American Photographer and Conceptual Artist
Summary of Louise Lawler
Training her camera on art's display and consumption, Louise Lawler combines elements of Institutional Critique and Conceptualism to probe and question the values of authorship and ownership in the art world. A member of the Pictures Generation, Lawler herself has adopted the term pictures to describe examples of her work, itself indicative of the way in which her practice has always deemphasized its authorial claims, inviting a question of who ultimately may assert the right to an artwork once it has left the artist's studio. Aside from her signature photographs, often taken behind closed doors of art collectors' private residences, auction houses, or museums, Lawler's oeuvre has from the start included such ephemera as matchbooks, glass paperweights, engraved tumblers, or phonograph records - all an intrinsic part of her larger emphasis on art production's inseparability from the world of commodities and commercial exchange.
- Lawler's work questions the traditional notion that any image - much less that any photograph - may ever be conceived of as having one stable, definitive, and unalterable meaning. Emphasizing the contexts of display and circulation, she highlights the unintended meanings that artworks accumulate in the process of their reception.
- In giving her works such titles as Arranged by [name of collector], Lawler questions not only her own position as a creator of an image, but also the authorship of the (often famous) artists whose works appear in her images, reflecting the broader postmodernist questioning of the singular art object.
- Drawing on the inadvertent ironies of domestic display of artworks, Lawler dispels the idea that art can be kept separate from the implications of the marketplace, instead portraying its inevitable condition as a commodity exposed to the same patterns of circulation and display as any other product.
- Questioning the status and role of photography as artwork, documentation, and tool of communication and persuasion, she belongs to the Pictures Generation whose pioneering methods have radically transformed the way in which this medium came to be understood, as well as its place within the art world at large.
Progression of Art
Untitled (Swan Lake Invitation Card)
Lawler's interest in all aspects of the art world started in her early career and included attention to the ephemera that help to frame and promote it such as invitations, posters, and matchbooks. Here, the artist issued a direct invitation to Swan Lake by the New York City Ballet to a mailing list of art world figures, printed in an elegant serif font which adopts the visual language of promotional documents of this kind. Unconnected with the performance, this invitation was unauthorized, a fact asserted where on the bottom right hand side in place of an instruction to admit the invitee, Lawler's invite states 'tickets to be purchased at the box office'. Offering none of the status normally associated with being invited to cultural events, instead it offers the invitee the chance to attend as the guest of someone with no authority, who can grant them no tangible privileges over any other non-invited guest.
However, even though on an official level the invite changes nothing, it still mediates the experience of those going at Lawler's invitation, creating a community of her guests in amongst the other theatre-goers. As curator Douglas Eklund suggests: 'Lawler's gesture recast the quintessential uptown "elitist" event as a conspiratorial, wittily invisible infiltration of a black-tie audience with double-agents, who would naturally oscillate between viewing the performance through Lawler's "quotation marks", as it were, and succumbing to the guilty pleasure of watching the ballet'. Here an act of appropriation is at work, not only of the visual language of the invitation, but of the ballet itself, claiming tenuous ownership of this particular performance. Her photograph, Swan Lake, Lincoln Center, taken from her seat at the performance further asserts this, acting as an index of her presence.. Through this appropriation, Lawler draws our attention to the networks through which culture operates, using the techniques of conceptual art in order to examine the construction of audiences and reception, and the ways in which cultural capital operates.
Arranged by Barbara and Eugene Schwartz
Arranged by Barbara and Eugene Schwartz comes from one of Lawler's earliest exhibited series of photographs documenting domestic and institutional display of works of art. With the image centered on a doorway that leads between rooms, we can see Cindy Sherman's Untitled No. 88 (1980) and Untitled No. 100 (1982) hanging in a room visible through the open door, and an abstract landscape that hangs on the wall next to the entrance. Neither work is named by Lawler, instead the collectors Barbara and Eugene Schwartz are credited for having arranged the work, given prominence in the title as active creators of the scene on display. By shifting the viewer's focus from the artist to the collector, the artist makes visible the ongoing reception of art work, presenting this display to the viewer in a way that puts the work into the context of both its exchange value and its cultural status. No longer property of their creator, they instead are seen here as representative of their owner's tastes and personality.
