Lewis Baltz, Cinema and the Intuition of Nothing

Lewis Baltz: Common Objects - Hitchcock, Godard, Antonioni. Le Bal/Steidl, 2014

‘Lewis Baltz, Cinema and the Intuition of Nothing’

 – a brief essay written on the occasion of the exhibition Lewis Baltz: Common Objects – Hitchcock, Antonioni, Godard, at Le Bal, Paris, 2014. Published in the accompanying catalogue issued by Steidl/ Le Bal.


‘I have an appointment with Peter at four o’clock. I arrive at the café a quarter of an hour late. Peter is always on time. Will he have waited for me? I look at the room and I say, “He is not here.” Is there an intuition of the absence of Peter, or does the negation come only with judgment? At first sight it seems absurd to speak of intuition here, since there cannot be an intuition of nothing, and since the absence of Peter is precisely this nothing. Everyday language, however, bears witness to this intuition. Do we not say, for example, “I saw right away that he was not there”?’

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness


Since the beginnings of his life as an artist in the late 1960s, Lewis Baltz has explored the difficult relationship between vision and knowledge. What do the world and its images look like? What can these appearances tell us? Can what really matters be depicted visually? And what is the relation between the beautiful, the ugly and the true in modern life? Baltz’s forms and visual strategies have changed a great deal although they have all been lens-based and mostly photographic, and they have addressed these questions unwaveringly.

Born into the mid-nineteenth century, photography was burdened almost immediately with the impossible and absurd task of substituting appearances for meaning. The visual document; the scientific record; reportage; photojournalism; the family snapshot. Authoritative and seductive, photographic images threatened to take the place of understanding. Surface would supplant depth.  But, as photography started to be dislodged from the centre of visual culture in the 1960s, it was adopted by many artists as a medium and subject matter. In their hands it would be less a means to make overtly pictorial art or documents, and more of a reflexive means of analysis of the cultural functions and assumptions of the medium’s social roles. This is the project identified most closely with photography in Conceptual Art.

Lewis Baltz has never belonged to any particular movement although a wide range of affinities can be taken as a sign of his unique place in art and photography.  Certainly his interest in the limits of the photograph as document echoed those of many early conceptual artists. His interest in the spread of modular industrial architecture can be seen in the light of Minimalist sculpture. His exploration of marginal or rejected spaces was shared with Land Art. His interest in American vernacular forms was shared with Pop. His concern with the corporate forces that shape land and real estate chime with the move in documentary photography from the recording of events to the recording of effects or traces. And lastly, the bringing together of different registers and genres of imagery that characterize Baltz’s later work has much in common with postmodern interests in montage, collage and appropriation.

The published writings on and by Baltz invoke references to literature, philosophy, politics, economics, architecture and cinema. Each of these would provide an illuminating perspective from which to consider his oeuvre. However, the range of films and filmmakers invoked is both surprising and telling. It includes Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Until the End of the World and Paris, Texas; the Bond movie Goldfinger, Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein; the Indiana Jones series; The Return of Martin Guerre; Citizen Kane; The Body Snatchers; Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Sans Soleil; 2001: a Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes; Badlands; Blade Runner; Brazil and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. And then there are the three film directors whose names come up frequently: Alfred Hitchcock, Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard. Why these three? There are many answers.

In very different ways Hitchcock, Antonioni and Godard were (are) philosophers of appearance. They ‘think in images’ about the complex relationship between vision and knowledge, between what can be shown, what can be thought and what can be known. The pleasures and provocations of their films come from those unexpected moments when the image comes under pressure or is thrown into doubt.  Visual revelation gives way to the realization that seeing is partial and incomplete.

From Hitchcock we learned that appearances are compelling but misleading, even treacherous. The obvious example is the character of Madeleine Elster in Vertigo (1958), who we discover is already dead at the outset of the story and is being impersonated by Judy Barton, both of whom are played by Kim Novak. Baltz has written with great eloquence of Novak’s finely judged meta-performance.[i] But we might also think of Hitchcock’s interest in architectural space as an ambiguous stage of social action. So many of his films begin with images of facades that block what we wish to see: the exterior shots of Phoenix Arizona that open Psycho (1960), or the giant factory wall of corrugated sheet metal at the start of Saboteur (1942).

