Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): The show consists of the following works (categorized here as on the exhibition checklist):

  • Pictures (original images 1981–2016): 1 black-and-white print, framed; 1 diptych comprising 2 framed black-and-white prints with printed texts on mats; 22 silver dye bleach prints, unframed; 7 chromogenic color prints, unframed; and 2 silver dye bleach prints with accompanying texts on Plexiglas wall labels. Sizes range from 3 x 6” to 38 ½ x 60 ½”.
  • Paperweights (original images 1981–1995): 4 paperweights (silver dye bleach prints, crystal, and felt), 3 1/2” diameter x 2” high.
  • Adjusted to Fit (original images 19821–2008): 6 color prints on adhesive vinyl, dimensions variable.
  • Tracings (original images 1981–2016): 8 black-and-white prints on adhesive vinyl, dimensions variable in proportion to size of artwork.
  • Sound installation (1972/1981): 1 digital audio file, 7:01 minutes.
  • Works made in collaboration with other artists: with Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 1990, print on paper, endless copies, 36” at ideal height x 23 x 29”; with Lawrence Weiner, 1983, silver dye bleach print, silver gelatin print, mat, text, and artist’s frame, 14 ¼ x 13 3/8”; and with Allan McCollum, 1988–1992, 2 from a set of 5 brass objects, 4 ¼ x 5 ¾ x ½” and 3/8 x ½ x ½” respectively.
  • Other artists: Andrea Fraser, May I Help You?, 1991/2005, 20111/2013, performance; Cameron Rowland, New York State Unified Court System, 2016, installation.
  • Ephemera: two vitrines containing largely printed material; installation of embossed drinking glasses.

The works on view are exhibition prints; therefore, no edition sizes are noted. (Installation shots below.)

A catalog of the exhibition, entitled Louise Lawler: Receptions, has been published by MoMA (here). Hardcover, 256 pages, with 216 illustrations. Edited by Roxana Marcoci, with essays by Rhea Anastas, Mieke Bal, Douglas Crimp, Rosalyn Deutsche, Diedrich Diederichsen, Marcoci, David Platzker and Julian Stallabrass. $60. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Since the early 1980s, Louise Lawler has been taking pictures of works by the likes of Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Frank Stella, and Yayoi Kusama (as well as the odd classical marble or 19th-century painting) variously installed in galleries, under wraps in museum basements, hung cheek-by-jowl with their fellows in auction-house showrooms, and surrounded by the accoutrements of daily life in the homes of collectors. These photographs of blue-chip art in circulation figure prominently in this beautiful, and beautifully conceived retrospective, curated by MoMA’s Roxana Marcoci with input from the artist.

In formal terms, these images—great photographs in their own right—owe something to William Eggleston’s “Democratic Forest” and Stephen Shore’s “American Surfaces.” Conceptually, by showing artworks within their social and economic contexts, they are allied with the institutional critique of Lawler’s near-contemporaries Michael Asher and Daniel Buren. Affectively, they have a kinship with Rachel Harrison’s stumble-bum sculptures tangled in museum stanchions and slumped over preparators’ rolling carts. In these oddly intimate portraits, the art seems to be doing its best under the circumstances, even as the artist focuses her camera elsewhere—on a museum wall, pebbled by endless repainting, or a gallery’s polished floor; on a bedspread or a flower arrangement; on stretcher frames and hanging hardware; on edges and backs; on reflections and shadows.

Lawler’s Nude (2002/2003), for example, shows a 1966 canvas by Gerhard Richter (itself a homage to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase of 1912) deinstalled after an exhibition and leaning on its side against a wall. One of Lawler’s many slyly feminist pieces, the work turns an upright woman, already the subject of the male gaze, into an odalisque. In Monogram (1984), one of a series of photographs that Lawler took in the home of collectors Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine, Jasper Johns’s White Flag hangs decorously over a double bed made up with a monogrammed coverlet of the same warm white as the painting (White Flag would sell at a Christie’s auction four years later for $7 million, then the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist).

