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WESTWARD HO!

 
 

Photography's Image of the American West@MoMA

   

 

  

 

Dreamers, lovers of freedom, seekers of gold - all have followed, and still follow, the siren call of desire that leads West to a new Promised Land beyond the shores of the mighty Mississippi.  The American West: a land of dream and mirage, a land of cowboys and Indians, a brawling expanse larger than most nations where an entire mythology of good and evil has played itself out.  All these dreams, both real and illusory, and even, once, the historical belief of Manifest Destiny, the notion that the United States had a divine right to expand across the continent, from Atlantic to Pacific.  The West is an idea - in Russia the West is sometimes East (Siberia) and for most of the world the West is America.  It is the dream of a far-away land that one journeys to, a dream of hardship and courage, of being tested, and all perhaps to find fame, fortune, and that most elusive thing of all - happiness.  And so of course, the West is an image, a chimera in the mind's eye.

Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West explores how the medium has shaped and determined this moving target of an image in a show of 120 photographs from1850 to 2008.  It's a breathtaking mixture of old and new that sometimes gets ahead of the curation: Larry Sultan, John Baldessari, David Hockney, Dorothea Lange, Cindy Sherman, Joel Sternfeld, Edward Weston, Philip-Lorca diCorcia….

In Richard Prince's very large (40' x 30') 2003 Untitled (Cowboy) a re-photographed Marlboro Man spins his lasso in circles as he seemingly dances in the air.  This image-of-an-image explores the duality of the idea of the West, and Prince emphasizes the contradiction inherent in 'the virile image of the cowboy' at a time when the tobacco industry was increasingly coming under fire.  And then there is the inherent falseness of his photograph - that it is merely a reproduction of a photograph for an ad.  Yet there is something sublime about this cowboy as he dances with his shadow in the expanse of empty land, the deep blue of shirt and jeans picking up the sky's azure beyond.  Here, in an image where the lasso captures nothing but the ephemeral, Richard Prince captures it all: our desire for unlimited freedom, the folly of our choices, the beauty of the eternal human struggle. 

The exhibit is being held in conjunction with the film exhibitions The Old West: Myth, Character, and Reinvention and The West: Myth, Character, and Reinvention by Andy Warhol.

Joan Didion in her 2003 book of essays "Where I Was From" explores the myths and realities of the California she grew up in.  Didion's sharp pen is a perfect foil to MoMA's ambitious exhibit. 

 

 
See: Into the Sunset, MoMA through June 8, 2009 

Read: Where I Was From, Joan Didion 

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