“Canvases begin to glow like jewels, using the play of light on glass and gold; Ming porcelain or mother-of-pearl, for reflections of radiant translucence.”1
The earth had long been circumnavigated and was criss-crossed with an increasingly tight-knit network of international trade links when in 1662 Dutch painter Willem Kalf (before 1619–1693) painted the still life to be found today in the collection of Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, now entitled “with Chinese terrine” (fig. 83). It is one of many small-format paintings by Kalf in which objects from different sources can be found: Venetian glass, carpets from Arab countries and porcelain from China, as well as fresh lobster, caught on his doorstep so to speak, more or less exotic tropical fruits and strong madeira served in particularly delicate glasses, all of which are to be found in ensembles that are as international as they are intercultural. The contemporary eye, sated when it comes to simultaneous availability by supermarket aisles, even more so by computer displays, has grown well accustomed to this admixture of things from various corners of the globe, time zones and climates. We assume that “everything” is in fact always “there” and available “anytime”. This is true to an extent for art too, which can adapt equally well to any subject or medium. To decide what art is, accordingly, demands that we first know its place and specific situation (historical, discursive or social, etc). What art is depends on “where” and “when”, or “under which conditions” it exists. Today Kalf ’s pictures win us over for their stunning painterly craft, which also impressed their erstwhile viewers. Kalf ’s still lifes, which were in great demand and correspondingly expensive, began in fact, according to the British art historian Simon Schama, to glisten “like jewels”, akin to the objects presented within them.2 For example, a privy counsellor like Goethe affirmed that given the choice, he would naturally prefer a picture by Kalf to the actual objects presented so artfully within one, even were they to be solid gold.
In truth, availability is a subject in Kalf ’s pictures, which belong to the then novel genre of so-called pronkstilleven. The focus is on things one has and would like to have. The arrangements of wealth and culture, which are as restrained as they are magnificent, reflect the economic prosperity of the Netherlands – itself the result of foreign trade, from which colonial imperialism ensued consequential collateral damage, which is still ongoing now. The cool complacency with which material wealth and exclusivity is presented here, a special case of attainability, is derived from banketjestukken, compositions from about one generation prior, without entirely superseding that genre. These significantly more modest breakfast still lifes still belong entirely in a world of domestic things and pleasures. In these kinds of pictures, for which the painters Pieter Claesz (c. 1596–1661) and Willem Claeszoon Heda (c. 1594 – c. 1681) became renowned, simple herring encounters cheese, or a light Rhein wine meets the heel of a loaf of bread (fig. 84). The latter lies on a piece of linen, the wine stands tall in a heavy roemer wine glass. Instead of exquisite Chinese porcelain we see here a piece of rustic earthenware, made in the region or, at most, a nautilus shell in an elaborate setting (fig. 85). Ignoring the no less exquisite painterly qualities of these pictures, Schama proposes that this kind of still life be understood not as a picture puzzle but read materialistically as a “map” – for the palate, for example. As art historian Svetlana Alpers indicates, cartography is an important visual skill that develops in parallel with the art of painting, where it has great resonance.3 The paths here were relatively short, yet full of contrast, with the smell of salty fish and fruity Rhein wine.4 One generation on, these maps have become more complex in relation to logistics, and the time to which they refer is more multifaceted, albeit briefer. International trade routes demanded ever more labour-intensive economics and stewardship. In these pictures, pocket watches tick too, showing, as they did in the breakfast scenes of the previous generation, the mechanical standardization of time. Time has become money, all the more so in overseas trade. By 1657, according to American social scientist Michael St. Clair, the trade companies grouped under the name East India Company had shipped around three million pieces of Chinese porcelain to Europe.5 So if we read these pictures as maps, the temporal, economic and social structures indicated upon them have changed. Aside from the material precision Kalf applies to the painterly representation of things made available through these structures, or perhaps precisely because of it, they have become somewhat more abstract. This abstraction is at once both emphasized and foiled by the artist’s brilliant skill.
