Remembering William Christenberry

/ Art News

William Christenberry, United States, born 1936, Tenant House 1, 1960, oil on linen, Promised gift of Will and Maggie Brooke, T.2015.227
William Christenberry, United States, born 1936, Tenant House 1, 1960, oil on linen, Promised gift of Will and Maggie Brooke, T.2015.227

Alabama native William Christenberry, Jr. died on November 28 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at 80 years old. In announcing his death, The Washington Post recognized him as “one of the most respected and influential artists of the modern South.”

As an Alabama artist, Christenberry’s work reflected his obsession with the landscape of his home. Born in 1936, he grew up in Tuscaloosa, spending his summers with his grandparents in Hale County, and receiving art degrees from the University of Alabama.

He is best known for his iconic photographs of Alabama’s changing landscape, and our collection contains approximately 50 of his polaroids and larger-format images. However, Christenberry began his study of art as a painter influenced by the work of abstract expressionist painters. At that time, he saw his photos as guides and inspiration for his painting, rather than as works of art themselves.

Door of the House at Christmas Time, Greensboro, Alabama 1971; printed later chromogenic print Gift of the Jack Drake Collection 2002.166
Door of the House at Christmas Time, Greensboro, Alabama 1971; printed later. chromogenic print
Gift of the Jack Drake Collection, 2002.166.

All of these elements—growing up in Alabama and appreciating the beauty of the landscape, as well as its complicated history—came together for him when he discovered Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written by James Agee and Walker Evans. Christenberry used the book and his own work to create a series of paintings of old and forgotten structures, beginning with the tenant houses. Though he made few, the Museum recently acquired one of these early paintings, Tenant House I. The painting is now hanging in the contemporary galleries, and Christenberry’s major sculpture, Dream Building (for Birmingham), is on view at the Museum, as well. With approximately 70 examples of Christenberry’s work reflecting his practice across all media, we hope to become a center for study of this important Alabama artist.

In visits with Bill over the years, I came to understand more clearly the difference between nostalgia and sentiment. He was so clear that his images were not about a longing for the past or a place, but instead poetic expressions of marking the passing of time.

“I’m not interested in just recording the vernacular, but how time and the elements affect things,” he said. “[It’s] not linked with nostalgia for something gone, but a strong degree of sentiment for that which I’ve known throughout my life.”

Though Christenberry once said he didn’t consider himself a regional artist, the continuity of work like his and those following in his footsteps is important as a documentary of this state across time. It also transcends this place and reflects the human condition. We are all, after all, of our particular place.

“Whenever someone asks why I always photograph in Alabama,” Christenberry told photography critic Andy Grundberg in 2001, “I have to answer that, yes, I know there are other places, but Alabama is where my heart is.”

Warehouse Door, Newbern, Alabama, December 1997 December 1997; printed 1998 chromogenic print Gift of Maria and Lee Friedlander 2004.23
Warehouse Door, Newbern, Alabama, December 1997; printed 1998, chromogenic print, Gift of Maria and Lee Friedlander, 2004.23