New York

View of “Louise Lawler,” 2011. From left: Life Expectancy (adjusted to fit), 2010–11; Plexi (adjusted to fit), 2010–11.

View of “Louise Lawler,” 2011. From left: Life Expectancy (adjusted to fit), 2010–11; Plexi (adjusted to fit), 2010–11.

Louise Lawler

Metro Pictures

View of “Louise Lawler,” 2011. From left: Life Expectancy (adjusted to fit), 2010–11; Plexi (adjusted to fit), 2010–11.

By photographing artworks in situ, wherever that situ may be—collector’s home, museum hall, warehouse—and framing her photos to include careful slices of the surrounding environment, Louise Lawler has made a practice of severing art from the aesthetic and intellectual lineages in which artist, critics, historians, and certainly the dealers and auctioneers who sell the stuff fondly like to place it, and tying it firmly instead to places, passages, and existential circumstances that arguably act on its meaning. In doing so, we often say, she has established a critique of the artwork’s status as a commodity. And so she has—not that there’s anything wrong with that! as Jerry Seinfeld might say if he wrote for October, but that critical focus shortchanges her as a visual artist.

This recent show was not a group of works but an installation—a show to be followed and traced from room to room, where images repeated in different combinations, different sizes and proportions, and different material forms. It took a while to notice that some works came in pairs, since the pairs were never in the same space—that the intimately scaled photo of an Alexander Calder sculpture from 1943, for example, given a handsome third dimension, an object quality, by its museum-box mounting, recurred, a good bit larger, printed on a thin sheet of some sticky-backed vinyl-like substance and pasted unframed and virtually flat to the wall in another room. Walking between the two to check his or her memory, the viewer also noticed that the images were differently proportioned, one more vertical than the other, and that the difference was more than a question of crop: The photo stuck to the wall showed the Calder as a taller, thinner, more elongated sculpture than its smaller twin did. And so it went with a Gerhard Richter painting of a skull, this one stretched sideways like the famous anamorphic skull in Holbein’s Ambassadors of 1533; various Andy Warhols, Donald Judds, and Sol LeWitts, the latter looking very sci-fi when distended and enlarged; one of Degas’s delicate little bronze-and-fabric ballerinas, who got widened; and more.

Some of these photos may have begun as regular Lawler works; she spotted the Calder, for example, as it transited through an auction house—Christie’s, New York—in 2008, where it stood against a Yayoi Kusama dot painting that in the photograph becomes a weird moiré behind it, like a printing error. Such strategies are typical of her. In adapting the photos to the space, though, she entered new territory. The joke here—and it did seem to me a joke, and a funny one, whereas in past work the same point has been sadder and harsher—had to do with how art is fitted into a context (Lawler titled her show “Fitting at Metro Pictures”), whether domestic or institutional, that conditions its reception. To make the Calder taller or the Degas wider may be a kind of blasphemy but isn’t a reach from checking that a piece is the right size to go in the hall, or to hold the wall in a gallery—and if it isn’t, but you still want it, why not just stretch it or squeeze it a little? If Lawler first proved herself as a sharp documentarist of the contingent conditions in which art is set, here she became a fantasist, a decorator general, a visionary of the possibilities available in a Photoshop world.

At the same time, she implicated the artist, and herself, in this process of contingency. To finger the collector who looks for a painting to match the decor is fun, but easy; the artist is complicit in, dependent on, the system. A phenomenon “Fitting at Metro Pictures” seemed to me to touch on was those artists who travel internationally, from biennial to biennial, from year to year, tailoring their work for each site; but more career-challenged artists, too, are producing objects for a market. And yet, at the same time, all artists are also trading in aesthetic and intellectual traditions and creating visual experiences—which, in this case, were jazzy, mischievous, and enveloping.

David Frankel