The exotic elements that enter Kalf ’s meticulously painted still lifes equally bear witness to increasing mobility. For when things travel, so do pictures. Yet unlike the pictures that had long been travelling around the globe on coins, seals and commercial art, for instance, painted pictures could in fact cement their status through this newly won mobility. This only seems paradoxical. Having become mobile, even in Kalf ’s time these had established their independence as panel paintings. They became distinct from both the painter’s craft and from their fixed place as commissioned props of stately representation or, as the case may have been, of religious practice as an art form. In other words, we see pictures that have unmistakeably become “art” but “things” too.
The question of where the art lies is an urgent one in Thilo Westermann’s “Paeonia lactiflora” at the Waldorf Astoria Towers, New York 2014 (fig. 86). The medium-format photograph is dated in the title and shows, in portrait fashion, a sumptuous interior, though it seems to have been squashed into a passage or a lobby. A stifling situation results, emphasized by the framing and by the fact that the image space is limited by the architectural space shown in the photograph. Thanks to the framing, the composition is like a peep-show. Within it, an ensemble of different objects emerges, with a picture at the picture’s very centre. This is a kind of grisaille painting with a black ground, evidently reverse glass. Quite how this picture was created cannot be fathomed, however. The size and form of production suggest an industrially produced or manufactured item, like those in the presentation repertoire of art photography since the late 1990s, such as Diasec prints. The still life, with a Chinese vase in this case, is an image within the image that defines the whole composition without appearing overbearing. It is placed in front of the brown wood panelling that defines the image space and hangs centrally above a Baroque-style sideboard. On this also stands, centrally too, a metal flower bowl that rises slightly over the still life hanging behind it, covering part of its lower section. A halo of light, its source remaining unclear, arches over the scene from the upper edge of the still life, placing the flowers in their best light. Mirrored in the upper part of the still life’s monochrome black background is also a chandelier. This evidently hangs from the ceiling, though the latter is cropped from the upper edge of the photograph. A richly ornamental, again Baroque-style carpet completes the interior, which appears both exclusive and non-specifically, serially “designed”.
The predominant impression conveyed by the photograph is of the designed, maybe even the artificial. Clearly it is all – the framing, lighting, composition, depth of field, colour tone, etc. – thus desired. Given the subject alone, there is little to say whether this “desire” is specifically artistic or merely the result of technical expertise and professional skill, which the art of applied photography might demonstrate. All in all, the camera’s gaze upon the ensemble is as sober and neutral as the ensemble itself seems to be. Yet this is neither documentation nor an aesthetic or conceptual reflection on documentary as a register of image composition or as a representational genre. Nor can one easily define what is worth seeing in this subject beyond the topics of “interior” or “design”. A photograph like this one might be encountered in an interior décor magazine, a sample catalogue, or in a computer-accessed online presentation, such as that of a hotel. Of course, if we were to see this photograph as a Diasec print in an exhibition, or as a reproduction in an art publication, we would take it on good faith that this is a work of art. Yet even then more parts are added, elements that relate more to the concomitant conditions for art, or its application. For the Diasec process itself comes originally from advertising, before it was made art-worthy by protagonists of the Düsseldorf School of Photography at the end of the 1980s – a school for those who love failsafe genres – and thus, when it comes to visual and presentation technology, it is as good as synonymous with socalled “photo-art”. And art publications can hardly avoid reference illustrations of exhibition situations, the so-called installation views, at a time when exhibiting has actually become constitutive for the realization of artistic work “as art”.
What exactly, and when, was the art again? What exactly is art in Westermann’s picture? Here at least we have a title that helps us to place what we have just seen: a “Paeonia lactiflora” at the Waldorf Astoria Towers, New York 2014. It is a complex picture and, as remarked, it is difficult to pin down with one homogenous, unambiguous reading: “This is art!” or “It’s photography and that deals with beautiful things”. In fact, I would like to posit that the work deals with the difficulty of defining the place of art – and this is what ultimately makes it attractive. Photography itself, the material method in which a pictorial subject is presented, as a medium or genre, fails at this just as much as the composition of the elements presented, the iconography, arrangement or rhetoric do.
