Christopher Williams, The Production Line of Happiness @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition consisting of 53 photographic works (both black and white and color, some multi-image sets/portfolios), generally framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in series of divided spaces on the sixth floor of the museum. The works on view are executed in a variety of processes (gelatin silver, chromogenic color, dye transfer, pigmented inkjet) and were made between 1981 and 2013. The show also includes 2 video works (shown in two museum book shops), 6 wall sections of varying size/materials, and 2 works on paper (1 printed card/offset print and 1 magazine cover). As there are no wall labels, a map and tri-fold cardboard guide have been provided.

The retrospective was curated by Matthew Witkovsky (Art Institute of Chicago, where the show was first seen), Roxana Marcoci (MoMA), and Mark Godfrey (Tate Modern), with assistance from Lucy Gallun (MoMA). A catalog of the exhibition was recently published by MoMA (here, in red), the Art Institute of Chicago (here, in yellow) and Yale University Press (here); it is available from the MoMA bookshop for $45. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Christopher Williams’ retrospective is almost by definition the opposite of a crowd pleaser. It is squarely aimed at a vanishingly small slice of the viewing public – PhD students, photography scholars, academics, and those who find quoting Brecht, Benjamin, Godard, and other critics/theorists with a withering, holier-than-thou pomposity their brand of sophisticated intellectual fun. For this minority, the exhibition will be a cult-like form of artistic catnip, drawing them in to revel in its obtuse cerebral obscurities and tangential references; for the rest of us, it’s a frustratingly opaque and often impenetrable stroll, where the countless in-crowd references and untold backstories leave us desperate for even a scrap of wall text to explain what it all might mean.

For even the most well-versed Williams aficionados, it is nearly impossible to catch all of the complexity of this exhibition without the aid of the catalog, and in many ways, this is by design. The bold entrance to the show should be the first clue that we’re in for something unusual – the surrounding electric red walls are covered with fragments of dense text, diagrams, footnotes, and other supporting material drawn directly from the pages of the catalog. The show itself is hung like no other show in recent memory – there are no rooms exactly, only a disorienting array of movable multi-height dividing walls that separate the large space into smaller nooks and alcoves, often with see through slits and openings that make the space feel more open. The photographs are hung singly and in groups on these walls, and placed slightly lower than normal, without any explanatory text. Slabs of wall from previous exhibits are interleaved (mixing space and time with earlier events), interrupting and redirecting the flow. And several of the images on view dive in even deeper, depicting glass vitrines with visitor fingerprints, cut away display windows, and yet again, movable walls.

The whole experience cries out for explanation and context, and the catalog provides this background; the exhibit and catalog function as one tightly coupled and highly integrated unit, merging usually separate experiences into a combined whole. The photographs on the walls respond to (and look like) pages in the book, and the supporting material is brought to the foreground by assuming the visitor will also be a careful reader of all the supplementary detail and ephemera. With a distant echo of the artists interested in Institutional Critique, this Williams retrospective is both an exhibit and an exhibit about exhibits. It’s all very esoteric and folded in on itself, and therefore potentially alienating, but I must admit, the physical space of this show has a magical sense of shifting flow.

Starting with his CalArts MFA work in 1981 and on from there until today, Williams’ photography has consistently been densely, and often severely, conceptual, brimming with allusions, references, and connections, and armed with the catalog (and its explanatory essays), you too can piece together much of its associative minutiae. The challenge then becomes for this arcane intellectual payoff to merit the effort required to comprehend it, and on this score, I think Williams’ results are decidedly mixed. His early series of appropriated images of JFK’s back, drawn from an archive and meticulously rephotographed according to self-imposed rules, balances several smart ideas about the interactions between press photography, art photography, and process, and the subsequent “exhibit” at an auction for unclaimed material alluded to via a printed announcement card (the package of works was shipped back from another exhibit and stuck in the Los Angeles Customs Authority waiting for payment) adds a clever layer of inadvertent, ironic performance. But his late 1980s portfolio of up close floral images (entitled Angola to Vietnam*) is less compelling, even when its conceptual richness is made explicit (hired photography, glass flowers from the Harvard University Botanical Museum, selection criteria taken from an Amnesty International human rights abuse report, beauty/terror). When it comes to these kinds of complex intellectual machinations, it is fair to expect that one person’s discovery of brilliance will likely be matched by another’s dull declaration of “so what”.

