Strange Vistas: The Work of Walter Cotten | Siobhan Arnold

Walter Cotten, Organ Pipe Cactus National Park, AZ, 2007.  © Peter de Lory 2013

The waste places of the earth, the barren deserts, the tracts forsaken of men and given over to loneliness, have a peculiar attraction of their own. The weird solitude, the great silence, the grim desolation, are the very things with which every desert wanderer eventually falls in love.

– John C. Van Dyke, The Desert

It seems important to make a distinction between land and landscape—land being the physicality of the place upon which one stands, and landscape being the representation of that land through a frame of some kind. That frame may take the form of the painter’s canvas, the photographer’s viewfinder, or a mental image—a picture created by the mind’s eye. There is an inherent value judgment associated with this image, the landscape, as it is inseparable from the lens of the artist.  For Walter Cotten, the lines between place and its representation were often blurred.

In 1992, shortly after I met Walter again, we went on a road trip that took us through the Mojave Desert from Death Valley to Tonopah, Nevada. We traveled for the most part on two lane highways and unpaved roads across dry lake beds and alkali flats. We were driving down a dirt road in the middle of the Eureka Valley at the northern edge of Death Valley when he pulled over to the side and stopped the car.  It wasn’t uncommon for Walter to pull over without saying anything beforehand.  As I made more trips like this with him, I became accustomed to the quiet of long expanses of scenery whisking by, interrupted by the occasional comment about an unusual geological feature or a cultural tidbit about the locale.  While driving through southern Idaho on another trip, he said, “See those horizontal lines over there on the hillside?  Those are the wave cut terraces from the Great Lake Bonneville that once covered this area and much of the Great Basin.” Sometimes we would silently pull over and pick up a piece of desert debris, and once we were off the more traveled roads Walter would stop, get out and open up a can of beer.

Desert Work, 1990. Walter Cotten and Steven DePintoOn this trip, we were traveling in the very last of his pre ‘65 Beetle convertibles—“it’s a great desert car,” he said,  “The ‘people’s-car’ was a part of the Nazi political platform in the late ’30’s.  The motors are air cooled… the Germans used them… in the deserts of North Africa during the war.”  We stopped on the side of the road, the Last Chance Range jutting upwards in the distance. Walter got out, unfastened the mother of pearl buttons on his vintage cowboy shirt and rolled up his sleeves. “You’re gonna have to be careful about the sun out here, you’ve got my skin,” he said, handing me a bottle of sunscreen. He climbed under the car for a few minutes, then emerged, brushing the desert dust off his Levi’s. He started rifling through the front trunk and eventually pulled out a plastic wash basin that he used for camping dishes.  As it turned out, there was a big rusted out hole in the gas tank and gas was basically pouring out of the tank onto the desert ground. Climbing back under the car, Walter tried to capture as much leaking gas as he could using the basin and whatever other container he could find.  He then started digging around the car until he found a dirty old package of all-purpose putty in the glove box. “This might work.”

A couple hours later, we limped into Big Pine, the nearest pocket of civilization from our remote desert breakdown, about 40 miles away.  Walter never let on how grim our situation could have been until later that night as we lay safely in a Big Pine Motel while the car was being repaired at a local garage. We had about a gallon of water and not much food with us that day.  There were virtually no other travelers on the remote dirt road—only one that I recall—a jacked up four-wheeler pulling some ATV’s undoubtedly on their way to the Eureka Dunes.  Our desert disaster was averted thanks to that serendipitously found package of putty. Walter had pulled a desert “MacGyver.”

Desert Work, 1990. Walter Cotten and Steven DePinto.

This desert land/landscape of the Southwest was home to Walter. Growing up in Phoenix in the ’50’s, the desert was a place for weekend picnics, camping trips, drag races and beer cans.  Later, as a student of geology and anthropology, it was a place for field study.  It was also the vast and much traversed empty space between school in coastal California and home in Arizona.  It’s no surprise that these environs were subject matter for his early work in lithography and drawing, and later photography/installation.

Walter, the son of an Air Force pilot, had a lifelong passion for military aircraft especially those of the Cold War era. He could identify every aircraft overhead by sound and by profile. He was endlessly fascinated by military technology though politically opposed to the War Machine. He often spent months at a time traveling through the Mojave—camping, photographing, picking up junk from the abandoned spaces of human activity. Objects of interest included everything from a decayed ceramic lamp base to the rusted skeleton of a test pilot seat from some contraption designed to hurl a man forward at ridiculously high speeds.

