Ruff Trade


Interesting artists seem to pop out of Germany like circus clowns from a Volkswagen. Maybe it’s in the blood, maybe it’s the water, but German artists keep ending up in New York galleries. Currently, several shows stand out, including Katharina Fritsch’s almost too perfect Albert Speer-meets-Leni Riefenstahl one-liner of an installation at Matthew Marks, made of over 400,000 glittering silver-colored coins in the shape of a giant heart. Or 34-year-old Tobias Rehberger, who carries on his weird foray into sculpture, design, and sociology, turning the Friedrich Petzel gallery into something like a home-furnishings showroom by building a stylish wall of empty, prettily painted wooden shelves lit by TV sets. Not to be missed, meanwhile, is John Bock, 35, who continues to astonish in a series of performance/lectures at MOMA that feature the pixilated artist crawling around a little cubbyhole—part fort, part burrow—surrounded with stuff, talking to viewers like some sort of inspired angel or marvelous savant. Bock takes the spirit of Beuys to new enchanted levels.

But the spotlight of the moment belongs to the German photographer Thomas Ruff, with an impressive, impeccably selected mini-survey at Zwirner & Wirth’s snazzy new East 69th Street townhouse and a captivating exhibition of his latest photographs downtown. To describe the new work is to be irked by it, which makes these good-looking pictures that much more amazing. Basically, Ruff does what millions of people do every day; what you’ve done, will do, or maybe won’t. He goes online, types in www-dot followed by any dirty word he can think of, tacks a dotcom after it, and goes to work. Sound familiar?

Scrolling through porn pictures—mostly of the amateur kind—he finds ones he likes, clicks the mouse, presses print, enlarges the image, and frames it. So, strictly speaking, Ruff didn’t take any of the photographs on view; he found them, borrowed them, or—in art world parlance—he appropriated them. The source pictures themselves are pretty standard, and fairly cheesy: topless teens, beaver shots, women with dildos, girl-on-girl, boy-on-boy, B&D, some vintage porn with a couple of fetish pictures thrown in. Other than adding a growth of beard here or making a pink pinker, Ruff doesn’t do much to the originals. What makes these appropriated pictures so juicy isn’t the imagery (though they probably wouldn’t work if all we were seeing were appliances); it’s how he slows down and softens the subject matter and teases out inherent sensuality, turning the conventional into something lavish. More important, Ruff has breathed fresh air into his art, found a way around the annoying logjam that beleaguered his work for several years, and transformed the almost unlovable into something sexy.

Thomas Ruff, Nudes noc09 2000

Of the three German photographers who came to America’s attention in the late ’80s— Thomas Struth, Ruff himself, and Andreas Gursky (collectively known as Struffsky)—Ruff, 42, is the roughest. He sees reality as something to be recorded or inspected, not changed or adorned. Coming out of a tradition of conceptual photography, he is the leastphotographer-like of the three and the most hardcore. A natural-born skeptic, he calls his images “nonphotographs” and says grumpy, authoritative-sounding things like “A photograph always looks like a photograph, because it is a photograph” or “The pictures I make of a person have nothing to do with that person.” Once, responding to a question about how the Bernd and Hilla Bechers were as teachers, he tersely replied, “If you needed them, they were there.” Ruff is more uneven than Struth or Gursky, but he’s more experimental. Working in series, he’s always probing some basic tenet of the medium.

Ruff’s first American splash came with his big, blank, jarring portraits of German youth. Made in the mid ’80s, these uncanny passport pictures from Aryanland rose out of Germany like an invigorating wave; lit by a kind of cold hellfire, they can still hit you with a piercing rush. In the late ’80s he made beautiful, slightly monotonous pictures of the night sky (from negatives purchased from an observatory). After an eerie early-’90s series of greenish nightscapes that look very Gulf War, Ruff floundered. By 1998, when he exhibited a group of awful collagelike photos (wisely left out of the uptown show), his work was mired in a soulless slump; his passive-aggression turned merely passive. In these new pictures, his best in years, he doesn’t change photography, and it’s not clear he’s out of the woods, but his probing has gotten hotter.

With the “nudes,” Ruff substitutes something celebratory for suspicion and anger; he takes on a genre everyone is an expert on but few artists have employed without running into trouble. Ruff may think these pictures are analytic or objective, but they’re also sweetly, luxuriously visual. Up close they go kind of gaga. Skin melts into tiny, pointillist pixels, which then warp and moiré; colors shift, pictorial space contorts. Sex slips into something ravishingly, optically comfortable, and these everyday, off-world images morph into para-paintings from the Planet Love.

Because the most obscure images are the best, Ruff’s photographs lend unexpected ammo to the old adage that the less explicit the pornography, the more erotic. One woman I know installed the model with a crystal dildo on her computer, as a screen saver; another told me she found the foggy photograph of the girl sticking what appears to be a giant vegetable into her vagina “really tender.”

Blurring and distorting his sources, Ruff has seemingly sprinkled the magic dust of painting into his art. If the first names that come to you aren’t John Holmes and Linda Lovelace, they might be Courbet, de Kooning, or, most of all, Gerhard Richter. Without Richter, these things wouldn’t exist. Technology and medium make Ruff’s work different, but the imagery is unmistakable, and the out-of-focus sexuality stands directly in Richter’s shadow. Two blondes—one lying provocatively on a bed, another looking out from under her hair—are near-recapitulations of early Richter paintings. I guess if you’re German, Richter’s the one you want to go up against. Remarkably, the comparison doesn’t diminish Ruff’s work. Reconverting that which has had a second, third, or fourth life as videotape, Internet pixels, or paintings back into the photographs they once were, Ruff sets up a trippy, technoerotic aesthetic feedback loop. Hopefully these stirring pictures signal a return to excellence.