Louise Lawler, whose work raises questions about the production, circulation, and presentation of art, emerged in the 1970s as part of the Pictures Generation—a loosely knit group of artists named for an influential exhibition, Pictures, organized in 1977 by art historian Douglas Crimp at Artists Space in New York. These artists, among them Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and Jack Goldstein, used photography and image appropriation to examine the functions and codes of representation in movies, television, magazines, and other forms of mass media. One of Lawler’s early black-and-white photographs, Why Pictures Now (1981), shows a matchbook propped up in an ashtray. The matchbook’s shadowy presence and the cool sensibility of the image are reminiscent of an advertising photograph or a film noir still. It asks the viewer to consider why the work takes the form of a picture, and why the artist is making pictures at this moment.
Lawler established her signature style in the early 1980s, when she began taking pictures of other artists’ works displayed in museums, storage spaces, auction houses, and collectors’ homes. With these photographs, she sought to question the value, meaning, and use of art. Does Andy Warhol Make You Cry? (1988) presents an image of Andy Warhol’s 1962 painting Round Marilyn photographed at a Christie’s preview before it was sold in the November 1988 auction of the Burton and Emily Tremaine Collection. The painting appears at full scale (17 inches in diameter), and the auction house label is clearly legible. Lawler also includes her own label, which directly asks the viewer why Warhol’s tondo of the iconic actress is so affecting decades after her death.
An integral aspect of Lawler’s approach is her process of continuously re-presenting, reframing, or restaging her work. Through this strategy she revisits her own pictures by transferring them to different formats, making her photographs into paperweights, tracings, and work she calls “adjusted to fit.” The tracings, such as Pollock and Tureen (traced) (1984/2013), are large-format, black-and-white line versions of her photographs that eliminate color and detail, functioning instead as “ghosts” of the originals.
Lawler’s “adjusted to fit” images are stretched or expanded to fit the site of their display. Big (adjusted to fit) (2002/2003/2016) is based on a color photograph taken at the booth of the Marian Goodman Gallery during the 2002 Art Basel fair in Miami. It shows the installation of an outsized mask of Pablo Picasso made by Maurizio Cattelan. Cattelan originally conceived the mask in 1998 as part of a MoMA Projects exhibition, for which he hired an actor to greet visitors while wearing the mask and a striped boatneck shirt similar to the ones Picasso wore. In Lawler’s image, the mask is unpacked but not yet assembled. Behind it hangs a monumental photograph by Thomas Struth, Pergamon Museum 4 (2001), which shows people looking at friezes and headless sculptural figures from ancient Greece.
In addition to her photographs and installations—such as the sound piece Birdcalls (1972/1981), in which she voices the names of well-known male artists in the style of birdcalls—Lawler has consistently produced ephemera ranging from gallery announcements and posters to magazine covers and matchbooks. These items reflect her interest in how art reaches viewers beyond the museum and gallery system. Across the entire spectrum of her work, Lawler evokes critical theories of reception, acknowledging that the meaning of an artwork shifts and morphs depending on who looks at it and the context of its display.
Introduction by Kelly Sidley, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, 2017