So far we have discussed Westermann’s picture at length, but not its title, “Paeonia lactiflora” at the Waldorf Astoria Towers, New York 2014. This lengthy, composite title takes us in a variety of directions; however, it does not give us any assistance in locating exactly where the art is to be found or where its place is. At least it informs us of the setting and limits the timeframe in which the picture was made or the photograph taken: the Waldorf Astoria Towers in New York in the year 2014. This accords with the previous observations of the standardized luxury of the photographed interior, one in which art can certainly be found, but where it has no true place. Furthermore, the photograph is striking for its according impersonality and for being unlike art, stripped as it is of any traces of subjectivity. A look into Westermann’s back catalogue is needed in order to resolve the first part of the title. Here Paeonia lactiflora occurs multiple times. First there exists a series, to date comprising three pictures, which all circulate under this title, with additional numerical precision of the specific subject. The subject of each is a combination of a Paeonia lactiflora – the botanical name for the so-called Chinese peony – and a different vase, each of which looks Chinese or, to be precise, is in a Chinoise style. The pictures from this series also exist in two different versions, which have the same subject but were executed in varying technical media and formats. Firstly, explains the caption, the subject exists as a reverse-glass painting, a comparatively obscure and laborious technique, the alternative being the multiply enlarged so-called unique print. There is a technical and conceptual link between the two versions. Westermann produces the delicate reverse-glass painting single-handedly – an intricate process and one that allows the maker himself little perspective, resulting in miniatures that collapse the genres of “still life” and “portrait” with conceptual reference to the vanitas motif that was established in the Baroque period and has evolved in the meantime even into the exotic. The production technique, motifs and the rhetoric of the picture arrangement hold each other in check: exquisite as the pictures may be, their artificiality is more striking than their art. Yet the artefacts that thus emerge are part of a project that opens up a general discussion about image-making. Because the reverse-glass painting functions as a template for Westermann’s subsequent unique prints, for which he significantly enlarges that template; yet the resulting prints are presented with equal status to the paintings. Both versions operate on an equal basis in the sphere of reception, independent of each other as autonomous works. There is no fundamental differentiation – or valuation – between manual craft and industrial production, between the template produced by hand as the “original” and the version obtained through digital scan and print techniques. Yet from a technical perspective at least the latter, considering how it is produced, is nothing other than a “reproduction”. Then we come across “Paeonia lactiflora” at the Waldorf Astoria Towers, New York 2014 in the archive and can finally be sure, even while it is declared an edition, that this is a work and not something like documentation.
On this basis we can establish several points: the vanitas with the Chinese peony in a vase with a dragon relief, as can be seen in the photograph “Paeonia lactiflora” at the Waldorf Astoria Towers, New York 2014, accords, given the size and format, with the unique print version. This is set in as a picture within the picture and inserted as a compositional element in the interior, merging into an ensemble with it. Indeed, it draws no particular attention to itself in relation to the other components. Paeonia lactiflora may be near the centre of the picture, yet it also moves discreetly into the background, partly obscured by the flower arrangement and affected by the reflective sheen. It seems indeed to be completely absorbed in the luxurious void of the hotel interior. What we do not know is how the picture of the Chinese peonies came to be there at all, how it is “in the picture”. If this is pictorial evidence – Paeonia lactiflora at the Waldorf Astoria Towers, New York 2014 – we can only assert that this work was somehow in the relevant location. Yet from this we still must infer an overarching conceptual artistic operation that takes place in several, not necessarily frictionless, steps. It happens in various places – the studio, the photo laboratory, the hotel – and applies different processes and skills – painting and photography, presentation and documentation. So Westermann is not just the producer of pictures, he absorbs their presentation and reception into his work as aspects of it, which, nonetheless, is all principally expressed in pictures.
