Candida Höfer – In Mexico @Sean Kelly

JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 color photographs, alternately framed in blond/white wood, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space (with dividers), the smaller second room, and the entryway. All of the works are c-prints, made in 2015. Physical sizes range from roughly 17×13 to 71×113 inches, and all of the prints are available in editions of 6+3APs. The show also includes two HD slide projections, made in 2016. They consist of 29 and 36 images respectively, and are also available in editions of 6+3APs. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was published in 2016 by Distanz (here). Hardcover, 144 pages, with 65 color images.

Comments/Context: Bear with me for a minute while we work our way through a quick thought experiment. Imagine that Candida Höfer, the esteemed German photographer who has built a four decade career making exacting images of architectural interiors around the globe (primarily in Europe), has been invited to Mexico to participate in a cultural exchange program, and then imagine further that she is given access to some of the country’s most ornate churches, theaters, and other architectural gems to make her photographs. Can you picture in your head what the resulting images might look like?

I think you can, and therein lies both the triumph of, and perhaps the eventual weakness of, Höfer’s unique aesthetic approach. Höfer did indeed make just such a trip to Mexico in 2015, and as the images in this gallery show prove, she visited some truly spectacular sites. She made photographs from the center of the stage, from the back, and from the side balcony of the Teatro Degollado Guadalajara, its glorious ceiling fresco, gilt columns and balconies, and red velvet seats brightly lit, heightening the drama of the geometries. She took similar shots at the Teatro Juárez Guanajuato, highlighting its intricate carvings, colorful swirling patterning, and ornate designs, astonishing us with its ordered layers of decoration. And her views of the dense over-the-top ornamentation at the Iglesia de Santa Maria Tonantzintla and the Museo Nacional del Virreinato Tepotzotlán are so encrusted that we can easily get lost in all the colorful detailing. But what’s unexpected is that even with all of the obvious cultural originality in these places, Höfer’s photographs feel predictable, at least in the context of her own rigorous, people-free aesthetic.

While Höfer’s works have routinely celebrated the depth and impressive resonance of the spaces in front of her camera, a few of the images from Mexico more overtly play with optical flattening, collapsing deeper views into single planes of layered architectural geometry. Her look straight up at the Art Deco ceiling of the Palacio de Bellas Artes Ciudad de México turns the domes into divided oval patterns, while a similar upward view of the Museum Nacional de Arte Ciudad de México flattens the balconies and walkways under the dome into overlapped semicircles, with three layers telescoped into one. Her vertical image of the interior of the Edificio Basurto is perhaps the most eerie, its curving blastingly white core resembling the ribbed belly of a whale.

Höfer steps away from her usual formal monumentality in a series of smaller photographs (taken with a handheld camera) that narrow down to much more intimate found details. In these images, she zeroes in on a checkerboard floor, the curve of red pipes, a broken tile, and the grid of a overhead skylight, often twisting the framing off kilter to create more angles. Doorways and pock-marked plasterwork are also given attention, Höfer looking closely at surfaces and simple negative spaces. A pair of slideshows takes this looser approach even further, pairing textures and found geometries with the insistent horizontals of highway overpasses and blurred city streets seen from a passing car. It’s as if Höfer wants to deliberately show us that she has many more aesthetic gears than just deadpan big.

There’s certainly something to be said for the power of superlative consistency, and Höfer’s Mexico photographs fall right in line with some of her best work from other locations. But the introduction of flatter perspectives and tighter views implies that she wants to continue to test herself, and in turn, to surprise us. That’s a healthy instinct, as executing her well-oiled formula, almost regardless of the glamour or exoticism of the settings, has its limits. At this point, she’s successfully solved her central artistic problem over and over again, and her quiet forays outside those lines here say she’s still looking for more.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from €17000 to €58000, based on size. Höfer’s work is widely available in the secondary markets. Smaller pieces can be found well under $10000 (often in editions of up to 100), while the larger works (printed in much smaller editions, usually 6) have ranged between roughly $15000 and $125000.

Candida Höfer, Sean Kelly Gallery, Distanz Verlag

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by W. W. Norton & Co. (here). Hardcover, 6 ½ x 10 inches, 352 pages, with 14 black-and-white illustrations. (Cover and spread shots ... Read on.

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