On February 2, 1951, at Frenchman Flat, Nevada, a searing three-second flash could be seen for 500 miles. It was followed by a roaring boom that mushroomed into a cloud then fluffed into the shape of a bowtie. Baker-2, the blast was code named. Remote-controlled cameras showed pigs writhing with radiation. Dollar-sized greyish burns spotted the backs of Nevada cattle. Sheep and horses wandered with bleeding sockets for eyes.
Four years later and 2,000 miles away in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, a teenager made headlines by finding uranium with a homemade Geiger counter. The boy moved on to college, studied art, taught, toured, painted more than 100 commercial murals in and around Las Vegas and rose to renown as a master of malevolent landscapes. Robert Beckmann, now 71, remains a force in Vegas. He is best known for a 1993 series of oversized doomsday paintings called The Body of a House. Beckmann’s inspiration had been still photos from 2.33 seconds of Cold War movie footage. The sequence pictures the horror of vaporization when a thermonuclear bomb implodes a two-story plywood house.
“These paintings tell us what we are capable of as human beings,” said a critic when Body toured 20 museums in the United States and Russia. Beckmann had personalized the Cold War’s flirtation of the final solution via the blood-red, all-American image of the suburban family home.
“[Body] was transformative fire,” says Beckmann. “It was an exorcism. A requiem. A warning. I wanted people to feel.”
See more of Beckmann’s work at robertbeckmann.com.
Beckmann’s path to that exorcism was quintessential Nevada. Art provoked fatalism in that “worthless, valueless, d[amne]d mean God-forsaken country,” said a peddler north of Las Vegas on the overland trail. Rocky Mountain masters like Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt avoided the sagebrush. Photographer Edward Weston, who toured Nevada in the 1930s, posed the black claw of a mechanical shovel above the Truckee Basin as if to mock the romantic sublime. Postmodernists, ever since, have reconstructed Nevada with studies of exploitation, with images of billboards, graffiti, and strip malls, with bomb craters and shrapnel, with open-pit cyanide mining at places like Battle Mountain and an ancient homeland contaminated at Yucca Mountain’s nuclear dump. Manifest destiny is here rescripted to mean an attack — literally, in the case of weapons testing — on negative space that confounds.See gallery of Beckmann images at bottom of post.
Often in Nevada’s era of the A-bomb, the iconography of the pulverized desert was an apocalypse rained down from above. Aerial assaults on wild mustangs spurred anti-cruelty legislation when photos of a Nevada roundup went public in 1958. Augustus “Gus” Bundy of Washoe County, a sculptor and portrait artist, had taken the photos seven years before in the Smoke Creek Desert near Pyramid Lake. Legend has it that the photos were shot with a hidden camera under his coat. Historians insist there was no need for stealth in an era when roping horses from pickups was standard practice. Surreptitious or not, the images captured the carnage — the herding of horses with planes, the stampeding with shotguns, the lassoing from speeding pick-ups. Photos showed horses tethered to tires and staggered by heat exhaustion. Slaughtered for soap and horsemeat, they were hauled off the playa in trucks. True: The Man’s Magazine purchased eight of the roundup photos for a story sensationally titled “Mustang Murder: About the Killing of the Wild Mustang Horse Out West.” The photography, said True, had exposed “the ruthlessness with which our mustangs have been pursued and captured to the point of near-extinction.” On September 8, 1959, with Dwight Eisenhower’s signature, a ban on mechanical roundups became federal law.