In another photograph, a shiny museum bench—one of MoMA’s—reflects a work by Joan Miró. As art historian Rosalyn Deutsche explains in her contribution to the show’s catalog, museums employ benches like these as a signal that particular artworks are worthy of more prolonged contemplation. “The polished surface of the depicted bench reflects the painting, symbolizing the inseparability of work and context,” she adds. “The bench itself makes concrete the generally invisible ways in which, as part of its arrangement of artworks, the museum also arranges the museumgoer.”

Lawler does not exempt her own art, and its status in the world, from examination. This is most obvious in exhibition’s wall labels, which list all the owners, when known, of the full edition of each of the works on view. (Lawler does not make unique objects.) It is also clear in her “adjusted to fit” images—versions of her photographs that have been digitally stretched or squeezed to conform to the dimensions of particular spaces. At MoMA, four long walls divide the first of the show’s two galleries into bays; each wall sports a billboard-sized print of a Lawler photograph pulled like taffy to fill it edge to edge, making literal the institution’s distorting frame. In Pollyanna (adjusted to fit, distorted for the times) (2007/2008/2012/2017), an image of a toothy Takashi Murakami inflatable confronting a huddle of Warhols is not only stretched but digitally swirled, perhaps a reference to Donald Trump’s post-truth presidency.

Lawler’s work is rife with such linguistic and visual puns. Born in 1947, she is often associated with the 1980s Pictures generation of artists, a loosely knit cohort whose work, often photo-based, drew from the feminist movement, Marxism, postmodern critical theory, conceptual art to reflect on the production and reception of mass media images. But as the second part of show makes clear, Lawler’s sympathies are as much with the conceptual artists of the ’70s as with her Pictures generation peers.

At the end of the last bay of the first gallery, an alert observer will notice a small brass object mounted on the wall. It’s one of an editioned set of five such objects made in collaboration with artist Allan McCollum, their shapes taken from printers’ ornaments used as spacers in printed texts. Lawler and McCollum’s “fixed intervals,” as they are called, were, in the artists’ words, intended to stand in for missing artworks. In this case, however, the dingbat performs its original function—to signal a break in the proceedings.

On the walls of the gallery beyond are more large-scale works on adhesive vinyl, this time printed with black-and-white “tracings” of Lawler’s photographs. (It is another of the many ways that the artist recycles her own images, which also appear in the exhibition as photographs, posters, paperweights and gif files.) They surround two vitrines, whose complement of mostly printed ephemera, dating from the 1970s to the present, includes such conceptual provocations as a 1981 invitation from the artist to performance by the New York City Ballet of Swan Lake (tickets available at the box office), a matchbook bearing an image of a colorful parrot (an image that Lawler invariably sends out when asked for a headshot), and a brochure, available as a handout at Lawler’s 1987 “Projects” exhibition at MoMA, that can be folded into a paper airplane (and, on closer inspection, is printed with statistics on America’s covert operations in Nicaragua).

One of the most intriguing items here is a set of two books from 1978, one book red and one book blue, containing black-and-white photographs of the backs of playing cards. Accompanying each photograph is a written description of the card’s hidden face. While the photographs of the cards are black-and-white, the cards in the red book are from a red-patterned deck; the cards in the blue book from a blue-patterned one. There’s no way to tell if Lawler’s descriptions of the cards’ faces or color are truthful. Even stranger, while each set of books is identical, they are marked on the blue book’s inside cover with two prices: $100 and $7.95, with the price to be charged circled by the artist.

Lawler’s feminist and pacifist views, obliquely (and at times clumsily) expressed in her photographic work, come to the fore in these projects, which also include detournements of exhibition announcements, gallery stationary, business cards, and other tools of the art trade. They show Lawler teasing apart the distinctions between words and pictures, symbols and objects, photographs and truth, and high value and low, with surgical precision and Duchampian wit, suggesting that her overarching interest is in what critic Craig Owens, writing about Lawler and her peers, once called feminism’s insistence on difference.

The first section of this exemplary survey does justice to the admirable formal rigor and intellectual clarity of Lawler’s work. Its second section, pairing her under-the-radar activities with her barely-there tracings, reveals the contradictions and ambivalences that give her work its complexity and power.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Louise Lawler is represented by Metro Pictures in New York (here). Lawler’s work is generally available in the secondary markets, with a handful of lots coming up for sale in any given year. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $10000 and $325000.

Read more about: Louise Lawler, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

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