Comments/Context: Grids of water towers by the Bechers have become so common that it's pretty hard to visit a major contemporary art museum and not bump into one. With such universal acclaim and ubiquitous display, it seems altogether possible that these works would somehow become overexposed, losing their visual power due to sheer repetition. And yet, their cool conceptualism and crisp execution keep them startlingly fresh; they never fail to stand out in a crowd.
My first reaction when I heard about this show was: what more can Sonnabend have to say about the revolutionary Becher water towers? Haven't they been completely covered already? And one of the back rooms of the show does provide a sampler of familiar typologies, the kind of work we have come to know and love: groups of bulb towers, concrete cylinders, towers with geometric bases or ones that open upward like funnels, some striped with vertical lines, all arrayed in rigid grids to highlight their architectural variations.
But what is both surprising and exciting are the other images that make up most of the show: iconic New York rooftop water tanks. I had never seen these pictures before; it's like the Bechers have made a conceptual valentine to the city. In each image, a single cone-topped wood barrel tank sits centered on some kind of iron mounting or platform. The cylindrical banded barrels are generally the same, except for the finials on the top that distinguish the two main manufacturers. But the Bechers theme and variation style finds hundreds of small details worth noting: tubes that run down the sides or from the bottom, arched ladders, brick backgrounds, sculptural frameworks of girders that hold the tanks in the air, patterns and geometries in the angles of bases. In nearly every picture, the dark black form of the tank looms against the white sky of the city, often with a contextual frame of surrounding buildings.
For the Bechers, these tanks are likely just another piece of vernacular industrial architecture to be codified and preserved, another form to be documented and explored. But I think local New Yorkers will find much more to connect with in these pictures. They combine both the exacting standards of the Bechers artistic vision with a tiny twinge of nostalgia for something authentic and original to this city, overlooked subject matter that is deep in the fabric of this particular, crazy place.
- Museum Collections: Met (here), Getty (here), Guggenheim (here), Walker (here)
- Feature: Tate (here)
- Interview: Art in Amercia, 2002 (here)