Airline passengers leaving Terminal Four at Sky Harbor are greeted by a series of large-format photographs of saguaro cactuses. This is only appropriate, since the saguaro is more a symbol of Phoenix than that flaming bird on the city seal.
But these cactuses are unsettling. They are vastly different from the standard-issue Noble Sentinels of the Desert that Arizona Highways specializes in, those saguaros at sunset outlined against a lurid sky.
Photographed by Mark Klett, the Terminal Four saguaros look pretty sad. One is bent double, as if in complete exhaustion. Another is full of bullet holes, like Swiss cheese. Another's arms are twisted all around in uncomfortable contortions. Another has its arms outstretched, as if it's being crucified. Or begging for mercy.
The title of the series is "Desert Citizens." These poor citizens look like the inhabitants of a particularly neglectful nursing home.
They're sad, but there's also something perversely funny about these cactuses. They aren't, after all, people. But Mark Klett, like just about every artist who came West and depicted the saguaro, knows they will be regarded that way. Of all the plants, saguaro cactuses most closely approximate human beings.
@body:There is not a long tradition of depicting saguaros in art. Naked women, the Madonna and Child, mountains, even apples have appealed more to artists than cactuses the size of telephone poles. Part of the problem is that saguaros were not discovered until quite recently, artistically speaking.
In his office in a basement at Arizona State University, Mark Klett has what he thinks is the first photograph of a saguaro cactus in history. It was taken by Timothy O'Sullivan during O'Sullivan's journey through the West as part of the Wheeler Survey in 1871.
Such expeditions sprang into existence after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, when the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., having gotten half a continent at a very good price, sent Lewis and Clark out to see just what they'd bought. By the 1850s, the surveys had taken on a more scientific air, and began including photographers, some of whom made their names with such trips.
O'Sullivan's group started in Nevada, wound around the Colorado River, then stopped in the Sonoran Desert near Wickenburg and had a look at the saguaros there. O'Sullivan's photograph is fairly straightforward, although the darkness of the print and the size of the cactus give the succulent a nicely looming quality.
This is not the first depiction of saguaros in art. That honor goes to John Mix Stanley, a painter who accompanied another expedition, one made by General Stephen Watts Kearny to California to fight the Mexicans in 1846. The Phoenix Art Museum has the painting that Stanley worked up from the tour, and although it's not on display at the moment, a perfectly good postcard on sale at the museum gift shop gives you its flavor.
Klett laughs as he looks at the postcard. A series of wholly improbable rock formations stretches along a body of water purporting to be the Gila River. In a bizarre touch, a little deer perches on a ledge beside the river, chest outthrust, as if taking credit for the magnificence of the vista. A big saguaro fills the left side of the landscape the deer is so proud of. No part of the painting appears quite believable. No part of the painting appears to belong with another, which is part of its charm.
Stanley painted the picture nine years after he was actually on the Gila, relying on some sketches, his imagination and centuries of landscape-painting tradition to come up with the composition. His attitude toward the cactus appears somewhat akin to that of the Kansas farmer confronted with the giraffe. "I don't believe it," the farmer said flatly, looking up at the expanse of polka-dotted neck.
Once they got over their amazement, artists fairly quickly transformed saguaro cactuses into clichs. Grab a handful of books on Western art from the shelf, and the big cactuses turn up in fairly predictable guises. They anchor the foreground in front of the towering majesty of mountains. Cowboys' horses stride forcefully beneath them. Photographers like to position the sun and a few clouds behind them, although the church at San Xavier del Bac will do nicely, too.
What's more interesting, however, is how seldom saguaros turn up in regional art. Weather-beaten cowboys and picturesque Indians appear with greater frequency than oversize cactuses and the barren deserts they inhabit. "The 19th century had rigid ideas of what constituted a landscape," says Gray Sweeney, an art historian at Arizona State University. "It had to have water. Empty spaces were not interesting.
"People had trouble incorporating objects that didn't match their conventions of beauty and importance. Deserts didn't make it."
Saguaros, he says, suffered an additional aesthetic defect: "They don't look like trees." There's another, more practical reason for the scarcity of saguaros in art until fairly recently, points out Jim Ballinger, director of Phoenix Art Museum.
"Most artists came on the train and went through Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon and northern Arizona," he says. "Few artists came to southern Arizona. They're not making a statement--it's just that the artists were in another part of the state." Ballinger's point is borne out by a book that reproduces paintings used by the Santa Fe Railroad to advertise its tours out West in the first half of this century. It contains only one painting with a saguaro. Clearly, the plants could have gotten much better publicity if only they'd been adapted to the high-desert landscape of the north. Artistic freedom is a wonderful thing, however, and credit must be given to a Western artist named Gerard C. Delano. His fascinating painting "Navajo Shepherdess" simply up and moves saguaros. The work shows a picturesque young Navajo woman driving some picturesque sheep through a picturesque Monument Valley landscape. Behind the shepherdess is a saguaro. Hell, back East, they'll never know the difference, Mr. Delano must have figured, dabbing on more green.
