The twelve color photographs in Louise Lawler’s fourteenth and final solo exhibition at Metro Pictures—the New York gallery will close this December—were taken, as the show’s title announced, with the “lights off, after hours, in the dark”: for two nights in January, Lawler wandered around the Museum of Modern Art’s sixth floor galleries, capturing the Donald Judd retrospective illuminated only by skylights and exit signs. As in much of Lawler’s work, the view is at once privileged and partial. Since the early 1980s, her central subject has been the lives of artworks after their creators send them out into the world, which has inevitably entailed talking her way into collectors’ homes and museum storage rooms, and onto auction house floors, to photograph objects in situ. Returning, in this new series, to the site of her own 2017 survey, Lawler flaunts her insider access to the would-be blockbuster show, put on ice for several months following its unfortunately timed opening in early March 2020, yet the Judds on display are barely visible, instead evoked by silhouettes, reflections, and shadows that emerge from near-black grounds.
Recalling Edward Steichen’s 1908 nocturnal portraits of Rodin’s Monument to Balzac, the resulting photographs (all 2021) are moody and atmospheric, investing work more commonly known for cerebral detachment with a thrilling sense of high drama. In Untitled (Sfumato), titled after a Renaissance painting technique for softening the transitions between areas of light and shade, an ambient haze descends on a skylit row of wall-mounted boxes, interrupted by the dark outline of a sculpture in the shape of an open rectangular prism on the floor nearby, which appears to slice through their gleaming surfaces. Shot from a distance in an otherwise pitch-black gallery, Untitled (Skylight) is bisected by an eerie green glow spilling across the floor beneath a sextet of steel cubes, as if they were somehow generating their own light. Two smaller photographs taken in the show’s final gallery, Untitled (Night) and Untitled (MoMA), foreground the crisp geometric shadows cast by light streaming through the glass doors at the exit, echoing the form of the late stack, in black aluminum, on the adjacent wall.
Though this new series is less jarring than Lawler’s best-known works—think, for instance, of the infamous dalliance between an Abstract Expressionist masterpiece and an ornate porcelain vessel that she depicted in Pollock and Tureen (1984)—it maintains their characteristic bite. The photographs flatter Judd’s pieces, but do so by flagrantly embracing the qualities he most forcefully disavowed. In an oft-cited 1971 interview in Artforum, Judd asserted that he intended for his works to be seen in natural light, proclaimed that he didn’t care at all about the shadows they produced, and, most notoriously, rejected the very concept of composition (“taking some little part down here to adjust it to balance some big part up there”) as European and obsolete. Aside from intentionally disregarding Judd’s preferred conditions of display, Lawler playfully travesties his “specific objects” by recasting them as her own readymade compositional elements.
This is particularly evident in the pairs and trios of photographs that depict the same works from different vantages, often to strikingly different effects. In Untitled (First Night), the contours of the room and its contents all but dissolve into broad planes of tone: a gray gradient across the walls and a stepped mass of black below, where overlapping rectangular forms in plywood and Plexiglas meet the floor. Untitled (Second Night) pulls back on this ensemble, allowing the gallery’s more prosaic details—wall labels, air ducts, the glowing green LED of a ceiling alarm—to intrude. Untitled (Reflection) likewise returns to the tenebrous scene of Untitled (Sfumato) from clear across the gallery, so the works appear as a series of compressed forms: a wedge of perforated metal cuts into an open rectangle, which in turn frames a silvery square. Lawler augments this loosely Suprematist arrangement with a trail of red light from an exit sign cascading down the liquid expanse of polished floor like an Impressionist sunrise dotting the water, piling together allusions to the art historical tradition Judd intended to leave behind. Then again, as the photographs subtly hint, MoMA’s collection revolves around artists who likewise thought their works had dramatically broken with tradition, the Impressionists and Suprematists among them. Lawler’s backhanded homage might also be seen as a modernist memento mori: nothing stays radical forever.