Lewis Baltz

Houston A, Houston B


Not on display

Lewis Baltz American, 1945 – 2014
2 photographs, gelatin silver print on paper
Support, each: 202 × 253 mm
frame, each: 517 × 414 × 40 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Commitee 2012


Houston A, Houston B is a diptych comprising two black and white gelatin silver prints. Both have a landscape orientation and depict a close crop of a textured, grainy surface. In each image the surface is interrupted by two pale vertical lines towards their left and right margins, which mark joins. The surface darkens where it meets these joins, giving the image depth. The crop chosen by the artist creates a central square in each image, generating a precise geometric form. In Houston A the central square is a lighter colour than the two slim adjoining rectangles, whereas in Houston B the tone is more even. Both works are enclosed in thin black portrait-orientated frames within a large white mount. The two works are hung together, inviting the viewer to compare the two similar images.

These photographs were taken by American photographer Lewis Baltz in 1972, and are the third set of prints in an edition of three. They form part of Baltz’s Prototypes series that he had begun in 1965, taking photographs of the post-war industrial landscape. These featured stuccoed walls, parking lots, the sides of warehouse sheds or disused billboards baked in the steady Californian sunlight. Within these works Baltz isolated regular geometric forms, creating a tension between the simplicity of the structures depicted and the disorder of the culture from which they emerged. Throughout the Prototypes series Baltz sought to capture the reality of a sprawling Western ecology gone wild. His exploration of capitalism is reinforced by the series title, which alludes to the model structures of replicable manufacture, but also to attempts to formulate replicable social conventions. As the artist stated in 2012:

I looked at it because it was commonplace and ordinary, it was around me everywhere … At the time a lot of the world seemed oddly obscene for photography, in that it couldn’t be portrayed. I’m not talking about things that involved sexuality, or even politics, but there seemed to be a horror of facing the environment that we’d made for ourselves. I felt OK, this is the hand that you’ve dealt me, these are the fruits of mid-period American capitalism that you’ve given us to look at.
(Baltz in ‘TateShots: Lewis Baltz’, 23 August 2012, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/tateshots-lewis-baltz, accessed 14 June 2016.)

Baltz’s works were included in the 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester. The exhibition also included photographers Stephen Shore, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Frank Gohlke, whose work shared a preoccupation with representing the physical features of the post-industrial landscape. The exhibition was widely acclaimed and its title became the moniker for this group of artists.

In the same year Baltz also showed works from his Prototypes series at the Castelli Gallery in New York, a space more closely associated with minimalists such as Dan Flavin and Donald Judd. The serial repetition of geometric forms in Baltz’s photographs provided a link to works his contemporaries were making in other forms: for instance, the influence of minimalism is apparent in the unevocative title Houston A, Houston B, which employs letters to denote the sequence of the works. In this way, Baltz’s work provides a bridge between avant-garde photographic practice and sculptural minimalism, two of the central movements in art in America in the 1970s. This link was explored in the exhibition Lewis Baltz and Carl Andre: Photography and Minimalism at Tate Modern in London in 2012, which paired Baltz’s photographs from the Tate collection, including Houston A, Houston B, with Steel Zinc Plain 1969 (Tate T07148) and Equivalent VIII 1966 (Tate T01534) by minimalist Carl Andre.

Further reading
Lewis Baltz: The Prototype Works, exhibition catalogue, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago 2010.
Lewis Baltz, Works, Göttingen 2010.
Oral History and Art: Photography, Washington DC 2015.

Phoebe Roberts
June 2016

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Display caption

While still an undergraduate at the San Francisco Art Institute, Baltz began a series that he would later title Prototypes, showing close-up, textured and cropped fragments of the man-made industrial landscapes that he found around his home town of Newport Beach and the Los Angeles Bay Area. The everyday American landscapes captured by Baltz are strikingly close to the abstract and stark forms of contemporary American sculpture. These small hand-printed photographs were themselves treated like minimalist objects, and in the early 1970s Baltz began to exhibit his work with Leo Castelli, a New York gallery at the forefront of showcasing minimal and conceptual art.

Gallery label, October 2016

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