When Robert Adams photographed the suburbs of Denver in the early 1970s, the era of postwar prosperity that had driven their tremendous expansion seemed to be over. That decade’s oil crisis and accompanying recession brought down a US economy that had grown to dizzying heights. There were predictions that the American suburbs, whose growth had been facilitated by the cheap oil that was becoming rapidly more expensive, had peaked. But I grew up in those Denver suburbs, and, through the 1980s and ’90s, they continued to expand, with houses filling up the fields that bordered our neighbourhood.
More recently, the suburbs are in decline, with repossessions emptying neighbourhoods and poverty on the rise. Seen from the perspective of today, Adams’ photographs, rendered with strong shadows in stark black and white, seem subtly to auger this decline. In many of his images, shown at Timothy Taylor Gallery alongside recent drawings by his contemporary Robert Bechtle and the younger artist Ewan Gibbs, the suburbs appear stereotypical; taken from street level, they are of single-storey houses along wide streets lined with young trees and station wagons. Others are far stranger, however, showing the less-tidy edges of the developments: in Colorado (c.1973), a Volkswagen Beetle sits abandoned in a field beyond a backyard fence, while in Untitled (c.1974) a home swimming pool is overshadowed by a billboard advertising Winston cigarettes. Other photographs are taken from a higher vantage point over the roofs of the houses. They show their unexpected context, with the snowy foothills of the Rocky Mountains visible in the background. Adams was particularly interested in the contradiction between the neighbourhoods and the landscape, remarking that their inhabitants moved to Denver ‘to enjoy nature, but found that nature was mostly inaccessible’.
Bechtle has spent his career painting and drawing in photorealistic detail similar settings in San Francisco and its suburbs. But where Adams finds concern for an unsustainable way of life, Bechtle finds the familiar: ‘These images are about where and how I and my family have lived. It may not be perfect, but it’s not something I can turn my back on.’ Alameda Houses (2011), for example, depicts a residential street in the quiet Bay Area community of Alameda where Bechtle grew up. The distinct lack of incident in his quiet charcoal-drawn streetscapes highlights otherwise unremarkable features: most of the picture plane in Up Twentieth Street (2011) is filled with the irregular cracks that crisscross the street. Cars were once a central focus of Bechtle’s paintings, such as ’56 Cadillac (1966), his only early work in the exhibition, but here they only delineate the borders of the street and the edges of the picture. Bechtle’s drawings are based on his own photographs, but next to Adams’ images they have a distinct softness where the edges of shadows blend across the surface of the paper. The hazy glow of a streetlight in Night on Twentieth Street (2011) gently spreads across the façade of the house behind it and the hood of the white station wagon below.
In Gibbs’ pencil drawings, composed of tiny crosses or slashes of varying tone within a grid lightly scored into the paper, photographic sources dissolve even further. The features in the images appear blurred, yet the lights in the dusky urbanscapes are bright and distinct, being composed only of untouched paper ground. Some of the scenes are recognizable, like tourist snaps – the US Capitol building, the Brooklyn Bridge – while others, San Francisco streets much like Bechtle’s, are more anonymous. Their haziness lends the feel of a fading memory.
The last group of Gibbs’ drawings in the exhibition breaks with the urban and suburban scenes. A series of five 2009 drawings, all entitled Colorado, show the landscape Adams loved and sought to protect. Here are only majestic Rocky Mountain peaks, with no houses or cars cluttering the foreground.