Marco Breuer, Silent Speed @Yossi Milo

JTF (just the facts): A total of 32 color photographic works, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the East and West gallery spaces, as well as the smaller viewing room and jewel box area. All of the works are chromogenic prints with additional embossing, scraping, and scratching, made in 2015 and 2016. Physical sizes range from roughly 11×10 to 31×25, and all of the woks are unique.

The show also includes 2 sets of instant film prints (1 black and white/1 color), 12 works displayed in manila folders (in vitrines), and a newspaper. The instant prints are sets of 6 black and white and 3 color prints, made in 2016. Each individual print is sized roughly 4×3. The manila folder works are each sized 12×9 and made in 2016. They contain between 2 and 22 individual pieces, including card stock, vellum, Xeroxed paper, color slides, woodblock ink works, auction catalogs, unfolded packaging, and other found ephemera. The newspaper has 16 pages and was printed in 2016. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Marco Breuer’s process-centric, camera-less photography has always had a improvisational quality to it, rooted in the deliberate physical engagement between the exposed paper and his busy hands. In the past decade, while his methods have undergone constant revision, he has largely limited himself to the precision of elemental geometries, as if he was forcing himself to innovate inside a set of invisible fixed boundaries. Folds, scrapes, and scratches (made by various tools) have been generally squared off into rectangles and squares, and hand-crafted incised lines have primarily stayed straight, often in rigorous rhythmic horizontals and verticals or in bold slashes and quivering squiggles. Even his turntable circles and burned holes have had a kind of exacting clarity, as if too many variables might make his artistic problems unsolvable.

One of the hallmarks of Breuer’s career has been his prolific restlessness, where new bodies of work are explored with depth and care, only to quickly kick off new lines of thinking that run away on evolutionary aesthetic tangents. This is Breuer’s fifth New York gallery show of new output in 7 years, so it’s clear that his artistic engine is running on overdrive. What’s intriguing here is that this new body of work finds him experimenting with sinuous gestural forms far more than ever before, almost as if he has finally loosened some of the self-imposed rules he once considered as givens.

The basis of much of Breuer’s recent work has been the tangible reality of exposed chromogenic paper – fully exposed, the paper turns black, and then as hopelessly thin emulsion layers are meticulously subtracted , a range of yellows/oranges and sparkling aquamarine blues can be uncovered, ultimately, at the “bottom”, revealing the pure white of the underlying paper. In his earliest experiments, this reductionism was like a form of conscious destruction, where violent interactions led to marks that carved into the paper, pulling back the curtain on the colors hiding underneath the surface.

Breuer’s new works seem to turn away from this intensity of action, opting for something smoother and more soothing. Most of the images play with formal contrast, setting up interactions between various color fields and areas of whiteness that bring figure/ground uncertainty back into Breuer’s vocabulary. When the white blobs seem to float on expanses of uniform darkness, they recall islands, ice floes, garden stepping stones, microscopic fragments, or even a tight riff on Georgia O’Keeffe’s stylized clouds. If the blobs are constructed with flat edges, suddenly they recall maps and tectonic plates, mixing human-imposed boundaries that seem unnaturally straight with fluid unidentified waterways. And when the tables reverse and the dark areas come forward, we start to see the criss-cross forms of tumbling silhouetted bodies, with slippery failing arms waving and wandering though the air.

As a handy newspaper shows us, the idea that we might see traces of a human form in some of these works isn’t entirely creative extrapolation. In various instant photographs, Breuer seems to jump through the frame or insert an arm/leg into otherwise abstract settings, creating ghosts and echoes that linger and interact, bring a gestural sense of movement to his formal experiments. These pictures show Breuer reintroducing motion into his calculus, and allowing elemental form to reassert its aesthetic authority.

For those interested in trying to unpack the pathways of an artistic mind, the supplementary artworks/material on view in the two vitrines may be more intriguing than the primary works on the walls. Housed in simple manila envelopes, each represents the output from a discrete formal exercise. Breuer unfolds small boxes, looking carefully at the resulting flattened shapes. He uses woodblock ink to make gestural prints in both white on black and black on white iterations. He cuts black card stock to create negative spaces, with vellum used to add transparency. And he Xeroxes imagery onto circular label sheets, removing some of the labels to introduce absence. So just when we thought Breuer was a photographer, he reminds us that silk-screening, erasing, drawing, and other artistic techniques are all part of his thinking process, and again and again, we see him experimenting, testing, and trying out ideas that take shape in alternate endpoints.

Given the formal transitions going on in Breuer’s new works, we may later see this show as an intermediate step to somewhere more fully realized. By allowing the rigidity of his earlier geometries to slowly dissolve away, he has discovered some new white space that feels more expressive and open ended. Even though his process is likely just as step-by-step and smartly formulaic as before, his results feel less structured, and that almost sculptural sinuousness hints at paths toward further three dimensionality.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $7500 to $24000 based on size. Breuer’s work has an intermittent secondary market history, with just a few lots changing hands in any given year. Recent prices have ranged between $1000 and $16000, but this data may not be particularly representative of the market for Breuer’s best work, given that each piece is unique.

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