Thomas Ruff: photograms and ma.r.s. @David Zwirner: A Review Conversation with Richard B. Woodward

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 large scale color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung in two pairs of large divided rooms and two smaller transitional spaces. All of the works are chromogenic prints, made between 2010 and 2013. The photograms are sized 95×73 and are available in editions of 4. The images from the ma.r.s. series (including the 3D images) are sized 100×73 and are available in editions of 3. A small selection of vintage work can be found in a side gallery. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: It is altogether fitting that in the wake of the recent death of film critic Roger Ebert that today’s review of Thomas Ruff’s new show at David Zwirner should take the form of a back and forth exchange between two arts writers. The format Ebert perfected with his longtime partner Gene Siskel offers the freedom to actively (and sometimes aggressively) exchange ideas in a casual, approachable atmosphere, without getting mired in dumbed down platitudes and boring background description. While their face-offs were great for the movies, the direct discussion format is also a terrific match for a lively, open-ended conversation about contemporary art.

Last year, Richard B. Woodward and I talked through Alec Soth’s newest show at Sean Kelly Gallery (here), and when I saw the Ruff show appear on the forward calendar, I knew it wouldn’t fail to give us plenty of fodder for another wide-ranging discussion. As a reminder, Rick contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, where he covers major museum shows of photography all over the US. His crisp, well-argued essays can also be found in scores of photobooks and exhibit catalogues going back several decades.

Happily, Rick agreed to join me for a discussion once again, and graciously allowed me the first bite at the apple.

DLK: The work in this show can quite easily be divided into three discrete groups (photograms, Mars images, and 3D Mars images), so I propose that we take each in turn and cover them as individual projects before we jump up and talk about the connections between them. I have to say from the outset that I think Ruff’s photograms are nothing short of revolutionary. They innovate in radical ways on at least three different aesthetic axes: the unprecedented scale/size, the painterly use of color, and the creation of richly nuanced overlapping layers. Add to that the development of the underlying technical mechanisms that made it all possible, and we’ve absolutely traveled somewhere we’ve never been before.

What I think is fascinating is that Ruff has found a way to stay observant of the traditions of the genre while at the same time exploding its previous boundaries. Looking up at his massive works (and you have to look up given their scale), I could still see the remnants of Schad, Moholy-Nagy, and Man Ray, but their foundation ideas have been transformed into something modern and machined. Enlarged to roughly 8 by 6 feet, typical photogram ovals, swirls, and silhouettes take on different characteristics, the intimacy of hand-crafted darkroom experimentation and simple chance traded for bold, expansive gestures and increased compositional complexity. They’re truly immersive in a way utterly different than photograms have ever been before.

RBW: I hadn’t thought about them as revolutionary in terms of scale, but you’re right. All the previous examples by 19th century pioneers William Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins, as well as the modernists you mention, are quite a lot smaller.

About your other claims, though, I’m more dubious. First of all, they’re not photograms in the traditional sense. Those were unique prints created by the laws of chance in a darkroom. These are multiples (limited to editions of 4) created inside a computer. His process allows for a degree of serendipity dictated by the algorithms of his software program. But I’m assuming he knows pretty much how the image will look on the screen before he hits “print.”

Yes, they’re suavely handsome. Their illusory depths are soothing, like watching translucent jellyfish in an aquarium or a giant lava lamp. But they are ultimately decorative and nothing more, the sorts of photographs that would look spectacular at night on the walls of a rotating restaurant high above a city or in a Richard Neutra house.

They’re just abstract photographs, not unlike what a dozen other photographers have done (including the recent work of James Welling, to name another Zwirner artist), and I don’t think he should be allowed to call them photograms when, by our usual definition, they’re not. What’s more, they’re only big because digital printers now can handle huge amounts of information that Man Ray’s enlarger couldn’t.

DLK: I think you make a fair definitional point about the word photogram, but to discount their connection to the history of the genre and simply call them abstractions is overly dismissive. I see the works as deeply rooted in the visual vocabulary of the photogram process, but Ruff’s innovative computerized approach has opened up some degrees of freedom that weren’t previously available. We’ve already touched on the scale, but I think there are several more ideas embedded in the pictures that are worth kicking around.

