Andrea Robbins and Max Becher @Sonnabend

JTF (just the facts): A total of 39 color works, unframed or framed in blue/brown and matted, and hung against white walls in the six interconnected rooms of the gallery. The works come from three separate projects, with the following details:

  • Following the Ten Commandments: 16 mesh prints (black bordered with metal grommets), 2012-2014, each sized 8×6 feet, in an edition of 5
  • 770: 10 works (9 diptychs and 1 single image), all archival pigment prints, 2005, sized either roughly 30×35 or 30×54, in editions of 5
  • Country Franchise: 13 archival inkjet prints, 2014, each sized roughly 30×35, in editions of 5

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past decade or two, the placing of religious monuments on public land has become a fiery hotbed of controversy, mixing religious freedom and the division between church and state into a frothy brew of protest and litigation. At the center of many of these local debates are the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, and irrespective of whether the goal has been to install, preserve, or remove them, or to add other monuments celebrating any number of other faiths, there seems to be no shortage of strong opinions. Andrea Robbins and Max Becher have waded into this ongoing argument with a new series of photographs that catalogues various Ten Commandments monuments found at courthouses, parks, schools, and other public locations around the United States, giving us an on-the-ground view the physical reality of these lightning rod objects.

Printed on see-through mesh and enlarged to massive, wall-covering banner size, these images are first and foremost architectural studies; capitol domes, fluted columns, grand stone steps, and ornate entrances tell us that we are at the seat of governmental power. When seen as one contiguous group of pictures, the photographs have a typological effect – we suddenly notice the variations in how the monuments are installed, the range of sizes and designs of the tablets, and the changing distance and placement in space, each detail a clue to a specific situation. There are hefty black slabs placed boldly front and center, smaller tasteful monuments (some with multiple religious symbols and American icons) flanked by flags, and less impressive versions set far off in green parklands, tucked behind fountains, or standing on scrubby forgotten boulevards. We can pick out the ones put there in the 1950s as part of the Ten Commandments movie promotion or identify those that are standing at an exact legally mandated distance from the public buildings; there is even one that has been boarded up with plywood while the machinations continue. As a set, the works shrewdly document the American pastime of interest group politics, the stone tablets not unlike graffiti tags on our public buildings.

Other recent projects from Robbins and Becher continue this exploration of architecture as a vessel for shared identity and experience. The 770 series starts with the home of Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Schneerson (on 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn) and follows its Gothic brick triangles as they have been reinterpreted by Orthodox Jews from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires. While its brick façade fits well into its original neighborhood, its siblings look more wildly out of place on a lakeside camp in Montreal or nestled among the tall apartment buildings of São Paulo. Each tribute turns architecture into symbolic iconography, where each subsequent building becomes the physical representation of the revered spirituality of the first location.

The Country Franchise series explores this architectural repetition along a different path, looking at the decoration of space as a method for creating familiarity and common mood setting. Images from various Cracker Barrel country stores around the nation explore the limits of architectural branding, where in each store, a stone fireplace mantel sits against plank board walls, adorned by a deer head, a rifle, and assorted other pictures and tchotchkes. Hung as a series, we’re once again in the realm of the typology, where the deer head faces in alternate directions, or the gun shoots to the left or the right, all within the defined boundaries of recognizable old timey sameness.

While well executed taxonomies are reliably entertaining simply for their visual compare and contrast opportunities, these projects by Robbins and Becher dig further than the obvious formal similarities and attempt to get at the underlying human motives for building and decorating places in such specific ways. The physical patterns they’ve discovered point at more subtle layers of our behavior; they make us see how architecture can activate responses and emotions of which we weren’t entirely aware and how hard we’re willing to fight to make our places of power respond to our values.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The large mesh prints from Following the Ten Commandments are $20000 each. The photographs from 770 are all available as single images, priced at either $7500 or $9500 (depending on size), while the photographs from Country Franchise are $7500 each. While a few prints from Robbins and Becher have started to trickle into the secondary markets in the past few years, there haven’t been enough outcomes to chart much of a price history. As such, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

As an aside, this will apparently be the last show at Sonnabend Gallery. While change is a healthy part of the evolving art market, it’s truly sad to see an important and innovative gallery with such a storied history (particularly in photography) close its doors after some 50 years of operation.

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