Although this act of representing works of art as they are displayed in collectors' homes is clearly concerned with the ways in which collecting and arranging change the meanings of artworks, Lawler's position on this remains indeterminate. She resists easy indictment of the ways in which artworks become commodified through the market and instead focuses attention on the question without attempting to resolve it. With her selection of a view of the Schwartz's presentation of their collection, framing becomes a major theme; the thin rectangular frames that sit around Sherman's photographs are echoed by the doorway, making the domestic spaces intrinsic to the display of the work. The question of art's status as decoration is certainly in play here, but is by no means resolved; the artwork is not degraded by its context but is mediated by it, framed and re-presented by its proximity to other work and the interior domestic space in which it is placed. Furthermore, the works on display frustrate attempts to draw simple conclusions about what is being said in Lawler's photograph. Barbara and Eugene Schwartz were eminent collectors of the Pictures Generation, collecting work from Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, and Lawler herself. That Lawler focuses on the collection of patrons to herself and her contemporaries implicates the artist in the very networks that she reveals. This is typical of her attention to the systems through which art operates, not didactic in the same way as practices of Institutional Critique were made in the 1960s and '70s by artists like Hans Haacke, Lawler's work remains ambiguous and open, raising questions about art that remain unresolved.
Gelatin silver print - Private Collection
Pollock and Tureen, Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Connecticut
Developing her consideration of the nature of collecting, in 1984 Lawler took her iconic image, Pollock and Tureen, Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Connecticut. Two years after her first solo exhibition at Metro Pictures gallery in New York, the artist was granted full access to the Connecticut house of collectors Burton and Emily Tremaine who had amassed a significant collection of modern and contemporary masters as well as valuable antiques. Pollock and Tureen considers the ways in which these interact, putting Modernist painting and its associated claims for formalist purity (made by critics such as Clement Greenberg) into relationship with decorative objects associated with the upper classes.
Working with a 35mm camera and natural lighting available at the site, Lawler's photograph is divided into two, the tureen - an 18th century Chinese porcelain dish designed for serving soup - is shown in full whereas Jackson Pollock's Frieze (1953-55) is sharply cropped, as artist Andrea Fraser suggests looking like 'little more than apocalyptic wallpaper'. In Lawler's presentation this important work of modern art, which was one of Pollock's last all-over canvases completed in the year before his death, is pushed into the background. It becomes yet another ornament amongst the many trinkets of wealth lined up in their opulent surroundings, a symptom of the taste of a collector couple whose class position is suggested through the title in which they are named Mr and Mrs Burton Tremaine. Inviting us to question the relative cultural value of the objects shown, the focus on the tureen rather than the canvas leads to a sense that Pollock's work has been rendered kitsch by its owners, reduced to the status of decoration in the same way as the overly ornate serving dish. Now recognized as one of the artist's most important works, Pollock and Tureen presents one of the best examples of what the historian George Baker has referred to as Lawler's "project of continual re-presentation - not representation - but the openness of the artistic object to be re-presented again, and to become different in that re-presentation".
Silver dye bleach print - The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Passed during the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States, the Helms Amendment named for the arch-conservative senator who was its sponsor, stipulated that "none of the funds made available [to] the Centers for Disease Control shall be used to provide AIDS education, information, or prevention materials and activities that promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual sexual activities". Passed at a time in which over 13,000 people had died from the disease, it represented to activists the violent neglect of politicians for those suffering and dying from the disease.
Produced for an exhibition at the Photographic Resource Center in Boston, this work consists of 94 panels: 88 uniform monochrome photographs of disposable plastic cups staged in a manner reminiscent of Edward Weston's photographs of sweet peppers, and six panels that include the words of the Helms amendment. The inscriptions under the 88 prints in this series bear the names of the senators who voted for the amendment, color-coded to correspond to their party affiliation, and originally arranged around the room alphabetically by state. The remaining six frames that show the amendment's text represent those remaining senators who either voted against or abstained from the vote for the amendment. As the artist noted of the piece, "The cup to me had a certain feeling of a medicalized environment, and it also had a classical element to it". To Lawler, the repeated images suggest anonymity and disposability reflecting on the ways in which those with AIDS were treated by a society that should have been supporting them. It is one example of how politics are an important part of Lawler's practice, particularly in relation to issues of social justice, and antiwar politics. Often nuanced rather than didactic propositions (perhaps excepting the announcement to her 2003 solo-show at Metro Pictures that stated 'No Drinks for Those Who Do Not Support the Anti-War Demonstration'), works like Helms Amendment and WAR IS TERROR (2001/2003) offer a complicated but still legible criticism of political decisions.
