Palm Beach

Candida Höfer, Palacio Real Madrid I 2000, color photograph, 60 x 60".  © 2004 Candida Höfer/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Candida Höfer, Palacio Real Madrid I 2000, color photograph, 60 x 60". © 2004 Candida Höfer/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Candida Höfer

The Norton Museum of Art’s installation of “Architecture of Absence,” the first North American survey of the work of German photographer Candida Höfer, opened with an auspicious face-off. In the small entry gallery, two recent sixty-inch-square C-prints depicting empty auditoriums stared across the space at ten smaller photographs, double hung and dating back to 1979, showing a selection of interiors—lecture halls, museum galleries, dining rooms, transit stops, theaters. This introduction concisely encapsulated the terms that have dominated Höfer’s practice since the late 1970s: The public interiors that were presented, from the forlorn dayroom of a German convalescent home to the concrete-encased escalators of Zurich’s Stadelhofen train station, were all entirely devoid of people, and were shot in a thoroughly idiosyncratic range of styles that included vast panoramas and claustrophobic corner views, sharply delineated feasts for the eye and hazily focused near snapshots. And because the installation was staged so as to imply a kind of proscenium, with those hundreds of empty auditorium seats gazing at the images on the opposite wall, it sutured both the exhibition visitor (for whom those prime viewing seats were seemingly intended) and Höfer herself (retrospectively surveying her oeuvre from the front-row vantage of the present) into the social and spatial dynamic it created.

This sense of being invited into, or having landed in, the world of Höfer’s photographs is central to their uncanny effect. Looking at her unpopulated interior views—frequently shot from oblique angles that suggest passing glances rather than definitive visual summaries, and full of furniture, fixtures, and objects that appear to be quietly waiting for someone—viewers may feel as if they’re wandering through a world in which everyone has simply vanished. Electrical outlets and carpet stains are suddenly infused with an odd significance, for in this world without people (or, per the exhibition title, in this “architecture of absence”), objects and incident become active participants in some sort of strange, unscripted drama, communing with one another and the architectural containers they fill. If we are of this world—for we all use train stations and go to museums, after all, perhaps the very same ones we see in these images—Höfer makes us feel that we are nevertheless alien to it, that we’re trespassing on a secret life of spaces and things.

This is a peculiar and delicate achievement. Höfer doesn’t work through a strategy of explicit estrangement (as in the modernist tradition of László Moholy-Nagy or Aleksandr Rodchenko, say, wherein architectural forms become barely recognizable, nearly abstract); rather, she locates the inherent strangeness of the most deadpan realism. Here is the headquarters of Berlin public radio; here, Oslo’s Viking Museum; here, New York’s Pierpoint Morgan Library: Seen through Höfer’s lens, all of these structures appear strikingly awkward, constructed, contingent. In 1927 Siegfried Kracauer wrote that in photography, “for the first time, the inert world presents itself in its independence from human beings”—and that in making this presentation possible, the photograph confronts its viewers with “the provisional status of all given configurations.” Höfer is of course far removed from the late-Weimar ferment in which Kracauer was writing, but his words nevertheless describe her project more aptly than any I know. Focusing overwhelmingly on those spaces in which modern Western culture collects and disseminates information—universities, lecture halls, museums, and above all, libraries—she reveals a fragility in the very project of knowledge itself.

These are certainly not the terms with which Höfer has described her own work. Despite her decades-long focus on public interiors, primarily in the United States and Europe, she has stressed that it is formal—and not social—concerns that drive her practice. As she explained in a 1989 interview in the Swiss journal Artis, she seeks spaces that are free and open, marked by a dominant organizing logic (most characteristically, the rows of tables in library reading rooms), and neither too beautiful nor too perfect. “To highlight social function is not my concern,” she has said, “even if that should mean that I’m completely superficial.” It is, I think, in precisely this skirting of superficiality—what Italian critic Gregorio Magnani has termed her “essential unwillingness to represent objects and architecture as embodiments of ideas”—that the unique power of Höfer’s work lies. For in abdicating any explicit sociological project—forgoing the honed ideological analysis of such architectural studies as Lucinda Devlin’s images of execution chambers, for instance, or even Catherine Opie’s photographs of California mini-malls—Höfer is able to create something like a formal portrait of the social itself, an expansive study of the spaces that manifest the dream of a shared public culture.

