Clifford Ross's photography, like jazz, is quintessentially American—they both privilege process. They come, however, from opposite ends of the aesthetic experience: reductionist versus holistic, explicit versus 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, U.S.A., 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 view, with its 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"; 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′ × 114′, 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's 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, an emeritus professor of art history from Brooklyn College who has known Ross's work since the 1970s, probably speaks for all when he concludes, "as 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 4,000 feet away) are only the beginning. His post-production is even more prodigious—with files reaching 30–40 gigabytes—as he manipulates the image to express his awe in the presence of the mountain. Ross says, referring 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 works 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...