New York

View of “Louise Lawler: Why Pictures Now,” 2017, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Martin Seck.

View of “Louise Lawler: Why Pictures Now,” 2017, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Martin Seck.

Louise Lawler

View of “Louise Lawler: Why Pictures Now,” 2017, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Martin Seck.

IN THE VIDEO The Public Life of Art: The Museum, 1988–89, Andrea Fraser guides the viewer through the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Wearing a gray business suit, she twirls past paintings by Matisse and Kline as she breathlessly enumerates the benefits museums bring to their home cities, including business talent and tourist dollars. Her script is ironic and incisive, to say the least, but the way she is framed by the camera—beside brochures and under works of art—is also striking. In one shot, a fragment of a Roy Lichtenstein painting and a burnished metal trash can form a tense whole, pieced together from art and junk, the curatorial and the custodial, high and low. In inviting the viewer to scan between these objects, the video questions art’s autonomy and more important, establishes a relationship of mutual dependency. Artwork, institution, and the viewing subject lean on one another, in a complex interchange.

Given Fraser’s starring role in the video, viewers could be forgiven for assuming that she created this work alone. Yet as the credits roll, we see that the production design is attributed to someone else: Louise Lawler. Indeed, Fraser found the ideal ally with whom to examine art’s public life at that historical moment: By 1989, Lawler had already been eyeing the institution for a decade with laserlike precision.The collaboration also fitLawler’s way of working. Unlike Fraser, who frequently figures as a character in her own projects, Lawler prefers to stay behind the camera, composing the shot. She has always approached her role as an artist with a mixture of skepticism and ambivalence, and has often assumed the guise of collaborator, designer, or photo editor in order to question the artist’s creative power and authority. This past summer, however, the self-effacing production designer of The Public Life of Art was back at MoMA, now front and center: The museum honored Lawler with a career-spanning survey, “Louise Lawler: Why Pictures Now,” curated by Roxana Marcoci with Kelly Sidley.

From the beginning of her practice in the late 1970s, Lawler’s projects have performed an almost forensic function, picturing artworks in their various sites of capture, be it bedroom or boardroom, and thereby charting the various contexts and circuits that art occupies. The exhibition at MoMA began with Glass Cage (1991/1993), two black-and-white photographs of an Edgar Degas bronze dancer tightly enclosed in a protective glass cube, her chin raised at a proud angle, museumgoers scurrying by. Here, Lawler’s investigative eye is matched by a sharp poetic sense. The pairing recurs throughout her production: A caption printed on the work’s mat compares the statue to an “expelled foetus” in a “jar of alcohol.” The gory metaphor catches our attention, but at other times Lawler outfits her images with mundane, almost administrative language, as in Arranged by Donald Marron, Susan Brundage, Cheryl Bishop at Paine Webber, Inc., NYC, 1982/2016, which depicts a Robert Longo drawing in a collector’s corporate office.

Such shifts in tone are central to Lawler’s practice, and they keep the viewer on her toes. Just as language can change an image’s stakes, different encounters between artwork and institution are capable of generating any number of effects. Certain works are cool in their delivery, such as Untitled, 1950–51, 1987, which shows a Joan Miró painting reflected in the sheen of a wooden bench at an earlier incarnation of MoMA. Others gently probe the poignancy of artworks in states of waiting or transit: A string of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s lights rests on a packing blanket in Bulbs, 2005/2006, while Gerhard Richter’s Ema (Nude on a Staircase), 1966, is tipped on its side, hunkering on the floor in Nude, 2002/2003. In each of these images Lawler foregrounds the artwork’s materiality and weight, somehow lowering but never deriding its status; more often than not, it is depicted as a vulnerable object in need of care. Something of the artwork’s precarious position also emerged in the exhibition’s wall labels: Each one listed the whereabouts of every photographic edition, and though many of Lawler’s editions are in the hands of artist friends and tony collectors, a surprising number have gone missing. These parables of provenance multiplied the narratives of each work, in which they nested like Russian dolls. For if each Lawler photograph offers a glimpse of an artwork’s life, her intervention into the museum’s classifying system—adding more information rather than less—puts a fork in the road, suggesting that there are many more tales to tell.

