Conceptual Monuments to a Passing Culture
While traveling out West during the 1970s, I noticed a lot of blank billboards scattered across the landscape. I started photographing them, selecting the ones that were singular, isolated and not just the usual rectangular shape. I began to think of these amazing found objects as conceptual artworks. For me, the huge shaped “canvases” with empty messages were like beautiful minimalist paintings. They also functioned as gigantic sculptural installations that were perfectly situated in the landscape and much better than most of the monumental, abstract public art of the time. I also had to wonder about the workers who had made these “paintings” and whether they had the slightest idea of the visual impact that their activity was creating.
Later I surmised that the presence of so many of these unusual artifacts was due to Lady Bird Johnson’s program to “Beautify America.” This initiative included cleaning up the highways by removing advertising from the roadside so that passing motorists could view and experience the natural landscape uninterrupted. Most of these billboards were quite large and I think that it may have been more expedient to paint them out rather than tear them down. As a result, the content of the signs had been significantly altered. No longer entirely anchored to their original messages, they were now more open to a variety of readings that potentially communicated new kinds of information. The blank billboard phenomenon was short lived, but while it lasted a scattered accumulation of great conceptual artworks was created, just waiting to be found, documented and brought together in this collection of photographs.