William Christenberry (1936–2016) is best known for his artistic exploration of place, in particular the Black Belt region of Alabama, where he spent his childhood in Hale County. Working in a wide variety of media, including painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, and assemblage, Christenberry focused on architecture, abandoned structures, and nature, and he studied the psychology and effects of place and memory. The National Gallery of Art has acquired the sculpture Memory Form II (1997–1998), a gift from Stephen Bennett Phillips in honor of Sandra Deane Christenberry, the artist’s widow.
In 1968 Christenberry moved to Washington, DC, where he quickly became a revered teacher and mentor at the Corcoran School of Art. However, his art remained focused on the landscape and built environment of Alabama, where he would return each summer to photograph shacks and stores and to collect signs and other artifacts that reflected the spirit of the place. His efforts were not simply nostalgic. Christenberry had an eye for decay and was deeply aware of the dark history of the region, with depictions of Ku Klux Klan hoods occasionally appearing in his work. Memory Form II is somewhat unusual in the artist’s oeuvre. Rather than a detailed, realistic model of a particular building, it is a poetic evocation of a general type of structure common in the South—the so-called dogtrot house with a central breezeway, which –Christenberry has reduced in this sculpture to a mysterious opening. As a result of the artist’s patient application of encaustic and paint to wood, the sculpture appears almost tomb-like, encased in time and memory.