Minor White was surely an exceptionally nice man. As dedicated to photography as a cloistered monk, he believed its practice could act as a tool of spiritual self-discovery. He taught that odd faith until his death in 1976.
He is just as surely the least well-known of classic American “straight” photographers whose ranks include such heroes as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, all friends and mentors. White admired and emulated them just as he sifted through esoteric religions, the I-Ching and astrology in his search for enlightenment. He was the very model of the artist who approaches his work like a religious suppliant and it is poignant to remember him in these cynical times. If his kind of photography has evolved into an academic cliche it is because of its enduring substance
Now, the Museum of Modern Art hosts the very first major retrospective of White’s work. After closing here June 18, it will travel to cities where he worked and taught--Minneapolis, Rochester and Boston. Its closest approach to Los Angeles will be San Francisco where he worked after World War II. It will appear at that city’s Museum of Modern Art in June, 1990. In 1991, it will go to rest in Princeton where he bequeathed his archive.
A survey that includes 185 prints and probes even unknown aspects of White’s life and art certainly ought to prove whether Minor was great or Minor was . . . minor. The compendium is subtitled “The Eye That Shapes.” Unfortunately, this attempt to do White justice raises questions so large and troubling that one is not certain in the end whether one’s admiring eye has been shaped by its own experience of the work or gently coerced by suave curatorial flimflam.
The show was organized by Princeton University professor and curator Peter C. Bunnell. It is not unusual for curators to clarify works through various forms of grouping and juxtaposition. Bunnell, however, has shaped this material to a point where we are obliged to wonder whether the work has been distilled to its own essence or so entirely reinterpreted as to become at least as much Bunnell’s artwork as White’s.
Rather than pursuing the musty but effective convention of setting the work out in simple chronological order, Bunnell presents it in thematic sequences that seem significant to him. That act is all the more questionable since White himself came to believe less in the dominance of individual “masterpiece” photograph and more in somewhat cinematic sequences of images. Rather than respecting White’s order, Bunnell simply created his own from the thousands of images in the archive. This may not be quite as intrusive as pasting together your own version of “Birth of a Nation” but it is somewhere in that territory.
In some instances, Bunnell’s juxtapositions are too cunning for their own good. The cover of the handsome catalogue, for example, sets a male nude of 1948 next to some tree branches shot in 1951. The boy’s hands and the branches make the same gesture. It’s a nice conceit but the rhyme is Bunnell’s, not White’s. The coupling is revelatory, but of what?
The exhibition and catalogue suffer from what we might call the “Lust for Life” syndrome. The catalogue begins with an extensive biographical chronology that tugs at our heartstrings with accounts of White’s troubled childhood in Minneapolis, his early interest in science, poetry and theater, his military service and his evolution into an itinerant photographer and teacher--moving from Portland to a beloved San Francisco to depressing Rochester.
If we are not made sufficiently sympathetic by this factual account we then get a long section of writings derived from his own letters and journals. A granite boulder would be touched by White’s selfless dedication to his students and friends. He signed his letters “Lufffff” as if just “Love” was not enough. He practiced photography with the ecstatic naivete of a convert and came to identify it with the tao , the Oriental “right way” to put one’s spirit in touch with transcendent nature. He studied esoteric religions of both East and West, finally joining the Gurdjieff sect. He started life looking like a leprechaun and ended it with the aura of a kindly guru. He managed the whole thing without once sounding like a demagogue or a flake.
Reading all that is like reading “Lust for Life,” the biography of Vincent Van Gogh, before you’ve ever seen a Van Gogh. When you do, you cannot at first tell if you love the art because of the man or vice versa.
In White’s case, at least according to Bunnell, it was all because he loved the man, or rather men . Minor White was a homosexual and that heretofore veiled fact appears to be the central touchstone of the curator’s thematic organization.
The exhibition begins with the shadowed face of a sloe-eyed youth taken in 1975. It is followed by an image of a thrusting chimney (Erection!), a wave crashing against a rock (Orgasm!) and a piece of twisted driftwood (Self-loathing and Agony!)
Come on. Is somebody kidding us here or what? Art-making is often an act of sexual sublimation. Is this news? When did Freud say that? Nineteen-aught-six or something.
And yet the very next pair of images are the tender face of a young chap set next to a stone visage from Peru.
The entire exhibition is anchored on heretofore unshown images of homoerotic nudes whose penises, navels and shadowed behinds are then linked to progressively more abstract images that resemble them--often vaguely. One has literally seen this sort of thing done in arty-erotic heterosexual photo essays. It was cliched and pretentious then and it’s worse in the hallowed halls of the Museum of Modern Art.
The organizational principle casts an excessively literal this-happened-because-of-that aura over the work. The curator finds an image of a woman with a flower in her hair, so every flower becomes a symbol of feminine fecundity. The curator finds an image of a handsome strong lady next to a rough stone cliff and every outcropping becomes White’s fear of furious femininity.
By now we have been railroaded into such a symbolic and autobiographic frame of mind White can’t even take shots of some charming street urchins without causing us to think, “Hmmph, just self-pity over his tough childhood.”
It was the last thing he wanted.
In 1961, he wrote to a student whose pictures conveyed homosexual Angst he knew well.
“Your photographs,” he wrote, “are still mirrors of yourself . . . the images raw, the emotions naked. To present these to others they need appropriate clothes. These are private images, not public ones. They are ‘expressive meaning,’ a direct mirror of yourself rather than ‘creative’ meaning so converted as to affect others as ‘mirrors of themselves.’ ”
White wanted his art to transcend the merely autobiographic but this exhibition tends to the opposite and trivializes the work. At best it looks like a well-intentioned attempt to expose the anatomy of the creative process. Excessive literalism delivers it into a mechanistic 19th-Century realm where it was believed that El Greco painted square halos because he was astigmatic.
No one should suppress the known facts of an artist’s life but no one should forget that White did not make his best work because he was gay or Picasso paint his masterpieces because he was a satyr. They made their best work by transcending their temporal limits. Every artist looks at his own best work with the awed conviction that it was done by somebody else.
It is very tiresome to spend this much time on an exhibition and still not know with certainty what its author accomplished--or even exactly who its author is.
If the machete of the mind is capable of hacking through the surrounding tangle, it seems that there was something almost willfully minor about Minor White. He chose to use photography--that most obdurately prosaic of mediums--to try to convey the unseeable and the unknowable.
He was perfectly capable of producing a grandiose mountainscape in the manner of his friend Ansel Adams but such work feels exactly like the homage that it is. We glimpse White when he finds a mountain surrounded by clouds that look like smoke signals from some playful deity.
White was at his best in the application of his sweet longing for transcendence to stubbornly realistic subjects. A peeling doorway becomes beatific as a holy light expands across it. A lyricism not of Eros sparkles in a dandelion puff. Crackled wood grain takes on the delicate complexity of a Bach sonata. There is real mournfulness in the realization that the eye of God is a porcelain fixture with a burned out bulb.
White felt most at peace with meditative Oriental philosophies and he photographed with the gentle accuracy of a Zen calligrapher. Worldly ambition is not part of such an enterprise