“Color in outer space is nonsense, in any case.”
Tracing Thomas Ruff’s Work
He’s considered to be one of the most important figures of the Dusseldorf School—and one of the most surprising. Over the past several decades, Thomas Ruff’s photography has repeatedly taken unexpected turns. On the occasion of Ruff’s major exhibition, Brigitte Werneburg has revisited the artist’s oeuvre.
||Thomas Ruff is considered to be most versatile and experimental of the Becher students. Now, in his current exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, he defends this reputation. This overview of 30 years of his photographic work opens with his latest series of large-scale, initially somewhat puzzling color abstractions. Their title, m.a.r.s., makes it clear what the images are of. They’re based on detailed topographical footage of planets that a HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experience) camera developed by the University of Arizona has been taking since 2006. Thomas Ruff is fascinated by the high resolution of the images, which NASA has made freely available in the Internet: “"This camera can capture things on the surface of Mars up to one meter in diameter,” says Ruff at his opening. "I’ve never seen such sharp images of an object that’s so far away from us.” Thomas Ruff explains that he’s doing two things with the images: he colors and compresses them, which gives rise to a pseudo-perspective that gives the viewer the feeling that he or she is either flying towards or over the planet. Because the images are transmitted to Earth in black and white, Ruff colors them in as he likes. "Color in outer space in nonsense, in any case.”
When you turn to the right in the first room, Ruff’s artistic development can be followed chronologically. The first series, Interieurs, consists of details from the home environment. Ruff began them in Bernd Becher’s photography class in his second year at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, where he began studying in 1977. He finds the kitchens and idyllic bedroom scenes at friends’ homes in Dusseldorf or his hometown, Zell am Harmersbach in the Black Forest, where he was born in 1958. His prints have the common photo format of 27 x 20 cm. The only thing unusual about the photographs is that they are in color.
Thomas Ruff belongs to the first generation of Becher students; the prevailing dogma was that documentary work had to be black and white. "That was why,” as the artist explained in Munich, "I obediently began these interiors in black and white. I made around 10 pieces I was very happy with.” Until he encountered color—through photographs that he made of the works of his friends for catalogues, for the most part sculptors. "At some point I began to use the color methods I developed for my Interieurs, and I found that they looked better than the black and white photographs. My colleagues all said "you can’t do that.” But then I asked Bernd Becher and he said ‘Looks good. Keep doing the color.’ This encouragement helped me continue in color.”
Thomas Ruff already began showing this work in galleries as a 23-year-old student, for instance with Rüdiger Schöttle in Munich and Konrad Fischer in Dusseldorf. A short time later, the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto and the Cornerhouse in Manchester followed. Thomas Ruff stands for a new younger generation that addressed the photographic document as a genre with its own criteria and visual clichés. Color liberated Ruff’s Interieurs from the context of documentary art photography. His banal still lifes become a farewell—both sober and cogent—to the way in which post-war German society had furnished itself in both a literal and figurative sense. There’s no "impulsive Eggleston gaze," as the Süddeutsche Zeitung would now like to ascribe to him on the occasion of the Munich show. In any case, William Eggleston’s color photography had only become known to wider circles the year before, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York put up an exhibition in 1976.
Deutsche Bank, which purchased three Interieur pieces in 1989, ten years after the series (1979-1983) was made, did not acquire "tentative, epigonic steps." On the contrary; it purchased an important testimony to the manner in which photography took on increased importance as art in the late seventies, also in Germany. It might have been a student’s work, not entirely free of the teacher’s influence—in this case, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s. But it was a work that stood out immediately in the realm of contemporary art and photography and that everyone interested in the field at the time came to know. In 1989, Deutsche Bank purchased additional prints from the subsequent series Portrait (1981-) and Häuser (1987-1991). Precisely because the experimenter Thomas Ruff always took completely unanticipated paths in his photographic work, it’s especially exciting to see them in the current retrospective.
When Ruff began the photo series of his classmates at the art academy, he wasn’t making portraits by any means, as he reiterated in Munich, but was "imitating portraits." This admission reveals him as a typical representative of the Pictures Generation, that first generation of artists to grow up with the everyday mass medium of TV. Shown in the 1977 exhibition Pictures in the alternative Artists Space in New York that was to coin the term and define the concept, artists like Sherrie Levine, Jack Goldstein, and Robert Longo used strategies of Conceptual Art and Photography to address their fascination at the way the world was becoming an image seen from close up.
Their concept consisted in appropriating foreign imagery, and they exerted a huge influence on the artistic discourse of the 1980s, during which the concept of the image or the photograph became increasingly synonymous with the concept of the media construct. Criticism of and even attention to the condition of the world was now articulated in an investigation into the state of an image. The viewers of Ruff’s portraits did not, however, comply with this investigation; they perceived persons, not images. "I noticed that people confused photography with reality, or even completely ignored the medium and looked right through it to what they took to be reality. That did, in the end, disturb me a bit."
