PRINT March 1973

Unconscious Formalism, A Response to Andre’s Note on the Bechers

IN CARL ANDRE’S “NOTE on Bernhard and Hilla Becher” (Artforum, December, 1972), he deals with a body of work that came into being when a painter, Bernhard (or Bernd) Becher, gave up painting to record photographically with Hilla Becher an intriguing genus of structures that had initially concerned him as a favorite pictorial motif—industrial buildings. Thus far Andre’s fellow-artist’s sympathy is insightful. But what an artist finds fresh is not always new, and sometimes not even problematic. One creative function of art history is to draw on the memory banks of culture to claim for contemporary artists the traditions to which they may unknowingly contribute, bringing into light work by past artists whose activity was obscured by the (temporary) activation of other traditions.

I found this important for one reason, because of Hilla Becher’s statement that what they do may not be “art” and that whether or not it is art doesn’t matter. Not to recognize this material as art would tend more to obscure than to reveal works of other, older artists (some anonymous)—artworks which, like the Bechers’ gas tanks and water towers, may be waiting in a historical limbo for the chance to acquire contemporary pertinence. Another reason for my reaction was that I detected the implication that the work of the Bechers is particularly noteworthy at the present time. I would like to sketch out a brief demonstration that the work of the two Germans is, fortunately, not “original,” and that it is so surely “art” that it can be seen in a stylistic light, and that Andre’s note involves an interesting obliviousness to history.

What exactly do the Bechers do? They take pictures of anonymous industrial architecture. Andre’s comment that “photography . . . makes it easier to compare the proportions of similar structures of unequal size” is as pregnant as it is astute, because what is at the very center of the Bechers’ method is the morphological procedure of the art historian. The approach is typological because all art history is typological before it has control of relevant data and iconography; once the types, facts, and “content” are known, more purely formal considerations reengage our full attention (as they did in the preparatory stage of fresh but ignorant perceptual consideration). The Bechers thus proceed in a way that is not distinguishable from that of an architectural historian studying the same material for the first time. Even their three-way shots of Two Pithead Gears, showing flank, three-quarter, and end views, resemble both the actual visualization procedure before a structure is built (or, in painting, works like Philippe de Champaigne’s three-way study for a portrait of Richelieu) and also the standard study angles for recording a building or sculpture for historical treatment. In other words, the method calls into play an established technique of both art and art history for recording formal facts when the work is still only a project or when it is in the first stage of historical recovery.

Andre’s admiration for the way the Bechers’ procedure destroys or suspends scale is of enormous importance. For art historians, the comparison of two photographs or slides always carries with it some anxiety over the canceling out of scale. At the same time, the procedure is indispensably beneficial because it always encourages the building of comparisons upon the evidence of purely internal, reciprocal relations and proportions. Thus, two juxtaposed slides, one of the Piazza of St. Peter’s and the other of the approach to the Manhattan Bridge, reveal—as a useful consequence of the violation of scale—that the later, smaller structure has a vital and intrinsic relation to the other (also, if one cares to notice, that it is inferior). It is no accident that the pedagogical system whereby two adjacent screens encourage a steady stream of formal comparisons, is the legacy of Heinrich Wölfflin’s teaching methods at the University of Munich. It is an orthodox formalist device. Ironically, this system, which in other circumstances is sharply criticized by modern artists, here becomes the very subject matter of art, instituted by two artists in Germany and confirmed by another artist in New York.

Even the poetic content in the Bechers’ series of photographs is traditional. It belongs to a specifically Romantic tradition that began when the grime had hardly settled on the industrial buildings of England; for instance, T.H. Hair’s A Series of Views of the Collieries in the Counties of Northumberland and Durham appeared in 1844. In the 20th century an enthusiasm for early, often derelict, industrial architecture comprised a literary evocative accompaniment to the buildings and theories of the International Style. Here Andre’s hunches—“structures built to serve the same purpose,” “conglomerations of machine and structure,” “structures with the same function”—are correct but fascinatingly out-of-date for such a hip artist.

To view International-Style ideas this way is the architectural equivalent of thinking that Synthetic Cubism or Constructivism is news.

Charles Sheeler’s job photographing the Ford plant at River Rouge, Michigan, in 1927, moved him to paint in a now obviously dated modernistic, Romantic-rationalist mode, then at the height of its conviction for Le Corbusier. The Bechers went in the other direction, from painting to photography, no doubt because the tradition really was dying and demanded simple documentation. Their work belongs even more to these historical realms when we think of it in terms of the publications of the art historian Sigfried Giedion, a disciple of Wölfflin: Space, Time and Architecture; the Growth of a New Tradition (1941) and Mechanization Takes Command; a Contribution to Anonymous History (1948). It is also similar to the International style-inspired antiquarianism of J.M. Richards’ The Functional Tradition in Early Industrial Buildings, with photographs by Eric de Maré (1958). Nowadays, tracking down Becher-type material has become a not uncommon hobby in Britain; handy guidebooks are published for devotees, such as the field guides of the British Archeological Research Group and even a six-penny booklet put out by London Transport.

When Bernd and Hilla Becher exhibited their photographs at the Staatliche Museum fur angewandte Kunst in Munich in 1967, they had already published in Werk und Zeit, Bauwelt, and Architectural Review. In his introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition—rather straightforwardly entitled Industriebauten 1830–1930; eine fotografische Dokumentation—Wend Fischer takes a now familiar stance: “For the presentation to be taken as monument-preservation is absurd; nothing here purports to be an artistic monument.” Or, again, “Therefore we have not troubled ourselves to pass esthetic judgments in the selection of objects, but to search out characteristic trends (Zügen).” And yet Fischer himself cannot escape the fact that the photographs, singly and in series, are indeed artworks:

The pure, precise reproduction of objects is obscured by nothing: no clouds in the sky, no shadows from the sun, no smoke from the chimneys, no people, no vehicles, nothing but the absolute fixity of the objects which any extension through movement could disturb.

I submit that Fischer contradicts himself by exhibiting photographs in his Museum for Applied Art, photographs of architecture as a matter of fact, and then denying their artistic content in a pseudo-avant-garde way on one page while asserting it on the next. Carl Andre’s reticence saves him from falling into the same trap.

Naturally the Bechers’ work has distinct stylistic features that give it identity within the tradition—more evidence that it is, in fact, art. For example, their presentation of the Albert Dock at Liverpool, in the 1967 Munich exhibition, can be compared with the Albert Dock as photographed by de Mare and published in Richards’ The Functional Tradition. The Bechers identify the structure as “Lagerhaus im ‘Prince-Albert-Dock,’ Liverpool, 1845,” and show what is a blunt mute, view of the end of one block, seen headon, whereas de Mare and Richards show three spatial, picturesque views of the handsome flanks of the warehouses enclosing the basin, and supply the following information (p. 51): “It was built, in 1845, by Jesse Hartley, who was the dock surveyor of Liverpool from 1824–60.” In other words, the art of the Bechers is so much after a certain anonymity of effect that it avoids picturesqueness and ignores the question of authorship even when the designer of a work is known to history.

The art of the Bechers has levels of meaning and reference, but all of them are distinct and apparent. It is an art (photography) dealing with a subject matter that is itself an art (architecture), using a system of morphology and typology that is well-established in formalist art history, in terms of a recognizable artistic attitude (Romanticism). It is concerned with rationalistic and utilitarian materials, but even on that score it shares in a specifically German tradition of “hard” or puritanical Romanticism that goes back as far as the 18th century.