Peter Roehr: 1963–1966 @Ortuzar Projects

JTF (just the facts): Seven framed and matted photocollages, ranging in size from roughly 11×11 to 27×22 inches, and two photocollages framed without mats, each measuring roughly 67×65 inches, hang on the white walls of the main gallery. Playing in the same space is a program of 22 short 16mm films. In the center of the room are two vitrines containing books and ephemera related to the artist’s life and career. Five matted and framed typewriter works on paper, all measuring roughly 12×8 inches, and one matted and framed collage on paper measuring 10×10 inches hang in a side gallery. All the works are unique save the film program, which is available as a Blu-ray disc in an edition of 9+1 estate copy. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: During a career lasting only five years, German artist Peter Roehr (1944–1968), who died at age 24 of cancer, made approximately 600 artworks, including photocollages, films, and text pieces. Though clearly related to the advanced art of his time, these works—the subject of a mini-survey at Ortuzar Projects—now increasingly seem sui generis: both radically monotonous and ineffably odd, they are more neutral than Pop, more cosmic than Minimalism.

Born in Lauenburg, Germany, Roehr moved with his mother to Frankfurt am Main after his parents’ divorce. Following art school in Wiesbaden, he quickly moved away from making paintings to producing serial works inspired by his Zen studies. Among his first pieces were typed fields of text—extracts from fairy tales and weather reports, or repeated letters, words, or punctuation marks—created on then new Selectrics by arrangement with IBM’s Frankfurt office.

A summer job at the Frankfurt branch of American advertising firm Young and Rubicam brought Roehr into contact with future gallerist Paul Maenz, who was working there as an art director. Maenz supplied the young artist with multiple copies of advertising page proofs, which Roehr cut up and turned into gridded collages, each consisting of a single image repeated multiple times.

During his lifetime, Roehr made close to 130 of these photocollages, many of them deriving from printer’s proofs for a single 1964 Young and Rubicam campaign for Maxwell coffee. Although compared at the time to Warhol’s silkscreen paintings of ganged dollar bills and Coke bottles, Roehr’s collages differ from Warhol’s canvases in a number of important respects, primarily in Roehr’s use of unmediated, mechanically produced originals, but also in the works’ ultimate effect.

While Warhol’s source images were iconic, Roehr’s were tightly cropped. At first, even these crops were predetermined: one Maxwell coffee ad, which alone accounted for 23 of Roehr’s photocollages (and several of those in this show), is itself a grid of extreme closeups. Repeated multiple times, such images as a spoonful of instant coffee or a man’s mouth with a cup raised to it dissolve into abstraction. (The two largest works here were made with car brochure images that Roehr seems to have cropped himself.)

Like the typed works, the photocollages drone rather than pulse. But though Roehr was a careful workman, they do have one thing in common with Warhol’s paintings: an optical shimmer, like that on wind-ruffled water, resulting from slight inconsistencies in the placement of the gridded images.

In an effort to remove even this minor evidence of his hand, Roehr turned in 1965 to making films, each film consisting of a looped excerpt, only a second or two long, from a black-and-white television commercial. (Maenz, now working in Young and Rubicam’s New York office, supplied Roehr with the original footage.) By far the strangest and most wonderful works in the show, the 22 films here include such ready-made dramas as Hair 14x (a fade-in, repeated 14 times, to a model swinging her hair as a man’s voice intones “cleans, shines, manages”); Fall 12x (a shot, repeated 12 times, of a truck falling nose-first into water); and Tunnel 12x (a view, repeated 12 times, of night traffic, accompanied by a jazzy soundtrack).

With its emphasis on strategies of seduction and display, Roehr’s output anticipates appropriation art of the late 1970s and ’80s by such artists as Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and, in his films in particular, Jack Goldstein. At the same time, it has philosophical and conceptual dimensions that distinguish it from both the work of Roehr’s Pictures generation descendants and his Pop and Minimal forebears.

A vitrine filled with ephemera contains photographs taken in 1967 at one of Roehr’s last solo exhibitions, for which he made ten identical grids of black cardboard rectangles. The works formed the backdrop for a photo shoot, staged by Roehr and Maenz, featuring fashion models in mod clothing, making their effacement as art complete. A year later, he would cease making art altogether to focus, in the last months of his life, on his and Maenz’s store, Pudding Explosion, Germany’s first headshop.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $18000 for the works on paper to $120000 for medium-size photocollages. The two largest photocollages are NFS. Roehr’s photo-based work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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