From jewel-like paintings on glass of orchids and peonies, to unique prints of these works scanned at the highest possible resolution, to hyperreal composite photographs of earlier works presented as they were installed in situ, Thilo Westermann’s art is defined by a level of seamless finish that belies the laborious conditions of its production. With the floral still life as one of his primary subject matters—at once historically ubiquitous and anachronistic in its legibility as ‘contemporary’ art—his self-referential and auto-appropriating œuvre pivots on a contradictory logic. Westermann’s recent works comprise varying types of mechanically-produced images that take as their subject his intricate and highly technical reverse glass paintings of floral arrangements, some of which are themselves “copies” of historical artworks. In this sense, Westermann’s work can be read as an exercise in aesthetic hermeticism, a closed loop of simulacral production. Following the logic of this winding maze of facsimiles, however, it becomes clear that Westermann’s composite photographs cleverly take up debates around reproduction, authenticity, and authorship, as they address the circulation and cultural significance of lens-based images.
Westermann’s work has previously been written about in terms of his meticulous and masterful technique of reverse glass painting, as well as its out-of-time-ness and historical references to the Vanitas motifs of 17th Century European painting.1 This text will instead elaborate on a different aspect of his practice, situating the composite photographs, as well as the works they incorporate, within a lineage of conceptual photography that follows from art-historical discourses that emerged in the late 1970s with the artists of the Pictures Generation. Offering an account of Westermann’s photographs in relation to the wide-reaching influence of Pictures Generation artists, particularly Louise Lawler and Christopher Williams, and the related theoretical touchstones of appropriation and postmodernity, the text endeavors to clarify the stakes of the processes of reproduction and appropriation that occur throughout Westermann’s work, and articulate how these processes operate.
“While it once seemed that pictures had the function of interpreting reality, it now seems that they have usurped it,” wrote Douglas Crimp in his essay for the landmark exhibition Pictures.2 Staged at New York’s Artist’s Space in 1977, and including works by Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith, it would be historicized as a canonical exhibition. Pictures holds this privileged historical position not only because it was the first exhibition to mark an emerging trend of artists treating mass media photographic material, and even other artworks, as raw material to be “raided and reused,” but also because the seismic shift towards appropriation, in its many forms, was understood as symptomatic of a moment of rupture between the lofty concerns that defined of the art of modernism and the art of postmodernity.3 The postmodern, according to its primary theorist Frederic Jameson, being marked by a drive to self-consciously efface “the frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture."4
To parse Westermann’s work within the context of postmodernity and appropriation, it is helpful to read his composites alongside the photographs of Louise Lawler. Her now-canonical images of works by other artists within varying conditions of display and storagecategorically disrupted conceptions of the work of art and the document.5 As such, they accept the “condition of the spectacle as a fact of life,” delivering incisive critiques of art’s economies, institutions, and understanding of authorship.6 In one of her most significant works, Pollock and Tureen, Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Connecticut (1984), we see the lower portion of an unusually colorful Jackson Pollock drip painting hung above a wooden mantle. Despite a tight crop, the Pollock is still immediately recognizable. In the foreground of Lawler’s image, placed on the mantel, is an ornately decorated soup tureen.7
Pollock and Tureen is a clear reference for Westermann’s photographs, a number of which depict art and objets d’art on mantle places. The most remarkable of these is, “‘Leaf Green (2)’, ‘Fuchsia – Leaf Green’, and ‘Vanda Miss Joaquim’ in Daniel’s Guest Room, Munich 2014” at Ricardo’s and Stephen’s Place, Milan 2017 (2017). Described in the simplest terms, Westermann’s exhaustively titled image presents a white marble mantlepiece, above which is hung a photograph. The mantle is arranged with a pair of neoclassical brass candlesticks; two silver vases, holding sprigs of cut and dried lavender; small figurines; and, at the center of the composition, a large soup tureen. The artworkabove this mise en scene is another of Westermann’s photographs that is itself a dense composition of a tightly clustered group of pictures—including three of Westermann’s own works overlapped with a framed handwritten note, signed by fashion designer Geoffrey Beene, and two unobtrusive semi-abstract paintings by another artists—all resting on a (second) mantlepiece of burnished dark wood. Following the both the compositional elements and the appropriative strategy of Lawler’s Pollock and Tureen, Westermann’s photograph, in which stylistic quotations and mechanically-produced facsimiles of artworks are quite literally stacked one atop the other, is a compositional hall of mirrors where copies, and copies of copies, seem reflected ad infinitum.
