PRINT December 2014

Tim Griffin

View of “Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness,” 2014, Museum of Modern Art. From left: Untitled (Study in Yellow and Green / East Berlin) . . . , 2012; Clockwise from Manufacturer Name (Outer Ring) . . . , 2008; Window (with Window Cutaways) . . . , 2010; Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide / © 1968 . . . , 2005. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

LOCATED AT THE VERY HEART of Christopher Williams’s retrospective, “The Production Line of Happiness,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was an image that stood apart for seeming at once so incongruous and yet utterly representative of the artist’s oeuvre. Like so many of Williams’s works, this photograph takes its title from an exhaustive inventory of the circumstances of its making, beginning with TecTake Luxus Strandkorb grau/weiß/Model no.: 400636—naming the branded model of a beach chair and the online store from which it was purchased—before moving to the chair’s materials and the exact date and location of the artist’s shoot. The objects depicted within the image’s frame are similarly reflexive, including the canopied bench, the striped canvas and cushions of which immediately summon Williams’s earlier photograph of a Daniel Buren ceiling tile—a citation effectively echoing the elder artist’s assertion that institutional (indeed, both architectural and social) context inevitably generates a syntax within which any image or object obtains specific cultural significance. And, as if to underline how, for Williams, such a grammar of representation and signification must be traced back to the most basic processes and mechanisms of photography, the lower right corner of his picture features a power box made by the now defunct photographic-equipment company Balcar, and this corporate name is emblazoned on a lighting apparatus that slices across the image’s upper right corner. (In fact, the instrument’s sharp angle mirrors the stripes’ diagonal grade while meeting them within the composition, conjuring—if one allows oneself the lyrical leap—the blades of a closing shutter.) The image, in other words, seems perfectly reflective of the artist’s renowned predilection for delays and deferrals, which place meaning at a distance from viewers beholding what otherwise might seem the simplest and most familiar of pictures. Yet all such Brechtian gestures toward anti-illusionism are nevertheless placed in high stylistic relief as, there, near the photograph’s center—and taken as its apparent subject—is 2012’s Playboy Netherlands Playmate of the Year, Zimra Geurts, who seems to offer audiences another kind of reveal but for one aspect: her laughing smile. For Geurts, while topless, has clearly set aside her everyday task of modeling—she is not at work, measured by the conventions of her usual portraits, and so her demeanor exudes an air of realism—but if this is the effect or affect of “happiness,” the conditions that produced it (is she laughing with the photographer? For? Or, however unlikely, at?) remain at a genuine remove. At least at first blush.

Of course, it is hardly unusual for Williams to dwell in this way on a figure whose very presence is defined by a kind of absence or pregnant unknowability. He famously made some of his very earliest work—specifically, SOURCE . . . , 1981, which he created for his MFA thesis at CalArts—by sifting through the photographic archives of the John F. Kennedy Library for pictures of the president, taken on a single day in 1963, that capture the iconic politician facing away from the camera. As well known in this respect is Williams’s series “Angola to Vietnam*,” 1987–89. Here the artist made twenty-seven images of glass flowers by the Dresden-based Blaschka family, selecting a floral specimen from each country cited on an Amnesty International list of nations engaging in political disappearances; at MoMA, he punctuated the collection with another work made in 1989, Brasil, a framed cover of the August 15, 1988, issue of Elle magazine (French edition), which features models wearing sailor hats emblazoned with the names of eight countries around the world. If the flowers are markers of disappearance—redoubled by the fact that their own manufacture can never be replicated, given that such trade secrets passed with the Blaschkas to the grave—the magazine image underscores a radical disconnect between the terms of identity and individuals’ photographic representation (or, better, fabrication) in the globalized commercial sphere.

