Adam Fuss: λόγος @Cheim & Read

JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 photographs, variously framed, hung against white walls in all three rooms of the main gallery space. The show includes 3 pigment prints on linen in the small ante-chamber (each sized 88 ½ x 33 ½ inches, unique); 6 gelatin silver prints in the main room (each sized 113 x 63 inches, unique); 1 pigment print on metal with waxed surface (sized 26 ½ x 22 inches, in an edition of 9) and 3 gelatin silver prints in back room (each sized 112 x 57 ½ inches, unique.) All of the works were made between 2013 and 2015. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: I can’t be the only one irritated by artists who title their works with grandiloquent antique phrases. I eagerly studied Greek and Latin in school and recognize that a classical education was the foundation of European culture for centuries. But when I read the words of Homer or Catullus underwriting non-verbal art, the suspicion is automatic that literary authority is being solicited to compensate for a lack of original or vigorous thought in the work itself.

American Ab-Ex painters and sculptors in the 1950s routinely festooned their non-representational canvases and sculptures with high-flown mythic-poetic titles, Barnett Newman and Cy Twombly being the most egregious offenders. Ad Reinhardt, perhaps the most learned member of the New York School and therefore the least insecure about his position as an intellectual, was one of the few to resist the trend.

Adam Fuss’s first solo show at Cheim & Reed since 2010 suffers from the expectation that we will encounter a group of mind-altering images. It’s not that the three bodies of camera-less work here are dull; it’s that these photograms of snakes, water, and curtains aren’t startlingly different from ones he has made before. And he doesn’t help himself by choosing an exhibition title that promises more than any artist could reasonably be asked to deliver.

Logos is the Greek word for “word” and, as elaborated upon by philosophers of Neo-Platonism and early Christianity, came to describe the binding, spiritual energy of language and by extension the whole of creation. (The first sentence of the Gospel of St. John could be translated from koiné Greek as, “In the beginning was the logos and the logos was with God and the logos was God.”)

The opening works in the small chapel-like room at the front of the gallery are distinguished by thick white markings on large vertical panels of beige linen. Like all of his photograms, they bestride the worlds of abstraction and representation, neither one nor the other. As he did in 1988, he has again used the movements of snakes to create numinous traces on a photographic plate. Only this time, 27 years later, instead of thin, whip-like etherealities in water, these serpents have left behind rectilinear messages. Their torsos are bigger and slower, more like boas, and their tracings seem as if they might be translated into an actual phrase from an actual language, as a hieroglyph or ideogram.

The images may be a photographic reference to haruspicy, the Roman and Etruscan form of divination in which priests “read” the entrails of animals to predict the future—a practice Fuss invoked before, in his 1990s photograms of rabbit guts. These updates compare unfavorably, however, to the earlier experiments. They may be more legible as language, but they are also more clotted and turgid.

The second group of 2015 pictures, monumental photograms of water (9 ft. high), are another set of variations on previous bodies of work. Altering his former procedure, whereby he made aqueous photograms on a horizontal bed, he has made these by pouring water on a vertical plane and exposing the paper in (presumably) extreme flashes of light.

The central flowing stripe of white is forceful, the thinner lines of spray registering lacier aftershocks. As strong vertical images, they recall Newman’s “zip” canvases and the poured paintings of Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, and Pat Steir, whose “waterfalls” have been exhibited at Cheim & Read.  Sugimoto’s photograms of electrical bolts may be even closer in spirit.

But like the panorama photographs of gray waves by Clifford Ross found on the walls of restaurants in the Hamptons, these works feel too eager in scale and atmosphere to adorn a comfortable room in a home owned by the well-to-do. They can’t fully justify themselves except as handsome and soothing décor.

Only in the third group, three enormous photograms of white shimmering curtains, does Fuss seem to have found a symbol that extends his former preoccupations in a new direction. Featureless except for ripples and moiré patterns, these images are mysteriously plain and chaste, like the religious uniforms of cenobites. He has likened these long, white, straight cloths to the drapery on antique sculpture, where folds and voids suggest the shape of the body beneath, and he also claims to have been inspired by one of William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1835 photographs of a reticulated oriel window at Lacock Abbey.

As a form that conceals flesh or that divides rooms or that separates inside from outside, the curtain is also a pertinent metaphor for gnostic or neo-Platonic or Buddhist ideas about the illusions of the material world and the glimmerings of another one, perceived only when one has pierced the veil.

Fuss’s mind is noticeably engaged by photography’s past. His mystical, Blake-like sympathies are tempered by a formidable technical know-how and restless scientific curiosity. (Peter Ackroyd or Richard Holmes would be ideal essayists for a Fuss retrospective.) If some of these 2015 works feel as if he decided to retrace familiar work, if only to have something to show in New York after a 5-year absence, that may be because he has been in his lab concocting new ways to make photographs that he is not yet ready for the public to see. He has been too interesting an artist for too long for me to think otherwise.

Collector’s POV: Twelve of the thirteen prints in this show are unique photograms and range in price between $50000-100000. The exception is Grain of Sand, a waxed pigment print on metal that comes in an edition of 9 that begins at $12000. Fuss’ images have become more consistently available in the secondary markets in the past five years or so, with prices ranging from roughly $2000 and $110000, depending on size and subject matter, with most under $30000.

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