The Red Couch: A Portrait of America by Kevin Clarke & Horst Wackerbarth
When most people decide to take to the highways and road trip across the country, the idea is generally to travel fast and light and leave all excess baggage behind you in your asphalt wake. Taking an 8-foot red-velvet couch along for the ride doesn’t figure in to most sane road tripping plans. But that’s just what photographers Kevin Clarke and Horst Wackerbarth did over the course of a four year art project begun in 1979.
In 1976, while moving the couch from a NYC apartment onto a moving truck, a shaft of morning sunlight fell across the couch sitting in the middle of street. Photographer Clarke (who had been sleeping on the couch at a friend’s loft) was struck by the beauty of the scene, decided to take a photo of the couch sitting in the road, and an idea was born. Along with his West German photographer friend Horst Wackerbarth, Clarke began planning and raising money for the project: they would rent a van, cart the bright red sofa around the country, and photograph the artistic results of placing this large, slightly garish, and incongruous piece in the middle of everyday American life. After having a replica couch made, Clarke and Wackerbarth both began touring around the country, working independently of each other, and snapping photographs of the couch. Some of the images are just pictures of the couch in strange and beautiful places, but the more interesting photographs feature people that the photographers met in the course of their travels and asked to pose with the couch. These pictures feature everyday people (and a few celebrities for good measure) in the everyday situations of their lives, from a stockbroker on the trading floor, to a family that has just been evicted from their apartment building.
The fixed visual element of the couch lends a powerful unifying element to these photos of incredibly diverse people and places. What would otherwise be a fine collection of portraits depicting the vastness of the American experience is here given a strange and surreal edge by the constant presence of the couch. In this age of Photoshop, where virtually no image is what it appears to be, looking at these beautiful, sometimes eerie photographs it is often necessary to remind yourself that these pictures are the real thing. The bright red couch you see sitting in the middle of a Long Island landfill, or attached to a window-washer’s scaffolding high above the ground, or straddling a canoe in the middle of a glacial lake in Alaska was actually hauled, hoisted, or dragged into position by hand, not by the click of a mouse.
The Red Couch is definitely a strange and beautiful book to be hunted down off the shelves. With an unusual visual surprise on nearly every page, it is a welcome reminder that art and magic can be found on any day, in any direction you care to look.