Bernd and Hilla Becher, Water Towers @Sonnabend

JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 single image black and white photographs and 6 black and white typologies, individually framed in white and matted, and hung in the entry gallery and two of the rooms in the rear. All of the single image works are gelatin silver prints in editions of 5, made between 1978 and 1995 in New York city (while no dimensions were given, I believe these works are roughly 24×20). There are five 9-image typologies and one 15-image typology, again consisting of gelatin silver prints, made between 1972 and 2009 (the individual prints in these works appear to be roughly 20×16); the combinations in the typologies are never repeated, so they are all unique works. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Grids of water towers by the Bechers have become so common that it’s pretty hard to visit a major contemporary art museum and not bump into one. With such universal acclaim and ubiquitous display, it seems altogether possible that these works would somehow become overexposed, losing their visual power due to sheer repetition. And yet, their cool conceptualism and crisp execution keep them startlingly fresh; they never fail to stand out in a crowd.

My first reaction when I heard about this show was: what more can Sonnabend have to say about the revolutionary Becher water towers? Haven’t they been completely covered already? And one of the back rooms of the show does provide a sampler of familiar typologies, the kind of work we have come to know and love: groups of bulb towers, concrete cylinders, towers with geometric bases or ones that open upward like funnels, some striped with vertical lines, all arrayed in rigid grids to highlight their architectural variations.

But what is both surprising and exciting are the other images that make up most of the show: iconic New York rooftop water tanks. I had never seen these pictures before; it’s like the Bechers have made a conceptual valentine to the city. In each image, a single cone-topped wood barrel tank sits centered on some kind of iron mounting or platform. The cylindrical banded barrels are generally the same, except for the finials on the top that distinguish the two main manufacturers. But the Bechers theme and variation style finds hundreds of small details worth noting: tubes that run down the sides or from the bottom, arched ladders, brick backgrounds, sculptural frameworks of girders that hold the tanks in the air, patterns and geometries in the angles of bases. In nearly every picture, the dark black form of the tank looms against the white sky of the city, often with a contextual frame of surrounding buildings.

For the Bechers, these tanks are likely just another piece of vernacular industrial architecture to be codified and preserved, another form to be documented and explored. But I think local New Yorkers will find much more to connect with in these pictures. They combine both the exacting standards of the Bechers artistic vision with a tiny twinge of nostalgia for something authentic and original to this city, overlooked subject matter that is deep in the fabric of this particular, crazy place.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The single image water towers from New York are $25000 each. The 9-image typologies are $117000 and the 15-image typology is $195000. The Bechers‘ work is consistently available at auction, with prices for single images ranging from $3000 to $34000 in recent years; typologies (including diptychs of two images as well as much larger groups) have ranged between $23000 to $176000. We continue to covet images by the Bechers for the city/industrial genre of our collection; what we’d really like to find is one of the smaller, earlier diptychs (with one large image on one side and a grid of nine smaller images as one on the other), but both locating such a piece and then having it be the right price (for us) have so far been elusive. But we keep looking.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:

  • Museum Collections: Met (here), Getty (here), Guggenheim (here), Walker (here)
  • Feature: Tate (here)
  • Interview: Art in Amercia, 2002 (here)
Through December

Sonnabend Gallery (artnet page here)
536 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

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JTF (just the facts): A total of 6 large scale black-and white photographs, framed in thick black wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in a single room gallery ... Read on.

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