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Joe Deal broke ground in photography, led academically

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2010 - Joe Deal, a former dean of the Fine Arts School at Washington University and a critically acclaimed artist in his own right, died Friday in a hospice in Providence, R.I., after a long and determined struggle with cancer. He was 62 years old.

Joseph Maurice Deal was born in Topeka, Kans., and grew up there, in Albany, Mo., and in St. Paul, Minn. He received his bachelor of fine arts degree from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1970, and his master’s degree in photography and a master of fine arts in photography from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, in 1974 and ’78 respectively.

His tenure at Washington University came at an important moment in the history of its art school. The school was organized in 1881 as the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts and located downtown. Eventually, what had been the museum function provided the foundation for the City (now St. Louis) Art Museum and the School of Fine Arts was spun off as a school of Washington University. The school is now part of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

Last year, Washington University was host for the National Council of Art Administrators conference. Mr. Deal was given the NCAA’s Award at the conference.

In presenting the award, Carmon Colangelo, now dean of the Sam Fox School, said, “It is indeed a very special honor for me to speak to Joe’s accomplishments and to thank him, as his stewardship here at Washington University was so central to the development of our new facilities, the Sam Fox School and essentially to the creation of my job.

“I was fortunate to arrive just months before the buildings opened in 2006 with the knowledge that it was the result of the dedication and years of hard work by Joe Deal, followed by (former dean) Jeff Pike along with Cynthia Weese, the former dean of architecture, and Mark Weil, director of the museum. I know indirectly, from various accounts, Joe was steadfast in his vision and tenacious in his efforts to have a world class contemporary art building come to fruition.”

Colangelo said Saturday Mr. Deal’s death was a great loss for everyone at the school, and for American photography as well, because of Mr. Deal’s significant role in its development. “He was an extraordinary artist and person,” Colangelo said.   Beyond that, Colangelo mentioned a fact observed by everyone close to Mr. Deal. He was tough and fought the cancer that ultimately killed him with a vengeance. “I was so moved by the way he handled his illness,” Colangelo said.

The dean noted Mr. Deal’s prominence in the history of American art of the second half of the 20th century, and his determination to continue to produce work as his illness progressed.

In a note to Mr. Deal’s widow, Betsy Ruppa, Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said, “I am deeply sorry to learn of Joe's passing. He was a real inspiration to me, one of the key people to encourage my investment of time and resources on what has become the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. He was an uncommonly fine person.”

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Mr. Deal’s photographs long have been recognized as extraordinarily creative and telling, but increasingly in the last decade they have achieved greater recognition by critics and by its representation in exhibitions by major galleries and museums, Colangelo said.

An intrinsic element of Mr. Deal’s work was its perceptive and at times disquieting take on the American landscape and we who inhabit it. Deal and other photographers whose work was brought together under the description “New Topographics” recognized the increasingly threatened state of the American landscape, both physically and psychologically. They directed attention as well to a sense of ennui and hopelessness that characterizes so much of life in this fragmented post-modernist time.

Mr. Deal and others departed radically from the visually stunning, technically perfect but fundamentally romantic tradition of Ansel Adams and other photographers whose work carried forth the pioneering work of 19th century photographers such as Carleton Watkins. Although Adams et al continue to be sought after; to many informed, jaded 21st century eyes it all looks idealized and rather too pretty.

As visual evidence of this movement and a way of organizing it for study, curator William Jenkins organized an exhibition in 1975 at the George Eastman House’s International Museum of Photography in Rochester, N.Y. It was called “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.” It has been described as seminal, and without question it proved highly influential in shaping new directions and new attitudes about the role of the photographic image in contemporary art and society.

In a New York Times article about the “New Topographics,” writer Ken Johnson said, “The mid-1970's saw a new generation of landscape photographers reject the romanticism of artists like Ansel Adams, Minor White and Edward Weston in favor of documentary, emotionally neutral views of human adaptation to nature.”  Mr. Deal’s work was featured in the show, along with Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore, and Bernd and Hilla Becher.

“Though overtly possessed of a dry, quasi-scientific objectivity,” Johnson said, ”in their tendency to focus on less than admirable instances of human industry, Mr. Deal's photographs are animated by moral and polemical urgencies.”

In 2004, the Robert Mann Gallery organized an exhibition of his work called “The Fault Zone” that featured photographs by Mr. Deal made between 1976 and 1986, and gathered information for an impressive biography of him. The Mann Gallery’s catalog and other compilations of information by the gallery provided information for this article.

The New Yorker declared that Mr. Deal, along with such photographers as “Robert Adams, Stephen Shore and Lewis Baltz spent the 1970s practicing a distinct sort of landscape photography that combined a documentarian's clear-eyed sobriety with an artist's aesthetic discipline. In Deal's pictures, scrubby, exuberant brushland morphs into great tracts of riven dirt, stubbled with houses and prickly with fences. The images tell an ominous and chilling story about suburban sprawl in California. But there is a sly wit to the photos. The domesticated lawns — so well tamed that they look like carpets — are pockmarked with hardy little weeds. Deal depicts the destruction of the natural landscape but recognizes its indomitability as well.”

Mr. Deal juggled academic life and artistic life capably throughout his career. While producing the work published widely in books and periodicals, he was also teaching photography at the University of California, Riverside and serving also as associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Services. He accepted the job of dean of the Fine Arts School at Washington U. In 1999, he departed for the Rhode Island School of Design. He was provost there until 2005, and continued to teach at the school after leaving the provost’s office.

He also continued to concentrate on his art and to show it. The “New Topographics” exhibition was re-created recently and was shown at George Eastman House and is now traveling internationally. Another exhibition of Mr. Deal’s work, “West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains,” opened at the Rhode Island School of Design, moved to the Robert Mann Gallery in New York, and is now at the Center for Creative Photography through Aug. 1. “Joe Deal: New Work” is at the CCP as well this summer, also through Aug. 1.

Mr. Deal is survived by his wife of 19 years, Betsy Ruppa, of Providence; his daughter, Meredith Ivy Deal, of Boston; and his father, Percy Deal of Albuquerque. 

Prior to his marriage to Ms. Ruppa, Mr. Deal was married to Christine Bertelson, a former member of the Post-Dispatch staff, and now communications director for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.

There is to be no funeral. A reception will be at family’s home in Providence on Sunday, and a similar gathering is to be in St. Louis in the fall.

In lieu of flowers the family requests that donations be sent to the Kansas State Foundation/Konza Prairie Research Excellence Fund http://kpbs.konza.ksu.edu/donations.html or to the Center for American Places, Columbia College, Chicago, Ill. Contact Kim Clement at kclement@colum.edu or telephone 312-369-7084. Indicate donations are given "In Memory of Joe Deal."

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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