The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Book Reviews

The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information, by Craig Robertson, 2021
In the timeline of the information age, the moment physical files transitioned from horizontal to vertical storage is akin to the moment when hominids went from walking on four legs to two. It freed up our arms to do other things. Like operate file cabinets. This important book was a long time coming, at least for some of us still living in the physical world. It dwells a lot on the rapid change in the bureaucratic workplace and the world of office furniture leading up to the 1920s, by which time the basic form of the vertical file cabinet had solidified, and was spreading across the land in a uniform and standardized way. Little is said, though, about the continuing transformation of filing cabinetry over the last hundred years, such as the surprisingly late introduction of hanging folders, and when, finally, cabinet drawers came standard with high sides, instead of having to assemble those flimsy metal hanging folder frames for each lowsided drawer. But there is always more to explore, when it comes to filing cabinets. 

Postcards: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Social Network, by Lynda Pyne, 2021
Postcards, especially those depicting a place, as many of them do, are deep, and complex. Though they are ephemeral mediums—messengers—they are also material artifacts, mementos of a place. Modest in form, they are designed, mass produced self-conscious representations of a location. They deliver some fixed and printed institutional layer of interpretation of their own, while providing space for personal notes from one individual to another, from someone who is there, to someone who is not. The author of this colorful and well-printed book discusses the history, production, and meaning of postcards, calling them “the largest class of artifacts that humankind has ever exchanged,” with hundreds of billions of them in circulation in the early 1900s, a communications network, transcending space, and uniting place. Postcards operate in a dialectical manner, resembling land art, and even become something like it, when in the hands of the many artists who work with postcards, like Zoe Leonard, whose You See I am Here After All, is made from a cascade of 3,851 vintage postcards of Niagara Falls. 

The Age of Wood, by Roland Ennos, 2020
The book addresses the use of wood across time, culture, and technologies, from the neolithic to now, suggesting that the Age of Wood spans much of the Age of Man. A most versatile and flexible material indeed! The book’s broad time span, and emphasis on Europe, puts it a bit outside our domain, and misses an opportunity perhaps, since the US was a nation made out of wood (unlike Europe, which was made out of rocks), and a nation that took wood into new dimensions.

A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks, by Brad Edmondson, 2021
This is the story about how the Adirondack Park Agency, a unique state entity that governs the largest park in the lower 48 states, was created in the early 1970s. A Wild Idea is a detailed narrative covering the politics and players behind the agency’s inception, and the enviro-bureaucrats who pulled it all together in the home stretch, to get it on the tee for governor Nelson Rockefeller’s signature. You’d think a book like this might be dry and boring, but it is fresh and vivid, describing the busiest two years of tricky negotiations, from meetings of state officials at posh corporate offices in Rockefeller Center, to the office of the nascent APA in the park, which was propelled by young visionaries with a cause, whose marathons of fact gathering field trips and pre-computer processing for the Big Map were fueled by an active beer fridge. Those were the days. 

Ranch Gates of the Southwest, by Daniel M. Olsen and Henk Van Assen, 2009
Gates are the face of a place, as constructed by its owners, and convey a sense of what lies beyond them, in ways that are intentional and not. More so than anywhere, perhaps, in the case of Southwestern cattle ranches, where, as the text suggests, gates are like the buckle of a belt of barbed wire. In this photo book, the subject quickly expands beyond the gates themselves to the ranch periphery overall, looking at the fencing, signage, and other components of the threshold between public and private. It examines the unique graphic design of the forms, the iconography of ranch signs, lettering, and cattle brands. These elements convey the self-sufficient practicality and style of a ranch through things like the in-house use of gas torches to form words cut from steel plate, bent rebar, and pipe. Ranch peripheries are an expressive language, a genre with uniformity, and variation, and one that has not been considered as much as it should, until this book. This is a book of unpretentious photos from lots of driving by its authors (who are artists/designers), with an introduction by noted cultural commentator Lucy Lippard, well versed in the vernacular of the west, and most of the text is by Kenneth Helphand, a landscape architecture professor. 

Traces of J.B. Jackson, the Man Who Taught Us to See Everyday America, by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, 2020
The most fleshed out account yet of the life of the “father of vernacular landscape studies,” written by his longtime friend and literary executor. Brinck was a charming and erudite autodidact, and a man caught between worlds, as they say. An old-school upperclass intellectual motorcycling academic rebel with a cause. His national nature was expressed by his dual professorships at Harvard and Berkeley, for about ten years, starting in the late 1960s, where he left a legacy of landscape studies that carried on there, and elsewhere, in academia. As the subtitle makes clear, some of his “us” think he invented a way of seeing, but since most people have never heard of him, he can also be seen as just another fellow topophiliac, sharing a thirst for meaning in the common ground that surrounds us all, something that he may have been modest enough to admit to too, even. 

Gianfranco Gorgoni: Land Art Photographs, edited by Ann M. Wolfe, 2021
Big book of mostly big black and white photos of familiar 1960s and 1970s land art, like Running Fence, Spiral Jetty, and Double Negative, by the go-to guy hired to help form these places in the mind’s eye of their remote viewers. Production shots of people at work, like Heizer on his Michigan dozer in Nevada, feel like high desert fashion shoots, as does the incongruous burst of the colorful Seven Magic Mountains, which missed the inclusion in the canon by half a century, so seems out of place here. But the honest to goodness core of the work, Gorgoni’s contrasty 1970s imagery, has great integrity—the pre-pixel photo grain seems fused with the grains of dirt from the ground of those places and times. The book is the catalog of a 2021 exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art, home of the Center for Art + Environment, which conducted its fifth triennial conference in the fall of 2021, titled Land Art: Past, Present, Futures, which featured many interesting voices from the field. 

Oil: Beauty and Horror in the Petrol Age, edited by Andreas Beitin, Alexander Close, and Benjamin Steininger, 2021
Despite the pulpy heft of its 400 pages, the catalog of the “first historically and geographically comprehensive retrospective of artistic confrontation with oil and its materials,” this publication is just the indexical tip of the melting iceberg. Exhibits as grand as this are like information age remnants of the great international expositions of modernist yore, with capacious halls full of monumental evidence, expressed graphically, addressing huge themes, like “the environment.” Expos occurred at a scale that could only be accomplished by nations, overseen by an international governing body, and as the burning Bucky-sphere that followed Expo 67 suggested, their time has come and gone. Instead we—thankfully—have occasional institutional bursts of curatorial ambition like this one, often cropping up in Germany, as this one did, at the art museum in Wolfsburg, in September 2021. Regrettably, things like this are less likely in the USA. 

The Invention of the American Desert, edited by Lyle Massey and James Nisbet, 2021This long-awaited publication, from UC Press, originated from a conference at UC Irvine’s Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center in 2015, where members of the CLUI were invited to speak, along with some old desert friends. The resultant book contains ten dense essays, addressing contemporary art, culture, and phenomenology in the southwestern desert. They make deep dives into both new and familiar things, like indigenous futurism; Classic Land Art; New Mexican solar-techno-adobe architecture; living rock intrusions in Palm Springs modernism; fallout from desert testing by Andrea Zittel, Noah Purifoy, and the Department of Energy; and the exploding house from Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point. With such a thorough fleshing out of these iconic desert notions and landmarks now complete, it feels like we have finally caught up with ourselves.