JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 large-scale color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the two rooms of the Western galleries and the side hallway. All of the works are chromogenic prints, made in 2015. Physical sizes range from roughly 79×73 to 96×73 (or reverse), and all the prints are available in editions of 4+1AP. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Entering galleries that feature the new work of certain photographers, you can’t be sure what you will be seeing. It’s almost impossible to predict, from one show to the next, how, say, Paul Graham or Wolfgang Tillmans or Thomas Demand will have decided to present their latest group of pictures—what scale the prints will take, and where they will be hung and framed and patterned in the rooms.
That’s can’t be said of Thomas Ruff. One of the comforts of each new body of work from him is its predictability, the assurance that the prints will be big and muscular, their broad shoulders squarely up against the wall. A committed re-photographer since the early 1990s, he hunts for pictures done earlier by others that have been deposited in archives or that he snags floating around the Internet. Even when he’s exploring the Web’s nether regions—such as his series on porn or his JPEGs of war and destruction around the globe—the photographs that he makes from his research are seldom if ever off-putting. You can imagine any one of them being the focus of a sparsely furnished room in a $4 million home.
His latest show at Zwirner is no different. press++ consists of monumentally blown-up clippings from American newspapers about the U.S. space program during the 1960s. Ruff has used Adobe Photoshop to merge reproduced photographs with the captions and editorial notations that accompanied them, a fusion of recto and verso, image and text. From aging, disregarded photographs, he has printed fancy new ones.
A May 20, 1965 photograph of Edward H. White II, for example, is a close-up of the helmeted astronaut in a side view. What little we can see of his face is turned toward what appears to be a cardboard moon. Atop the picture is the original typed caption that describes this scene at Cape Canaveral as a “wet mock simulated test as part of the check-out procedure for the 2-man, 4-day Gemini flight planned for 6/3.” Stamped across White’s face is the broad copyright notice from U.P.I., the news agency that licensed the image for reproduction.
Elsewhere on the walls are Titan missiles in flight, or ready for launch on a searchlight-flooded conning tower; a battleship bristling with 18-inch guns; the busy deck of an aircraft carrier; a bomber in the clouds; a futuristic jet; and the Apollo-mission capsule hovering above the moon.
Ruff’s selection underscores the fact that the space program was less about seeking new worlds, as Trekkies would like to believe, and more about winning the Cold War with the Soviets. America’s military was intimately involved in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. The astronauts, recruited as pilots from every wing of the service, rode on missiles originally built to deliver nuclear weapons. When the space capsules returned to Earth, they were plucked out of the oceans by the U.S. Navy. The heroic crews posed on the decks of aircraft carriers that also saw action in the Vietnam War.
This is not a secret history. Anyone who read or saw The Right Stuff will be familiar with its essentials. To his credit, Ruff doesn’t pretend that his series reveals truths kept hidden from the American public. But neither has he done much to challenge the public’s benign view of the race into space or the military’s role in guiding scientific exploration.
When newspaper editors treated these photographs with casual disrespect, they had good reason. Any illustration was merely the base material for the more important end-product: the half-tone reproduction on the newspaper page. Ruff ‘s motives in lovingly aestheticized their work aren’t so clear. He has dug up photographs by journeymen, merged them with the anonymous markings by clerks at U.P.I. and the A.P., and tried to make art.
As in many of his re-photographs, the huge scale enlarges the grain so that mechanically processed surfaces begin to have the enticing consistency of the hand-drawn. The dark chalky grays in a photograph of a missile or moon surface can resemble an architectural rendering of a 1920s skyscraper by Hugh Ferris. The hasty smudges and hand-written scrawls from some editor’s hands are like Cy Twombly gestures, while the corporate stamps recall the passport cartouches in Saul Steinberg’s pencil drawings.
The gallery press release compares Ruff’s pictures to the “emergence of photomontage in Germany in the 1920s, where it was employed by Dada artists as a potent and subversive political tool.”
The problem may be that nothing so political or disturbing is visible in his revisions. His hunky prints don’t have the sourness or the bite that one would expect if, say, Richard Prince sank his teeth into this theme. As a German born after World War II, Ruff was no doubt raised to be skeptical of imagery glorifying the military. But these works don’t undermine the general American view of the space program as a heroic endeavor. Like so many of his works in the last 10 years, they seem to exist primarily to decorate a room and be sold.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at €85000 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 $190000.