“The collection and presentation of art has always been a display of social and economic standing before being an exhibition of aesthetic value.”6
Let’s look, by way of contrast, at another pertinent picture. This one comes “with a Chinese tureen”: Louise Lawler’s epochal Jackson Pollock and Tureen, Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Connecticut (fig. 88). This photograph is produced as a mid-sized Cibachrome print in landscape format; like the majority of Lawler’s photographic work, it circulates in a small edition, in accordance with the quantifiability of the media as well as the art market’s demand for exclusivity. The picture is horizontal and clearly divided into an upper and a somewhat larger lower section marked by the wooden baton of a shadow-gap frame. The photograph’s focus is directed on the Chinese tureen referenced in the title, a piece of Ming porcelain that is explicitly situated in the centre of the image, even though it is placed in its lower section. It is illuminated from above by a light source outside the frame and throws a slightly enlarged shadow on the presumably wooden surface on which it stands. Scarcely identifiable, given the cropping, we assume rather than actually see further Chinese tableware to the left and right of the tureen. Across these elements the upper third of the picture is filled with an abstract painted frieze, which can easily be identified, despite its cropping and with the help of the title, as a work by the famous drip-painting artist Jackson Pollock (1912–1956). In fact, it is his late painting Frieze (1953–55), a narrow, over-wide format which can clearly be read as a frieze and is covered with emblematic dripping. Lawler’s compositional choice of a camera focus that so radically crops the painting makes it, in the words of her artist colleague Andrea Fraser, an “apocalyptic wallpaper” behind the old Chinese tableware.7 A Pollock is almost on a par with the television that can be seen in another work in the series entitled Arranged by (fig. 89), i.e. a thing like any other, in a world which is well and truly “commodified”, up to and including social relations; where the clocks only show the time of capital.
“Arrangement” is a central device in Lawler’s artistic practice, which recurrently incorporates curatorial and publishing activities too. Many of her mostly photographic works show arrangements: they come about in more or less conscious, accountable or authorized manners; the arrangements have been found in domestic or public, commercial or institutional frameworks. Lawler arranges herself: her own pictures, found artefacts or works by other artists, and the standard specialist information about the works, including their provenance and history, thus also incorporating modalities of presentation: where and under what circumstances does a thing become visible as art, or emerges as art alongside other things in social practice. For Pollock and Tureen and the other works in the Arranged by series, Lawler was given access to the apartments of Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine, married collectors in New York and Connecticut, as well as to other private and corporate collections. The arrangements she found there also reflect individual concerns and social relations; a certain degree of subjectivity comes into play by the very method of selection and focus. In this way Lawler’s photographs are, on the one hand, portraits of society, which present the arrangements as indicative of social relations, or portraits of individuals in which the societal and economic situation of their owners is reflected in how they deal with artworks and artefacts. On the other hand, these pictures only appear to adopt a neutral standpoint. Instead of documenting, it’s how Lawler’s eye lands that reveals a subjective trace. Several of these pictures can actually justifiably be called “slippages”, so to speak, between “figure” and “ground”, depending on where the focus lies. According to professional standards and formal criteria, it is hardly an arbiter of successful photography if the wallpaper is granted at least as much attention as the distinguished artwork hanging on it. We encounter Pollock’s Frieze again under such contrary circumstances in Lot #22 (fig. 90), for example. This time Pollock’s painting has largely been cropped off on the right-hand side. In the left-hand part of the picture, as if “off”, the intimation of a silhouette of a security guard scuttling by can just be made out, who seems to have entered the photograph accidentally. In fact, the focus lies on the rough wall covering on which the picture hangs and, in addition, on the small sign that is attached to the wall to one side. The scenario Lawler has captured here is the weighty work at the preview of an auction, during which, on 9 November 1988, large sections of the Tremaine collection were sold, including the Pollock. Little wonder if the information about the work and its provenance are here more interesting than the work itself.