Jean-Luc Godard has restlessly explored the power invested in vision by consumer culture, and the way its images shape society’s habits, desires and expectations. He has spent nearly six decades making films that propose alternative ways of making and experiencing images. For example the early film Les Carabiniers (1963), Godard’s take on the war movie genre, is a political satire about two coarse young men joining a king’s army on the promise of riches and the opportunity to kill. To their girlfriends back home they send banal picture postcards with equally banal comments: ‘We shot seven men then had breakfast’ On their return the soldiers divide up a suitcase of more postcards as if they were conquerors gloating over spoils. ‘We’ve got the world’s treasures!’ boasts one. ‘Monuments. Transportation. Stores. Works of Art. Factories. Natural Wonders. Mountains. Flowers. Deserts. Landscapes. Animals. The five continents. The planets. Naturally each part is divided into several parts that are divided into more parts.’ They slam down endless images of cars, buildings, boats, houses and more. Then come images of women – from art history, pornography and Hollywood – as if they too were commodities promised by the state in exchange for their labour.  Intentionally, the scene goes on far too long, making clear the numbing effects not just of war, but of photographs as casual substitutes for reality.

Antonioni used his movie camera to contemplate and scrutinize interiors, landscapes and townscapes from which the human narrative has been displaced. Think of the lingering shots of the inhospitable rocky shores of the island of Panarea, from which the young woman has disappeared in L’Avventura (1960); or the images of the empty London park in Blow up (1966) where a murder may have happened; or the complex shot circumscribing the scene of death that ends The Passenger (1975).

Cinema has been the art form with which all the other art forms had to make their peace.  It has been a point of reference, or a point of departure, for a wide range of serious photographic practices at least since the 1960s. Jeff Wall has remarked that: “no picture could exist today without having a trace of the film still in it, at least no photograph.”[ii] The form of photography embraced most conspicuously by museums and markets has been the staged photographic tableau. Here, narrative cinema’s techniques of preparation and collaboration (‘staging’) are taken up by photographers working in the ‘directorial mode’.[iii] Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall are the obvious and best examples. This mode has in general concerned itself with a kind of proscenium theatricality that exploits the photograph’s capacity to show and be about what is shown. While Lewis Baltz appreciates this approach it has not been his chosen path.[iv] There are countless other ways in which the ‘trace of the film still’ may be left, or felt, in photography. Such traces are present in Baltz’s work, but they are never obvious.

When I first saw Baltz’s epic Candlestick Point (1987-89) it seemed to me like a scene from a movie comprised of the shots that might be left if you removed all images of the actors. This remainder would include the establishing shots, mood shots, and the visual notations of place and time of day. Candlestick Point is Baltz’s response to a postindustrial landscape of waste and dejection, a place caught somewhere between its past use and future use. It seems quite appropriate therefore that the artist presents it, or re-presents it, as a suspended narrative of fragments. On the gallery wall Candlestick Point is exhibited as rows of eighty-four small prints interspersed unevenly with gaps of the same size, as if to suggest there are missing images, or missing moments. We must move between the pleasures to be taken in looking at the images and the suggestion of social forces beyond and between the frames.

Candlestick Point evokes the cinematic in the same way that Antonioni evokes the photographic in the celebrated coda of L’Eclisse (1962). The film’s dissolute lovers (played by Monica Vitti and Alain Delon) agree to meet where they have been meeting already, but on this ocassion neither decides to show up. However, the film does keep the promise. Antonioni shoots the location with a series of almost static shots, editing them together in such a way that the space becomes charged with the absence of the lovers. We see “seven minutes where only the objects remain of the adventure”, as Antonioni put it.[v]

Much of Baltz’s work has this disposition. He pits visual plenitude against the feeling that what really matters is escaping the camera and may well escape human sight. There is always a lot to look at in his images but they are haunted by the suggestion that something significant is missing. This was true of even in his earliest photographs. The extended series The Prototype Works (1967-76) comprises full and clear photographic records of bits and pieces of modern Californian urbanism – architectural elevations, cars parked on the street, commercial signage. However, the photography is so straightforward and unadorned that it seems to transform the subject matter into an empty stage set of itself. Flat light drains these spaces of drama. Is this California or a deserted back lot of a Californian movie studio? Baltz’s suggestion that we see these pictures as ‘prototypes’ further suspends their realism, without negating it all together.