Further delineating such an ever-receding connection between person and representation within the artistic realm, Williams in 1991 asked a floral designer to create a bouquet using flowers from each of these eight countries, dedicating it to two artists—Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D’Arcangelo—who had also disappeared, by accident and suicide, respectively. Significantly, this attenuated thread was thoroughly woven through the installation at MoMA, where the photographed bouquet offered another kind of centerpiece for the show—the image was encountered at the exhibition’s center axis, just ahead of TecTake, in fact—providing an example of Williams’s long-standing desire to problematize conceptions of authorship while underlining in counterpoint one’s social and cultural surroundings. As the photo of the bouquet signals a mise en abyme of absence, with project pointing back to project, and image directing viewers back to vanished individuals, so its very wall support—constructed using the directions for a 1978 work by D’Arcangelo—underscores the role of societal structures and modes of production in the creation, and erasure, of types of viewing subjects. And such a sentiment was only refracted in “Production Line,” as Williams and his curatorial team left walls from several of the MoMA galleries’ previous exhibitions partly intact, and as the artist included two portions of the walls from this traveling retrospective’s previous iteration, in the photography galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago. (Though here, it must be said, the artist signals an institutional balancing act, suggesting how his work is valued differently in medium-specific venues, even while his decision to place the viewer in a somewhat precarious critical position, eschewing captions yet utilizing familiar commercial practices, finds precedents in ostensibly documentary endeavors by figures such as Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men [1941].)

What is perhaps most remarkable about Williams’s practice, and what is especially notable on the occasion of a retrospective such as this, is that the narrative around its critical reception has remained largely intact for so long. For a good deal of the above perspective on his work could have been—and was—articulated in literature going back more than twenty years. Indeed, if the artist’s work is typically lauded today for its crisscrossing of conceptual and commercial motifs, making art-historical maneuvers for decidedly contemporary eyes, it is nevertheless worthwhile to look back at scholar Thomas Crow’s 1993 essay “The Simple Life: Pastoralism and the Persistence of Genre in Recent Art,” which considers Williams in the context of Dan Graham’s magazine piece Homes for America, 1966. The “promise of realism contained in [Graham’s] plain diction,” Crow noted, was confirmed at “the level of abstract critical allegory”—and one cannot help but think in such a vein, where the most cerebral endeavors are nevertheless linked to the most common, regarding Williams’s continual use of commercial modes in photography, from its models, color charts, and lighting registers to its resolution and saturated color. (This is the technical counterpart to Graham’s deadpan prose, deployed, per Crow, to engage the conditions of larger society that were jeopardizing the very notion of individuality.) All this being said, such discursive persistence, taken by itself, is not terribly noteworthy. The first critical assessment of an artist’s work is often the one that sticks, with minimal revisions made over time, and the same can be noted of other recent practitioners, from Cindy Sherman to Martin Kippenberger and beyond. But when a practice such as Williams’s revolves so much around the social and technological conditions that contribute to meaning, one must ask how those conditions might have shifted to allow for that practice’s wider reception and more widespread praise.

Which is perhaps only another way of wondering whether, in “The Production Line of Happiness,” we might not only have engaged Williams’s work but also, at the artist’s behest, encountered ourselves beginning to look differently at the recent past that gave rise to it. Consider the enigmatic smile in TecTake alongside a passage from Siegfried Kracauer’s 1927 essay “Photography,” in which the theorist writes of “the girl [who] smiles continuously, always the same smile,”

the smile is arrested yet no longer refers to the life from which it has been taken. Likeness has ceased to be of any help. The smiles of plastic manikins in beauty parlors are just as rigid and perpetual. This manikin does not belong to our time; it could be standing with others of its kind in a museum, in a glass case labeled “Traditional Costumes 1864.”

Kracauer goes on to describe how such an image seems to contain only relics and figures of the past, and yet if the photograph gives these things duration, it is not at all that they outlast time, “but, rather, it is time that makes images of itself out of them.” The smile might be enigmatic, but it is paradoxically unambiguous in one respect: The moment it occasions is never retrievable—just as the conditions that made its articulation possible must inevitably recede, so that TecTake presents a smiling bouquet for the past—Williams’s own, and ours—in art.

“The Production Line of Happiness” was curated by Roxana Marcoci at MoMA; by Matthew S. Witkovsky at the Art Institute of Chicago, which co-organized the exhibition; and by Mark Godfrey at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, where it will be on view Apr. 29–June 21, 2015.

Tim Griffin is Executive Director and Chief Curator of The Kitchen in New York and a Contributing Editor of Artforum.