One way to measure the importance of Louise Lawler and her work is to look outside the Museum of Modern Art at what is showing concurrently in the city. A number of exhibitions extend the central question of the museum’s retrospective, Why Pictures Now. Walead Beshty’s deconstructed office machinery would be unfairly written off as forbidding technobabble, Eric Fischl’s “Art Fair” paintings as toothless boomer wallowing, and Sara Cwynar as just another navel-gazing millennial, had Lawler and the Pictures Generation not paved the way for artists interested in the ways images operate in the world.
Note the MoMA’s title omits a question mark, as does Lawler’s 1981 matchbook from which the retrospective gains its name. Lawler presented her work as answer to a begged question. Some people think postmodernism, with its freewheeling referentialism and unmoored atmosphere, was a mistake brought on by a lack of vision. Or maybe that was just me—at least, until I first saw the photograph just outside of the exhibition. Thomas Struth’s Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin (2001), a photograph of museum patrons surrounding relics, was itself on display in a museum, which Lawler photographed, and this image now adorns MoMA’s wall. Usually Lawler’s “Adjusted to Fit” works are stretched to span the available space, but in this case the picture is rendered legibly. Its triple-distancing affords a view down the rabbit hole. It cautions, context can change everything.
Lawler shows that when an image works, words don’t need to. With deadly clarity and endless wit, she proves that all we needed was for the introspective gaze that dominated art for centuries to be turned outward with a cool and calculating eye. That Kafkaesque tragicomedy was only the center of the onion.
Despite how poignant Lawler’s critique of art institutions can be—works adorn collectors’ walls or are channeled through museums—Why Pictures Now is dominated by them. The survey focuses on prints, pseudo-souvenirs, and JPEGs adjusted to fit, and risks reducing a career of subversive work to its most iconic series. It neglects, for example, reproductions or pictures of her early installations mocking the pristine, white-walled temples that sanctimonious galleries evoke.
Nevertheless, the trouble with the show doesn’t belong to the art or curatorial selection itself. It’s that here we’ve reached a more outward layer, with the sense of little progress having been made. The answer to the question “why pictures now?” has changed a great deal in thirty-six years—the past several months, even—and apart from the sly resonance between kitschy agitprop like No Drones and social media slacktivism, I don’t see much of a way forward here. Lawler’s photos, after all, are hung at the pinnacle of an institution she actively critiqued. They’ve really come around in the end—I mean, they save this gallery for Matisse. Any hint of self-awareness found in tombstone texts that list collectors is counteracted by the realization that only two years ago certain “atemporal” paintings were basically for sale across the hall.
Lawler had her answer all along, but the good teacher let us discover our own way first. MoMA’s attempt looks something like this: You are very small, incomprehensibly so. In relation, the world is large and complex, dominated by opaque and byzantine institutions (not unlike us), and if you want to affect real change, well, it’s not hopeless but you have your work cut out for you. Pictures can make this condition less daunting. They compress reality, or distill some truth, which is why we want to have them. Through them, we can understand things implicitly, and owning a picture can make us feel like we’ve conquered a little part of the world. Sharing them can make us feel a part of something.
This is nice, but self-serving, and I don’t think it translates the entirety of what Lawler was after. Lawler’s brilliance comes from the way she liberated people just by showing them photographs. Beginning with her zines, on view near the end, she offered a guerrilla alternative for people who felt they had something to say beyond “burn it all” (punks, see Pettibon downtown), but who felt crippled by those they had to go against to say it. Her pictures of power at play peeled back the aggrandizing mythologies that coopted art, and she made images utilitarian once again—in a way they maybe haven’t been since icon painting. That is, she made them work during a time when people seemed content to merely give them value.
What I have trouble reconciling about Why Pictures Now is the dissonance between how strongly I believe Lawler’s work is among the most important of a generation, and how little help her pictures offer us here and now. In On the Museum’s Ruins, Douglas Crimp argues, with aid from Lawler, that museums change the function of photographs by removing them from the world and reorganizing them within the history of art. It’s what I fear has happened here. If this sounds like an obituary, it’s because I’m sad to see them drained of their vital power.