Joe Deal, Sunlight and Shadow, Missouri Plateau (2005). From the series West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains. Carbon pigment print, 24 x 24 inches, edition of five. Courtesy of the Robert Mann Gallery, New York.
Joe Deal, who died June 18, 2010, following a long battle with cancer, was among the most influential American landscape photographers of the latter 20th century, known for austere, almost abstract images that balance depictions of the natural and man-made worlds.
Deal also had a profound impact at Washington University, where he served as dean of the School of Art from 1989-1999. This fall, the university’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum will celebrate Deal’s life and art with Joe Deal: West and West, an exhibition of photographs from one of Deal’s final bodies of work.
The exhibition will be on view Nov. 3 to Jan. 3, 2011, in the Kemper Art Museum’s Saligman Family Atrium. In addition, the museum will host a celebration of Deal’s life at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 3.
Both the exhibition and the celebration are free and open to the public, though RSVPs are requested for the latter. The museum is located near the intersection of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards. Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays; and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The museum is closed Tuesdays.
West and West
Over the course of his career, Deal explored American landscapes that had been disregarded by prominent photographers of the preceding generation, such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Rather than celebrate a sublime landscape ostensibly untouched by human intervention, Deal focused on the tensions between the built environment and nature, often choosing sites and views that conventionally were considered not worth capturing with a camera — newly cut roads, mobile home parks, barren expanses graded for future developments.
West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains (2009) finds Deal returning to the Midwest of his childhood — what he called “the dreamed landscape.” Eschewing the imagery of development, these spare, elegantly minimalist images depict little more than grass, sky, rock formations and an endlessly recurring horizon line.
Yet they also continue Deal’s lifelong quest to capture the intersection between the man-made and nature. Drawing on the rich history of 19th-century survey photography, Deal employs a square format and emphasizes the grid as a compositional device. Just as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 imposed a surveyor’s grid upon the vastness of the Great Plains, so does Deal reveal the fragile landscapes beneath that stable structure, reminding viewers of the precarious state of the environment at the beginning of the 21st century.
“In some respects, making these photographs was a kind of re-enactment, a way of knowing what it must have been like to lay a straight line down over a vast plain,” Deal wrote in the accompanying monograph, which was published by The Center for American Places at Columbia College in Chicago. “Only, in my case and from my vantage point in time, the intention was to re-imagine what lies beneath the grid.
“If the square, as employed in the surveys of public lands, could function like a telescope, framing smaller and smaller sections of the plains down to a transect, it can also be used as a window — equilaterally divided by the horizon — that begins with a finite section of the earth and sky and restores them in the imagination to the vastness that now only exists as an idea: the landscape that is contained within the perfect symmetry of the square implies infinity.”
Born in 1947 in Topeka, Kan., Deal was raised there as well as in Albany, Mo., and St. Paul, Minn. He earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1970, and both a master’s and a master of fine arts degree in photography from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, in 1974 and ’78, respectively.
Deal’s work first came to national attention in 1975 as part of the enormously influential exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, in Rochester, N.Y. The following year he joined the faculty of the University of California Riverside, where he taught photography and later served as an associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences before arriving at Washington University in 1989. From 1999-2005, he served as provost of the Rhode Island School of Design.
Deal’s photographs have appeared in exhibitions throughout the United States and abroad and have been the subject of numerous publications. These include Joe Deal: Southern California Photographs 1976-86 (1992); Between Nature and Culture: Photographs of the Getty Center by Joe Deal (1999); and Indian Bingo (2009). His final portfolio, Karst and Pseudokarst, will be published posthumously by Nazraeli Press.
Gifts in Deal’s memory may be directed to the Kansas State Foundation/Konza Prairie Research Excellence Fund. Contributions also can be made to The Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 600 South Michigan Ave., Fourth Floor, Chicago, IL 60605-1996, attention: Kim Clement. In both cases, please mention “In memory of Joe Deal” in the memo line.