Dieter Appelt

at the Art Institute, through January 8

at Ehlers Caudill Gallery, through January 28

In the first of two 1973 Dieter Appelt works at the Art Institute, both called Self-Portraits, we see 16 photos, mounted in blocks of 4, of the photographer’s head and torso as he presses parts of his face and hands against a sheet of glass between him and the camera. Each of the 16 poses is different; they’re mostly wildly contorted, agonized or angry. In each Appelt faces the viewer, confrontationally, as if he wanted to lunge out of the flat photograph. The way the glass stops him, distorting the parts of his body flattened against it, suggests the glass is a metaphor for the limitations of the photograph itself. Angry with those limitations the young photographer wants to assert his flesh and blood existence.

In the second Self-Portraits Appelt also presses himself against glass, but here he takes a stab at using photography’s transformative powers. We see a nude Appelt in a variety of positions–sideways, upside down–as if he were floating in a tank of water in some otherworldly, disembodied space. In each photo some part of his body–chest, shoulders, buttocks–is flattened against the glass, and we realize that his weightlessness is an illusion: we’re merely looking up at him lying on a piece of glass.

Clearly these are portraits of a deeply alienated individual. Because the specific poses are wildly different, like the contortions of a circus clown, they seem to cancel each other out; no one pose represents his “true” self. These cancellations deny the viewer the cumulative mental image that usually results from looking at a series of related pictures. Instead one is left with an emptiness, a kind of void–and it is this negation, using imagery to undercut itself, that forms the basis of Appelt’s art. Throughout his later periods, the physical world is seen as hopelessly alien–it must be transformed or transcended.

A number of early photos, some related to performance pieces he did at the time, reveal his body’s alienation from nature and from itself. We see him hanging upside down from a tree; trying to roll across a moor wrapped in a cloth; lying in dark rectangle cut out of a snowy field. Appelt’s use of a large-format view camera renders nature’s details razor sharp; every pebble seems solid, permanent, when compared with his more transitory presence.

In two of the images from the 1890 series “Tableau Oppedette,” Appelt stands on a ledge wearing a gigantic set of wings (the actual wings are also on view, above the photos), as if he were about to take flight. The cavernous space that surrounds and dwarfs him seems to invite a journey forward, but the regular geometry of the near-triangular wings effectively separates them from the organically textured surrounding surfaces. Just as Appelt cannot pass through the glass of the Self-Portraits or of the camera lens, here he’s imprisoned in the flightless human world, isolated from nature, his wings recalling past human failures at flying.

The Art Institute initiated this, Appelt’s first North American retrospective, made up of 355 prints and eight sculptural objects. Curator Sylvia Wolf recounts in her catalog essay an incident from Appelt’s childhood that may help explain the corpselike poses he assumes in various landscapes. In the closing months of World War II, when Appelt was ten, one of the final battles was fought on his family’s farm, southwest of Berlin. When they returned two weeks later, young Dieter began discovering “guns, shells, and dead soldiers in the fields and marsh grasses behind his house.” In this experience, as in many of his photographs, landscape is the site of horrible apparitions–but while such human events pass, the land remains.

Searching out guns and corpses may also have indirectly inspired the 1977 “Eye Tower” series. Appelt built a large tower out of tree trunks and branches bound together with linen and placed it in an Italian lake. In the photos, a nude Appelt assumes different positions in this tower. In one he sits near the top, with a commanding view of the surroundings, but in most of the others he aligns his body with some of the sticks. His poses when he’s pressed against them, curled up within them, or has his eyes buried in his hands make the work’s title seem ironic: this observation tower, which seems to guide his body to rhyme with its lines, actually cuts him off from his surroundings, turns his eyes away from the world and back on himself. Like the camera in the early Self-Portraits, the tower is an image-making device that ultimately denies contact with real objects.

In Appelt’s work human forms and human structures seem momentary aberrations, anomalies, in a world that will outlast them. Even when humans are at the center of the images–in the rectangle in the snow or perched on the wall in “Tableau Oppedette”–they do not seem the locus of personality and power they would be in a conventional portrait. Rather the pose, the surroundings, and the effect of various photos placed together make their presence seem a kind of mistake, even suggesting an absence. In the self-portrait from “Memory’s Trace” Appelt’s body–feet and legs stretching toward us on the ground–face barely visible–seems a gnarled, fallen tree or a moss-covered rock formation.

Though infatuated with photography from childhood, Appelt was a professional opera singer until 1979, when he quit to devote himself full time to photography. In 1982 he was appointed head of the department of film, video, and photography at a Berlin art school, and his work soon afterward underwent a significant shift. Perhaps acceptance as an artist lessened his feeling of alienation, for he made fewer agonized portraits and more pictures that explored the medium’s formal qualities.

The idea that the photographic image is itself limiting and alienating is balanced in some ways by the notion that photography can provide a window onto a larger reality. The huge grid of prints mounted five by eight called Transcription of a Movement (1983) makes a quarry seem even more massive and solid than it is. Each prints shows a part of the quarry; each is itself divided into four images, separated only by thin black lines, that show contiguous parts of the quarry’s wall and floor. Across the prints, however–separated from each other by wooden frames–the quarry space is not continuous. Large parts of the quarry are repeated, so that one’s eye moves by fits and starts, two steps forward and one step back, across the wall’s serrated forms. These continual repetitions, which nearly overwhelm the eye, acknowledge the medium’s limitations–a merely continuous grid would not adequately represent the quarry’s mass.

