William Christenberry (1936-2016) was an Alabama-born artist who worked in a wide variety of media, including painting and drawing, photography, sculpture, and assemblage (a collection of objects assembled together as a single work of art). He is probably best-known for his works that focus on subjects representing the Black Belt region of west-central Alabama.
William Andrew Christenberry Jr. was born in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, on November 5, 1936, to William A. and Willard Smith Christenberry and is the oldest of three siblings. Both of William Christenberry's parents were from Hale County, just south of Tuscaloosa in west-central Alabama. Christenberry grew up in Tuscaloosa, but childhood visits to his grandparents' farms in Hale County introduced him to a region that would be central to his artistic career.
Christenberry was educated in Tuscaloosa public schools and attended the University of Alabama (UA), where he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1958. By that time, Christenberry had begun painting; he was influenced by the abstract expressionist movement that was dominant in mid-twentieth century American art. Abstract expressionist art is not representational and is usually created in an improvisational manner. He remained at the university for graduate school and received a master of arts degree in painting in 1959.
After completing graduate school, Christenberry joined the UA art faculty, teaching from 1959 to 1961. At the time, his painting began to shift from pure abstraction into more figurative work, as represented by several paintings that evoke the tenant farm houses he frequently saw during his Hale County sojourns. He also had begun to use an inexpensive Brownie camera to photograph sites and buildings as studies for his paintings. In 1960, Christenberry chanced upon a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book about Hale County sharecroppers during the Great Depression with text by James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. That seminal book provided the young artist with a new perspective on an already familiar area of his home state. Although Christenberry admired Evans's photographs when he first encountered the book, he was most immediately struck by Agee's passionate and manic use of prose in his descriptions of the extreme poverty of the three farm families featured in the book. He has noted that he was inspired to try, although unsuccessfully, to capture Agee's writing style in his painting.
In 1961, Christenberry relocated to New York City, a move that led to a dry period in his artistic output and forced him to take on a series of unsatisfying jobs. Christenberry's experience in New York, however, was pivotal to his career. During that time, he met and was befriended by Walker Evans, who, after seeing Christenberry's photographs, encouraged the young artist to focus on photography. In 1962, with a new artistic emphasis and inspiration from Evans, Christenberry moved back to the South to take a position as assistant professor of art at Memphis State University in Tennessee, where he taught for six years. It was also in Memphis that he met and married his wife, Sandra Deane, with whom he would have three children.
During his stay in Memphis, Christenberry began to produce visual images—in drawings, paintings, dolls, and photographs—of Ku Klux Klan meetings to express his personal repulsion for the organization and to acknowledge its continued presence in the South, even as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. This series proved to be among his most unique and disturbing works, and he kept it in a rarely seen facility called "The Klan Room," which he seldom opened. The series expanded to include hundreds of objects, sculptural works, and other representations of Klan rituals.
In 1968, Christenberry left Memphis to take a position as professor of drawing and painting at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C.
The heart of Christenberry's artistic output were his images and impressions of Alabama's Black Belt. On annual pilgrimages to the region, Christenberry photographed sites that he visited for decades and chronicled the changes that took place between visits. The photographs document a disappearing way of life by focusing on the transformation of buildings and places that the artist knew all of his life. One such sequence, the "Palmist Building" series, begun in 1961, has become one of Christenberry's iconic images. The earliest photographs of the building show an abandoned and dilapidated wooden structure. A sign advertising a palmist, or palm reader, has been placed upside down in a broken window as protection from the weather. Christenberry photographed the site over many years, and the images show the progression of the building's decay amidst growing vegetation. In the later images, the building is completely gone, and trees, vegetation, wire fencing, and a utility pole stand beside a lonely road. Similar photographic series include "Church, Sprott, Alabama," "Green Warehouse," and "Coleman Café."
Christenberry's three-dimensional sculptural pieces often represent buildings set in a base of red Alabama dirt that the artist collected on his annual trips home. The sculptures have been interpreted as an effort to capture the dreams and memories embodied in the fading structures in tangible miniature form before they completely fade from consciousness—as both dreams and memories often do. Subjects of the sculptures often include actual buildings that have served as the subject of the photographs and paintings.
Christenberry's series called "Dream Buildings" typically consist of square pillars of varying heights crowned with steeply angled, pointed roofs that resemble obelisks or sharply steepled churches. Some are adorned with images that resemble advertising posters and other items that evoke a sense of decay, similar to a boarded-up building covered with flyers. The "Southern Monument" series employs images of buildings, ladders, and gourds—all ubiquitous in Christenberry's rural landscape—as well as other objects that together create a sense of memory and loss.
Christenberry's work is represented in museums throughout the United States and internationally, and many publications have discussed and analyzed his art and vision. His work was the subject of the 2006-2007 exhibition "Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry," mounted by the Smithsonian Institution at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Christenberry is hailed as a pioneer of color photography as art and is often credited with inspiring other artists of his generation, including his friend William Eggleston, to take up color photography. Christenberry's work of the early twenty-first century returned to an increased emphasis on drawing, and his sculptures took on an even more stark and surreal quality. In his last years, Christenberry suffered from Alzheimer's disease and died of the disease on November 29, 2016.
Gruber, J. Richard. William Christenberry: Art and Family. New Orleans: University of New Orleans, 2000.
———. William Christenberry: The Early Years. Augusta, Ga.: Morris Museum of Art, 1996.
Hopps, Walter, Andy Grundberg, and Howard N. Fox (essays). William Christenberry. New York: Aperture Foundation; and Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006.
Southall, Thomas W. Of Time and Place: Walker Evans and William Christenberry. San Francisco: Friends of Photography; and Fort Worth, Tex.: Amon Carter Museum, 1990.
Stack, Trudy Wilner. Christenberry Reconstruction: The Art of William Christenberry. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi; and Tucson, Ariz.: Center for Creative Photography, 1996.
William Christenberry's Black Belt. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.