Beautiful Disasters: The Gulf Oil Spill and Abstract Art

by |
05/18/2010 5:03 PM |


Jonny earlier posted about an array of almost action-filmish still photos of the explosion which kicked off the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But as the oil continues to spread, we’re moving out of photojournalism and into the realm of modern art. In photos like the one above, from today’s Times, the random shapes, colors and textures of the oil on the water are producing perversely, beautiful compositions—when captured from the right angle, the Gulf of Mexico can become a vast canvas for happenstantial geometries, like the more obsessively patterned work of the Abstract Expressionists, with the viscous weight of the lines in Dali or Tanguy.

People have taken pictures like this before.

A few years ago, Harper’s ran a portfolio, Visions of Excess, highlighting J. Henry Fair‘s aerial photographs of environmental degradation, like this streak of coal slurry in West Virginia:


Around the same time, Jennifer Baichwal’s well-reviewed documentary Manufactured Landscapes profiled the similar photographs of Edward Burtynsky—though unlike Fair’s fractals, Burtynsky’s compositions are composed of recognizable materials (or even people):


Moving beyond Fair and Burtynsky’s industrial panoramas, Andreas Gursky, Earth From Above lensman Yann Arthus Bertrand, and the recently New Yorker-profiled George Steinmetz all use large-scale architecture and landscape photography to draw out the patterns organizing our existence, like in this detail of a Steinmetz photo of the rooftops of the Algerian city Beni Isguen, which would please Frank Stella as much as Manhattan pleased Mondrian:


The appeal of aerial photography like this is obvious to anyone who’s ever chosen the window seat on a plane, and watched the patchwork of cul-de-sacs and cloverleafs, pools and parks unscrolling on the descent.

It’s this tension between representation and abstraction that James Benning explores in films like 13 Lakes, with its Rothkolike horizon lines, and the cloudgazing 10 Skies.

More assertively, the late Robert Smithson famously intervened in landscape, forging “earthworks” like his landmark Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot coil built of mud, salt, rocks, dirt and water on the shore of the Great Salt Lake:


Coming at it from the other direction is John Chamberlain, whose The Privet, on permanent view at Dia:Beacon, makes a hedge out of hundreds of steel ribbons. Where Smithson shapes nature into man-made abstract art, Chamberlain tries to see how close man-made materials can come to nature:


But it’s Smithson who seems more germane to today’s discussion: in its massive scale and hubristic meddling with the natural order of the world, a work like Spiral Jetty best exemplifies the very human tendencies which set millions of gallons of oil streaking and whorling across the Gulf of Mexico.

Thanks to Ben Sutton for his suggestions.