Beyond the striking formal similarities between these two works, Westermann and Lawler share deep conceptual and methodological affinities. Both auto-appropriate their own imagery, which allows for infinite permutations of a single image to confound the notion of an original. Lawler does this across media, in works like Pollock and Tureen (Traced) (1984/2013), a simplified line drawing of her 1984 photograph to be fabricated in vinyl at whatever dimensions the wall it is presented on will allow, and the crystal and felt paperweight of Untitled (Salon Hodler) (1992). Westermann, too, has flirted with trans-media adaptations of his work, including a collaboration with the fashion house ESCADA for which he chose details of his reverse glass paintings such as Vanda Miss Joaquim (2) (2013) or Paeonia lactiflora in a Vase with a Dragon Relief (2013) to print on textiles used in jointly-designed garments. An important difference to mark, however is that Westermann’s auto-appropriation has a more self-reflexive point of origin than Lawler’s. Rather than photographing a Johns or a Pollock, he begins with his own artworks. This is to say that the focal point of Westermann’s photographs are almost always lens-based facsimiles of his own pictures in other media, though some of these are hand-made copies of historical paintings. The auto-appropriative tendency of his work, which reaches its apogee in the composites, elides calms to originality authorship. If such an elision in Lawler’s photographs works through her appropriation of recognizable artworks, for Westermann, it is actionable through the historical familiarity of his chosen subject matter. The floral still life, then, functions as a kind of digestible unit of aesthetic information that allows for the structural logic of appropriation that governs the works to unfold legibly, while also alluding to questions of representation structures of the market and patronage, and the labor of fabrication.
Another significant point of diversion in the comparison between Westermann and Lawler is where her photographs tend towards a deadpan affect, Westermann’s move towards a pretension of seamlessness and gloss that echoes the fine surfaces of the well-heeled homes in which the scenes of his composite photographs are located. In terms of their immaculate, near-editorial presentation, Westermann’s photographic tableaus such as have more in common with the slick production style of commercial images and advertisements, and, by way of this, the photographs of Christopher Williams. The hyper-rendered, elegiac, and painterly quality of the flowers in Williams’ Bouquet, for Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D’Arcangelo (1991), as well as Williams’ theatrical arrangement of banal objects in works like Fachhochschule Aachen, Fachbereich Gestaltung, Studiengang: Visuelle Kommunikation, Fotolabor für Studenten, Boxgraben 100, Aachen, November 8, 2010 (2010), have doubtless influenced Westermann’s presentation. Speaking about his work in an interview around the time of his 2014 retrospective The Production Line of Happiness at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Williams said, “I was trying to make the conditions of production palpable within the photograph but not visible.”8 A tension between the laboriously produced image and the disappearance of this labor into the work’s surface is key in Westermann’s work.
On first glance, Westermann’s photographs seem to faithfully reproduce the gleaming surfaces of marble, mirror, brass, and polished wood, that adorn these sumptuous and costly spaces. When approached more closely, however, it is evident that the composites reproduce only the affect of these surfaces. Posing as a document, the photographs ‘usurp’ the reality of these interiors (to use Crimp’s words), imposing upon them a new narrative. Each is a composite image, stitched together from many dozens of source photographs in a fashion almost as laborious as his reverse glass paintings. Composites find art historical precedence in the form of the Dadaist photomontage, but function more smoothly, offering an experience of apprehension that is “more comfortable for the viewer.”9 Westermann’s composites play in this comfortability of viewing, but they also incorporate discontinuities that tip their hand, subtly signaling that the luxe and frictionless world they create is a construct, or what post-structural philosopher and semiotician Jean Baudrillard might refer to as a hyperreality. In certain of his images, the play of mirrored or otherwise reflective surfaces is so built up as to collapse and disorient the space entirely. In works like“Redouté” and “Vanda Miss Joaquim” at Villa Stéphanie, Baden-Baden 2017 (2018), objects and their reflections are nearly indiscernible from one another, emoting a kind of finish fetish, a ‘waning of affect’ and “depthlessness” that Jameson asserts are constitutive of the postmodern as it is beholden to “the culture of the image.”10
Thirty-two years after Crimp’s Pictures, when introducing the 2009 exhibition, The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curator Douglas Eklund would contend that the unifying rejoinder for the ‘loosely knit,’ group of artists that would come to be identified with this milieu is their subscription to the ideas of Roland Barthes in his canonical 1967 text “The Death of the Author.” Eklund frames Barthes’ “famous last line—‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author,’” as a “call to arms” for the Pictures Generation.11 The fragmentation of the individual subject and the concomitant death of the author is evident in Westermann’s photographs in which he fragments his own authorship through a series of re-presentations of an image that is itself sometimes a copy, as in the case of the Chinese Orchid (Homage to Ma Lin) (2014). As we have seen, Westermanns photographs operate through a dense network of facsimiles that through their strategic repetition and permutation become crucial elements in a micro-ecology of reproduction and display. The reappearance of Westermann’s own works—each digitally staged within a shifting constellation of rarefied interiors, from the Waldorf Astoria to the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, from Villa Stéphanie in Baden-Baden to the home of a collector in Maremma—points towards the insignificance of the sui generis quality of an original artwork, instead suggesting that the image’s function as a signifier is its most important quality.
