Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Thomas Ruff @David Zwirner

JTF (just the facts): A total of 18 color works, hung in a series of three interconnected gallery spaces. The show is comprised of images from two different projects (cassini and zycles) both executed in 2009. The 9 cassini images are all chromogenic prints, framed in brown wood and matted, and printed in editions of 6. For the most part, these prints are approximately 43x43 square, with some small variations in size from image to image. The 9 zycles works are either chromogenic prints or pigment prints on canvas. The 5 c-prints are face mounted to Plexi (making them very glossy), framed in brown wood and not matted, and printed in editions of 4. These prints are all approximately 73x73 square. The 4 paintings are framed in brown wood and made in editions of 3. Most of these works are approximately 101x81; one is 101x101 square. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: A common way to read the broad history of photography is to see it as a long series of technical inventions, the artistic wave being driven forward by the varied responses photographers have had to the availability of new tools. At every fork in the endless technology road, photographers have taken one of two divergent paths: using the tools to explore risky new frontiers, or using them to build upon what has come before, but with new twists and capabilities. At one end of the spectrum, we have disruptive innovation (which often fails, but generates radical change when it succeeds), and at the other, something altogether more incremental (which is generally much safer).
Thomas Ruff has been out on the bleeding edge, exploring the boundary lands of the contemporary photographic medium for the better part of the past thirty years. Starting with his experiments with large scale back in the 1980s, he has since tested a wide variety of visual and theoretical approaches: appropriation, stereo imaging, superimposition, blurring, and night vision, expanding these ideas using recent digital and computer-based systems, and adding in new concepts like Internet-based imagery, pixelization, and compression algorithms and artifacts. As the technology has changed, he has always looked forward, trying to think his way through the intellectual thicket of what these new approaches might mean for photographic image making. Underneath it all, there has been a constant objectivity, a search for the underlying structure of photography.
Ruff's newest work has almost entirely escaped from any traditional definition of the medium. In his cassini series, Ruff has appropriated black and white digital feed images of Saturn and its moons from NASA and transformed them into pictures that go beyond the scientific, into a realm of indefinite lyricism. Ruff has heavily processed the raw images: adding layers of color, cropping the pictures down to simple orbs, dense all-over cloud banks or slashes of line and curvature, and controlling the pixelization with precision to create up-close pointillism. The effect of all this modification is a feeling of otherworldly grace and elegance. But what struck me in these works was not their decorative quality, but the conceptual questions underneath: a stream of bits radioed back from the far reaches of our galaxy has now been manipulated and converted into a new physical art object hanging in a white cube gallery - which part of that is photography? And what might it foretell about where we go next?
I think the answer to these questions comes in the form of the companion works from Ruff's series zycles. In these images, Ruff has captured three-dimensional mathematical curves (based on cycloids) that spiral and intersect in layers of line and volume. The swirling patterns have been toned neon purple or bright yellow against opaque black backgrounds; the patterns jump out from the darkness with musical intensity (close-up detail images at right; the one above is unfortunately quite reflected by the Plexi). What's important here is that Ruff has abandoned the camera entirely - these are computer-generated visual manifestations of the inherent beauty of mathematical algorithms. The fact that the final art object is a photograph, or even a painting, seems irrelevant. Ruff has used the digital technology to get beyond photographs of "things" to explore pictures of abstract functions, expressions, or even computer code. As such, while these works might be visually reminiscent of Op Art, Minimalism, or even computer screen savers, these works seem to be a logical extension of the artist's effort to peel back the layers of photography to its inner technological core; the underlying structure of the medium is being revealed by the newest wave of tools, and Ruff is grasping for ways to expand the art-making capabilities of these exposed foundations.
On the surface, you may wander through these galleries and find these works pleasingly scientific and coolly intellectual, but I think this misses the importance of this show. These works are not attempts to recreate past masters using digital technology; they are not newfangled riffs of Wall, Sherman, Sternfeld, Eggleston or whoever else we might currently admire. Ruff is out in the hinterland, trying the to find the path to the future. One way forward is via the computer (this has become obvious), and he's already neck deep in his explorations. While these newest documents of his travels may not be thoroughly exciting as endpoints, they are likely a bridge to somewhere we haven't been before. As such, the reason to see this show is less about these specific works, but because the show signals a schism coming soon, a rupturing of what we call photography and the birth (or rebirth) of something that draws on the traditions of all the visual media, but manifests itself in the world of the computer.
Collector's POV: The works in this show are priced as follows:
  • cassini chromogenic prints: $30000 each
  • zycles chromogenic prints: $90000 each
  • zycles pigment prints on canvas: $120000 each
Ruff's work has become widely available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with many prints up for sale in any given auction season. Prices have generally ranged from $2000 (lesser known early works, or large editions) to $150000, with a sweet spot between $20000 and $60000.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Lecture @Aperture, 2010 (complete videos here)
  • Surfaces, Depths @Kunsthalle Wien, 2009 (here)
  • Review: Art Observed (here)
Through March 13th
David Zwirner
533 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10011

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