The first is simply the idea of introducing color into these compositions and the quality of the color that Ruff has chosen to employ. The icons of this genre had no ability to use color (except cyanotype), so all the early works, those made between the wars, and even those made in the decades that followed were all constrained by the high contrast white on black palette (or the reversed positive). While some layering and transparency was possible, it wasn’t easy to collapse more than a couple layers without everything turning into a muddle. Fast forward to the present and we find artists like Walead Beshty bringing bold color into the mix. But to my eye, this type of color has a bright, machined saturation that is different than what Ruff has developed here. Ruff’s color billows and diffuses, minutely shifting and washing across his compositions. And the perceived distance between “front” and ”back” seems larger to me, so there is more area to traverse and filter through, more dimensional space for shadows and halos to wander. It’s a soft, hazy, diaphanous color, seemingly mysterious and painterly even though it is entirely digital.

The second point I would make is that I think there is a meaningful conceptual change going on here. Previous photograms draw some of their power from their existence as Duchampian readymades and the immediate physicality of their presence as objects. Ruff has moved away from that tangibility and the direct connection to identifiable forms; those “laws” have been broken now that we are in the digital realm, even though some visual echoes remain. Seeing these huge prints, I’m less focused on the physicality of the original items or worried about trying to identify the jaunty silhouette of a tea strainer, and more interested in how the shapes have been broken down and reconnected. Perhaps, as you say, we are simply talking about abstraction now, but I can’t help looking back to the old way of thinking and seeing just how much Ruff has disrupted our foundation assumptions.

RBW: I’m not dismissing them as photographs–the “billows and diffuses,” to quote from your apt description, are lushly handsome–I just don’t think they are what they claim to be. Unpredictability is part of the charm and risk of a photogram by Schad or Man Ray. They didn’t know what kind of shadows and forms would suggest when they assembled mismatched crap–bits of hair and a comb and thumbtacks and netting–on a piece of photographic paper and exposed it to light. They were making one-offs and, like automatic writing and other surrealist experiments, sometimes the surprise was so much more than anyone could have anticipated that the gamble paid off. And sometimes the results were so clotted or literal that they were thrown out.

Ruff isn’t making one-offs. They’re not unique photographs. His software does the work and when it produces a set of whirling shapes he likes, he stops the process and prints as many as he (or his dealer) wants. He’s using his computer as an optical printer, the way many filmmakers and videographers have done before him. The associations created by the unexpected collisions in a great Man Ray were often funny. Ruff’s “photograms” lack a sense of humor, and the chaos he harnesses is safer for being entirely virtual and situated in the realm of mathematical algorithms, not those of a three-dimensional world of objects acted upon by time and gravity.

I also don’t see his use of color as innovative either. Color was integrated into the abstract photographs of Moholy-Nagy in the 1930s and ‘40s and Henry Holmes Smith in the 1950s. I think what Penelope Umbrico and Marco Breuer have done with abstract color and computers is more interesting that what Ruff is doing with his software program.

Or maybe I’m being too fussy about terminology. Ruff’s photographs aren’t much different from Welling’s recent series Fluid Dynamics, which were also sold by Zwirner as photograms. Or the Gerhard Richters at Marian Goodman last fall, computer samples of his abstract paintings—which were printed on photographic paper and even more outrageously sold as unique “paintings”!

DLK: I absolutely agree with your point about the lack of humor in these Ruff photograms. The whole Dada photogram subgenre (and its randomly clever juxtapositions) has been forgotten here, as has the more general appearance of spontaneity and serendipity. But I think that’s OK. At least in my own mind, I haven’t come to terms with how to think about “algorithmic chance” or the idea that the software is recreating uncertainty. I think this is an area where the technology is likely far ahead of the viewer, and I need to get better educated about how digital photographers are implementing chance and what it looks like in the end product, so that I can identify real innovation more readily.