Black trucks in the glaring whiteness. Mustangs maimed from the air. Bundy’s photos were cited as proof that humanity, armed with machines, was the desert’s most lethal species. Lethal and also absurd said a Columbia English professor on sabbatical leave in Tucson. Joseph Wood Krutch of New York, writing in 1952, took a thousand-mile circular tour through Arizona-Nevada in search of spiritual meaning. The Desert Year, his memoir, contrasted Manhattan’s abundance of consumer goods with another kind of plenty — a plenty of salt and sagebrush, a plenty of space and light. It was not Technological Man, said Krutch, but the roadrunner and the coyote who best exploited desolation: the bird because he was cocky, the canine because of stealth. Both were stars already under contract for Looney Tunes at Warner Brothers. Roadrunner, the absurdist, darted through a yellow celluloid desert where gizmos and gadgets fell from top-heavy rock formations. Wile E. Coyote played the Krutchian hero too smart for his own survival. A beta-tester for ACME Corporation, Coyote crashed weather balloons, rockets, and bombs. Invariably, in the cartoons as in Krutch’s musings, materialism imploded in improbable ways.
Surprises everywhere fell from the sky in the heyday of Wile E. Coyote. At the secretive Nevada Test Site, about 70 miles north of Las Vegas, more than 100 bombs had mushroom radiation before a 1963 treaty banned atmospheric testing. Downwind in St. George, Utah, lymphoma spiked and leukemia went epidemic among children under fourteen. Vegas played it for laughs with hair-sprayed mushroomed hairdos. There were Miss A-bomb competitions and, at the New Frontier’s Venus Room, long, tall Elvis from Memphis was “atomic powered.” Nearby to the west, in California’s Yucca Valley, a Jesus reincarnated in concrete rose from a sculpture garden with hands outstretched to heaven as if preparing for Rapture’s fire. Facing doom from the east was an art complex that grew to become the world’s largest outdoor sculpture. Michael Heizer’s City, began in 1972 and still under construction, resembled a mile-long temple-like bunker with a coating of chocolate cement. Minimalist and monumental, the bunker seemed massive enough to survive nuclear Armageddon. There were UFO watchers who thought City was an alien airstrip. Others saw a message sent deep into the cosmic future that art had predated The Fall.
Photographer Peter Goin of Reno was one of the first to present the Nevada Test Site as postmodernist art. Goin’s Nuclear Landscapes (1992) shunned romantic convention with edgeless horizons and bleached colors in bright-white Kodachrome light. Sardonic and equally disturbing were photographs by Richard Misrach in an album called Bravo 20. Published in 1993 as part of Misrach’s “Desert Cantos” series, the album taunted Congress with a serious-sounding proposal for a bombing range national park.
Robert Beckmann, meanwhile, had built a studio in a suburban house with a backyard view of the purple mountains that sheltered the Nevada Test Site. The year was 1992. A journalist friend had told him about the mystery of nuclear activist Karen Silkwood who had died in a cloud of suspicion after handling plutonium rods. “At the time,” Beckmann recalls, “I was doing images of the bomb with slot machines, but I began thinking about the test site and the downwinders. Art, like politics, should be local. Artists have a responsibility to their talent to look at their immediate environment and speak to that. I felt a responsibility to do something with my skill.”
One day while wading through historical archives Beckmann stumbled upon black-and-white movie stills from the 1953 Pentagon bombing of dummy “doomtown” houses at the secretive test site. The target houses reminded Beckmann of his own suburban home. “I had just built a new house. There were cracks in the house from a [recent] earthquake. I began to think of the house as a metaphor for the body. I also wanted to do something for the 50-year commemoration of Hiroshima. It all sort of came to together. It was not just Hiroshima. It was the vulnerability of the nuclear family.”
In 1993, The Body of House emerged from a creative fever that held the artist transfixed until he was done. “I painted every day for nine months,” Beckmann remembers. “When I was painting number five in the series, I cut my hand. The color of the blood was the color of the painting.” The blood inspired the title. The vaporized house was his chest blown apart.
The obvious metaphor for Beckmann and his traumatized generation was nuclear war as the ultimate gamble. Deeper was the fatal view of bombed and barren Nevada as a tranquilizing abstraction for the numbing of horrific events.
A selection of Robert Beckmann images, provided by the painter
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.