San Francisco

Todd Eberle

While the title “Architectural Abstractions” seemed to provide a straightforward point of entry to photographer Todd Eberle’s recent solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the photographer’s reputation rubbed off on the work itself, nudging the project in a hazier direction. The compact show’s thirteen large color prints all depict grids on habitually overlooked surfaces, such as ceilings, in landmark modernist buildings by Mies van der Rohe, Adolf Loos, Philip Johnson, and others. For each work, a subtitle details the location and date of the structure shown—Untitled No. 1, 2003, for example, is subtitled Frank Lloyd Wright, Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois, 1907. And while most of the other works in the series have a cast of institutional green, this particular shot is distinguished by warm, golden wood tones. Depicting a pattern of stained-glass windows in Wright’s design that evokes the signature paintings of Mondrian, the image suggests that Eberle’s project here is a reverent meditation on the intersecting legacies of modernism.

Yet while Eberle’s goal may have seemed clear, its contextualization introduced certain ambiguities. The show was mounted in SF MoMA’s architecture and design galleries, yet the work has little in common with traditional architectural photography of the sort practiced by Julius Schulman, famed for his shots of twentieth-century architectural classics. Eberle’s interiors are depopulated, flattened, and abstracted—an approach that he developed while shooting buildings for the likes of Vanity Fair. In their consideration of the built environment, the images evoke those of Andreas Gursky—Brasílía, General Assembly 1, 1994, in particular—but when Gursky’s touring midcareer retrospective appeared at the Museum in 2003, it was presented in galleries designated more emphatically as spaces for art, suggesting a critical difference in curatorial perception of the artists’ intent.

Eberle’s Untitled No. 2, 2002, Chuck Bassett/Skidmore, Owings & Merrill follows in Gursky’s mode, minus the latter’s emphasis on perspective. Eberle’s photograph, taken in the 1963 Tennessee Pipeline Company Building in Houston, shows a dense grid of small illuminated squares emerging from a dark background, though the light and dark areas are so flattened out that it is impossible to discern scale or material. Less a critique than a formal appreciation, it has a glamorous, slightly Op art look. In the show’s introductory wall text, curator Joseph Rosa acknowledges Gursky as an influence, but also claims that Eberle’s pictures are an attempt to visually align modernist architecture with Minimalist art, describing the series as “so highly edited that it almost appears as a photographic record of work by the artist Agnes Martin.” Untitled No. 4, 2002, Gordon Bunshaft/Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, an image of Lever House in New York, comes closest to justifying this comparison. Yet while the photograph features a more delicate line than that found in most of Eberle’s shots, it remains larger, bolder, and glossier than any of Martin’s spare compositions.

In addition to his architectural studies, Eberle is well known for his early celebrity portraits in Interview magazine in the ’90s, and for his documentation of Donald Judd’s Marfa compound. This diverse portfolio complicates our approach to his current series, encouraging us to consider it as an attempt to exploit or transcend the restrictions of magazine commissions. Eberle’s riffs on modernism, while hardly as substantial as Gursky’s, remain effective in highlighting a shift from ideology to style while both alluding to mystical undertones and honoring the dignified purity of its original conception.

Glen Helfand