Peter Downsbrough: The Book(s)
(Hatje Cantz, 2011)
Shifting Places: Peter Downsbrough, The Photographs
(Cornell University Press, 2011)
Ever since Lucy Lippard included him in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object (1973), Peter Downsbrough (b. 1940) has accrued an extensive bibliography—owing to his expatriate situation in Brussels, almost exclusively European. But two new books from a Europe now less strange to Americans provoke a reintroduction of this conceptual sculptor and photographer whose practice includes tall rods, with a word or two attached, deftly inserted into public space; photography as such; and the formatting of books reproducing his own pieces.
The work as a whole has a strong linguistic aspect, even when non-verbal. Linguistic shifters are favored: context-dependent words such as “I” or “this,” “here” or “here.” Downsbrough is known to be concerned with “place,” but “location” would be better, as connoting moveable whereabouts. Attached to a metal pole or graphically incorporated in a wall piece or a photograph, a word is concretized as a sign by slicing lengthwise—for anything split must be concrete. The split word is at least as concrete as a word sung, even if one-stroke splitting takes care of all possible inflection. Alexander Streitberger’s Shifting Places: Peter Downsbrough, The Photographs, on which Downsbrough collaborated, is itself “concretizing” in layout: a pair of time-lapse photos is separated by six pages with other images in between, and a high-rise building is split along the edges of two pages, with two pages of text in between, and indeed the word “between,” in lower case, interpolated over the first half-image.
Presenting many unpublished photographs, Shifting Places gives occasion to consider this especially important category of the artist’s work. Some of the most beautiful images convey a sense of uncanny formalization, whereby the obviously deliberate framing of some particular element, such as the central zip of a center pole of a sunlit New York subway car (typically inferable as a row of several) allows, in a 1978 image, for seemingly fortuitous alignments of shadows, and compensations, more than contrived compositional balance, in the different distributions of elements, left and right. I love the resultant sense of unforced order, and so would Kant!
There is fluidity in Downsbrough’s categories. Even a documentary photograph may be artistically active, such as a 2003 Brussels cityscape integrating a boxy building and a sculptural intervention in ambient space, a flat rectilinear frame with “A, N, D” attached as agreeing in perspective with the angled projection of the building. The word “AND” shifts from its initially sculptural “there” meaning to the “here” of the photograph as integrating the similar spatial angles in the plane. “Grain, GB,” a 2007 photo, exists in two states: “straight,” with a strong formal analogy between great swags of dark flexible strapping, at right, and lateral, round-ended bays for giant shipping containers at bottom; but also as altered: the word “THERE” has been inserted in the book version across into an overcast sky. This shifter affects spatial as well as linguistic ambiguity, insofar as the size of the letters in space must be relative to their purported distance from the observer, but there is no cue to either.
Because Downsbrough’s photography never loses an attenuated modernist admiration of the occasional “art without a name” of workaday engineering structure, it calls to mind Bernd and Hilla Becher; however abandoned, his structures concern Romantic ruination no more than theirs, but it is also of a piece with the high modernist context to such. Having “been there” myself, I can vouch for a certain subtlety and complexity in Downsbrough’s structurally engrossing photographs as quite other than “Minimalist.”
As a student of architectural history, I took the Bechers artistically for granted on happening to walk into their first museum show, Industrial Building 1830–1930: A Photographic Documentation, at the State Museum for Applied Art in Munich in 1967, approaching their work (first published in architectural journals) from the standpoint of J. M. Richards’s The Functional Tradition in Early Industrial Buildings (1958), with Eric de Maré’s photographs. When I told this story in the March 1973 Artforum (and in Building-Art: Modern Architecture Under Cultural Construction, 1993) I adduced an industrial picturesque as early as the historical moment of Friedrich Engels, T. H. Hair’s A Series of Views of the Collieries in the Counties of Northumberland and Durham (1844), in what was a “response” to Carl Andre’s blanket denial of formalism in the Bechers’ work. Well, if the Bechers were concerned with a general type of formulaic form that in 1969 they were pleased to call “Anonymous Sculptures,” there was modern history behind that; and within any category the instances had definite formal identities.
With Minimalism itself now historical, it is worth recovering in front of Downsbrough a sense of the architectural modernism which that movement in sculpture faced down. There was certainly an accord between the exposed steel frameworks of postwar American buildings by Mies van der Rohe and others and the visibly accessible tectonics of old vernacular North European and New England “half-timbering” (Fachwerk, in German). Even Meyer Schapiro’s “Note on the Wall Strips of Saxon Churches” (1959) played a part in this enthusiasm; and eventually the Bechers produced Framework Houses of the Siegen Industrial Region (1977). The Downsbrough who studied architecture surely saw Minimalism undercutting this discourse even as it took what it wanted in the way of hardware.
Peter Downsbrough is not a Minimalist photographer but a conceptual one. The structure and the structuralism in his photography is subtle, and leans more toward post-structural in its contingency and its openness to linguistic qualification, whereas Minimalism was downright proud of having no truck with structural subtlety. Thus he shows artistic similarities to such American conceptualist contemporaries as Mel Bochner and Lawrence Weiner; likewise the relation of his time-lapse pairs of urban landscapes registering a passage of time to Eve Sonneman’s “Diptych” photographs, and even shots of graphic layouts shown book-in-hand as Ed Ruscha-like.
After the very situation that had made Downsbrough’s project possible had itself shifted, the work of this highly accomplished, longtime expatriate seemed to fall between stools. Now, interestingly enough, it’s not just the same thing the second time around. But art-readers now should have no difficulty situating that prominent aspect of Downsbrough’s sculptural as well as photographic work, which concerns the social setting of language. If I prefer to emphasize his “constructional” photography, it is for an uningratiating if also unrepentant formalism that is never stagey-sublime. To be anecdotal: It seems quite in the spirit of Downsbrough to regret how the renovation of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway looks to be getting rid of the semi-cylindrical sheet metal “fenders” that gave the roadway such a fine fuselage-like look. Mere formalism? Not when so phenomenologically engaging.
On another front: Peter Downsbrough: The Book(s) (2011), edited by Moritz Küng, is a detailed catalogue raisonné of Downsbrough’s many artist’s books published by Hatje Cantz to accompany an exhibition, Peter Downsbrough: The Book(s) 1968–2010, at deSingel, Antwerp, in 2011, and El Canodrum, Barcelona, in 2012. Both books bring us up to date on this artist with whom, in a wider world, we Americans ought to catch up.