Andrea Robbins and Max Becher: The Transportation of Place

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through March 5

Neocon art critic Hilton Kramer once griped that “the more minimal the art, the more maximum the explanation,” and many others have questioned the legitimacy of visual art that depends on explanatory texts. But some artists do simply define their work as pictures plus words, as Max Becher and Andrea Robbins have implicitly done with their exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography: their 34 photographs are grouped into four series, each accompanied by a wall text (and one by a video as well).

Unlike photographers in the modernist tradition–Edward Weston, for example–Robbins and Becher create images that respond to their subjects rather than impose order on them. As a result their photographs don’t really succeed as autonomous aesthetic objects but are often strange enough to demand some kind of explanation: what are those middle-aged Caucasians doing in Native American garb? The answers are supplied by Robbins and Becher’s wall texts, but these only make the images seem stranger.

In the series “German Indians, 1997/98,” Meeting shows six people in full Indian dress in front of a tepee. Their Caucasian features and random poses–they seem to be just milling around–call their authenticity into question, as does the title. Knife Thrower shows a middle-aged mustachioed man sporting a headdress complete with horns, his face utterly lacking the fierceness his attire might suggest. A wall text for the series explains that these are Germans attending an annual celebration of the birthday of Karl May in his hometown of Radebeul, Germany. May was the German novelist whose “pro-Indian” books supported Germans’ “romantic view of a pre-industrial past,” the text tells us; he was much admired by Hitler, who “made his generals carry around volumes of Karl May’s writings” while he was “researching American Indian reservations as models for concentration camps.” The contradictions evoked by the text echo those in the photos, and such messy and even ugly specifics of history further distance these images from the modernist quest for universals, locating them instead in present-day cross-cultural discourse.

In the series “Bavarian by Law, 1995/96,” Children’s Chorus #2 shows little girls in pinafores and white blouses who look convincingly Bavarian but not like a disciplined chorus: one is sad, one smiles, one sticks her tongue out, seemingly preoccupied. In Mayfest young people in Bavarian folk-dance costumes circle a maypole before a backdrop of Bavarian-style buildings. The crowd observing them seems quite American, however, and a “15 minute parking” sign is a further giveaway that this is a tourist attraction. In fact the series was taken in Leavenworth, Washington, which responded to an economic decline in the 1960s by choosing a Bavarian “new look,” according to the text, regulating architecture and even requiring Germanic typefaces as a way of encouraging tourism. The scheme worked, though some townspeople are said to remain unhappy with the regulations. The mountain scene painted on a motel wall in Motel With Mural serves as a metaphor for the whole town, whose “actual” scenes are as much a confection as this illusionistic image. The series’ proximity to the wall text for “German Indians” summons up disturbing echoes: Hitler had Bavarian roots, and the Nazis valorized the cultural stasis symbolized by traditional attire.

Part of the “Colonial Remains, 1991” series shows the buildings of a German settlement in Namibia, remains of the period from the 1880s to 1916, when it was a German colony. The text tells us that as many as 80 percent of the native Herero people were killed by the Germans in a war of resistance, which adds a somber note to the images of a bookshop, a Lutheran church, and a pompously grand contemporary home in Suburban House, which could just as easily be in an American suburb.

Robbins was born in Boston in 1963, Becher in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1964; both now live in New York. Becher is the son of photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose photos of industrial structures, arranged in typological grids, helped establish the field of industrial archaeology. Robbins and Becher met in 1984, when both were students at Cooper Union in New York; both studied there with politically engaged conceptual artist Hans Haacke. Haacke has himself used photographs in conjunction with texts, but Robbins and Becher’s photos add a postmodern edge: by depicting the superimposition of one cultural tradition on another, they question the authenticity of both, reminding the viewer that styles of clothing and architecture are arbitrary. The texts argue not only that images–whether their own or the constructed one in Mayfest, for example–are insufficient for full understanding but that culture is often linked to power, whether in the murderous form of colonization or in the regulations of the town council in Leavenworth, Washington.

Steven Szoradi: Water at City, through March 31

As fascinating as Robbins and Becher’s series are, they left me a bit dissatisfied. I wanted even more information–more on the motivations of the German Indians and on what some Leavenworth residents dislike about their Bavarian laws. I wondered if their show might not work better as a series of magazine articles or a book. And while Weston’s refined prints don’t survive reproduction, there was little here that suggested one must see an actual print.

The same cannot be said of the photographs of Stephen Szoradi, a Chicagoan now spending a year in Switzerland. His first significant body of work–produced in the early 90s, while he was still a Columbia College graduate student–depicted steel mills. Photographing local waterworks courtesy of the city’s Department of Water and the Metropolitan Water District of Greater Chicago, he produces Weston-like images whose vibrant darks and shimmering reflected light celebrate, almost fetishistically, the stark beauty and power of machines or of rocky reservoirs. But his compositions, unlike Weston’s, are not self-enclosed, which links his work to Robbins and Becher’s text-dependent photos.

Among the 20 works, many with identical titles, at City Gallery are two small vertical prints, both called Pumping Station, showing the joints between giant water pipes. Rather than constructing a balanced composition, Szoradi gets close enough to make the pipes seem to strain against the frame’s edges, emphasizing the way they extend far beyond the image’s borders. In yet another titled Pumping Station, a motor in the foreground is apparently powering water through the huge curving pipes behind it. The uninformed viewer may not know exactly how everything works here, but the high-angle view seems designed to cause one to think about functionality as well as compositional beauty.

One Waste Treatment photo frames concrete open-air aeration chambers symmetrically, emphasizing their symmetry: too schematic to be of great interest aesthetically, the composition instead calls attention to the tanks’ curious labyrinthine patterns. And the show’s diptychs and triptychs–such as one of several titled Reservoir–emphasize the waterworks’ huge spaces by juxtaposing partial views, suggesting that even several images won’t be sufficient to show anything in its entirety. A circle too large to be shown whole in the rock wall of the right-hand picture, Szoradi wrote me, is “a capped future water supply pipe that brings fresh lake water to the filtration plant.”

While Robbins and Becher’s work fits in neatly with today’s trends, conflating concerns with cultural identity and postmodern ideas about the artificiality of imagery, Szoradi’s photographs don’t fall in with any current fashion. His way out of the modernist trap of aestheticism is to investigate the materials that sustain us–his compositions invite the viewer to participate by encouraging an interest in how things work. The world of rock and metal is rendered with intense physicality, not solely for aesthetic ends but to show how humans have put it to use. We see no water but are asked to imagine how water passes through these pipes and channels, to consider the ways one substance can direct or transform another. I found myself thinking of the small patches of transformative fire and red-hot metal in Velazquez’s painting The Forge of Vulcan, a much earlier celebration of human mastery over the materials of the world.