Probably the most compelling aspect of this landscape for Walter was the desert as a site for Cold War era military testing. Desert Work, a series of collaborations begun in in the 1980’s with artist Steven DePinto, was an ongoing project addressing the often brutal treatment of the desert Southwest by the American military. Fictional installations created out of found debris and photographed at abandoned gunnery ranges, landing strips, and test sites, Desert Work functioned as a critique—albeit one that contained more than a hint of reverence and fascination—for the “stuff” of the military.  The photographs were displayed in the gallery within the context of another installation constructed of the same desert site-based materials and props.

Abandon in Place, Cambridge, England, 1995. Walter Cotten, Steven DePinto, and Michael Sanders.

The investigations of military land use moved beyond the American desert as Walter and Steven began collaborating with British artist Michael Sanders, whom they met after showing Desert Work at the Photographers’ Gallery in London in 1991.  As Sanders recalls, “There was a certain logic to us all working together, we all had a shared interest and fascination with military technology and land use… The development of stealth technology which had taken place in the deserts of America was just becoming known after the Gulf War….There was an emerging aura of mystery and secrecy around military land use and an atomic legacy which Cotten and De Pinto had alluded to in their previous Desert Work projects….From conversations with Walt and Steve I am sure the title Desert Work was very deliberately chosen to make it clear that this was work both in and about the desert.”

This collaboration resulted in work centered on the abandoned military bunkers and bombing ranges of England and northern France.  “I believe we tried to treat the places we visited with the same approach and sensibility Walter would use in his desert work. Whilst on nothing like the same scale, the bleakness and relative emptiness of the east of England let us play with the similarities overlaid with common land use issues.”  Abandon in Place, subtitled by Walter as A Desert Work/Europe Project, was shown at the Cambridge Darkroom in 1995.  Later collaborations between Cotten and Sanders included photographing at the Trinity Site in New Mexico and the WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant), the underground nuclear storage site also in New Mexico.

Walter returned to the desert whenever he could—during breaks from his day job as a professor of art at San Diego State University. His interests lay beyond the abandoned test sites and bombing ranges as evidenced in his annual pilgrimage to the speed trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats in northern Utah. This work was as much a part of his creative life as any other work and kept him returning annually for more than twenty years.  Unlike the sometimes ominous tone that is evident in many of his desert projects, Walter’s photographs of the salt flats and hot rod racing culture have a lightness about them aided in part by the landscape itself—the sparkle of the salt and the vivid colors of the cars. And unlike most of Walter’s work, it’s only in these images where we see real people, human expressions, a true passion for the art of racing. In 2001, Walter’s hot rod photography was featured in the film, Salt [1] in conjunction with his long time collaborator, Steven DePinto. The film is both an homage to the more than seventy year tradition of racing at Bonneville, as well as an inside look at the artistic process of these two racing fanatics and photographers.

Bonneville Speed Week, 1994-95. Walter Cotten.

The Mojave was a place of refuge for Walter and he would often drive out for the day from LA or San Diego, bring a book and a folding chair, sit back and take a deep breath of desert air. For him, the desert landscape was a storied land, a place upon which endless narrative could be written. Walter introduced me to desert literature—Edward Abbey, Everett Ruess. He was particularly taken with the story of John C. Van Dyke, a Rutgers art historian who in 1900, despite his inexperience and poor health, walked out into the desert Southwest for two years and recorded his experiences in lyrical sketches in a book simply titled, The Desert.

There was a fluidity of knowing this land/landscape for Walter—it was both an ordinary and enigmatic place; home to ranchers, racers and nuclear physicists. It was a backdrop for a hidden history and covert activities.  In 1998, Walter presented his work as an Independent Interpreter at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). CLUI Director Matt Coolidge recalls: “Over the years we lit out on a number of occasions to go look into things; at dry lakes, bombing ranges, abandoned test sites, bunkers, launch sites, debris-fields, and other wreckage in the desert, trying to piece it all together. These places were like archeological evidence of some technologically obsessed doomsday sci-fi culture of the retro-future, but of course this was us, here and now, and it was real.”

Atomic City, 2001. Walter Cotten.

Walter’s collaboration with CLUI initiated another desert endeavor, The Dry Lakes Project, a major documentary project that was only about halfway complete by the time of his sudden death in 2008.  Coolidge recalls, “It became clear that dry lakes were evocative proving grounds of the extremes of human achievement and failure, so we embarked on a long-term project to catalog and describe them all.” Using a large rolling “copy stand” that he fabricated, Walter made hundreds of detailed photographs of the crusty surfaces of the dry lakes of the west, meticulously recording the specific geographical coordinates of each image. At some point, Coolidge hopes to complete and exhibit the massive project that he and Walter began.