Much of Williams’ artistic effort in the 1990s was consumed up by a loose series of images he made in response to Albert Renger-Patzsch’s 1928 Die Welt ist schön. While Renger-Patzsch’s images cataloged the world (flowers, animals, landscapes, cityscapes, industrial sites, advertising etc.) with meticulous objective precision (Neue Sachlichkeit), Williams chose to examine the world via experimenting with ways of seeing, trying to deconstruct varying clichéd photographic approaches (commercial/stock, travel/tourism, portraiture, fashion, product/advertising, technical, scientific, architectural) to get at their underlying methods and effects; instead of applying a visual vocabulary as Renger-Patzsch did, Williams was systematically undermining existing visual frameworks through a kind of meta-vocabulary. While many of these pictures are built on mystifyingly clever/inane details only knowable via studying the catalog (the blue tinted contact lenses of the Korean portrait sitters, the Agfa orange color of the plastic plates in the cut away dishwasher painstakingly processed using Kodak chemicals, the “dead” beetle actually trained to play dead), if each image is examined closely as a consciously off-kilter example of a seemingly normal visual system, Williams’ conceptual nuances come through more clearly. The best of these works is Williams’ product shot of a new 1964 Renault, seen in perfect shiny clarity, but inexplicably turned on its side in a Dada-like gesture, silently subverting the whole idea/purpose of the genre.

In the most recent decade, Williams’ elusive investigations of photographic representation have become more inward looking, using photography itself as their subject matter. The images gathered together in the series DixHuit Leçons alternately break down the technical product shot, the user manual, and the staged commercial set-up, once again subtly sabotaging each approach. Cameras and lenses are shown in astonishing cut away glory, pared down to their layers of abstract machined precision (not unlike the elegance of Edward Weston’s chambered nautilus, as Williams has noted). Massive fingers spin knobs and select settings on example cameras (or turn pages in videos of technical manuals), doing everything but actually taking pictures. Stock shots (a smiling woman with a towel on her head, a smiling man holding a camera, a topless woman in a cabana) are interrupted by color correction strips, studio lighting, and awkward repetitions and variations. And an unspoken obsession with Kodak runs throughout, the signature yellow and red from the corporate logo allusively replayed in red socks, corn cobs, and a yellow packing box from the Deutsche Post. Each picture is printed with masterful attention to technique, detail and execution, the reverence for craft yet another layer of implied irony. And whether all of this has a Cold War, Marxist, “late capitalist”, or other plausible theoretical construct/critique beyond the obvious deconstruction of commercial photography (and its “production line of happiness”) is a thicket of intellectual weeds left to be groped through at your leisure.

It’s abundantly clear from the conception, design, and production of this retrospective that Christopher Williams is a cerebral photographic thinker, who has over the years thoughtfully and earnestly wrestled with the different forms of photographic seeing and of exhibits more generally; he’s likely a challenging teacher, maybe even a guru for some. But if we strip away the complex trappings of the exhibit itself, I’m not however convinced that his photographs will have particular durable resonance. They will certainly have a relevant place in the influential history of CalArts conceptualism, and in the splintering of conceptual approaches that followed the Bechers in Düsseldorf and the Pictures Generation here in America. But while many of Williams’ images articulately probe questions of photographic seeing that contemporary artists continue to actively struggle with (the tropes of genres, rephotography, reuse, archives, etc.), their determined (almost nostalgic) analog trappings make me think there is an irreverent twenty-something photographer circling this very exhibit thinking “you’ve got some decent ideas old man, but you’re a step or two off the pace.” The valid (if obtuse) critiques Williams has been making for the past three decades have morphed into something else entirely in the new digital reality, thereby trapping him in an airless cul-de-sac of time. It doesn’t seem likely that he will ultimately be seen as crucially influential (or a foundation building block) in these ongoing artistic discussions; part of the larger debate, yes; a missing link in the fundamental idea chain, I’m not so sure. As we speak, the exacting clarity of the recent camera cut aways (which I happen to find fascinating) has already started to lose its conceptual bite in the face of relentless technological transformation, the power of these photographs eroding back to their classic (and still lovely) formality.

For those willing to embrace this exhibit (and catalog) with the patience and tenacity they demand, there are absolutely nuggets of brainy, multi-layered wisdom to be unearthed and plenty of opportunities to connect Williams’ ideas back into the broader fabric of photographic and cinematic theory. But for those looking for something more transparent and easily digestible, this prickly, unorthodox retrospective will more likely produce a two minute, head shaking fly by and a quick ride back down the escalator.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum retrospective, there are, of course, no posted prices. Christopher Williams is represented in New York by David Zwirner (here). Williams’ work has become slightly more available in the secondary markets in the past decade, but there are still very few prints changing hands in any given year. Recent prices have ranged between $3000 and $77000, with many of the outcomes at the top end of the range coming from multi-image sets and portfolios.

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Read more about: Christopher Williams, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Yale University Press

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