ART REVIEW : Seeing a Shift in Focus : The second half of Lannan's German exhibition is marked by a shared coherence--transforming the way we regard photos by focusing on mechanics and exposing the contradictions.


Like Part I of "Photography in Contemporary German Art: 1960 to the Present," the newly opened Part II fills to overflowing the sleek galleries of the Lannan Foundation, even though it has been cropped from its original vast scale.

The nine artists who complete the 19-artist survey, which was organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, include some of the most prominent of our time, as well as some whose work is a complete surprise.

Although it would be too much to suggest a singular "school" or "movement" for recent German art employing photographs, this selection is nonetheless marked by a certain shared coherence. Part II, also like Part I, examines a conceptually elastic approach to camera images by artists for whom the highly subjective, romantic emphasis of much postwar art was simply insupportable.

Its spiritual parents are the husband-and-wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose dispassionate black-and-white photographs of industrial structures have been widely influential.

Starting in the 1960s, the Bechers developed a consistent style to make straightforward pictures of cooling towers, blast furnaces, water towers, grain elevators and, as in this exhibition, the mine heads constructed at the mouths of Pennsylvania coal mines. Typically, the pictures are displayed in grids, emphasizing the typology of industrial forms, as if water towers were families or blast furnaces species in which diversity and sameness intertwined.

The primacy given to seemingly objective typologies accomplished two things: It swept away the reigning postwar convention in German camera work, which was an often sentimental style called Subjective Photography, and it recalled to center stage the brilliant (and recently deceased) German photographer August Sander, whose prewar project to document the German people according to such social categories as employment was an important precedent for the Bechers' industrial typologies.

Simultaneously, painter Gerhard Richter had begun to compile albums filled with photographs he made or found in publications. His pointedly titled "Atlas," which spans 1962 to the present, is a compendium of often random and "artless" pictures of seascapes, skies, abstractions, family snapshots, icebergs, the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang and on and on.

Rather like carefully orchestrated bulletin boards, the "Atlas" reveals an artist sifting through and compiling according to type the otherwise random glut of photographs that characterize contemporary life. (It's no wonder the Germans practically invented the discipline of art history.)

These artistic approaches impose a fairly sharp transformation in the way we casually regard photographs. Typically, photographs court a deceptive transparency: We look right through them, as if we are witnessing a world that is convincing in its reality and, at best, truthful in artistically penetrating whatever lay before the camera's lens. Almost unconsciously, we slide into an easy acceptance of their essentialist fictions.

The Bechers' typologies and Richter's "Atlas" dump a bucket of cold water on such unconscious seductions. Looking at mechanically manufactured images of industrial structures, the truth of the photograph itself as a mechanically constructed object stands front and center: You look at it, not through it. Faced with picture after picture of the sparkling surface of the sea, or with rows of out-of-focus photographs of architectural interiors, no single image is plainly truer than the rest: Multiplicity is acknowledged and embraced.

A subtle but cannily accomplished level of opacity is made to undermine the traditional illusion that a photograph is a mirror or a window. These works are more like paintings--which is why the word art is more appropriate than photography to describe the endeavor.

This is art that means to recognize the centrality of the camera to contemporary life, while simultaneously shedding a certain baggage carried by photography from the start. Its brilliance resides in this expansive embrace of a seeming contradiction.

Sometimes the relationship between older and younger artists in the show is direct, as in Thomas Ruff's big, gorgeously saturated color portraits of anonymous young men and women. These luscious pictures seamlessly wed the formal strategy of the Bechers (with whom Ruff studied) and their precedent in Sander. They further articulate the haunting presence of a kind of International Style Youth that is wholly of our time.

Elsewhere the relationship is more subtle. Thomas Struth's picture of visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago congregated before Georges Seurat's famous painting of weekend strollers, "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte," creates a visual echo chamber. The depicted museum visitors enact a leisure activity comparable to their painted counterparts--and we do exactly the same in relation to our photographed correlatives.

In a related but different way, the "Sunday Pictures" by little-known Hans-Peter Feldman are 21 found and juxtaposed black-and-white photographs that create a romantic mural of commercially manipulated leisure-class bliss: flowers, a kitty cat, silhouetted lovers on the beach, sunsets and such.

Reinhard Mucha's icy installation of innocuous photographs inside grim display cases guarded by empty chairs emphatically recalls the space of the modern museum, which becomes a self-conscious meeting ground for lived experience and manipulated historical memory.

Hanne Darboven uses photographs--snapshots, really, mixed with printed stamps, postcards and offset lithographs of scrawled musical scores--to record the room-by-room accumulations of stuff in her own house, as if it were a personal museum. In 424 official-looking documents that chronicle the centennial year of the birth of Kurt Schwitters, the German master of art-as-accumulation, Darboven creates an eccentric visual essay on the modern urge to communicate through collecting, collating and bureaucratizing.

The great surprise of the show is the work of the late Peter Roehr, who died in 1968 at the tender age of 24. His astonishing photo montages and short films date from 1964-65, when Roehr was barely 20. Precocious is too tame a word for them.

Using fragments of television commercials repeated 7, 11, 14 or more times, and arranging identical reproductions of advertising proofs in rigorous grids (think of Wallace Berman), Roehr employed repetition to mimic our experience of modern advertising imagery.

Through formal compression, be-bop music on the soundtrack, and subject matter that focuses on speeding automobiles and caffeine-rich coffee, these works begin to make use of a photographically manufactured sense of time. They're as fresh and as radically compelling as the early, contemporaneous work of his celebrated elders, Richter and the Bechers.

* Lannan Foundation, 5401 McConnell Ave., (310) 306-1004, through Aug. 22. Closed Mondays.

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