It was in its obfuscation of any such broader implications of Höfer’s photographs that the Norton exhibition, it must be said, fell short. One could not help but feel that the curators, who worked closely with the artist in organizing the show, had accepted Höfer’s own reading of her work a bit too credulously: Beautiful to a fault, the exhibition situated Höfer as above all an accomplished maker of lushly scaled, smart, crystalline interior views, as if Andreas Gursky had ditched the digital effects and taken a summer job with Architectural Digest. Driving this suggestion was the show’s disproportionate selection of photos taken since the late ’90s, when Höfer began using a 6 x 6 cm Hasselblad and tripod for much of her work. With this development (and her more recent use of an even larger format 8 x 10 camera), Höfer’s images have become increasingly painterly in both scale and detail, largely forgoing the shabby idiosyncrasies of her earlier shots to concentrate on summarizing views of immaculate, even monumental, interiors. Such were the photographs that dominated the Norton exhibition: impeccably shot and grandly scaled images of spaces that are, indeed, open, ordered, and just the right amount of gorgeous, from Venice’s Scuola Grande di San Rocco to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. And the installation stressed precisely the formal correspondences among these subjects (as well as their humbler counterparts): The Beinecke’s translucent marble walls were paired with the Morgan Library’s illuminated and enclosed bookshelves, thus emphasizing the light-emitting vertical expanses of each; the deep recessional space of Oslo’s Theaterplatz subway station was set against the Hollywood Squares grid formed by the interior windows of a Nuremberg office building; and Verner Panton’s over-the-top corporate cafeteria for German newsweekly Der Spiegel was hung so as to resonate with the baroque splendor of dining-for-one-hundred at Madrid’s Palacio Real as depicted across the room. To move through the show’s five galleries was to endlessly spot such correspondences, to see interior space as a set of structural and decorative echoes spanning centuries and social configurations—which was admittedly edifying as a crash course in design history, but tended to overshadow the deeper social intelligence of so many of the images on display.

The inherent problem with curating Höfer’s work is that its specificity lies precisely in the heterogeneity of its seemingly homogenous project. Though other former students of Bernd and Hilla Becher, notably Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff, have taken architecture as a primary concern, it is Höfer who has focused most intensely on the built environment for the past three decades; but in doing so, she has taken on such a copious subject (does she plan to photograph every lecture hall and library in the Western world?) and so studiously avoided the stylistic and technical consistency that defines most photographic typologies (like, say, the Bechers’), that what at first appears a steadfastly systematic project in fact reveals a kind of antisystem at its core. There is a craziness to Höfer’s interior images—that of an apparent logic that we feel almost able to grasp—that the curator’s ordering gaze necessarily attempts to restrict.

Still, fewer explicitly formal pairings and a bit less elegance would have made for a more rigorous and evocative exhibition, as would some inclusion of the loose strands of Höfer’s oeuvre. The show was apparently intended as a monographic overview of Höfer’s interiors, not a survey of her entire body of work. And yet one may legitimately ask whether the interiors themselves can be fully understood when excised so cleanly from the context of her practice as a whole—particularly here, in their first major institutional outing on this side of the Atlantic. How does our understanding of Höfer’s “architecture of absence” change when it is considered together with what we might term her “architecture of presence”—the late ’70s photographic studies of Turkish Gastarbeiter (guest workers), congregating at home and at neighborhood hangouts in Cologne and Hamburg, that immediately preceded her shift to depopulated interiors? Or with her ’90s photographs of zoological gardens, or her series “Twelve,” exhibited at Documenta 11 and composed of in situ studies of each cast of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais? In every one of these cases, we can see that Höfer’s focus is, indeed, space and sociability, the self-conscious construction of some idea of “community” that, however, always seems to fall short: stranded in a forlorn plaza (a Rodin bronze), confined by expanses of concrete (animals in the zoo), marginalized by the lingering designation “guest” (Turks in Germany).

The two and a half decades of photographs in “Architecture of Absence” tell part of this larger story. As contemporary as some of the interiors they depict may appear, the images all feel somehow dated, like remnants of an age just past. In one of the Norton’s galleries, two photographs representing the Hamburg and Maastricht university libraries, respectively, were hung on neighboring walls: Hamburg’s hulking card catalogue, looking like a set of abandoned boxcars in the library’s classically appointed skylighted atrium, seemed to mock the postmodern pretensions of its recently completed Dutch counterpart, as if to suggest that the latter’s elaborate skeletal structure and miles of shelves would soon appear just as outmoded, victim of an age of electronically stored and accessed information in which students barely know how to locate a book. Both structures, like the Beinecke and the Morgan and the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (old and new) and the New York Public Library and the Deutsche Bücherei in Leipzig, stood in the exhibition as emptied monuments, relics of an era that believed in the instantiation of knowledge and its collective pursuit, only to see both—knowledge and collectivity—dispersed into an endless flow of dematerialized code.

Höfer’s interior photographs, finally, appear as a kind of archaeological record of Enlightenment modernity, in all its shabbiness and beauty and promise. The accomplishment of her work is both to provide this record, however provisional it may be, and, more significantly, to confront us with the very premise of its necessity. Absence connotes loss—and it is this, I think, that ultimately permeates both Höfer’s practice and the architectural spaces that comprise it.

Graham Bader is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in art history and archaeology at Columbia University.

Co-organized by the University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach, and the Norton Museum of Art, “Architecture of Absence” is on view at the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, through April 16, and travels to the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, May 5–Aug. 13; the Museum of Art, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, Sept. 14, 2006–Jan. 6, 2007; and the Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tennessee, Feb. 23–May 20, 2007.