Discovering an affecting work of art that you have neither heard of nor seen before is a decidedly unique experience. In a climate where everything is reproduced in order to maximize its cultural mark, it is rare to be able to appreciate something merely for what you see in front of you and what it evokes. It is unique in an era where commentary and opinion, academic and layman alike, are omnipresent and representations of art within our larger culture have become so ubiquitous (i.e., impressionist umbrellas or Mona Lisa refrigerator magnets) as to strip their referents of any meaning. These artifacts, as innocuous as they are, often denote and dictate the worth of a piece on a larger cultural scale and make it difficult for the viewer to analyze and relate to a piece of art just as they see it before them. As such, it seems rare, and therefore rewarding, to find a work or a series that is both new and evocative to the viewer. Works such as this often have few reference points within the cultural discourse and thus less expectation or dictates surrounding their worth or prominence. With these absent, it seems as though one can have a more personalized relation to and experience with the art. For me, stumbling upon an installation of Robert Frank’s photographic series, The Americans, at the Portland Art Museum, was one such experience.
In his series, Frank explored the composition of American society. Frank’s photographs are grainy representations of loneliness and isolation manifest whose emotional resonance lends itself to an overall questioning of the fabric of American culture and social mores. Frank set out, having been awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, to document American life in the 1950s. Among his subjects are those events and establishments that were staples of American life: lunch counters, political rallies, parades, casinos, and bars. These images abut photographs of desolate highway and empty landscapes. The collected photographs were later published in book form alongside an introduction from the grandfather of American road-trip mythology himself, Jack Kerouac. To Kerouac, Frank’s endeavor is rife with a kind of freedom that can come only from wanderings such as these, from explorations of the American landscape, as seen and experienced in all its idiosyncrasies. Kerouac’s stream-of-conscious introduction imbues the accompanying photographs with a kind of peripatetic dynamism that appears to go hand-in-hand, as does Kerouac’s writing, with a denial of the status quo. But Frank’s photographs, I believe, move a step farther than Kerouac’s denial. Frank not only opposes the status quo, he interrogates it. In many of his compositions, modern existence appears to be synonymous with an overwhelming loneliness and isolation. Many of his compositions are peopled with figures who fail to show any contact with, relation to, or intimacy with one another. In other photographs, figures are only shown partially, their existence only made manifest through a pair of feet resting atop a desk or their faces (an external signifier of identity) obscured by some larger object. Additionally, there are compositions from which figures are wholly absent, but in their departure, they have left a kind of disarray or empty chaos. The stark contrast between the lights and darks amplify this sense of despondency and isolation and seem to further emphasize the harsh realities of daily American life.
As subjects, Frank sets out to examine and critique the dichotomies of city and rural life, the fraught and complex relationship of American society to race, and the vast schism between poverty and wealth. In so documenting these things, Frank appears to be subtly railing against what are established social and cultural mores. Furthermore, it could be said that Frank is exploring the very nature of isolation and its effects on the psyche, further alluding to a kind of relation between it and a uniquely American sense of individualization and superficiality. There is a vacuousness with which the subjects stare out at the viewer that borders, at times, on despondency and further attests to and supports this notion of the profound isolation of the individual at this particular time and place. Furthermore, there is a kind of tense claustrophobia that pervades many of the images in which figures appear to be pushing against the edges of the frame. In The Americans, Robert Frank offers an atmospheric, evocative, and critical look at what is often a romanticized past. Through his assessment of the social and cultural landscape of 1950s America, he appears to undermine those very social paradigms that appear the most stultifying or damnable. I believe works such as Frank’s The Americans could even possibly serve us, as viewers in the twenty-first century, in evaluating and challenging a divisiveness and destabilization that appears to be so pervasive within American society that at times it even seems an inherent part of it.