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Richard Misrach: On the Beach

September 15, 2007–November 25, 2007
Galleries 1–4

“I’ve come to believe that beauty can be a very powerful conveyor of difficult ideas.”
—Richard Misrach

For more than 30 years, Richard Misrach has been producing beautiful photographs of terrible subjects, focusing on man’s often disastrous effect on the earth. His extended series Desert Cantos explores the American desert—fires and floods, military-scarred terrain, and pits of dead animals—in lush images. With a sensitive eye attuned to color and a belief in the power of aesthetics to effect change, Misrach is a pioneer in color photography and one of the most important artists working today.

Recently he has turned his camera to water, photographing beaches, the ocean, sunbathers, and swimmers from a godlike viewpoint high above. With no horizon line, the vast expanses of sand or water envelop the viewer with a strangely disorienting view. New digital technology has also made possible dramatically scaled prints, some as large as 6 x 10 feet. Depicting people as small, often isolated figures in an immense scene, the photographs remind us of the fragility and relative unimportance of humanity in the face of seemingly infinite nature. Instead of the beauty Misrach found in the desert, these powerful pictures partake of the sublime, producing astonishment, awe, and perhaps even terror.

Although sunny and colorful, these photographs are informed by the events of September 11, 2001. They evoke a postapocalyptic world; the title On the Beach explicitly references Nevil Shute’s Cold War novel about nuclear holocaust. In some images, individual poses reference hostages or people jumping from the World Trade Center buildings, while in others, lone figures or clinging couples appear to be the last people on the planet. This moving and powerful exhibition of more than 20 works is the first museum show of Misrach’s new series. On the Beach premieres at the Art Institute before embarking on a two-year tour that includes a stop at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.


A catalogue of the exhibition is available in the Museum Shop.


This exhibition was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and made possible by the Black Dog Fund and David Yurman.

Additional Resource

Hear Richard Misrach speak about his art and the exhibition on its opening day.

Richard Misrach. Untitled #696-05, 2005. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles, and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.