New York

Bernd and Hilla Becher

Sonnabend Gallery

Since 1956, the West German team of Bernd and Hilla Becher has been photo documenting the edifices of the Industrial Revolution: a cement plant in Neumarkt, Bavaria; a steel plant in Steubenville, Ohio; and other regional attractions not on the typical tourist's route. Although the Becher do not transform the sites that they visit, their work, like that of their Conceptualist contemporaries Daniel Buren and Christo, is produced under strict narrative and esthetic constraints, in their case yielding a photographic language so consistent that their work to date can be read as a carefully articulated catalogue of the real. They have restricted their subject matter to the industrial landscape, and have continued to produce identical-size black-and-white photographs, arranging them in gridlike formations of 2 to 20, with each group presenting a single “category” (for example, one group shows details of hot blast stoves from several different factories in Europe, while another presents a taxonomy of blast furnace heads).

Roland Barthes believed that any photograph speaks of death because it captures a vanished moment in time. The Bechers’ images of disuse and obsolescence are no exception. Although the artists avoid the estheticizing impulse, their photographs of the towering machines and factories against muted skies have the melancholic quality of ancient ruins and the loneliness of Atget’s empty streets. The light is always the same hazy gray, but the photographs have a crisp clarity that reminds one of Charles Sheeler or Walker Evans.

Subtle changes in the Bechers’ strict methodology are detectable in their newest works from 1988, 35 of which were on view in their recent show here. They have begun to pay even greater attention to the details of machines: the windings of steel pipes and the intricate patterns that they form in works such as Gas Cleaning Plant (Details), and Coke Plant (Details) at times become visual analogues for limbs and sexual organs. This concentration on specifics, and the compelling biomorphic readings it engenders, suggest that the Bechers’ methodology is mirroring their industrial subject matter less than it ever has; that they are using the camera more than ever before to discover beauty and visual interest in a world of structures built solely for practical purposes. Their composite arrangements form grids within grids, and dynamic meetings of horizontals, verticals, and diagonals, as in the triptych Hot Blast Stoves (Details). At times, the compositions approach the formal precision of Mondrian.

Whether or not these subtle transformations enrich or hinder their work is hard to say as yet. But they certainly disrupt a practice that has until now only admitted conventional esthetic satisfactions through the back door.

Matthew A. Weinstein