Walter’s photographs of desert test sites, missile ranges, and aerial targets appear throughout Tom Vanderbilt’s 2002 book, Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America.  This project took him somewhat officially to some of the most notorious cold war nuclear testing and storage facilities including the massive Nevada National Security Site, formerly the Nevada Test Site, New Mexico’s WIPP and of the White Sands Missile Range and Test Center.  Though these were sanctioned tours, Walter was no stranger to more clandestine methods of visiting restricted areas—slithering under fences, driving over drainage ditches as a “kind of aesthetic reconnaissance mission, in search of strange vistas found beyond the warning signs,” as Vanderbilt notes [2]. If something of interest appeared in his field of view, he would go to great lengths to investigate, like a child drawn to something shiny.

WIPP Site, Carlsbad, NM, 2001. Walter Cotten.

Driving around the West with Walter—it was a given that at a certain time of day, when the light was just right, we would stop the car.  It always seemed to me that he had a specific plan mapped out for each day—which dirt road to pull off on, where to stop and get breakfast, when to stop and get out the cameras, the ideal camping spot —always off the beaten path—no campgrounds. We used to laugh at those scenic overlook signs with camera icons on them:  “Take photo here,” as if we needed the visual cue!  The next day, the choreography would begin again – a day of driving just waiting for that magical hour of light.

In many ways, the desert was an ancestral home, a place that beckoned him again and again.  He would have never characterized it as such, but it was a place of healing—a place where he could finally take a deep breath and regenerate.  Before cell phones, Walter would go “off the grid” for weeks at a time, sometimes calling to check in from a small town phone booth after being rained out from a desert camping trip, his voice animated and fresh recalling a spectacular rainstorm, or the sighting of a rare experimental aircraft.  As his longtime friend Beth Nelson recalls, “Walt loved landscape and space as much as he loved people. I think the natural world cured him of so many longings. The loneliness of the desert is so big, that ultimately, you find yourself. I think that is what Walt found there—something that no human being could touch.”

Walter’s last body of work was exhibited just weeks after his premature death in February of 2008.  Ruin: Future Archaeology, another Cotten/Sanders collaboration, addressed the possibility of creating ‘futile marking schemes’, a means of marking and mapping the desert landscape with both warnings of the hidden hazards lingering beneath the surface as well as monuments to a possible future catastrophic event.  “The blank markers and bunker interiors trailing off into darkness…form a critique of the often-ignored consequences of our society’s abuses of the landscape, and our culture’s willingness to inadvertently erase the past by damaging relics and historic sites in the name of efficiency and progress.” [3]  Staged photographs of strangely out of scale sculpted “monuments,” eerily lit nocturnal images, and more straightforward documentary photos of deserted bomb shelters, were combined in a kind of post-apocalyptic cataloguing of a possible future.

Monument from Ruin, 2008. Walter Cotten.

Walter was by many accounts a very influential figure for a number of young artists over the years.  His approach to teaching was unconventional as he often took SDSU students on desert photography trips, to LA art exhibits, or local punk rock shows. Artist Andrea Zittel was an undergraduate student of Walter’s. “Taking a class from Walt was like having your world blasted apart in the best way possible, and at the most critical time developmentally…. he shaped much of the way that I see the world, and art, and clearly was a huge influence on my own practice.” So many of his former students have shared similar sentiments with me over the years.  He was a tough teacher who demanded a lot from his students and was somehow able to instill a desire to work hard.  Former student and now SDSU professor Richard Keely recalls classes with Walter: “Most of us knew that we were in the midst of something special in our lives and this created a sort of competitive camaraderie that inspired us to do our best work.” Artist, friend, and former student Neil Kendricks wrote, “In many respects, Cotten’s lasting impact on his students over the past three decades matches his artistic achievements, since he helped many of them find their individual paths to discovering their own respective voices as artists.”

It’s hard to convey just how significant knowing Walter has been for me. I am his daughter. I am an artist. I am a teacher. I got to know him as a young woman just out of college, already on the path to becoming these things.  We were always amazed at the many parallels in our lives despite our distance in both time and place.  As he did for many others, Walter introduced me to the desert landscape, to the unparalleled quality of light, to the fossilized traces of the past.  He taught me how to look beyond the apparent desolation and to value what most of us wouldn’t take a second look at, those things that the desert hides in its secretive folds.


[1] Things Fall Apart, Neil Kendricks, San Diego Union-Tribune, March 20, 2008.
[2] Survival City: Adeventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America, Tom Vanderbilt, Princeton: 2002, p.22.
[3] Salt, a film by Lisa Hardmeyer and Kate Brown, premiered at the Santa Fe Film Festival in December 2001


Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Perspectives, Spring 2013

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