Installation, 94 black-and-white photographs, vinyl wall texts, grey painted wall - Private Collection Louise Lawler
Untitled (Salon Hödler)
Untitled (Salon Hödler) is an example of the way Louise Lawler recirculates her own earlier photographs. By presenting them in alternative forms, she allows us to consider the evolving nature of the images' meaning and how this is changed by viewing conditions. A multiple of the original large format photograph, Salon Hödler (1992-93) is presented within a glass half-orb reminiscent of a paperweight or a snow globe. Already considering the conditions of display, Salon Hödler focused attention on an empty room in the salon of a Swiss art collector, which displays two large works by artist Ferdinand Hödler. With Lawler's concerted gaze, the artworks that examine love and intimacy are flattened by the camera, undermined by their elegant but staid environment.
In Untitled (Salon Hödler) the mode of reception impacts this reception further; where a photograph mounted on a wall still inevitably evokes associations of fine art and artistic display, this placement within a trinket underscores the reproducible commodity status of art, inviting associations with a jewelry store display and tempting a viewer to handle the piece as one would at a novelty gift store. At the same time, the convex shape of the glass and the distortion it imposes on the image inside also reference the shape of a camera lens or a human eye, invoking the specific and isolated view of the world these devices impose. Art historian Rosalind Krauss points to the significance of this presentation, claiming it "also reminds us of the utopian aspects of the museum's early project insofar as the museum presented an original that in its material presence seemed to oppose itself [...] to the simulacral drive of photography". Here, Lawler considers the idea of the original, thinking about it alongside the medium of photography that following early-20th-century theorist Walter Benjamin's claims, has been understood to be without the aura of the unique art object.
Paperweight (silver dye bleach print, crystal, felt) - Metro Pictures, New York
This work was produced between 2005 and 2006, the year that Lawler was invited to participate in a group exhibition organized by the collector François Pinault at his Venice private museum, the Palazzo Grassi. Instead of providing the exhibition with any previously produced work, Lawler spent months alongside the collection's handling and installation crew in documenting the minutiae of the artworks' "backstage" life outside the public view and exhibiting context. True to its title, Bulbs depicts a string of light bulbs which are part of a sculpture by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, laid out on the floor in preparation for installation. Building on Lawler's interest in examining the relationships between artworks, their display and their institutionalization, this image offers a glimpse of the materials of the work before they are correctly arranged, lit, and contextualized by the museum. Yet Bulbs also carries further significance. Gonzalez-Torres was a close friend of Lawler's, and this photo's production marked a 10 year anniversary of his premature death from AIDS-related complications. In a touching tribute to the fragility of both life's and art's condition, Lawler here pictures something vulnerable and transient amongst the processes of official presentation.
Laminated fujiflex on museum box - The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, California
Pollock and Tureen (traced)
Returning again to an earlier work - Pollock and Tureen Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Connecticut (1984) - and reconsidering it after thirty years have passed, this laminate wall print traces the outlines of the earlier photograph's subject matter in a spare black-and-white rendition of its contours directly onto the gallery walls. Unique to each occasion in which it is presented, it is adjusted with every installation to fit the varying proportions of its bearing wall, meaning that at times it is distorted beyond recognition. Created as part of the 2013 series of outlines that returned to some of her most renowned works, the artist worked with children's book author, illustrator and artist Jon Buller in order to intervene into her past practice and to reconsider those artworks that had been central to her own institutional and critical reception.
Reduced to its barest form, the detail of the original representation of Jackson Pollock's painting and the ornate tureen is elided, leaving behind a simplified monochrome image. Drawing on the viewer's familiarity with the original, it invites you to fill in the gaps, imagining the rich color and depth of the Pollock and the delicate shading of the dish in a way that is suggestive of paint-by-numbers pictures, ghostly outlines, or newsprint negative. The form also develops Lawler's investigation into the gallery itself, expanding the photograph to the full size of the wall on which it is presented and flattening it down so as it resembles a trace or a shadow. The gallery's walls, then, become part of the artwork, not receding behind the unique object, but constituting an important part of its material presence.
