TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT April 1991

DEEP SURFACE: THOMAS RUFF

WHEN THOMAS RUFF was introduced as an “up-and-coming” artist at Art Cologne in 1987, the 150th birthday of photography was approaching, with all its accompanying foofaraw. The interest in Ruff at such a time was both curious and appropriate, since his work retrospectively invalidates a fundamental notion about photography throughout its history: the idea of its documentary “reality.” In the photograph, Ruff shows, we are confronted by a second-, third-, indeed nth-hand kind of reality, a reality—whatever that means—fundamentally challenged; or, alternatively, by an utterly absolute reality, the reality of art, where the only presence is the image itself. Both subtly and powerfully, this view of art as the inevitable endpoint of photography’s unquenchable flood of images finds cool but seductive expression in Ruff’s work.

Ruff’s ongoing oeuvre comprises four groups of images—portraits, buildings, the stars, and, most recently, rephotographed newspaper pictures—that were begun consecutively but that he continually expands. A prior series, the “Interieurs” (Interiors, 1979–81), Ruff sees as finished and complete; it was too calm and controlled to cause much stir in those days of “wild painting,” and is only now gaining recognition. At first glance, all these works may seem to point back to such ’20s and ’30s photographers as August Sander, Albert Renger-Patzsch, or the artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit, the “new objectivity.” But though those “objective” photographers were quite aware of the discrepancy between the photograph and the external reality it documented—their manipulation of their images was utterly calculated, after all—they remained principally concerned with the photograph’s documentary quality, with the “thingness” of the object shown. Ruff, on the other hand, shifts the emphasis to the photograph itself, to the autonomous artificiality captured in and by the photographic medium. The reality that the work shows becomes a fiction; the reality that the work constitutes is no more, and no less, than the cool and lovely glow of the photograph’s surface.

Complaints about the flood of mechanically reproduced images in the world today have been standard intellectual fare for some time. Becoming bromides, they have lost their appeal. And the challenging condition that gives rise to them is in any case a fait accompli. What such complaints fail to consider is the beauty of the surface of this vast river of images, the slick skin of the photograph sealing a flat depth that constitutes its own dimension, a dimension apart from the real world. At this crucial interface, this field that is thoroughly gridded and plotted by its very nature, Ruff’s work reflects on the relationship between the validity of pictures and the validity of Being, working through a tension between what is standardized and regulated and what is available as subjective choice.

Ruff deals with the photograph as an esthetic and artificial reality—as an order of reality in itself. Basic to his work is the idea of the sample, of choosing freely from a preexisting field of inherited structures, a series of classic motifs: the human portrait, a central artistic genre since the Renaissance; architecture, another time-honored subject; the stars, symbols of the cosmos, and an ancient leitmotiv in all sorts of human reflection on our place in the world; and now the newspaper photo, a treasury of whatever is on people’s minds, from military matters to tourism, from politics to culture, from the economy to the entertainment industry. Ruff approaches each of these genres as a kind of found object. He has been clipping newspaper photos, for example, since the early ’80s, at first sporadically, then more purposefully, but always according to personal criteria of quality and inclusiveness. Every area of journalism is to be represented in Ruff’s collection, which is lovingly archived. But when the artist rephotographs and exhibits these images, as he has since last year, he never gives the viewer any identifying reference, not even a title, as a guide. He merely enlarges them by a specific ratio, mounts them in standard frames, and installs them in a loose “Saint Petersburg–style” hanging—the rectangles fitting jigsawlike over a broad expanse of wall, rather than hung consecutively in a straight line, the more usual contemporary mode. The result is a tableau of published opinion and secondhand information devoid of any explication or context. In this array of specialized knowledge of the world, everything has the same importance, from the strange to the presumably familiar. This is a wall of samples—of possible pictures.