How do these ideas resonate today? If the signature mode of the Pictures Generation was to utilize appropriation for purposes of institutional and mass-media critique, three decades on, what might be the reason for Westermann’s auto-appropriative tendencies, both in the composites, and in the unique prints of his reverse glass paintings? Echoing a widely remarked-upon shift in the use of appropriation, Lucy Soutter asserts that by the mid 2000s not only has appropriation “become the dominant trend in contemporary art practice,” but that “appropriated material no longer need signify anything in particular: not the death of the author, not a critique on mass-media representations, not a comment on consumer capitalism.”12 “On the contrary,” Soutter writes, “it seems that appropriation is a tool of the new subjectivism, with the artist’s choice of preexisting images or references representing a bid for authenticity (my record collection, my childhood snaps, my favourite supermodel).”13 The conceptual migration of appropriated content from tool of critique to signifier of subjective authenticity might be considered symptomatic of an acceptance of, or resignation to, the economic conditions of postmodernity. More specifically, appropriation as subjectivism is indicative of a collective acknowledgement that we, as contemporary subjects, are formed by the codes and covert economic interests of mass media images, and that encounters with an utter excess of images are an inevitable part of contemporary life. In this regard, Westermann has the last laugh. After all, what could be more authentic, and, for that matter, more postmodern, than copying one’s own work?
1 See, Aoife Rosenmeyer, “The Contemporary Artist,” and Martin Thierer, “Vanitas,” in Thilo Westermann Vanitas (Vienna: Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2014).
2 Douglas Crimp, “Essay for Pictures, 1977,” reprinted in X-TRA 8, no. 1 (2005), p. 17.
3 David Evans, “Seven Types of Appropriation,’ in Appropriation, David Evans, ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), p. 12.
4 Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 2.
5 Sherri Irvin, “Artwork and the Document in the Photography of Louise Lawler,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70, no. 1 (2012): pp. 79-80.
6 Rosalind Krauss, “Louise Lawler: Souvenir Memories,” in Aperture 145 (1996): p. 36.
7 It is worth noting that Lawler’s photograph reads with little depth at all, and functions instead like the early modern paintings of Cézanne and Matisse that reject the illusionism of three-point perspective and instead flatten and push forward the picture plane. In a quotation of a quotation, a number of Westermann’s composite photographs including “Leaf Green (2)”, “Fuchsia – Leaf Green” and “Vanda Miss Joaquim” in Daniel's Guest Room, Munich 2014 (2014) and “Vanda Miss Joaquim” at the Villa Stéphanie, Baden-Baden 2017 (2017) similarly enact this foreshortening and flatness.
8 David Andrew Tasman and Catherine Taft, “Christoper Williams: The 19th Draft, David Andrew Tasman and Catherine Taft, in conversation with Christopher Williams,” DIS Magazine, http://dismagazine.com/discussion/69719/christopher-williams-the-19th-draft/.
9 Lucy Soutter “The collapsed archive: Idris Khan,” in Appropriation, David Evans, ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), p. 167.
10 Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, p. 12.
11 Douglas Eklund, The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009): p. 17.
12 Lucy Soutter “The collapsed archive: Idris Khan,” in Appropriation, David Evans, ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), p. 166.