“How does one measure the relationship between the valuing of craft and its collection? Or between the aim of gaining knowledge and that of gaining possession?”8
“Anywhere or not at all”9 is how British philosopher and art theoretician Peter Osborne defines critical contemporary art in the era of global – and one should add, “financialized” – capitalism; overall, it has entered the state of post-conceptualism. Osborne pinpoints what enables art to be, beyond schemata for description which differentiate between material and form, being and appearance, medium and genre, etc. He finds it in mediatization itself, which has taken the place of the (Modernist) medium. In this sense Louise Lawler’s art is when it – her illustrations of the social, economic and institutional conditions of art, or, in short, the art industry, including her own complicit involvement in it as a producer of “slippages” that themselves circulate in the market – literally appears in the place for art. The fact that her artworks allow critical analysis and commentary on and in this industry is the particular sleight of hand inherent in Lawler’s approach to appropriation (of other people’s art), an artistic method that underpins a whole diverse genre of appropriation art.
What makes Thilo Westermann’s work contemporary and critical in the best sense of the words are his varied and indeed “anyplace” applications of appropriation at the level of image production and circulation. In this he aims for frictions: between, for example, traditions of craft and the conceptual, between different types and genres of images, between originality and reproducibility, between the strange and exotic and the familiar and self-made, between the technical availability of scale and quantity and its contractual regulation by limiting editions. And also between desire and its fulfilment.
In Willem Kalf ’s splendid still lifes, objects of different qualities and backgrounds are illustrated masterfully, but not only that. More dynamic “constellations” than stiffly observed “still lifes”, these things interact in richly associative ways, they stage “interactions” like a play on the picture stage. A play that spills over the edges of the picture. A half-opened lid, precariously tipping vessels, sometimes freshly peeled oranges, the reflected light that illuminates the wine and goblet, not to mention the clock’s ticking that underlines the eventful and anecdotal qualities in these pictures, which allow us to sense people’s presence, their delight in use of these things – desires and wishes that come true. This desire, which moves us to experience and discover, which stimulated trading connections, which intensified the relation between property and individualism, made the pictures themselves into jewels. Louise Lawler’s artistic output also bears witness to the fact that art is both object and subject of this dynamic. The motifs Westermann etches on reverse glass and his painstaking colour pencil drawings of floral subjects are to be found in a sumptuous but impersonal hotel foyer or on the windowsill of a less appealing office space, combined in multiple ensembles with exotic ornamental plants, other pictures with different aesthetic relevance, a hastily written but earnestly meant dedication from a famous hand, or a porcelain tureen in what – we assume – are tastefully arranged private rooms, the private characters of which are not, however, visible in the photographs taken there. On the one hand we are inclined to think of desirable locations, environments in which art, in a suitable context, comes to fruition. It is fitting if Westermann leaves the details – including the technical details of his use of digital montage – vague: details of how these ensembles came about at all, how the pictures came to be in these places. On the other hand, we feel the fear that even the most suitable setting always degrades art to the status of object; that the unique becomes secondary – in German nebensächlich, literally “beside other things”; that images whose impact exists by virtue of their dissemination, through cultural transfer and their visual discursivity, are withdrawn from circulation; that, in other words, even the best place turns out to be wrong somehow. In this sense, Westermann’s project becomes contemporary and critical because it operates as much with artistic aggregation as it does with the discomforting dissolution of the picture as a stage, and with a picture’s diverse conditions as object, medium, sign, discourse and content – all conditions that never coexist without some friction. It operates in the knowledge that in a world subjected more than ever to economic principles everything has already been sold, but is rarely enough in the right place.
1 Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches. An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (New York: Penguin Random House, 1997), p. 166.
3 See Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing. Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 119ff.
5 Michael St. Clair, The Great Chinese Art Transfer. How So Much of China’s Art Came to America (Vancouver: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016), p. 91.
6 Andrea Fraser, In and Out of Place (1985), quoted in Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights. The Writings of Andrea Fraser (Cambridge MA and London: The MIT Press, 2005), pp. 17ff., p. 23.
8 Alpers, The Art of Describing, p. 116.
9 See Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All. Philosophy of Contemporary Art (London and New York: Verso, 2013).
Translation: Aoife Rosenmeyer
Published in Thilo Westermann Migrations, Milan (Skira editore), 2022, pp. 226–239.