Peter Beard's 'Heart Attack City'

Apr 5, 2018 11:33PM

A brilliantly complex and masterful work by one of America's great collagists, 'Heart Attack City', 1972, explores themes of beauty and darkness.

Offered as part of our New York Photographs sale on 9 April, this large and brilliantly complex work combines Peter Beard's deep interest in the natural world and his fascination with beauty. The juxtaposition of Marilyn Monroe with Beard’s aerial photographs of the carcasses of dead elephants—from Kenya's Tsavo National Park—eloquently draws these themes together within an impressive and visually dazzling composition.

While Beard's photographic documentation of African wildlife is responsible for his early reputation, it is his collages that are among the most significant works in his oeuvre. It is perhaps the ideal medium for an artist as visually omnivorous as Beard, who makes inspired use of disparate original and found imagery drawn from a wide variety of sources and media. In Heart Attack City, his inclusion of such three-dimensional elements as feathers adds to the visual richness of the piece.

Beard's handwritten script appears around the entire periphery of the central images and includes daily memoranda as well as statistics and history on the elephant deaths at Tsavo. Drawings by the Hog Ranch Art Department—African artists who often embellish his work—add layers of meaning and provide an injection of bright color. These illustrations fill the margins of Heart Attack City with human and animal figures whose frenzied antics recall Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.

This masterful piece demonstrates Beard's remarkable ability to locate beauty even in death. The tragic figure of Marilyn Monroe remains unassailably beautiful amidst the destruction that surrounds her. Beard's aerial studies transform the bleached bones of elephants into exquisite calligraphic abstractions.

Critic and photography historian Jonathan Green places Beard in the lineage of American collagists that includes Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Cornell. In A Critical History of American Photography, he writes that "Beard, like Rauschenberg and Cornell before him, is a collector obsessively hoarding images that relate to his adopted African home, Kenya. Pasting fragments of photographs together with drawings and writing...Beard weaves a tapestry of inexhaustible terror and energy. His collaged images contain newspaper clippings, cellophane wrappers, travel plans, SX-70s, African identification photos, snakeskins and handprints in his own blood. These are placed side by side with images of high fashion, primitive cultures, the last of the African wild animals and the first twentieth-century pin-ups...Beard's intuitive sense of organization and form transforms these mysterious and personal observations to the level of shared truths."

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