New York

James Welling

Metro Pictures

On entering James Welling’s show, I came to a photograph that seemed a little obscure. The top three-fourths of it were absolutely black, so nothing could be made of that part of it at all. And across the bottom there was a field of . . . or no, perhaps it was more like an activation, or even a manipulation. Whatever it was, it was white, a broken pattern of whiteness—snow on a mountain, lightning in a vacuum tube, angel dust in a crumpled glassine envelope. It occurred to me that it might just be some game Welling was up to in the darkroom. Maybe he had scratched an unexposed negative with a stylus or indulged in some other manner of abstract expressionism. But then I rejected that thought again. There was unquestionably something there; but what thing? I must try to be accurate. I must be true to the impressions and feelings I had at the time. What I saw seemed to me, basically, a bunch of white schmutz.

Moving on to the next photograph, I took hope. It turned out that I was looking at a series. Whatever was in the first picture, it was also in the second. Now I was getting somewhere, except that this photograph seemed to be identical to the original one. I studied it more closely. It couldn’t be exactly the same, could it? I became convinced that the subject was framed a little higher. Then I was sure it was framed a little lower. Then I realized it wasn’t either; or if it was, the differences were undetectable. Basically, it was just the same schmutz. I moved on to the third photograph.

It was the same, too. And the fourth. The same. The fifth. Same. Sixth. Same. There were ten photographs in the series, all identical. I walked across the gallery to look at something else for a while. What I found there was a second series. The whiteness had definitely been rearranged this time. You couldn’t fool me. But outside of that, the series was the same unvarying repetition of the same indecipherable subject. Here was, if nothing else, an argument for entropy that was very insistent. It was more than that. It was monotonous. I was almost convinced. Then, suddenly, just when I least expected it, the light dawned. In the middle of this series was a single photograph printed light enough so that all the detail was not suppressed. What I had been looking at was a loosely hung drape in whose folds some plaster chips or scraps of paper had been thrown. I left the gallery filled with self-satisfaction. I was a great critic. I had been able to recognize schmutz when I saw it.

Colin Westerbeck