Another reason saguaros never caught fire as a subject in art is that, Noble Sentinel of the Desert at Sunset notwithstanding, there is something pretty funny about them. After all, Frank Redding published an entire book titled Silly Saguaros, giving captions to photographs of particularly ludicrous examples of the species Carnegiea gigantea. You look at them, you laugh. What other plant can you say this about?
@body:Warren Anderson used to give his beginning students a test. He taught art at the University of Arizona for 30 years. He'd ask each crop of incoming students to draw a saguaro. Almost every one of them turned in the same thing: a short and plump cactus with two arms, both upraised. Anderson came to call this icon the "bandit victim," because it looks like its arms have been flung up suddenly, in response to a gun held at its back. "It's a conceptual average," says Anderson, who used this little Saguaro Aptitude Test to teach students the importance of seeing. "It's based on what you usually see when you're not looking at saguaros themselves, but at facsimiles and symbols of them. Look at the ads in the Yellow Pages and neon signs."
Anderson collects examples of bandit victims. Former students send him photographs from around the world. There is a saguaro cactus with two arms upraised on a sign somewhere, he says, in New Zealand. Anderson paid homage to the bandit victim in one of his own paintings, part of a series of works called "Roadside America," in which he depicted old gas pumps and whatnot. The bandit-victim saguaro appears on a motel sign in El Cajon, California. Anderson copied the sign with loving care.
Where or when the bandit victim was born is an historical mystery, awaiting some ambitious doctoral candidate in American Studies. It does seem to have reached its apotheosis in the roadside America of the 1950s that Anderson painted, and from there it seems to have spread around the world, like a flu, passed from motel sign to drive-in movie to Mexican restaurant. The bandit victim is the cactus of neon lights sold on street corners, of billboards, of business cards, of cartoons, of automatic teller machines and of beer commercials on television. It is even the cactus on the license plate of the state of Arizona. "It has to do with the inborn human tendency to anthropomorphize everything we don't understand," says Gray Sweeney, the art historian at ASU. "If it's alien, we make it look like us. That's why Martians look like blobby humans."
@body:Before he moved to Tucson to teach art, while he was still living in the Bay Area, Robert Colescott did a painting of saguaros. It was part of a series he did on Western themes, which included funny subjects of his own devising and rude copies of famous Renaissance paintings. The saguaros, he says, were "having coitus." "Even the Indians thought of them as human," Colescott says. "They have a presence. They stand up there like men with heads and arms."
Unfortunately, Colescott says the painting of the sexually active cactuses is rolled up somewhere. He's not even sure where. He's not even sure where the slide of it is. But he knows one thing about saguaros, now that he's teaching at the University of Arizona. So does everybody else. "Everybody knows saguaros are the quintessential cactus," he says. "You think of a cactus, you think of a saguaro."
@body:Mark Klett also had the Indians in mind when he began to photograph saguaro cactuses. His first series of pictures, however, focused on the brutal things people did to saguaros and, by extension, to the Sonoran Desert. There would be a cactus and, in the background, a housing development creeping closer.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
A lot of the new Western landscape photographers were doing the same kind of thing--shooting pictures of toxic-waste dumps or, as in one recent show at Phoenix Art Museum, pictures of nuclear-test sites. "The realities of everyday life," Klett calls them. There is a real darkness to the new landscape work that contrasts sharply with the grandeur-of-nature school of earlier landscape photography, which had rigorously excluded the hand of man in an almost religious celebration of nature. Three years ago, Klett says, he began to "look at cactuses as individuals." The work of artists tends to evolve, anyway, but Klett thinks the change may have had something to do with the birth of his first child. At 40, he has a good position at ASU, a national reputation as an artist and a young family--reasons enough for mellowing.
In the series, Klett wanted to give the big cactuses the chance to make their own statements about themselves, to assert their own presences. "Almost all my other work was about the relationship of people to the landscape," Klett says. "With the cactuses, it was an attempt to give back an autonomy to the land."
He ticks off the different personalities cactuses can take on: sad, boastful, aggressive, pathetic--even sexual. "They're fairly straightforward portraits," he says, talking about the "Desert Citizens" as if they were human. "A lot of them," he says a bit sheepishly of the cactuses, "tend to be changing or dying." The photographs don't work so well singly, he thinks; the effect is cumulative. Some of the "Desert Citizens" were published last year in a book of Klett's work, Revealing Territory. Selections from the book will be on display in an exhibit opening Sunday, March 7, and continuing through May 2 at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. But the biggest audience for Klett's saguaros is no doubt at Sky Harbor.
He submitted "Desert Citizens" in a competition while Terminal Four was still under construction; when the terminal opened two years ago, its artwork was praised for its imagination, and for its departure from the "Welcome to the Old West" clichs of other airport art. Terminal Three, for instance, greets incoming passengers with a careering stagecoach pulled by runaway horses. Winter visitors planning to play golf are a good deal more likely to see cactuses full of bullet holes. Klett's photography series, in fact, is a singularly appropriate greeting for disembarking airline passengers. After ingesting airline food, extricating carry-on bags from the overhead luggage compartments and walking several miles to the courtesy bus stand, most airline passengers feel just about as bedraggled as Mark Klett's cactuses look.