New York

Lutz Bacher, Empire (detail), 2014, Plexiglas, sandbags, two-channel digital video (color, sound, 43 minutes 1 second), dimensions variable. Installation view.

Lutz Bacher, Empire (detail), 2014, Plexiglas, sandbags, two-channel digital video (color, sound, 43 minutes 1 second), dimensions variable. Installation view.

Lutz Bacher

Greene Naftali Gallery

Lutz Bacher, Empire (detail), 2014, Plexiglas, sandbags, two-channel digital video (color, sound, 43 minutes 1 second), dimensions variable. Installation view.

One summer evening in 1964, at the suggestion of his friends, Andy Warhol trained a rented 16-millimeter camera on the Empire State Building, shooting the monolith for hours on end. The resulting film, Empire, 1964, is a study as much in cinematographic looking as it is on the properties of film itself; though the image of the building at night is otherwise fixed, small dramas play out through exposure, the shifting of light over time, and the slight jumpiness of the image as the celluloid passes through the projector.

The centerpiece of Lutz Bacher’s exhibition “For the People of New York City”—a selection of sixteen works made between 1999 and 2014—was the expansive two-channel video installation Empire, 2014, a piece similarly predicated on the properties of a time-based medium. Turned on their sides and strapped awkwardly to propped-up wooden benches, two video projectors on opposite sides of the gallery cast the image of the iconic building lit up at night toward ten sculptural Plexiglas surfaces weighted down with sandbags. Refracted by the plastic and bouncing onto the walls, columns, and other Plexiglas surfaces, the light from the projectors multiplied the image, which rocked unsteadily as a droning tone filled the space. While pulling apart the properties of projected light, the installation also seemed a lo-fi diagram of digital space and the circulation of images: The picture was duplicated, diluted, and dislocated, losing resolution as it moved through each flat screen. Fifty years after Warhol pictured the city’s majestic authority through the ESB, Bacher shows us a tarted-up, LED-light-spangled tourist attraction, broadcast like a Jumbotron ad for New York City and its people today.

Like Warhol’s, Bacher’s work is often effortless but rarely easy, which is why a comparison between the two artists leads us to a fuller understanding of the latter’s multifarious practice. While Bacher’s most recent work trades on opacity—embodying shifting styles, techniques, and media that masquerade as facile reactions to contemporary life—during her more-than-forty-year career, she has consistently taken up the politics of power and gender; alongside such artists as Cady Noland and Elaine Sturtevant, Bacher was critical in bridging the media savvy of the Pictures generation and the slacker neo-Conceptualism of the early 1990s (take, for example, her joke prints and appropriated Vargas-girl paintings). But as this sizable exhibition made clear, Bacher’s work relies as much on the denial of meaning as it does on the denial of authorial power (via her use of a pseudonym). A Song of Ice and Fire, 2013, for example—a color photo that was hung low to the ground in a back gallery with the scatter piece Marbles, 2012—depicts a diorama-like scene of three figures around a faux fire, two covered with snow and one a flat, cutout photographic representation of a woman. The mysterious picture seems lifted from a children’s book and indeed points toward an obscure narrative that only a child might understand (hence, presumably, the low hang).

Children or their toys appeared elsewhere in the show—in the scanned and enlarged photo The Baby, 2012; the video Fog, 2014; the stuffed-animal-like sculpture Pillow, 2014; the doodled animation Spud, 2001; the twenty-nine ink drawings of Knots, 2010; and even in the installation How Will I Find You, 2014, a massive pile of empty and broken casts used in the manufacture of tchotchkes. This exhibition—Bacher’s ode to the inhabitants of her city—at once addressed the adult world of New York (its structures, buildings, and facts) and its more imaginary, or childlike, realm. Perhaps Bacher proposed that when we gaze at tall buildings and handheld screens, our direct experience of the world gets mediated by digital light and we are denied something of the “real”—and yet the real has become spectacle, its dreaminess no less an authentic way of looking.

Catherine Taft