In these works, the world of pictures seems a world without access to fact, a sublimely calm-looking, depthless world. And photography appears as a leveler, a tool for shifting the register of the real. Public figures, landscapes, political events, movie stills, the industrial and the natural—everything is in the same tone, and in the standard proportions of the newspaper column. The absence of titles tells us that Ruff has no interest in the determination of content. Though the viewer may have seen similar images countless times, this work has no anecdotal link with reality. Ruff’s porings through the newspapers have never been totally methodical: there is an arbitrariness in his apparent objectivity. His newspaper works, perhaps more clearly than the preceding series, reveal something crucial: behind the objective treatment of motif, medium, and form (categories Ruff seems to see as banal but useful), the work is rooted in the inexplicable decisions of subjective choice. It is this ambiguity between objectivity and subjectivity that gives the work its tension, a tension that points beyond the definable.

For example, to the stars. These pieces of Ruff’s are details taken from negatives and blown up to identical formats of 101½ by 73½ inches. “To simplify matters,” the negatives all come from the ISO observatory in Chile, where they were produced, of course, for the use not of artists but of scientists. Since the purchase of isolated selections from the observatory’s output was impossible, Ruff had to buy the entire starry sky, negatives of which are now stored in a drawer in his studio.

From these identically shaped negatives, the artist chooses identically shaped details. His approach is neither the romantic’s nor the stargazer’s; rather, he looks at the density of the stars—at the distribution, in other words, of tone and pattern. The sky becomes a place, a plane, of esthetic decision-making, with the factor under consideration being the relationship between the noncolors black and white. Perhaps more simply, the sky becomes a ground to be sampled.

Nonetheless, the upright formats of Ruff’s astral images, begun in 1989, don’t hide their origin, and their subject matter defies objectification. At a time when everything can be measured by technology, the entire cultural memory of our relationship to the stars comes to bear in works like these, despite Ruff’s unsentimental coolness. The works’ sense of compressed evocativeness is reinforced by their windowlike shape. A row of these identically configured pictures on a wall has a quality of ornament, of a peaceful patterning in alternating black and white. At the same time, the formats concentrate the visual experience of cosmic infinity.

Unlike the newspaper and star works, Ruff’s portraits and building photographs he took himself. The difference is crucial, directing our attention as much to each image’s referent as to its existence as a work of art. The portraits, for example, begun in 1984, inevitably arouse our curiosity about their sitters (especially given Ruff’s decision to make his own acquaintances, people of his own generation, the “objects” of his work). All of these faces are idiosyncratic and particular; if we knew these people, we would recognize them immediately. And yet. . . a number of other features of these photographs are just as striking: the consistency of the pose (after early profile views, Ruff settles on the full-face portrait); the unchanging ratio of the size of the head to that of the overall image; the ratio of the image itself to the body—small portraits about a third of life size, large ones about three times life size; and finally the bare white background, so that no color distracts from the tonality of the “object.” Viewing this group of works as a whole, one begins to find its formulas acting as a screen, a beautiful façade that hides the reality of the original. The effect is strengthened when several portraits hang side by side: as with the black verticals of the stars, the repetitive outlines of the sitters, all shown in the same scale, become almost abstract, like pattern. The surfaces lose their sense of depth and physicality, depriving both the person depicted and the depicting artist of the feeling of individual subjectivity that Western art historically conveys.

In his earliest portraits, Ruff did supply a colored backdrop—or, rather, he allowed his sitters to choose from a selection of backdrops whatever they felt might best do them justice. They were allowed to flatter themselves, then, by choosing a color that would suggest or harmonize with their sense of themselves. But the colors Ruff offered them challenged their wishful thinking: unpleasant lilacs and oranges underscored the artifice in play. Freeing the portrait from its competition with reality, Ruff turns truth into fiction. Some trace of documentation remains, of course, since these people are “types” of a specific era, all recognizable as part of the thirty-something generation of the ’80s. But nothing remains of what in other hands might appear as a compelling document of a real person. The sitter’s individuality does not survive the pose. Photograph and pose exist cheek by jowl, as demonstrated by the formulaic sample boards of every photo studio that has ever used its own work as an advertisement.

