In 2005 when the de Young museum opened their new Herzog & de Meuron-designed facility in Golden Gate Park, the museum endeavored to update their engagement with contemporary art practices. Most visibly, five large-scale works were commissioned from blue chip artists to be featured at the building's opening celebration, including an immense print by Gerhard Richter, a meditation stupa by James Turrell, a glass installation by Kiki Smith, an outdoor sculpture and crack in the landscaping by Andy Goldsworthy, and a series of paintings by Ed Ruscha. Less sensational but potentially more impactful, the de Young also initiated their Collection Connections program with a series of work by local photographer Catherine Wagner. The program debuted with the objective of integrating contemporary practices with the de Young's eclectic general collection holdings by asking artists to create a body of work both inspired by and displayed with objects from the de Young's permanent collection. Marco Breuer: Line of Sight is the latest installment in this program.
Breuer's studio practice engages the technological apparatus of photographic image-making without participating in the act of photography itself. Rather, Breuer tinkers with photosensitive papers, subjecting them to all kinds of nontraditional physical manipulations prior to chemical processing. To create Untitled (Study for Tremors) (2000), Breuer strafed a heating element from an old frying pan across an unexposed sheet of black-and-white silver gelatin paper. After processing, the transformed chemical elements have merged with the toasted charring of the prints' base in an abstract image reminiscent of Richter's squeegee-based paintings. In Spin(C-818)<(2008), radial scratches illuminate colors on the surface of chromogenic paper, creating a science fiction wormhole effect. Both his technique and its results demonstrate Breuer's interest in the obfuscation of image content within an artwork by the methods of its construction and accidents of its history.
Spin (C-818), 2008; Courtesy of the Artist and Von Lintel Gallery, New York.
Breuer's selections from the de Young's holdings further illustrate this interest. Initially, the exhibition's installation reads as something between an intentionally rough apartment show or as evidence of sloppy museum preparatory work. Packaging materials are still on most of the objects, installation directions are still somewhat legible on the gallery walls, mirrors and prints are hung at awkward heights. However, upon closer inspection, Breuer's method of mirroring his nontraditional photographic studio strategies in the vernacular of a curatorial museum format subsume the institutional detritus on the collection's artworks. These seemingly incomplete and unfinished installations are key components of the exhibition. A portrait in oils by Samuel Walker, Mrs. Mary Jane White (1843-1914) (1871), hangs with rectangles of tissue paper obscuring the subject's face and hands. The materials are part of a preservationist's toolset, as the work is in the process of restoration, albeit temporarily arrested by the exhibition. By including the work in such a liminal state, Breuer appropriates the functional paper forms as an aesthetic formal device, subverting the trope of a traditional portrait. The resulting installation speaks to the accidents of creation, just as Breuer's photographs do, as a crafted artifact of his intervention.
While this Collection Connection project is successful in advancing Breuer's artistic reasoning beyond his chosen media of photographic paper, it highlights one of the program's common pitfalls. The chosen art objects function as props furthering Breuer's endeavors, but the relationship is not mutual. Little understanding or knowledge is produced about the objects from the collection beyond their display -- an unfortunate missed opportunity for the artist, institution, and the museum audience.
Marco Breuer: Line of Sight is on view though October 2, 2011 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. For more information visit deyoung.famsf.org.