In No Two Alike: Karl Blossfeldt, Francis Bruguière, Thomas Ruff, FotoFocus Guest Curator Ulrike Meyer Stump re-stages an iconic 20th-century photo exhibition with a modern twist. Here, the independent curator and Zurich University of the Arts lecturer discusses abstraction, Paris, and curatorial problem solving.
No Two Alike re-conceives a 1929 London exhibition featuring photographs by German sculptor Karl Blossfeldt and American photographer Francis Bruguière. What is most memorable about this pairing, and why is the exhibition worth revisiting?
The combination of Blossfeldt’s plant photographs and Bruguière’s experimental photographic designs is surprising. They were initially created in entirely different contexts: Blossfeldt’s as teaching materials for Jugendstil designers in Berlin around 1900, Bruguière’s as the personal project of a professional theater photographer and commercial artist in New York in the 1920s. With today’s hindsight, the juxtaposition in London of vegetal forms and geometric abstractions appears as a perfect pairing that illustrated central formal concerns of the British avant-garde, and biomorphism in general.
While these concerns were primarily expressed in British sculpture, it is remarkable to find them so well represented in photographs—or photobooks, for that matter, since the Dorothy Warren show was a book launch exhibition. Warren and her short-lived gallery have largely been forgotten today. When I finally found pictures of the gallery’s premises and discovered Henry Moore’s sculptures on the mantlepiece, I knew that I was getting onto something really exciting.
In addition to reuniting Blossfeldt and Bruguière, No Two Alike juxtaposes their work against that of the contemporary artist Thomas Ruff, who has been described as “a master of edited and reimagined images.” In what ways does his work complement theirs?
While Blossfeldt and Bruguière were trying to make the best use of photography as teaching material or abstract art (both novel uses of the medium at the time), Ruff works at another level. He asks: What does it mean to look at negatives in the digital age? How do we see Blossfeldt’s now iconic photographs today? What does it mean to create abstract images in the 21st century?
In the catalog, Ruff has allowed us to reproduce some historic works from his collection, photograms and other abstract images, in addition to the original Blossfeldt photographs which his Negatives series appropriates. We reproduced them on opposite pages—not as pairs facing each other but as two sides of the same page. So, you are forced to flip the page and test the “counterpart” against the image in your memory. The historic photographs are not inspirations but “sparring partners” for Ruff’s own work.
This show is a blend of history and contemporary. What interests you about that combination?
I’ve always worn several hats: that of a researcher, that of a critic and expert of contemporary photography, and that of a professor of photo history. When you teach history to art students your outlook always has to be grounded in the present. Why is it relevant to study the past? How can historic knowledge contribute to the creation of new work? Where do we fit into the big picture, as artists and as citizens? These are the questions you need to raise. And some of these questions curators and museum visitors should ask as well. They are vital, not just to art but to society in general. Society today, we seem to have a very short memory. No Two Alike invites the viewer to look for similarities and discover distinctions within the different bodies of work, but also between the three artists and the two periods represented, the interwar years and the present—and therefore sharpen not only the eye but the mind as well. One can spend a lot of time in this exhibition, just looking and comparing.
You’ve lived and worked in the U.S., France, and Switzerland. How did your time in Paris influence your curatorial vision?
I studied Museology at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris at a time when France was reorganizing many of its major museums and the history of photography was first introduced to the school’s curriculum. The Musée d’Orsay had opened just a couple of years earlier as the first museum devoted to the visual culture of a given period, including photography, prints, the decorative arts, and architecture spanning from 1848 to 1914. I worked at Orsay’s photography department during my studies and wrote my final exam on its museography.
When I came to the U.S., the emerging field of visual studies offered an exciting new interdisciplinary approach to the study of images. Although these studies consistently ignored the material quality of the image, I absorbed all of them without losing my fascination for images as objects. You will see this in the glass case in the Lower Gallery where I tell the story of Blossfeldt and Bruguière at the Warren Gallery through printed matter of the period. This love for the material quality of books, prints, and ephemera has stuck with me ever since my days in Paris.
Karl Blossfeldt has been a central focus of your career. What initially drew you to his work?
As with most career decisions, this was largely due to happy coincidences. As a graduate student at Princeton University, I was fascinated with the experimental use of photography by German artists since the 1970s such as Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, or Sigmar Polke. But then I happened to attend an undergraduate lecture held by my advisor, Peter C. Bunnell, who briefly spoke about Blossfeldt. The contradiction between the apparent simplicity of the images and the complexity of their reception hit me. I contacted the owners of his personal archive, Ann and Jürgen Wilde in Cologne, and found out that I was the first doctoral student calling for Blossfeldt. They also owned the archives of Albert Renger-Patzsch who, in the early 1990s, was more popular than Blossfeldt. A friendship developed, resulting in various collaborations. Their archives are now part of the Ann and Jürgen Wilde Foundation at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, one of our main partners for this exhibition.
When it comes to curating a show of this breadth, spanning multiple artists and nearly a century, what are some of the considerations?
The most important question was how to deal with the historic part. A lot of research was necessary. Could it be a faithful reconstruction of the Warren show? Was it possible to identify the images from Warren’s exhibition list, and would the images be available in prints of good quality? I travelled to Rochester, Los Angeles, and Munich to examine each print myself. And was it necessary or even desirable to copy the Warren show one to one—90 years later, in a completely different context and spaces that could not be more different from Dorothy Warren’s old house? I love the encounter of all three artists with Zaha Hadid’s striking architecture and being aware of this particular spatial situation helped me not to take a strictly historicizing approach.
Bruguière’s film, for example, was not in the Dorothy Warren show. It was, however, made at the time of the exhibition and expanded on its theme. Since we could not locate the gramophone record that was playing in the Warren gallery in 1929 with Sieveking reading passages from his book, I found the film to be a good solution to introduce the element of sound into the exhibition. Convincing Thomas Ruff, on the other hand, was easy – he’s a very open and extremely efficient person. It was a pleasure to work with him. We soon decided to borrow all of his images from the holdings of the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, after loans from private collectors had proven somewhat difficult to handle: one of Ruff’s Photograms, for example, would have needed a crane to be lifted out of a collector’s apartment. Curating is not just conceptual work, there are also very practical problems to solve.
Any tips for absorbing No Two Alike?
Take your time! This is not an exhibition to browse through quickly—or else the works will indeed all look alike. And make sure to get a copy of the catalog: Beautifully printed in Germany at one of Europe’s oldest printing companies, it is a true piece of contemporary book art and a good read.