The Museum actively collects the work of Alabama artists, and expanding the depth in our holdings of works by William Christenberry has been a longtime strategy. Born in 1936, Christenberry grew up in Tuscaloosa, spending his summers with his grandparents in Hale County, and receiving his undergraduate and graduate degrees in art from the University of Alabama.
Christenberry is known nationally and internationally for his iconic photographs of the changing Alabama landscape, and our collection contains approximately 50 of his polaroids and larger-format images. However, he began his study of art as a painter, creating canvases filled with strong color and bold gesture, influenced by the work of abstract expressionist painters, in particular by his teacher at UA, Melville Price. At that time he was using his camera as a tool to capture the qualities of light and color around him, that would serve as guide and inspiration in his painting, not seeing them as works of art themselves.
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. It made him look at his home with new eyes, and see that this place, this landscape, this architecture he so loved, was a subject and source for his artistic practice.
Christenberry used the Agee and Evans book, his photographs and drawings, along with his knowledge of Hale County, to create a series of paintings of old and forgotten structures, beginning with the tenant houses. Some of you may remember these paintings from the Museum’s 1998 exhibition, William Christenberry: The Early Years, 1954–1968. We have long wanted to add one of these early paintings to our collection, but he made few, and they are mostly in public and private collections. However, last year Will and Maggie Brooke of Birmingham contacted the Museum and offered to acquire the newly available Tenant House I on our behalf. This painting was begun in the spring of 1960, and was the first in a series which he developed in various ways over the next several years.
This recent acquisition is now hanging in the contemporary galleries, along with a small selection of photographs and drawings. One of the photographs, Grave with Egg Carton Cross, was also recently acquired by the Members Board of the Museum as a gift. With the photos, drawing, and painting on view in the Contemporary gallery, and the major sculpture, Dream Building (for Birmingham) given by BL Harbert, this is a perfect moment to see and better understand the multidisciplinary nature of Bill Christenberry’s work. We are so very grateful to the Brookes, BL Harbert, and the Members Board for their generous support of the Museum’s collection. With approximately 70 examples of Christenberry’s work, we hope to become a center for study of this important Alabama artist.