This is why Ruff’s plan to undermine the authority of the photographic process while bolstering the authority of the photographic image first came to fore when he enlarged the negatives of his Portraits series to a 210 x 165 cm format: "In 1986, I succeeded for the first time in making a larger portrait print. I was pretty amazed when I saw the first print in the lab, because it didn’t feel like just a blow-up from a small 18 x 24 print. No, this time I was looking at a completely different picture. The physical presence was huge." The monumental format heightened the viewer’s aesthetic awareness to photography’s function as bureaucratic evidence, i.e. in the sense of a passport image, which Ruff quotes in the frontal view and his rigorous set of rules for his models. At the same time, however, Ruff’s format negated this function by turning the photograph into an object in and of itself. The portrait commands the viewer’s attention as an image, a tableau, as well as a kind of photographic painting, but not as an encounter or confrontation with an individual person. Ruff’s large-scale format, which all of his colleagues from the Becher class adopted, signalized a change in paradigm in photography that led to the medium’s success not only in the art museums, but also on the art market.
In the non-psychological, sober presence of the faces, Ruff’s portraits are rather dry. They tell as little of their story as his Häuser (Houses), which were made at the same time. Here too, Ruff proves to be a photographic pioneer. The consistent perspective of the shots depicting factories, parking garages, and apartment buildings frontally before a neutral grey sky and a minimal foreground, such as a street or a plot of grass, stood in stark contrast to the actual situations: "There were times I couldn’t get back far enough in order to photograph the entire building. Sometimes there was a car parked in front of the building that bothered me. Sometimes there were trees blocking the image. And because I had acquired a kind of skepticism towards representing reality, I told myself, okay, what would happen if I retouched this car out of the picture, or this streetlight that’s bothering me? Simply to improve the picture?” In reality, only two of the photographs are actually retouched, and these digitally, which was a revolutionary innovation in the days before Photoshop was even invented.
It seems as though Ruff’s photographic work took him to colder and colder parts: following his images of the failure of post-war architecture and urban building, he took to outer space, pitch-black except for the Sterne or stars. This series, made between 1989 and 1992, also represented new territory in that he began working with foreign material, the original copies of the 1212 negatives that make up the archive of the European Southern Observatory ESO. The shots show the starry sky of the southern hemisphere. Ruff cropped these photographs and organized them into six categories—for instance, "Foreground stars with a normal star density in the background” or "Stars with interstellar objects and gaseous haze." The Deutsche Bank Collection purchased eleven of these large dark formats with abstract patterns of bright spots in 1999. Six years previously, the bank had acquired five photographs of the series Nights (1992-1996). These photographs, taken with a residual light amplifier of the kind used in the Gulf War, only show scattered points of light in the cold, greenish-black world of military reconnaissance.
Following this sudden shift to the frigid zone of the stars and the night, but also the black and white forensically reworked Other Portraits, came the sparklingly colorful War in Heaven titled Nudes. The series amounts to artistic failure, albeit one that was highly successful on the art market and that takes up a conspicuous amount of space in the Haus der Kunst. This is not due to the motif, the raw material of which is pornography, but to the way in which Ruff appears to elevate it to the status of nude.
In the final analysis, Nudes (since 1999) is only interesting in terms of the way that Ruff encounters the digital image and its smallest element, the pixel, in the Internet. "I looked at how the pixels are put together," he explained, "how the enlargement functioned, and I realized that when you shift the pixels slightly and then blow it up, the image takes on a more beautiful structure." He only had to apply this procedure of pixel shifting to one of the thumbnails the porno industry uses to lure visitors into spending money, "and then I had my first nude. It was quite amazing, because on the one hand the image was very beautiful, and on the other it looked a bit nasty." Yet Ruff’s experiments with the pixels could also be regarded as a false move. Not only in the case of the Nudes, where the pixels transform sex workers in the process of being penetrated in the oddest of ways into cozy, soft-skinned sex dolls in inappropriate poses; in similar manner, the first thought that comes to mind with the series jpeg (since 2004) is whether or not the work is actually an inquiry into the topic of kitsch and photography. The "beautiful structure" Ruff obtains at a higher rate of compression and a smaller number of pixels in the overall enlargement is as brash and overly clear as the motif of buildings collapsing, whether from earthquakes, tsunamis, or the attacks of September 11 in New York.
It’s a completely different matter with series like Machines (since 2003), in which the artist digitally reworks old photographs from the 1930s and colors them—particularly, however, with Cassini (since 2008), in which he returns to the quality of his earlier works. The imagery Ruff works with here has been transmitted to the Earth from the space probe Cassini since 2005 and is freely available in the Internet. Ruff enlarges the relatively small images multiple times while changing their coloration. The ensuing geometries recall the works of the Russian Suprematists hanging on the wall of the museum’s main hall—which is where Ruff’s works become his contemporary icons of photographic abstraction.
02.17. – 05.20. 2012
Haus der Kunst, Munich