Let’s move on to the Mars landscapes. I use the word landscape with some hesitation, as I still haven’t exactly come to grips with the fuzzy line between fact and fiction Ruff is walking in these pictures. While he has begun with authentic NASA footage, his cropping, compressing, and coloration move the final results pretty far away from documentation in my mind. It reminds me of a discussion I was having with another writer who was troubled by Michael Benson’s recent space images, mostly because it seemed like they were too close to the scientific “truth” and that his original artistic input was less visible. In this case, I think it is clear that Ruff has used the Mars images as raw material for his own flights of fancy, and that we shouldn’t be confused about being somewhere “real”. That said, the windblown dunes, the tactile crater pocked expanses, and the sandy eroded washes are undeniably texturally seductive.

While space always has the potential to astonish, I have to admit to being a little underwhelmed by many of these photographs, even with their imposing, otherworldly presence. Ultimately, I think the intellectual questions Ruff is raising about the boundaries of the landscape genre and way artists can digitally interpret the land (or space) are much more interesting than the images themselves.

RBW: I much preferred the Mars landscapes so I guess we are fulfilling the tetchy Ebert-Siskel roles you invoked in your introduction. Ruff’s decision to make photographic works of art by rephotographing images of a place that no human being has visited and that we have seen only in photographs struck me as wonderfully perverse—smart and amusing.

Unlike the photograms, there are solid, if ghostly, referents here that his own artistic interpretations can play against. I saw the works as not only commenting on the new worlds we are exploring with cameras attached to wheeled and tractor vehicles and orbiting telescopes but a wry salute to the Internet itself, as a place where objects float around without boundaries and swim into our view without our having much control, like the objects that appear in the night sky.

Taken together, though, the photograms and the Mars landscapes have a lot of geometry in common—and that may be the point he is making and one that I was too grumpy or obtuse to recognize in my earlier posts. The two bodies of work reinforce each other. That said, don’t you think that the “real” images that the Rover has beamed back to us from the Red Planet offer more to ponder and decipher than Ruff’s pictures?

DLK: I like that connection you’re making between space and the Internet. There is a certain poetry to seeing the Internet in that way.

The conceptual connection I see between the two bodies of work is something akin to an ongoing (some might say relentless) investigation of machine seeing, or perhaps another way to think about it is an incremental deconstruction of photography. If you page back through Ruff’s career with the benefit of hindsight, it all starts to fit together as part of a larger pattern, at least to my eyes. The cropped starry skies, the newspaper rephotographs, the green night vision images, the composite face portraits, the pixelated porn nudes, the JPEGs, even the zycles, they’re all exercises in technology mediated vision, or images coming from somewhere else and becoming source material for further experimentation and technical manipulation. I think the new photograms and Mars images fit into that overarching logic as well, and of the two, I personally find the photograms much more daring.

Since we haven’t touched on them yet, I think a few words are in order on the 3D images. For me, these were the weakest works on view, mostly because they seemed the most literal and obvious, even though we haven’t seen many photographers embrace the technology yet. I won’t dispute that there is a gee whiz factor at work when seeing these vertiginous Martian craters and spires (get up close and it feels like you’re really falling in), but I worry that their power to surprise us will be severely diminished in a decade or two. They don’t seem as inherently smart as the others, but I appreciate that Ruff is taking risks with the new tools and trying to figure out what they can and can’t do. The images seem a little more like a work in progress, a necessary intermediate step, or a set of ideas that haven’t yet converged exactly, a little like the first round of candy colored space images (Cassini) that now seem like a preface to the Mars work. And who, by the way, keeps 3D glasses handy for home viewing? Without them, the 3D prints are a headache inducing blur.

RBW: I liked the 3D photographs of craters. They reminded me of flowers blooming on the bottom of the ocean—and hokey, like all 3D. The attempt by media conglomerates to sell us on 3D movies and TV feels like an act of desperation: the best, if panicky, solution they can devise for now to compete with free streaming content from the Internet. As you say, not many collectors are going to keep glasses around for their guests to admire 3D anything on their walls. It’s a losing technology, like stereography in the 19th century. You’re too young to remember but in the 1970s some critics and dealers thought that holograms were going to replace photography as the “next big thing.” We know how that turned out.