Works on paper, Signed certificate, installation instructions - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Biography of Louise Lawler
Emerging in an art world dominated by postmodernist theories, particularly ones that questioned the central role that the author plays in a work's reception such as Roland Barthes' 1967 text 'The Death of the Author', a key part of Lawler's practice is to question authorship. This is reflected in her own relationship to the work's reception and promotion in which she attempts to refuse celebrity and maintain a distance between her biography and her practice. As such, there are few interviews with her and writings on her work tend to eschew biographical information, meaning that although she has talked about her work with critics, she rarely offers reference to her private life. Therefore, a biography of the artist is difficult to assemble and focuses unusually on the facts of her professional practice more than her personal life.
Born in 1947 and raised in Bronxville, New York, Lawler earned a BFA from Cornell University's College of Architecture, Art, and Planning in 1969. While there, she assisted in organization of the university's Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art's 1969 exhibition, Earth Art, which introduced the movement to the country's audiences.
Shortly after graduation, Lawler moved to Manhattan and took a job (after working as a print shop assistant and working at a nursery school) at the Castelli Gallery. During her time at Castelli, Lawler helped out on a number of artistic projects included Willoughby Sharp's Pier 18 exhibition that included 27 all-male participants. Walking home at night after having worked on the project, Lawler began to chirp the names of the artists involved partly as a way to ward off unwanted attention. This playful action lead to the work Birdcalls (1971) which transformed a range of male artists' names into chirruping calls.
It was Reiring who would include Lawler's work in a group show for the first time, in an exhibition titled simply _________, Louise Lawler, Adrian Piper and Cindy Sherman are participating in an exhibition organized by Janelle Reiring at Artists Space, September 23 to October 28, 1978. Establishing her interest in questioning originality early on, in lieu of an "original" work, Lawler's contribution to the show consisted of a small 1883 portrait of a horse borrowed from the Aqueduct Race Track and mounted on one of the gallery's otherwise empty walls. Similarly, for her first solo exhibition in 1979, Lawler presented A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture, screened at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, CA. To the accompaniment of the full-length soundtrack of the 1961 film The Misfits, the theater's screen remained uniformly blank.
During this time, Lawler created a number of projects that questioned and renounced the notions of authorship and originality, which included an interest in collaboration, particularly with other Pictures Generation artists. She also worked in partnership with other artists in projects such as What do we own? What is the Name? with Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine in 1980, A Picture is No Substitute for Anything with Levine in 1981-2, and Ideal Settings: For Presentation and Display (1984) with Allan McCollum.
Between the years of 1981 and 1995 she was married to the art historian Benjamin Buchloh.
Lawler's first solo exhibition in New York took place at Metro Pictures (co-founded by Janelle Reiring) in 1981, introducing a mode of working that would become her signature from then on, and cementing Lawler's place within the group of artists known as the Pictures Generation. Titled An Arrangement of Pictures and Photographs of Arrangements, Lawler attached a label reading "Arranged by Louise Lawler" to a wall of the gallery below the arrangement of works by Metro Pictures artists Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Jack Goldstein, Laurie Simmons , and James Welling. It pointed to the ways in which Lawler would develop and reveal the networks of connections that artists forged as part of their careers, including private collectors in her series Arranged by ... and art galleries and museums. These demonstrate something of Lawler's own networks of connections, and those who were sympathetic to or supportive of her practice.
Although her work often suggests the artist's political investments, these are usually to some extent ambiguous, unfixed to a particular position. However, Lawler has at times spoken more directly to certain political issues through her practice including critiquing the continued neglect of people with AIDS, against the wars in Iraq, and challenging Obama-era campaign of Drone bombing.
She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
The Legacy of Louise Lawler
Lawler's nuanced form of Institutional Critique has suggested a way forward for subsequent generations of artists who would come to examine their own position as creators. Her chief emphasis on the conditions of presentation and reception have paved the way for many strands of contemporary art's practices that emphasize situation and relationality as an indispensable factor of any artistic experience.