Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness—the first retrospective ever mounted of Christopher Williams (American, b. 1956)—spans the impressive 35-year career of one of the most influential cinephilic artists working in photography. Williams studied at the California Institute of the Arts in the mid to late 1970s under the first wave of West Coast Conceptual artists, including John Baldessari, Douglas Huebler, and Michael Asher, only to become his generation’s leading Conceptualist and art professor; he is currently professor of photography at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Deeply invested in the histories of photography and film, architecture and design, Williams has produced a concise oeuvre that furthers a critique of late capitalist society in which images typically function as agents of spectacle.
For the title of this exhibition, Williams has taken a line from a documentary by French director Jean-Luc Godard, in which an amateur filmmaker compares his daily job as a factory worker with his hobby of editing his films of the Swiss countryside as “the production line of happiness.” In Williams’s hands the phrase appears to refer broadly to the function of much photography in today’s consumer culture, in which it not only pictures but also produces so many experiences and objects to be consumed.
The Production Line of Happiness features Williams’s little-seen Super-8 shorts, major projects from the 1980s to the early 1990s, and photographs from his subsequent magnum series For Example: Die Welt ist schön (The world is beautiful) (1993–2001) and For Example: Dix-huit leçons sur la société industrielle (Eighteen lessons on industrial society) (2003–today). Though the exhibition concentrates on photography, other salient aspects of Williams’s practice, such as extensive vinyl “supergraphics” and interventions with display architecture, are also represented. As part of MoMA’s Carte Blanche screening series, Williams will organize a two-week experimental film program running July 23–29 and September 17–23, 2014, in The Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters. In addition, on September 15, as part of MoMA's Modern Mondays series, the artist will discuss his Super-8 films, made in 1979 while a student at CalArts, with MoMA's Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art, Stuart Comer. The evening will be introduced by exhibition curator Roxana Marcoci.
After its presentation at MoMA, the exhibition travels to Whitechapel Gallery, London, where it will be organized by Mark Godfrey, Curator of International Art, Tate Modern. At The Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibition was organized by Matthew S. Witkovsky, Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and Curator, Department of Photography, AIC.
The exhibition is accompanied by an illuminating and unusual volume, in equal parts artist’s book and exhibition catalogue, which includes a trio of essays by curators Mark Godfrey, Roxana Marcoci, and Matthew S. Witkovsky that reflect on Williams’s engagement with his artistic peers and predecessors, with cinema (particularly the film-essay), and with modes of display and publicity in the art world. These contributions are “interrupted” by a transcript of a talk Williams delivered on the work of John Chamberlain, and by historical and contemporary textual and visual materials that were selected by the artist himself.
The exhibition is co-organized by The Museum of Modern Art and The Art Institute of Chicago.
At MoMA the exhibition is organized by Roxana Marcoci, Senior Curator; with Lucy Gallun, Assistant Curator, Department of Photography.
Major support for the MoMA presentation of the exhibition is provided by MoMA's Wallis Annenberg Fund for Innovation in Contemporary Art through the Annenberg Foundation and by The William Randolph Hearst Endowment Fund.
Additional funding is provided by The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art, Emily Glasser and William Susman, Joseph M. Cohen, Keli Lee, and the MoMA Annual Exhibition Fund.
Image: Installation view of Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness, The Museum of Modern Art, 2014. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York