I’m sad to have just learned that artist William Christenberry passed away on Monday at the age of 80. While I hadn’t seen Bill in years, I had the privilege of meeting him in the early 1990s, and my memory of him is being one of the kindest, most-sincere gentlemen I’ve ever met. That’s just William Christenberry the person – he was a fascinating and multi-talented artist as well. He’s best known for his photographs of the South, in particular, Hale County, Alabama, where he grew up. As the NY Times reports in its obituary, “For more than 50 years he made photographs, drawings, paintings, sculptures and assemblages, and collected artifacts (commercial signage, bottle caps, gourds), that reflected this ambivalence [about his corner of the South]. His life’s work became a meditation on his attachment to the Alabama countryside and his reasons for leaving it.”
Below left is an undated picture of William Christenberry, alongside a photograph from 1980 titled “Side of warehouse, Newbern, Alabama.” While this might not be an example of his better-known images, it’s a favorite of mine, because the surface of this building has elements that might reflect Christenberry’s past experience studying painting and sculpture at the University of Alabama, where his teachers leaned towards Abstract Expressionism.
Christenberry was a great storyteller, and I remember on one visit, he gave an account of meeting Willem de Kooning in New York, and while I don’t recall all of the details of the story, it’s clear de Kooning had an influence on the young artist at the time, as one can see in Christenberry’s 1960 painting “Tenant House II,” below left. I think one of the reasons why this memory sticks with me is because Christenberry was known to me at the time as a Southern photographer, yet he had all these stories about being in New York City and making paintings.
I guess I’m reflecting on the lesser-known aspects of Christenberry’s work, partially because they appealed to me, but also because it’s important to see there was a lot more to his work than the photography for which he is best-known. As an extension of his photographs documenting the evolution and decay of buildings in the South over decades (returning to photograph the same locations year after year), he also built small sculptural replicas of these buildings. But what I’m showing below right is the next extension of that work, and that is the creation of “imaginary buildings,” with this one being “Dream Building II” from 1981.
It’s impossible to sum up the man and artist in a relatively short blog post, but hopefully this brief reflection and sharing of his work will inspire you to learn more about William Christenberry and his work. By coincidence, his gallery, Pace MacGill Gallery in New York, opened an exhibition of his work titled “Summer | Winter” at their 57th Street gallery last month, and the show remains up through January 21st, so you have plenty of time if you’re in the NYC area and want to get a first-hand look at his work.