Christopher Williams

New York

at Museum of Modern Art

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Every element of this Christopher Williams retrospective—from the lucid photographs he has made over the past 35 years to the exhibition architecture to the catalogue to the press release—can be considered part of his artistic output. Williams approaches photography as a porous discipline, one that has secured a place among the fine arts even as it finds equal purchase in advertising, graphic design and publishing. (The title of the exhibition, “The Production Line of Happiness,” is taken from Jean-Luc Godard, underscoring cinema as a major touchstone for Williams.) He often uses commercial photographic techniques to depict the very conditions of photographic production, meaning everything from camera mechanisms to the color charts used to calibrate lighting. At the same time, his work deflects attention outward, to the contexts within which photographs are displayed, viewed, discussed and criticized.

The catalogue is a particularly telling example of these concerns. It comes in two versions, with identical contents but different covers: one is yellow, the other crimson. The hues were borrowed from the corporate identities of Kodak and AGFA, respectively, two firms that were once dominant in the photography market but which have struggled to survive in the digital age. If the covers allude to the industrial and technical side of the medium, the catalogue’s contents foreground its intellectual history. The texts—many of which are reprintings of archival material—seem less geared toward assessing Williams’s unique contribution than drawing a genealogy for his practice. Among the varied offerings are references to artistic influence (statements from Barbara Kruger, John Miller, Lawrence Weiner), art historical narratives (essays by the show’s curators, Matthew S. Witkovsky, Roxana Marcoci and Mark Godfrey), political manifestos (by Godard, Bertolt Brecht and Pier Paolo Pasolini), and treatises on typography and graphic design (including
Walter Nickels’s “Basic Rules for the Design of a Catalog”).

If the catalogue embeds the discussion of Williams’s work within a much broader discourse, the exhibition design blurs the distinction between the artist’s work and its physical support. The main space is broken up by a succession of walls, some of which are sections of those installed for the retrospective’s first iteration at the Art Institute of Chicago. At that venue, sheets of bold yellow vinyl printed with reproductions of Williams works and fragments of text from the catalogue appeared outside the galleries. Similar “supergraphics,” as the curators call them, this time in crimson, are plastered on the entryway to MoMA’s galleries.

These gestures make clear the institutional contexts for the exhibition. But they also threaten to distract from the individual works—complex entities in themselves that reflect Williams’s rigorous questioning of photographic conventions and processes.

The oldest piece on view among this concise selection of 53 photographs was made in 1981, while Williams was still a graduate student at CalArts. (It also inaugurates his affinity for titles filled with detailed technical information too long to print in full here.) The work comprises a set of four appropriated images sourced from the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. All were taken on May 10, 1963, six months before JFK’s assassination, and each depicts a moment when his back was turned toward the camera. Though likely dismissed as innocuous outtakes when they were first developed, it’s hard to view the images today without seeing them as somber omens. The title indicates a set of common photographic procedures—”rephotography, enlargement, and cropping”—that can profoundly affect the meaning of an image. Indeed, through Williams’s subtle interventions along these lines, a group of sloppy snapshots becomes a haunting memorial.

But the darkroom is only a small part of the larger image “production line” that Williams eventually took on. Often choosing to outsource the production of his work to commercial firms, Williams is most poignant when he directs the camera at the photographic apparatus itself. One of the most recent images included in the show, from 2013, depicts a “cutaway” cross section of a wide-angle lens, a Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/15 ZM. The awe-inspiring array of gears and polished glass is surely the height of precision manufacturing. The title includes elaborately detailed technical specs, the serial number, the manufacturer and the location of where it was made, as well as the professional photography studio Williams commissioned to produce the image. We might imagine this lengthy set of information as another form of cropping. Just as the catalogue alludes to ongoing aesthetic and political debates and the exhibition design points to the operation of large-scale institutional structures, this lens and its tech specs speak to the vast social order and economic power that bring images into being.