Shulman's salvo was to create, from Palm Springs, a vision of America's imperialism -- an empire built to conquer not other peoples, but the land, sea and sky. But it's also a vision of ultimate defeat: an American picturesque, with toppled Roman columns replaced by empty swimming pools and living rooms exploding with conveniences but bereft of life.

 

Continues through Jan. 31. Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org

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