Christopher Williams, Footwear (Adapted for Use) @David Zwirner

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 artworks installed across two floors of the gallery’s 69th Street space.

The photographic and video pieces in the exhibition are:

  • 1 gelatin silver print, 2019, 19 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches (framed: 31 1/8 x 28 3/4 x 1 1/4 inches) edition of 10 + 4AP
  • 1 archival pigment print, 2020, 16 x 19 3/4 inches (framed: 29 1/2 x 33 x 1 1/4 inches), edition of 10 + 4AP
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 2019, 19 7/8 x 16 inches (framed: 29 1/4 x 28 3/4 x 1 1/4 inches) edition of 10 + 4AP
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 2019, 16 x 19 3/4 inches (framed: 28 1/8 x 30 x 1 1/4 inches) edition of 10 + 4AP
  • 1 archival pigment print, 2020, 16 x 19 3/8 inches (framed: 29 x 32 x 1 1/4 inches), edition of 10 + 4AP
  • 1 archival pigment print, 2020, 16 x 19 3/4 inches (framed: 29 1/2 x 33 x 1 1/4 inches), edition of 10 + 4AP
  • 1 archival pigment print, 2020, 17 x 21 inches (framed: 30 x 33 1/2 x 1 1/4 inches), edition of 10 + 4AP
  • 1 single-channel video (shown on two monitors), 2020, 32 minutes, black and white, sound. Edition of 10

In addition to photographs and videos the show includes:

  • 6 signs reading “MODEL,” 2020, enamel paint, glass, aluminum, and felt, 22 1/2 x 60 3/8 x 1/2 inches, edition of 6 + 2AP
  • 1 wall, 2020, plywood, metal, wood, aluminum, adhesive vinyl, acrylic, rubber, ink, and tape, 119 1/2 x 120 x 19 1/2 inches, unique
  • 1 wall, plywood, metal, wood, aluminum, adhesive vinyl, acrylic, rubber, ink, and tape, 114 1/8 x 114 5/8 x 18 5/8 inches, unique
  • Vintage East German woodchip wallpaper, dimensions variable
  • Vintage West German woodchip wallpaper, dimensions variable

The exhibition also features two works by Franz West:

  • Franz West, Diwan (Divan), 1998/2016, steel, foam rubber, and linen, 39 3/8 x 90 9/16 x 33 7/16 inches
  • Franz West, Diwan (Divan), 1998/2015, steel, foam rubber, and linen, 38 x 88 1/2 x 32 inches

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Outwardly, Christopher Williams’s ninth solo exhibition at David Zwirner is a simple affair, appearing to consist only of six identical signs, seven photographs (two of them the same), a video, and a vitrine displaying printed ephemera. Like most of Williams’s shows, however, it deepens and broadens with closer viewing—just how much depends on the individual viewer.

Largely working with professional studios, Williams produces clear-cut photographs that draw from a range of modes, including commercial, art, fashion, ethnographic, and architectural photography, and in so doing illuminate the ways in which photographic images have shaped our lives, our habits, and our views. Within this larger frame, he makes frequent—though often oblique—references to other conceptually and politically inclined filmmakers and artists (both predecessors and peers), as well as to his own past work.

“Footwear (Adapted for Use)” (a show that also bears two alternate titles) is at once an exhibition of elegant pictures, a continuation of Williams’s three-decade-long examination of how photographs model ways of thinking and being, a meditation on the Cold War (specifically how it played out in Germany, where Williams lives and teaches) and a self-reflexive work of art that reveals its own history, references, and cultural context.

The photographs, in order of appearance, are of an African mask seen from behind, a pair of men’s black lace-up shoes, a cross section of a camera lens, a small boy in front of a large stainless-steel pot; a sleeping family, and a bin of espresso pucks.

Each of the signs, mounted high on the gallery’s walls, reads “MODEL” in capital lettering.

The video consists, for most of its 32 minutes, of a silent, still image of the photo of the work shoes. At one point, the picture changes briefly to a television test pattern; at another, the silence is broken by a loud noise like an alarm. (A version of this work is also playing in selected taxis around the city.)

The vitrine contains documentation of previous installations in Williams’s “MODEL” series, as well photographs and printed matter, complete with extensive notes, relating to the artistic milieu of Cold War–era Europe. Among the items it contains are a 1973 photo by Candida Höfer of artist Isa Genzken and critic Benjamin Buchloh, Peter Weiss’s 1971 play script Discourse on Vietnam, stills from Günter Peter Straschek’s 1967–68 film A Western for the SDS, and examples of conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher’s 1960s pictures of water towers.

Less obviously part of the show, but included on its checklist, are two freestanding walls and the textured wall covering that appears in several of the gallery’s rooms. In some places this wallpaper, the splintery surface of which resembles particleboard, is white; in other places, it is paper-bag brown.

Each work in the exhibition comes with extensive captions, which, along with the archival material in the vitrine, provide clues to the history of the image or object. The picture of the sleeping family, for example, is the subject of the exhibition’s press release—a letter from Williams to Zwirner gallery director Andrea Cashman. Following a formula familiar from IKEA catalog photography, the photo, as Williams notes, is organized around three focal planes, with the son, in front, in sharp focus and the father, in the background, a blur. But the pajamas worn by the models, we discover, are not from IKEA but were made in Vietnam and rented from a company in Germany specializing in period props.

The picture of the men’s black oxford shoes is copied from a found advertisement. The footwear is German-made, as are the insoles that the artist has added to them. The wallpaper is vintage. Ubiquitous in Germany during the Cold War period, it was sold in white in the West and brown in the East. The bin of espresso pucks is in a café in Williams’s home town of Cologne. The African mask was purchased on eBay for US $187.50 and shipped from Oregon. The walls are leftovers from a previous exhibition of the artist’s work.

So beyond the obvious beauty of the photographs, and the pleasures of the installation, what does it all mean? Williams has referred to this show as a period piece, and around these objects coalesces an image of a time and a place—the 1960s and ’70s in America and Europe—that can be seen as a model (adapted for use) for our own late capitalist moment. Just how clear that image is depends on how much time you wish to spend with it.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced at $65000 each. Williams’s work has been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the last decade, with recent prices ranging between $3000 and $77000, with some of the outcomes at the top end of the range coming from multi-image sets and portfolios.

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