Conventional photographic portraits like those, of course, have a sentimental aura, a trace of which hangs around Ruff’s portrait images, despite his objectifying, standardizing approach. The group of works that the artist began next, in 1987—the architectural photographs or “Haus” series—drain that sentiment away. Ordinary-looking, even banal apartment buildings, office blocks, and factories in the Düsseldorf area, where Ruff continues to live and work, appear nakedly and bluntly. None has any curlicue of the unusual—or any distinguishing feature at all—that might hint at the reason for its inclusion in the world of the art photograph. If these buildings have a common denominator, it is their contribution to the typical hideousness of our times—their submission to the rule of practical utility. The matter-of-factness of these images echoes that of the portraits. But where a human face fights to assert its individuality, in the architectural photographs nothing distracts from Ruff’s esthetic priority. Always centered in the same way in the picture, always crowding out the surrounding field (which is sometimes further effaced by a computerized manipulation process), always shown in the same horizontal or vertical dimensions, the buildings, like the human sitters, prove the focus of an art that concentrates on its medium rather than on its subject matter. They have no depth in these photographs, no room to fill; they are prototypes of a reality that exists only in mediated form, and that here remains meaningless.

Ruff’s architectural photographs are bleak. Suppose you were friendly with the subject of one of Ruff’s portraits: your relationship might give the picture meaning. Familiarity with the sites of the building photographs, however, is unlikely to make them attractive. Structures of this kind have none of the charm that Ruff’s sitters still retain, no matter how conventionally posed and shot. And where the portraits may seem to fall into place in a grand pictorial tradition, the link between the architectural works and the history of painted or photographic landscapes is farfetched. The buildings do suggest comparison with the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruff’s teachers at Düsseldorf’s Staatliche Kunstakademie. But the apparent similarities only point up the differences. The Bechers, in documenting industrial water towers, half-timbered houses, and other relics, study more or less moribund forms of architecture that have a special historical aura. Juxtaposing numerous examples of the same types of building, their work strikes a balance between historical record and artistic typology of the ornamentation of unchanging structures, between the capturing of a vanishing world and the estheticizing of memory. This thoroughly seductive equilibrium is quite alien to Ruff’s work. Here reality appears in all its triteness—as sheer surface, a façade of absurdity. Photography is seen as mediation, and mediation as a reality in and of itself. There is no depth to explore in these images; the buildings are all façade—an appropriate effect for the medium of photography, the medium of pure surface.

Thus our consideration of Ruff’s oeuvre comes full circle. There is no bridge between material reality and the reality seemingly mediated through the photograph; the technological medium of photography is anonymous, and the objects it shows are arbitrary. Yet this linked anonymity and arbitrariness assert the radical autonomy of the photograph itself. Ruff always works to reveal the selections of reality he shows us as the objects of artistic decision-making. Consequently, his works claim to be valid only in and of themselves. These are works that “mean” not their original objects but their motifs: the portrait bust, the building, the stars, the newspaper photo.

As such, Ruff’s art connects with centuries of dealings with such motifs, picking up willy-nilly on their past treatment in art forms from painting to photography. Manipulating not the individual image but a number of extensible “series”—none of them closed, so far—Ruff gives his work the character of a fugue, which spreads out to encompass each new theme without giving up the earlier ones. The decisions he makes with every fresh series add to the outlines of an expanding grid. Some artists and critics seem to feel threatened by photography, or claim that its esthetic potential is exhausted. Ruff shows that the field remains open, despite all the knowledge and inexhaustible detail of the world it has accumulated in its short history.

Ruff keeps his distance from any social or esthetic critique. Out of that distance emerges the seductive power of the beauty of photographic appearances. Contemporary thinking on the meaning of the photograph’s beautiful surface, and on the suggestive emptiness behind its façade, shifts between rejecting it and being seduced by it. Ruff simply takes possession of it. The expression of subjective freedom of choice may be the central impulse of his work. Ruff shows that the photograph’s surface has its own validity, and that to look into the emptiness of the space beyond it is to look into a reality of subjective sensation and cognition.

Annelie Pohlen is the director of the Bonn Kunstverein.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.

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