Letter from BERLIN

Thomas Ruff: Photograms
Johnen Galerie | November 7, 2013 – January 24, 2014

Wolfgang Tillmans: Silver
Galerie Buchholz | November 28, 2013 – January 18, 2014

Natalie Czech: I Cannot Repeat What I Hear
Capitain Petzel | November 23, 2013 – January 25, 2014

I’ve written about exhibitions by two of these artists before. With Ruff, I remain captivated by what I called the “swaying” of his rigorous production, functioning as focus instead of distraction; with Tillmans it’s still about how he consistently reminds me to never take anything for granted. I traveled to Berlin to see two exhibitions of painters whose work I support wholeheartedly: Lawrence Carroll (at Buchmann Galerie), who was the subject of the very first text I published in 1988, and Christine Streuli (at Haus am Waldsee), who is the latest addition to my stay-committed-to-his-or-her-work list. It’s not that Ruff’s and Tillmans’s exhibitions diverted me from some rigid mission to stick with painting (after all, neither Carroll nor Streuli do themselves, and Ruff and Tillmans have also challenged such labels for some time); rather it was the surprise of discovering the work of Natalie Czech and her (as the press release states) “vacillat[ion] between concrete poetry and conceptual photography” that reoriented my entire visit to this deeply satisfying city, firmly re-sparking the synapses in my brain that keep me attentive to the ideological underpinnings of photography that exist today in conversation, rather than confrontation with painting. That opposition—it’s so clear now—is so 20th century, and anyway, it seems to me that over the past 25 years the most important photography has made good use of much of the dialogue around painting to get where it is now, and vice versa.

Wolfgang Tillmans, “Silver 151”, 2013. Emulsion on paper (unique), 61 × 50.8 cm. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne.

Looking for a way to reinvigorate the modernist historical form of the photogram without a camera, Thomas Ruff worked with Wenzel S. Spingler to use a 3-D computer program to “build” objects virtually that could then be “placed” on or above digital paper and exposed to colored light to then render what still look like images and shadows. The seven versions that he presented at Johnen are the most beautiful of the works in these three exhibitions. “em.phg.02” (2013) is pure sumptuousness, all lush purplish-bruised-browns with a quality of light that reminded me of Analytical Cubism in the best way; while “em.phg.03” (2013) is the most Mechano-Futurist-Utopian in its golden metallic UFO shapes. “phg.04_II” (2013) was exhibited appropriately in the office on its own because it brought serious bling to the series that I encountered just at the moment when these works could maybe have started to tip (just a bit) toward modernist veneration—but not really.

Tillmans also brought some serious color, presenting together for the first time a selection of his abstract “Silver” photographs. He began making them in the late 1990s, as did Ruff, exposing photo paper to colored light, or sometimes starting with unexposed paper, running everything through a processor that contained leftover water and traces of used chemicals, including the silver nitrate from which the series gets its name. Tillmans sees these works as observations of nature, and that they very much are: “Silver 105” (2012) is like a rectangular patch of the sky glimpsed through an unwashed window, that is until you notice the slight shift of color in a strip along the left edge of the composition and realize that it’s really more a different type of natural blue; while “Silver 151” (2013) would more than hold its own beside the most organic Twombly, not to mention Richter—both of whom merit mention because of the extent to which Tillmans’s photographs present a formal “language” that very much maintains the social structures of his overall enterprise. [See my review of Cy Twombly: The Natrual World, Selected Works, 2000-07 in the June 2009 Rail.]

Courtesy: Thomas Ruff and Johnen Galerie, Berlin.

Thankfully, Natalie Czech’s show came along to open up territory (at least in my head) between Ruff and Tillmans. More in line with the likes of Christopher Williams, and, especially, the exceedingly important work of Larry Johnson, this was one of the most thorough and satisfying presentations of an emerging artist I’ve seen in a long time. As indicated above, Czech’s work is language, without apology, but it is also visually compelling and as beautiful as Ruff’s and Tillmans’s more direct approaches. With, in particular, her series Poems by Repetition, Czech juxtaposes images of record album covers, magazine layouts, Kindles, iPads, and books (yes, books) with presentations of poems highlighted a-word-here-a-word-there within other texts, creating an exciting new version of ut pictura poesis. My absolute favorite, “A poem by repetition by Gertrude Stein” (2013), pictures two iPads and two iPad minis with disembodied fingers on their re-presented screens that display full page views of text + image that look like pages from a reference book. There is so much layering to this work that to describe it is to enervate it, to attempt to contain something that I found just as irrepressible as the lushness of Ruff’s and Tillmans’s imagery. Two of the artists on my stay-committed-to-his-or-her-work list have been joined by a very thought-provoking third.


Natalie Czech, “A poem by repetition by Gertrude Stein”, 2013, Pen (lightfast) on 2 color-prints, 2 frames, museum glass, 2 parts, each: 40.1 × 19.3 ̋, Ed. of 5, 2 AP, © the artist, courtesy Capitain Petzel, Berlin.


Terry R. Myers

Terry R. Myers is a critic and independent curator based in Los Angeles.