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Seen and Imagined: The World of Clifford Ross

by Clifford Ross; Jay A. Clarke and Joseph Thompson, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2015
352 pp., illus. 125 col., 14 b/w. Trade, $ 59.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-02996-4 .

Reviewed by Cecilia Wong
Independent writer, Los Angeles
Web address: Eyes-wide.com


Clifford Ross's photography, like jazz, is quintessentially American–they both privilege process. They come, however, from opposite ends of the aesthetic experience: reductionist vs. holistic, explicit vs. implicit. If jazz originates in the confluence of bodily senses, Ross's photography is the result of a top-down process of rational thought and logical steps–the American 'can do' spirit. This book, published on the occasion of his retrospective at MASS MoCA in Massachusetts, USA, traces his development as an artist from the 1970s, culminating in this spectacular exhibition at the museum, including photographs, videos, and performance. The book also offers a free augmented reality 3D "pop up" app for smartphones.

With essays by a star cast of writers from academe to museums, in disciplines from art history to philosophy to technology, Seen and Imagined: The World of Clifford Ross is a worthy read–not to mention the gorgeous reproductions of his stunning photographs–including Wave Cathedral (2015) which is "composed of two LED screens that each carry [sic] 1.6 million moving pixels with propriety software ensuring that each pixel is represented by one LED bulb at a time…." There are also cut-ups of his photographs raining down on a black-and-white mountain lake like shards of stained glass (Yellow Cloud, 2008). And the somber Sopris Wall I (24'x114', 2015), which greets the viewer at the gallery entrance, looks like a colossal Japanese scroll.

Ross, an accomplished writer himself, also contributed essays, a sort of artist statement about his inspirations and processes. These are most revealing. I wish however that there had been an index of subjects (and more consistent dating of works), considering the scholarship in the writings and the wide range of areas covered.

Jack Flam, the emeritas professor of art history from Brooklyn College who has known Ross's work since the 1970s, probably speaks for all when he concludes that "[a]s impressive as the photographs were, I tended to see them as essentially an adjunct to the impressive process of their creation." He was concerned at one point (1980s) that Ross was moving "from high art itself" when Ross worked on animated children's film.

Ross's process is impressive, and by his own admission often obsessive, the equivalent of 'extreme sport' as Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's Media Lab says in his essay. Ross's patented R1 camera produces single images with a staggering 2.6 gigapixels, which he used for the mountain series. But the minute details and exactitude (one can see the shingles of a roof 4000 feet away) are only the beginning. His post-production is even more prodigious–with files reaching 30-40 gigabytes–where he manipulates the image to express his awe in the presence of the mountain. Ross says, refering to another project: "Inevitably, I fell in love with the process of animation itself. Process is central to creativity…." And his process is guided by nature and art history. "My relationship to computers and digital algorithms is no different than my relationship to paint and paintbrushes." Except, perhaps, with pixels he could direct every hair of this 'paintbrush'–and oftentimes, that 'one swoop' feeling of a brushstroke–the result of a whole-body, unconsciously-coordinated muscle action on canvas is left behind. Technology can be a bully, as Negroponte says.

Ross's interests, by his own admission, are "inclusive and inconsistent," from Homer to Turner to Helen Frankenthaler, an aunt. He makes no secret of his admiration for the 19th century Romantics of the American Sublime, painters like Bierstadt and Church. But the sublime of a Northern Sung Chinese landscape he saw in a Yale art history class also stays with him. These influences appear in his various series of work based on his mountain photographs. He's also a great admirer of the early 20th century American nature poet Wallace Stevens and links his Harmoniums (2008) to Stevens's first poetry volume, Harmonium (1923)–calling his own art "Wallace Stevens for the eyes".

Ross looks to abstraction when trying to recreate his feelings while in front of the mountain. He does so by "…finding a small element in one of the…images that was special–not one that represented the whole per se, but one that would act as a magic vessel…" that would express what is missing in his "straight" photographs. His process here appears reductionist to me, with his eyes focused on one explicit detail, in contrast to that of Wallace Stevens.

The feelings evoked in Stevens's poetry are more holistic and universal. For example, in describing autumn leaves: "The skreak and skritter of evening gone," Stevens's words are themselves highly abstracted combinations of sound and movement in a sensor world. In my view, Ross's abstraction is at best literal and highly personal–as his 'magic vessel' might carry a different viewer with a different set of memories elsewhere MIT's Negroponte writes that language and art, with analogies and metaphors, can use very few bits to carry huge amounts of information. He aptly calls Ross's photography the "symbiosis of art and technology."

Ross is ultimately trying to share with his viewer the sublime he felt: the awe, the loss of words, and the sense of smallness in a vast world. And Technological Sublime is what he has achieved–the very American awe at feats of bravado and conquest of the material world. At the same time, his reductionist way (shared by some scientists) into abstraction may be at odds with what we now know about our eyes– that our peripheral vision, with progressively less detailed but more holistic capture of a picture and its feelings , strongly suggests that some form of visual abstraction is anatomically built-in–and which is unavailable to a viewer centered on details (fovea vision). Ross's art thus asks fundamental questions not just about abstraction, art and technology, but also about aesthetics, and what art is or can be.

Last Updated 1 July 2016

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