“After the Storm,” Modern Painters

After the Storm

Three disparate artists attempt to make sense of the incomprehensible.


August marked the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation caused by a nation’s failure to care for its most, vulnerable citizens.

The horror of Katrina could be told through the numbers: The hurricane, together with the consequent flooding and the government’s tardy and inadequate response, caused at, least 1,000 deaths, probably more. Many of the bodies eventually recovered were so badly decomposed because of immersion in the floodwaters that they could not be identified. Katrina forced as many as a million people to flee the central Gulf coast, the largest diaspora in American history. Four months after the storm hit, only 200,000 people remained in New Orleans, about 40 percent of the predisaster total. Seven hundred thousand people needed temporary housing.

Whenever numbers are used to tell a story, people will argue over them. It took almost no time at all for partisans to battle over the figures that assign fault. One Wikipedia user edited the following into the site’s Hurricane Katrina page: “‘An ABC, News poll conducted on September 2, 2005, showed more blame was being directed at state and local governments (75 percent) than at the federal government (67 percent), with 44 percent blaming Bush’s leadership directly.” In today’s left-right, he-said, she-said political discourse, hearing from two sides, splitting fault between a Republican president and a Democratic governor and mayor, matters more than memory, more than truth, more than humanity.

"The Storm I", 2005

Enter art, which doesn’t care a whit about what President Bush’s approval rating was or about the percentage of Americans who assigned blame to Congress for the tragedy. When it comes to where to look first to understand something so enormous that it seems ungraspable, I’m with John Ruskin. “Great nations,” he wrote, “write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.”

As I’ve meditated on this sad anniversary and the art Katrina inspired, I’ve found myself thinking mostly about three artists whose work is ambitious and very much about Katrina but also transcends that single event in addressing the broader themes of suffering and disaster. I’ve been thinking about David Bates, Mark Bradford, and Robert Polidori.

You’d be hard-pressed to find three artists less alike. One’s a traditional painter, one makes primarily wall-mounted objects that are both conceptually rigorous and visually engaging, and the third is a photographer who took an old-fashioned view camera and a tripod into the devastated city. They are similar in one important respect, however: Their artworks about Katrina are all driven by—and prompt—emotion.

This is not fashionable. It’s been a while since emotion was popular in art. Over the past century or so, emotion has elbowed its way in only at times of extreme calamity. Consider the Dadaist works about World War I or the way U.S. artists examined the United States during the Great Depression. The last time we saw humanity in art was during the height of the AIDS crisis. Sure, a few artists here and there—Nan Goldin, Catherine Opie, David Wojnarowicz—have made art infused with feeling, but their pieces are exceptions that spotlight the broader absence. The MFA programs that crank out product makers for the art market today prioritize devotion to salon Conceptualism over inspiration and motivation, let alone heartfelt humanity.

That’s why Bradford’s best work about Katrina, Help Us, is so wonderful. Bradford, who is based in L.A.’s Leimert Park neighborhood, has made two iterations of the installation—one in which the words of the title were painted in white on the black roof of an L.A. gallery in 2008 and streamed on the Internet via an overhead camera, and one using stones painted white and arranged on the roof of the Carnegie Museum of Art, in Pittsburgh, during its 2008 Carnegie International exhibition of contemporary art. The piece re-creates the way the world experienced the extent of the crisis in New Orleans: It could be seen only from above. And it does not require a press release to be legible. The materials—white paint, or white-painted stones on a black roof—are appropriately vernacular, a hallmark of Bradford’s work. The materials and the plea expressed are bare, honest, and urgent.

While Help Us obviously refers to Katrina—to the vantage from which we saw its devastation and to President Bush’s flyby—-it’s unspecific enough to stand as a reference to other Bush administration travesties, such as the inaccessible Guantanamo Bay prison or the secret “black sites” to which inconvenient foreigners were whisked away to be tortured. All of these were invisible except, from above. Help Us ought to be remembered as the defining artwork of the Bush era.

Bradford’s piece succeeds in part because its spareness encourages us to fill in its reference with our own memories and concerns. Polidori’s hundreds of pictures of empty (abandoned?) streets and homes in New Orleans show us what the city was like in the aftermath of Bradford’s unanswered plea. Although nearly two dozen of the photos were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, in 2006, they’re best experienced in the 11-pound volume After the Flood (Steidi, 2006).

Robert Polidori. Marigny Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005.

Polidori’s point of view is as direct as he could make it. Here’s what happened. I’m bearing witness, and now you are too. It recalls Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on, the Sunset Strip, only Polidori updated Ruscha by displaying the city after its apocalypse.

He shows us cars on top of cars, houses with their interiors tossed asunder, their walls marked by flood lines. Trees uprooted by the floodwaters have come to rest on top of whatever. Polidori captures a world mostly without right angles—no door frames, no intact shelving, no floors meeting walls—because the water has so permeated the land that the land literally can’t, support, the city. There is at least one picture of a corpse, taken using the same laborious method as the rest: Set up the view camera with tripod and shoot. This goes on for more than 300 pages. Most hold one photo; some hold 16. The TV pictures from New Orleans were shock and awe; Polidori’s project provides depth of understanding.

Because Polidori photographed an emptied city, there are virtually no humans in his pictures. But they’re there in Bates’s Katrina paintings. Bates, a nearly lifelong Texan, has a longstanding fondness for the Gulf and its people. It shows in his work.

What sad paintings. Everyone in them has red eyes; everyone has been crying. The images are rich with body language. Necks are emphasized because shoulders are slumped. The brushstrokes making up the faces are steep verticals that run from baggy eyelids to limp jawlines. The effect is to make the faces longer, sadder. Water is everywhere, behind the portrait subjects and in the landscapes. Almost nothing seems to be where it should be. Stuff, like front doors, floats. How fucked is this place? Even the cruciforms—utility poles with power lines attached—can’t, stand up straight. Providence failed.

Bates is to the avant-garde what the Toyota Camry is to cutting-edge automobiles—he is not a contemporary-art darling. He makes fairly traditional pictures of people and places and flower arrangements. His paintings don’t seem to deviate enough from Marsden Hartley, and when they do, it is to imbue people you might see in paintings by American regionalists such as John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton with extra starch. No American can paint a magnolia blossom without invoking Martin Johnson Heade, and Bates isn’t shy about painting magnolia blossoms. We’re moving back in time here, not forward. Despite all that—or because of it, maybe—Bates is perfect for this moment.

It would be simplistic to say that Bates or Polidori or Bradford found his subject, that any of them happened to be in the right place at the right time. That implies accident. Bates has built relationships with the people of New Orleans. Polidori has repeatedly tried to bring a sense of presence and loss to disasters that seem too mammoth to comprehend. Bradford’s work and materials are informed by the neighborhood in which he lives, a fact that helped him approach a number of pieces he made about Katrina from intersections on up.

Art is not journalism, and it need not hew to documentary. Journalists tell us who, what, when, where, why, and sometimes how, while artists have the privilege of going beyond those immediate questions. Journalism is supposed to be distanced, free of bias, even dispassionate. Bradford’s, Polidori’s, and Bates’s works after Katrina are forceful because they embrace the emotions the hurricane stirred up. They evoke our own memories of the storm and its aftermath. Art is personal. It hurts.