William Christenberry American, 1936-2016
William Christenberry investigates the land, structures, and symbols of his native Alabama. Since 1968 he has made annual sojourns to Hale County and its environs to photograph the abandoned buildings, rusted signs, kudzu-infested fields, gourd trees, old warehouses, and white country churches that inform and inspire his art. The imagery pervades his paintings, sculpture, drawings, building constructions, and installations and collectively constitutes a vernacular of symbols and signs. Memory and myth fuel Christenberry's obsessive desire to reveal and understand his roots on both personal and universal levels.
At the University of Alabama (B.F.A. in painting, 1958; M.A., 1959) Christenberry studied the works of the abstract expressionists, dadaists, and surrealists and read widely. The 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans had a profound impact on Christenberry when he came across it in 1960. As he would discover the following year when he met Evans in New York City, they had photographed many of the same Alabama subjects and shared many of the same interests and artistic concerns. The two became close friends.
Born in Tuscaloosa, Christenberry had begun taking pictures with a simple Brownie camera in 1958 as color studies for his paintings. In 1961, at the encouragement of Evans, he started to consider these snapshots as serious photographs. He purchased an 8 x 10-inch Deardorff view camera in 1977 at the suggestion of friends Caldecot Chubb and Lee Friedlander and, in 1978, began to work intermittently with a Polaroid camera.
Christenberry's honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1976) and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1984), a Lyndhurst Foundation prize (1982), and an honorary doctorate of arts from the Kansas City Art Institute (1983). Since 1968 he has taught painting and drawing at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., receiving numerous awards for his contributions as an educator.
Among Christenberry's major exhibitions are the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1973), Institute of the Arts, Rice University (1982), Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth (1990), Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover (1994), and the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson (1996). His publications include William Christenberry (1973), William Christenberry: Southern Photographs (1983), Of Time and Place: Walker Evans and William Christenberry (1990), William Christenberry (1994), William Christenberry: The Early Works, 1954 to 1968 (1996), and Christenberry: Reconstruction, the Art of William Christenberry (1996). Christenberry died on November 28, 2016. According to his daughter, the cause of death was complications from Alzheimer's disease. Christenberry lived in Washington, D.C. A.W.