You’re right that Ruff’s interest in this technology and computer-generated abstraction is part of a pattern and dovetails with his fascination with other mediated imagery. He is a brainy, wayward artist and I like that about him. A previous show of his is never predictive of his next one. Zwirner has a small room that contains examples of four groups of pictures: a starry night sky, a portrait head, a building, and JPEG porn. They could be the work of four different photographers.

DLK: In general, I think my overall takeaway from this show is more positive than yours. I walked out of the gallery convinced that Ruff continues to be one of the most compelling and challenging artists working in contemporary photography, and one that we ignore at our peril. Even if I might quibble with the durability of some of his end results, the behind–the-scenes thinking that has gone into his projects is consistently smart and perceptive. His view point continues to evolve as he plays through different sourced imagery variations, getting more complex and nuanced as he dives deeper. More than many of his well-known contemporaries, he’s always testing limits, enlarging our understanding of the medium. Yes, he’s brainy, and brilliant, and sometimes inscrutably obtuse, but that’s what makes his work so important.

I think these new photograms continue to blur the line between photography and computer-based art, and I think we’re just at the beginning of that ongoing combination. Ruff is no dummy; he’s going where the largest unexplored white space is in photography, and he’s aggressively starting to map the territory.

RBW: I agree that his willingness to go in new directions and not to stay in a critically proven or popular style is admirable. But I’m not sure what “peril” we risk if we don’t honor everything he does and regard some of these directions as dead ends. His subjects change but the underlying message doesn’t. I don’t see any strong or unforeseen connections between Internet porn and outer space—except that he happened upon these images on the Internet. The JPEG nudes were big and boring and he seemed to think they would be less boring by making them big—a common mistake of our age. Artists who work with found imagery had better tell me something new and provocative about mediation other than the obvious point, reiterated constantly in postmodern theory, that we’re living in a time when pictures and text often originate from an unknown source and arrive on our screens without an author etc. etc. It may be unjust to club one German artist with another, but I find the material Thomas Demand finds on the Internet, and what he does with it, much more unexpected and obsessively crazy—in a good way—than what Ruff does with the stuff he fishes out of the water.

I don’t think Ruff has done anything as finished as those first huge portraits of young good-looking European men and women. They were simple head shots but the quality of detail and light gave them a quivering presence. I wanted to know what might happen to those kids in 10 years. The pictures weren’t about their own construction i.e. not like Chuck Close’s giant heads. Ruff himself seemed engaged by what he was photographing instead of out to prove how alienated we are from the source reality of pictures. He needs to get off his computer for a year or so and go play outdoors.

Incidentally, I first saw those portraits in the late ‘80s, when he was represented by 303. The gallery was then located in Soho and one of my strongest memories of that show was the hilariously snooty attitude of the young woman behind the desk. I asked her where the photographs were taken. Instead of telling me that she didn’t know, she decided to put me in my place and in that blasé voice that New York and L.A. gallery assistants wield to intimidate visitors, she said, “I don’t think it matters.”

Is it any wonder that so many people loathe and fear the art world? Thank goodness, people who work in galleries seem generally friendlier today—at least they are at Zwirner. That’s been one of the few benefits of the recession and the growth of art fairs: galleries need us to stop by and keep them company.

Speaking of company, I’ve enjoyed yours, if only online. We should meet up soon at a bar in Chelsea and resume the conversation in person.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show (both the photograms and the images from the ma.r.s. series) are priced at $95000 each. Ruff’s work has become consistently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with plenty of prints up for sale in any given auction season. Prices have generally ranged from roughly $2000 (lesser known early works or large editions) to $150000.

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Read more about: Thomas Ruff, David Zwirner


  1. Christopher /

    I agree with Thomas above about the title; “simulated photograms” would have been more accurate. Very interesting discussion. With regards to your point about the scale of the work: seeing as they are digitally printed, I think the proper comparison is not to darkroom based photograms but all work printed digitally, which is almost everything these days.

    I wrote some commentary as well, and linked back to your discussion:

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