Half the exhibition’s first gallery was hung in a style that we might call, after Lawler, “an arrangement of pictures.” Certainly, it could not have been more conventional: simply a long line of photographs, one after the other. But on the other side of the gallery, Lawler installed four floor-to-ceiling walls of increasing length, which shot out into the space with surprising dynamism. Each one featured an image from Lawler’s arsenal, stretched to fit its surface, and, on occasion, as the artist puts it, “distorted for the times,” suggesting that some fun had been had in Photoshop. The immense scale and visual allure of these billboard-size works offered a brutal contrast with the artworks on the opposite side of the gallery, staging an encounter between pictures and publicity. Each body of work posited a different quality of experience, staging a face-off between looking in and getting knocked out. The point seemed to be that one could not choose between one or the other but had to be pulled in both directions. As in Christopher Williams’s 2014 MoMA retrospective, “The Production Line of Happiness,” which also sized up the imagery of framed photographs to meet the museum’s architecture, contemporary photography’s imbrication with installation and display became startlingly clear.

Yet for all her forays into the machinations of exhibition, Lawler maintains a focus on subject matter that at times seems almost normative.The subjects featured in Lawler’s works hew closely to the canonical narrative of postwar art history established by such institutions as MoMA: Johns, Rauschenberg, Richter, Stella, Warhol, Koons, Murakami. Almost all of them are men. (Images featuring artworks by women were anomalies in the exhibition. Moreover, while the artist has made a number of works engaging classical and colonial histories, few were included in the show.) In some of her earliest pieces, Lawler cooly examined contemporaries such as Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine, gathering their works together into tidy hangs and setting them off against colored backgrounds to better capture them in photographs (and also to better market them?), while her subsequent practice attached itself to the darlings of the contemporary art world. (Many of her contemporaries, of course, became darlings as well.) Certainly, Lawler has trained her eye on the market, especially the blue-chip. Indeed, many argue that she has privileged site over artwork, and that her choice of spaces—such as collectors’ homes and auction houses—determines what appears in front of her lens more than her own predilections and taste. For Lawler, photography has never been a tool for documenting how the other half lives or preserving subcultures; rather, she deploys the medium as a way of staying close to and critical of the mainstream, simultaneously.

If there is an underground dimension to Lawler’s practice, it takes shape in the variety of ephemera that the artist has produced over the years, which range from invitations and stationery to wine glasses and posters. In 1982, she made a matchbook to commemorate a show at her New York gallery, Metro Pictures. She also made other versions that took the piss out of art-world heroes (see the shiny red number celebrating “An Evening with Julian Schnabel”). Lawler also used her design abilities to forge alliances with artists and institutions, such as when she fashioned a business card for Dan Graham, or created a graphic identity for Artists Space (as part of her contribution to a group show in 1978). This kind of work was another way for Lawler to dissolve into the system, to question the role of the artist by performing supposedly secondary tasks. These tiny bits of arcana were reassembled in the exhibition’s final gallery, where large vitrines occupied the center of the room. For many, this is where the excitement was to be found; indeed, it was thrilling to see an item as seemingly insignificant as a napkin given pride of place. Yet visitors could also watch the museum drain an object of use value in real time. Lawler seemed interested in letting this museumification run its course; she made no attempt to pump these objects full of life again or to dovetail them with the contemporary moment.

Surrounding the vitrines hung a series of enormous outlines of some of Lawler’s most recognizable images, leached of their original color. (Many of these works first appeared, in fact, in a 2013 Artforum artist portfolio. Lawler is an inveterate revisitor of her own practice, displacing it from site to site.) Cut out of vinyl and fixed directly to the museum’s walls, the black-and-white tracings allowed the artist to scale up to the institution’s mammoth architecture, while simultaneously rendering it rather empty. If these works evoke the pages of an oversize coloring book (and were, in fact, rendered by a professional illustrator and published, on the occasion of the retrospective, in that kid-friendly form), in the exhibition they functioned primarily as mnemonic devices, since they presented the rough contours of several of the works we had just seen. Recursive and labyrinthine, this series might serve as an emblem of Lawler’s practice at large. Indeed, I always hesitate when I teach Lawler’s work. Will the students find it too turned in on itself, so much inside baseball, or will they see it as ambidextrously self-reflexive, one of the most incisive takes on cultural production around? Lawler’s work might alienate some, but the artist has also become more and more visible in recent years, her work increasingly embraced amid the rising fortunes of contemporary art. If her practice is known to be subversive, it also consolidates a world that many recognize and with which they wish to identify. Given that Lawler has largely and pointedly refused critical distance by positioning herself within the workings of the machine, her fortunes and that of the art system necessarily share a common fate. Like many long-term relationships, the artist’s attachments are both vexing and immensely rewarding.

Alex Kitnick is Brant Foundation fellow in contemporary arts at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

Visit our archive to see Louise Lawler’s “A Portfolio (traced)” (October 2013).