In Focus

Lothar Baumgarten's Carbon at the Dallas Museum of Art

The 'artist as nomad' is a notion that has figured prominently in recent art theory and practice with particular praise given to travel with the purpose of undertaking critical investigations, endeavors that have been the purview of conceptual art and its heirs. Lothar Baumgarten dedicated four and a half months to following railroad tracks across the United States developing a grand project he would call Carbon, which would come to incorporate several thousand black-and-white and color photographs, large-scale wall drawings, short stories, journals, audiotapes, texts, graphic design and typography studies, and an eponymous limited edition publication. Baumgarten melds the intellectual rigor and social purpose of the conceptual art project—essentially a postmodernist art form—with a highly refined understanding of modernist style in photography, design, and writing.

In this context, Baumgarten is, in part, a directed traveler, seeing the state of travel not as a physical going and returning but as a permanent linear process in which one's thinking always gets someplace new. But he is also an enchanted traveler, seduced during his first transcontinental trip in 1975 by the people, the landscape, and the power of the locomotives drawing mile-long trains. These aspects of his journey initiated a longing to engage again with the country and its railroad system, and Carbon can be seen as the product of that impulse.

Carbon as a project may be understood as an elegy, an epic and sometimes melancholic poem about the impact of the railroad on the geography, people, and history of the United States. Included are the landscapes opened up and often defiled by development; the accomplishment of the pioneers who settled the continent; the displacement and decimation of native peoples who once populated the land; and the rise and decline in the American imagination of the railroads themselves until, in the late 20th century, merger by merger, their numbers diminished and their individuality diluted, they became essential by de-romanticized industrial transportation.

Baumgarten named the project "Carbon" for the dominant element in the fuel and lubricants on which the trains run and for the Carbon 14 dating process by which the age of cultural artifacts is established. "Carbon" thus carries simultaneous implications of progressive activity, and of reflection on and interpretation of the strata of both human and geographic history. A duality is also inherent in the artist's view of the United States, which is at once sympathetic and critical. He admires the engineering but is skeptical of the ethics; he loves the land and the people while he wonders about the past and present policies of the nation.

The city of Dallas owes its growth as an emerging metropolis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in large part to the rapid development of the railroads in Texas. Beginning in 1853, the first lines in the state were built in the Gulf region around Houston, but it was not until 1872 that the Houston & Texas Central became the first railway to reach Dallas. When it linked up just north of the city with the Missouri-Kansas-Texas line coming southwest from St. Louis toward Dallas, the city arrived on the national transportation grid. In 1873 the Texas & Pacific, building west from Texarkana, reached Dallas, and in 1881 construction was completed to the junction near El Paso with the Southern Pacific transcontinental line to California, giving Dallas through east-west service. In the ensuing decades of railway expansion, landlocked North Texas would become a highly important regional transportation center.

It was in the context of the conjoined history of the city of Dallas and its railroads and in the particular physical circumstances of the Dallas Museum of Art's Barrel Vault and Quadrant Galleries that Baumgarten developed a site-specific installation of his Carbon, one which actively related to the geometries of the exhibition space by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. The presentation of Carbon was comprised of three wall drawings, well over 100 photographs, and multiple copies of the artist's book Carbon, presented in vitrines where they were accompanied by a rich selection of archival materials related to the development of the project. While the installation of Carbon was properly regarded as being one piece, each of the elements that made up the whole—wall drawings, photographs, artist's book, and archival materials—contributed a unique voice to the ensemble.

Adapted from

John R. Lane, Lothar Baumgarten: Carbon, Brochure, 2004.