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“Directions—Louise Lawler: Monochrome”

At the Hirshhorn Museum

and Sculpture Garden to Oct. 19

“Art is not what is not art.”

—Ad Reinhardt

Already something of an anti-Reinhardt for concerning herself with everything that isn’t art but happens to be in the vicinity, Louise Lawler takes on pure painting’s black monk on his own terms. Well, kinda. “Monochrome” collects a handful of photographs of artworks in situ Lawler has made over the past decade and a half; then it looks the other way, not at what the pictures represent but at what colors they are.

It’s a perverse gesture, all right. Renowned for pieces that expose the economic and political framework of the art world, Lawler isn’t particularly well known as a monochromatist. Her colors are pointedly unhomogeneous—mottled, grainy, or corrupted by competing hues. Her pictures have little use for transcendence, spirituality, utopianism, or asceticism—and they traffic in figuration. It’s as if they’re monochromes by accident, having been admitted to the priesthood when the gatekeeper had his head turned.

But then the idea of looking elsewhere runs through these pictures. In one of them, a beige expanse is defined not only by Jasper Johns’ White Flag but also by the set of cream-colored monogrammed linens on the bed it hangs above in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine. Êtes Vous Heureuse depicts a yellow-green corner in François Morellet’s house where a painting and a sculpture rub up against a plant, a radiator, and a parrot. The objects in Lawler’s pictures are defined as much by where they are as by what they are. The photos address the need of art to be art, to assume the physical and social functions of art, while examining what art does when it’s not exactly gussied up in its formal best. To viewers accustomed to seeing art in polished museum and gallery settings, from the perspectives encouraged by its official installation, the art Lawler shoots seems unguarded. Green finds a plaster cast (apparently after Lysippos) bathed in minty fluorescence, perched on a storage rack awaiting conservation, in the museum but not on display; it’s as if Lawler had come upon a figure asleep.

Lawler also casts the viewer’s eye back upon the viewer. She has shunned nonreflective glass; the shiny surface protecting each framed photograph shows off the contents of the rest of the gallery, viewer included, rather than allowing for an unimpeded view of what lies within the frame. In Woman (Statue) From Above, we peer over the shoulder of a plaster replica of an ancient statue in the Norwich Free Academy, our ocher reflection encouraging us to mimic her stance.

The pictures that aren’t framed are mounted on what are called “museum boxes.” These are structures that museums never use. They are favored instead by commercial photographers. A picture is affixed to the surface of a shallow box jutting out from the wall. It’s a cheap way to make a 3-D object from an image as thin as a sheet of paper. But the format’s objecthood seems a sham (if you’re the type of person who is troubled by the empty space inside those Lucite photo cubes, you’ll understand). The museum boxes have highly reflective, rippling surfaces; they, too, participate in redirecting the viewer’s gaze, but in addition they distort it.

Once you submit to the fact that you’re not going to see Lawler’s photographs very clearly, you notice that the frustration game isn’t restricted to the exhibition formats; the camera plays as well. 1992’s mainly grayish-white Monochrome, shot in the home of a Geneva collector, is a collection of fragments; it contains the corner of a Robert Ryman, the top of an African chair, and the tip of a banister. Feet First is a concrete-colored sidelong shot of a pedimental sculpture in Munich’s Glyptotek. The perspective is such that the tableau is unresolvable; an illegible diagram, which might offer some help, taunts from the background. Shadow, Summer is simply a record of the patterns cast on a gallery wall by Duchamp’s 50 cc of Paris Air and its vitrine; the piece itself is off camera.

All this is to say that Lawler’s “monochromes” are some of the most impure you’ll find. Which is not to say they’re unintentional. Lawler printed Shadow, Summer in a variety of single colors (two examples are presented here), though it is the only work she has so tampered with. And the titles of White Wall (which returns to Paris Air more directly, this time including adjacent wall labels as well as the piece itself) and Green give themselves away.

Still, Lawler is playing along with an institutional recontextualization of her work. She’s game, but she isn’t just being nice. “Monochrome” provides her a much-needed update. One of the things Lawler’s continued presence as a significant postmodernist has established is that even art as squirrely about authorship as her own can’t escape being name-branded—being identified, that is, as the product of its creator. (Lawler recently had an anonymous show in the Bowery. She says that one observer wasn’t sure whose it was but could narrow it down to one of the Metro Pictures crew.)

But the critical project of Lawler and like-minded unveilers and critiquers of art-world mechanisms has worked perhaps too well. In 1997, the cutting-edge strategies and deconstructions of 1986 read like a roster of things taken for granted. What a few decades ago was invisible has been held up for scrutiny until now we can no longer see it. “Monochrome” gives this progression a wry, knowing twist.

Today, we know what to expect from Lawler. What we didn’t know to expect from her Hirshhorn show, however, is the product of curatorially produced context. This is an area that Lawler, who has had shows consisting of arrangements of other artists’ work, has not traditionally farmed out (but then, everyone’s outsourcing nowadays). By handing the reins over to curator Phyllis Rosenzweig, Lawler has permitted the museum to do to her work what she in the past has done to the museum. By shifting the conversation away from ’80s notions of cultural critique and onto ’90s ideas of beauty, “Monochrome” subjects Lawler’s oeuvre to methods that echo her own, and she receives a new look in the process.

It’s a form of self-appropriation by proxy, wrought by what not so long ago was considered the impersonal, authoritarian hand of the art institution. But once artists began to act like museums, expanding the range of activity available to themselves, it made it easier for museums to act like artists. And that’s just what the Hirshhorn has done. As meaning flows into aesthetics and back again, “Monochrome” sets up ultrasubtle historicocultural eddies, turning recent art and history back on themselves, leaving the never-again-autonomous artwork with a rather delightful identity crisis.

What does art do when it’s sleeping? Lawler’s work responds the same way as any that she has photographed—it dreams of being something else.CP