Over centuries architecture had evolved a symbolic language that allowed appearance to declare its purpose. Churches looked like churches, houses looked like houses, banks looked like banks and so on.  With the beginnings of Modernism this began to be replaced by the idea that built form should follow function, with a truth to the materials used. But the modernizing impulse also homogenizes, tending towards rationalized forms (variations on the box). Very often these forms cut the ties between appearance and legibility. Baltz’s best-known series The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California (1974) made thinkable this gap between the seeable and the knowable. Looking at the architectural facades of these monotonous buildings we cannot tell from the outside what is going on inside. As Baltz himself put it: “You don’t know whether they are manufacturing pantyhose or megadeath”.[vi]

This concern reaches its greatest intensity in Sites of Technology (1989-91), a series of photographs of super-computers and frames taken from surveillance footage. The physical appearance of the computer (a designed box containing circuit boards and hard drives) marks the terminal disappearance of information and meaning from the realm of the visible. What can a camera do here? The photographic document must become a metaphor or an allegory.   And what of the ‘evidence’ captured automatically, inhumanly by a surveillance camera? It is a device intended to be both prohibitive and prospective (‘your transgressions might be recorded’).

For nearly a century cinema was identified with a particular mode of viewing: the movie theatre. It had a big screen, dimmed lighting, rows of seats and a characteristic means of cultural and economic organization. Photography was always much more dispersed. It spread rapidly through a multitude of forms – books, albums, archives, magazines, postcards, posters, artworks and so on. Today however, the cinema is only one among many contexts in which films are viewed. It is equally dispersed. The large auditorium takes its place alongside television, computer screens, in flight entertainment, lobbies, shop windows, galleries and mobile phones. Together they form what Victor Burgin calls the ‘cinematic heterotopia’ – a network of separate but overlapping interfaces and viewing habits.[vii] In this environment films are as likely to be viewed in fragments as whole, across a spectrum of attention that runs from the indifferent consumption of bits and pieces to the highly specialized and active ‘reading’ of films. At the same time boundaries between media have all but collapsed, as have the boundaries between contexts, and between public and private life. The continuous image world begins to seep into every corner of existence, just as cameras penetrate ever deeper into the fabric of society.   This was already beginning to happen in the 1980s and by the mid-1990s it was clear that a radical and irreversible shift in the daily experience of images had occurred.

As an artist deeply concerned with the status of the visual, Baltz was quick to register this change. Leaving California for France, his work shifted from images of manmade landscapes to the manmade landscape of images. Projects such as The Politics of Bacteria (1996), Docile Bodies (1994) and Ronde de Nuit (1991-2) are mural-sized collages that bring together visuals from a range of sources (surveillance, television and cinema) along with images of medical procedures, bodies, wires and computer installations. Many readings may be possible of these complex configurations but the sense of menace and pessimism is inescapable. These are placeless, nomadic works that evoke the generalized conditions of the technocratic state in which capitalism, data and statistics threaten to triumph once and for all.

Throughout his life Baltz has responded to this creeping force. In retrospect and with the help of Hitchcock, Antonioni and Godard it is possible to chart Baltz’s careful shift in emphasis from the visible to an explicit concern with watching and being watched. Perhaps this is now what really matters in our visual culture. Just don’t expect everything that is important to be there in the frame.


[i]See ‘Maybe it’s about Kim Novak’, Lewis Baltz, Texts, Steidl, pp. 147-157.

[ii]Jeff Wall  ‘Interview/Lecture’ Transcript, vol. 2 no. 3.

[iii] The phrase comes from A.D Coleman’s prescient essay ‘The Directorial Mode: Notes toward a Definition’, Artforum, September 1976.

[iv] See Baltz’s essay on Jeff Wall’s work, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1996), in Lewis Baltz, Texts, Steidl, pp. 113-118.

[v]Philip Strick, Antonioni, Loughton, Motion, 1963, p. 17.

[vi] See David Campany, Anonymes. L’Amérique sans nom: photographie et cinéma, Steidl/Le Bal, 2010, pp. 24-32.

[vii] Victor Burgin, ‘The Noise of the Marketplace’, The Remembered Film, Reaktion, 2004, pp. 2-28.