New York

Peter Roehr, Film-Montagen I–III, 1965, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 22 minutes 53 seconds.

Peter Roehr, Film-Montagen I–III, 1965, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 22 minutes 53 seconds.

Peter Roehr

Peter Roehr, Film-Montagen I–III, 1965, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 22 minutes 53 seconds.

TURN WASTE GASOLINE INTO EXTRA MILEAGE. Fitting somewhere between a World War II pro-rationing slogan and ad copy for a fuel-efficient car, this saying appears over and over in Peter Roehr’s Film-Montagen I–III, 1965, a series of twenty-two short, looped film clips. It is first shown superimposed atop footage shot from the interior of a vehicle as it glides under an overpass, and is later voiced by a narrator to shots of glittering headlights over a sound track of upbeat jazz. Applying structuralist filmmaking tactics to found footage, Roehr composed this work mostly from television advertisements (primarily for automobiles and beauty products) that he received from his boyfriend Paul Maenz, who was employed by an ad agency in New York, and they vividly encapsulate the accumulation, editing, and assembly that constituted the primary activity of Roehr’s practice. The reels upon reels of outdated film Roehr salvaged, otherwise “waste,” are alchemically transformed into mesmerizing contemplations of social and economic constructs. Given his focus on cold repetition during the 1960s, it’s easy to classify Roehr as a Minimalist—his art aligns with some of the movement’s other tenets, such as an interest in industrial manufacture. Yet the dissonance of the rather human content and modest materials of Roehr’s work and its severe, mechanic form points to a more restrained, conceptual practice than that of his factory-employing, gestalt-minded American peers.

Frankfurt-based by way of Leipzig, Roehr applied a hermetic, Zen-influenced spareness to the six hundred works he produced between 1962 and 1967, before trading his practice for a politically minded head shop, Pudding Explosion, the year before his early death in 1968 at age twenty-four. At Osmos Address, a new project space accompanying the like-named photography journal, the exhibition “Extra Mileage” was Roehr’s first in the US in two decades and included just six works. Yet the show had the weight of a large survey, with each piece doing more than its fair share of heavy lifting.

The more abstract works in the exhibition are suffused with the numbing tedium of workplace technologies. Two untitled works from 1963 are both punch cards (an early computer storage device) whose centers Roehr perforated in square shapes, transforming objects intended to convey information into inert abstractions—a critique of the drudgery of modern corporate existence. Roehr’s “typographic montages,” here represented by Untitled, 1964, a four-inch cardboard square that has been repeatedly struck by the letter T in an allover grid, conflate visual art and poetry a decade before Carl Andre’s similar investigations.

“My work seeks to be more reproductive than creative,” Roehr once wrote. “I use prefabricated elements in order to minimize my participation in the process of production.” In spite of their affectless presentation, the images employed by Roehr are full of meaning that his visual repetitions attempt to empty out—similar in effect to semantic satiation, repeating a word aloud until it becomes alien. Untitled, 1965, composed of thirty-six identical pictures of a Volkswagen Beetle kicking up dust, culled from an advertising pamphlet, is never fully rid of significance or reduced to pure form, as it evokes the histories of photomontage, the Wirtschaftswunder, and US hippie counterculture. After all, one must consider that Roehr’s work is made up of the fabric of daily life, situating him as a proto-Pictures artist in the vein of Jack Goldstein. His mass-produced ciphers, whether blond bathers, careening sedans, or red price stickers, amount to a visual assault that, with humble means, muses on systemization, pointlessness, and a societal embarrassment of riches. Offering as much insight as needed, this concise exhibition served as a fitting tribute to Roehr’s simultaneously ascetic and abundant vision.

Beau Rutland