New York

Ben Vautier

Zabriskie Gallery

This collection of “Photo Rejects,” which date from the ’70s through the present, does not exactly show Ben Vautier as a photographer, if that term means having cultivated a style, a technique, a determinate attitude toward one’s equipment, medium, and subjects. Vautier, a veteran of both Fluxus and Nouveau Réalisme, is not particularly interested in such a definition of photography as an art. But he is intrigued by the act of taking photographs and the condition of being photographed, which is to say, the way one lives and acts in a world that includes photography among other activities; and above all, he is possessed by a fascination with photographs as objects, whoever took them and how, and whatever they show. So you find a box of photographs with two fist-sized holes in it inviting you to “put hands/just to feel the photos”; another box, open at the top, “for the pleasure of touching and going through photos”; and an ashtray full of charred ones, marked “burn your photos here.”

The single, isolated image does not get much respect here—that sort of rarefied fetish would contradict Vautier’s appreciation of the strangeness of photographs as they exist in ordinary life, where they typically appear not individually but in profusion. That’s how they are here: in groups, in sequences, in piles, and in installations (however ad hoc). Who can count them? And they exist always in tandem with words. There is writing in, on, and next to the photographs, but always writing, because it is language that mediates our relation to images—and because Vautier is an artist of relentless volubility. Plenty of photographers have shown us the image of their desire. That would be too portentous for an artist who’d rather show an ordinary snapshot of a pretty girl on the street, writing, “When I take a photo of a girl I always dream she falls in love with me and we go to bed but . . .”

With his loopy aphorisms inscribed in a schoolboyish hand and his chummily familiar signature (just “Ben”), Vautier seems to want to avoid being taken too seriously. Yet he can pull off a serious Conceptual project when he feels like it—for instance, a series from 1980 showing whitewashed shop windows (the custom in France when stores are closed for vacation) as a sort of zero-degree painting. That idea was so good Bertrand Lavier redid it just this year. Maybe it was a mistake for Vautier to have given the game away by pursuing his notion at sufficient length for it to look like an idea, a work, when it would have been more his style to toss it off in the guise of an almost accidental by-product of a disarming but lazy eccentricity—good camouflage for an incurable obsession.

Barry Schwabsky