In 1992 Appelt said that he wanted more from photography “than a representation of what an object is. I want to transform the simplest constructions and create a new cosmos.” Nowhere is this attempt better represented than in his massive, magisterial grouping of 40 prints called Space Tableau (1989-’90), at the Art Institute. Five studies for this piece are on view at Ehlers Caudill in a smaller show of recent work, showing individual photos outside the final grid. In one study various disks and rings of light, each a different density, appear to spin through space. The photos for Space Tableau were in fact made with a device Appelt built that allows him to photograph rotating objects. The multiple images of most of the photos are created with long time exposures and many flashes–in some cases, thousands–of a strobe light. The resulting shapes look like nothing in the world. Some of the circles and disks seem more solid than others, but all are at once palpable objects and diaphanous illusions.

The finished Space Tableau is monumental. Two grids of 15 and 24 prints over 30 feet wide are linked by a single print along their bottom rows. In some prints, the object appears almost completely solid and still; but most mix solidity and implied movement. Some use multiple exposures to superimpose traces of an object on itself in different positions. In many, the object appears to sit on a kind of base, almost like a sculpture; in other, the object has no visible support. The lighting is similarly varied; some objects are lit from a single clear source; others from harder-to-identify multiple sources; still others are lit evenly. These mysterious photos seem at once abstract light studies and machinery from another planet, its physics operating on different principles of light and motion. While the turn-of-the-century futurists and their celebrations of mechanization were one of Appelt’s many influences, this work is no paean to the machine. These sui generis images are beyond any obvious explanation; they’re neither glorious nor horrible. Appelt creates without judging.

But this is no simple diatonic melody–among this former singer’s greatest influences are Ezra Pound and Arnold Schönberg. The longer one looks, the more each image seems sealed off from the others, in its own world with its own laws of light, time, and gravity. The fact that these abstractions look physical yet don’t reveal what they’re images of or exactly how they were made in itself distances the viewer from them; in addition each image seems to negate the others, nothing adds up. Adrift in a shifting sea of pictures none of which explains anything, the viewer again feels a kind of emptiness.

In the grids Crossroads (1993) and Stone Field (1994) Appelt uses multiple exposures and moving subjects in images of nature, and the emptiness that undergirds his art becomes clearer. To the left of Stone Field’s seven-by-three-image grid at the Art Institute is Stone Field Object, a small, twisted wooden container building with rocks. Some of the photos show this object, or a large rock, clearly; in others, one or the other is converted by multiple exposures into a finely textured field of light. But in any case nature seems thoroughly contained–by the print, by the box, by the images’ abstractions. The wooden container is yet another metaphor for photography: a framework that separates us from the world.

For all their variations, most of Appelt’s images have a common look: objects with complexly textured surfaces seem to glow under a mysterious light. Whether the surface is Appelt’s mottled skin or mud or abstract patterns of light or rock or a stream, it is irregular, with fragments or hints of geometrical patterns somehow overwhelmed by disorder. This look itself perhaps has its source in the show’s earliest image, taken when Appelt was first beginning to photograph seriously. The haunting Fuhrerbunker (1959-’60) is a picture of the ruined underground bunker that was Hitler’s last headquarters in Berlin. It was then closed–Appelt had to photograph it surreptitiously. At the center is a wrecked armchair, the upholstery coming off and revealing a hairy filler; rubble covers the floor; two windows are bursting with light.

This image, which also relates to Appelt’s childhood trauma, perhaps explains why his images turn in on themselves, flee from emotion, express discomfort with the human presence, undercut each other. As a child Appelt saw a social order that stressed form and disciplined above all else–Nazism–transmute into its apparent opposite: ruins, rubble, corpses. A self-described antifascist, he never starts with complete order–“Eye Tower” is made of twisting, turning tree parts–and whatever order he does begin with he constantly moves to annihilate. Under lying Appelt’s work is a distrust of the authority of all imagery, a desire to see beyond the image to some other realm–not a bad idea when the artist’s earliest images are tied up with Hitler’s propaganda machine.

And so my favorite of his works, along with Space Tableau, is the most hermetic and abstract: the 1993 mixed-media piece is Canvas Tower and Drawing, at Ehlers Caudill. Towers are typically heroic, assertive, phallic; but this canvas one is nondescript, about four feet high, its lower half square and its upper octagonal, its cream-colored surface revealing little detail. It has minimal presence. The drawing is a network of black lines and shapes punctuated by white areas. At first it seems there’s an image behind the black, but on closer inspection it’s revealed to be another abstract pattern of varying shades of gray. Canvas Tower and Drawing is the diametric opposite of a Nazi sculpture, a work that asserts no power, almost no physicality, no identifiable emotion. Instead, in the tradition of mystical art and thought, it proclaims its own absence.