In addition to the new works from the series “Tableaux chinois”, the exhibition presents an overview from 30 years of work on two additional floors of the gallery.
Between 1981 and 1991, Thomas Ruff collected over 2,500 newspaper photographs from German-language dailies and weeklies. They are pictures that interested him or struck him as odd in some way. They cover all aspects of newspaper reportage: politics, finance, sports, culture, sciences, technology, history, and current events. The motifs reflect a kind of collective visual world of a specific generation. To be printed in the newspapers, the images were not chosen according to artistic criteria but rather by editorial considerations with the aim of illustrating a news story. Ruff narrowed his “archive” down to a selection of 400 images, which he had reproduced and printed in double column width (at a scale of 2:1) with no words of explanation. He settled on this procedure in order to focus on the appearance of the Newspaper Photographs and to question what information is left when the image is isolated from its function.
Around 1998, Thomas Ruff began to work on nude photography and, at the same time, began experimenting with computer-generated, abstract pictures made of pixels. Through internet research into the genre of nude photography, he came across the field of pornography and the disposable images of “thumbnail galleries” in the World Wide Web. Due to the poor resolution (72 dpi), they had a rough pixel structure, which resembled the one he had been experimenting with for abstract pixel images. He decided to process them in such a way that the pixel structure was only just barely visible when enlarging the images but changed them by using fuzziness and other blurring techniques, modifying the coloring and removing intrusive details. By doing so, he lent the “obscene” images a painterly appearance and focused on the structure and composition of the image. The selection of source images was based on such considerations as image format, lighting, coloring, or presentation, as well as the desire to cover the wide range of present-day sexual fantasies and practices.
In 1998, Julian Heynen, at the time curator at the Kunstmuseen Krefeld, asked Thomas Ruff to prepare an exhibition with architectural photos of the villas Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had designed between 1927 and 1930. The exhibition was meant to mark the modernization and reopening of the two buildings designed by the architect and meanwhile used as museums of contemporary art, Haus Lange and Haus Esters. Ruff started concerning himself with the architecture and contemporary shots of the Villa Tugendhat (Brünn), Haus Lange, Haus Esters, and the Barcelona Pavilion. He tried to find his own way of seeing and photographing the various buildings, relying on all the techniques he had used to date. During the show in Krefeld, Terence Riley (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), who was preparing a retrospective on Mies van der Rohe’s architecture through 1938, approached Ruff and asked him to photograph all the other Mies buildings from the period existing in Europe for the exhibition. Since some of the buildings could not be photographed, Ruff also made use of already existing image material, which he processed digitally.
While searching for image material for the nudes, Ruff noticed that the virtual images on the Internet essentially no longer represented reality but were merely visual stimuli conveyed by purely electronic means. The flood of images in the net, where images and information get superimposed, hardly allow the viewer an opportunity to determine what of the image information is real and what is virtual. Ruff set out to penetrate this terrain of visual “nothingness” using his experience in digital image processing. To this end, he used comic images as the material, superimposing these in several layers and multiplying them with one another until he had an image that was more or less devoid of meaning.
In 2008, Ruff’s great interest in astronomy and scientific images from outer space led to him turn his attention to photographs of Saturn and its moons. Since 2005, the images have been transmitted to Earth by the Cassini space probe, launched by NASA in October 1997—and have been available free of charge on the Internet. Ruff chose a number of the images from the great range at hand and then processed them on a computer. He changed the color tones and substantially enlarged the relatively small images. The intention behind the coloring was to enhance the abstract quality of the scientific “images of nature.”
While conducting research on images from outer space, Thomas Ruff came across photos of Mars taken from 2006 onwards using a HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experience) camera. The camera is on board with the Mars Renaissance Orbiter launched by NASA in August 2005 and transmits via satellite detailed images of the surface of the planet Mars to Earth. The images are intended to provide scientists with more precise knowledge of the surface, atmosphere, and water distribution on Mars. Ruff processed these very naturalistic and yet strange images in several steps: Among other things, he transformed the black-and-white images, which were photographed vertically downwards into views from an angle, and then added color in such that the surface of the distant planet appears immediately accessible and almost familiar.
Fascinated by photograms from the 1920s, Thomas Ruff decided to explore the genre and develop his own contemporary version of these camera-less photographs. Since the artist was disturbed by the limitations of analog photograms—an image can only be produced once and cannot be enlarged at will, and color is also not possible—he used a virtual darkroom to create a simulation of the direct exposure of objects on light-sensitive paper. In this, he could lay objects (lenses, rods, spirals, paper strips, spheres, and other things) generated by a 3D program on or over a sheet of digital paper, correct their position and, in some cases, expose them to colored light. This enabled him to control the projection of the objects on the background in the virtual space and print the image rendered by the computer in any size he wanted. In this way, he succeeded in transferring the idea and aesthetics of the pioneers of the “camera-less photography” of the 1920s to generate images with light into the twenty-first century using a technique appropriate to his own time.
The source images for series m.n.o.p. are black-and-white installation photographs from an exhibitions held in New York in the 1940s respectively. Thomas Ruff digitally colored particular areas of these with a color scheme reminiscent of the 1950s and subsequently enlarged them. While the works of art—out of respect for the artists and their works—remained untouched, he colored the carpets, the fabric-covered walls, and the ceilings. Through this processing, he underscores the exhibition aesthetic of the 1940s to the 1960s and, with the resulting abstract colored surface compositions, makes the viewer conscious of the designs of the exhibition organizers. All this emphasizes the contrast to the idea of the exhibition space as a “white cube,” which is widespread today. m.n.o.p. comprises installation views of the collection presentation of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (now the Guggenheim Museum, New York) with works by Wassily Kandinsky, Rudolf Bauer, and other artists from the collection, which took place in 1948 in the first museum building on 24 East 54th Street. important exhibitions in terms of the mediation of contemporary art, which was presented at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1958.
Interested in photographic techniques at an early stage, Thomas Ruff began around 2014 to intensify his studies of the visual appearance of the source material of printed analog photography: the “negative.” To visualize the photographic reality and pictorial qualities, he transformed historical photographs into “digital negatives.” In the process, he not only changed the light-dark distribution in the image. The brownish hue of the photographs printed on albumin paper also became a cool, artificial blue tone. The aim of the processing was to highlight the photographic “negative,” which in analog photography was never actually the object of contemplation, but was rather always only a means to an end. In this series, it is treated as an “original” worth viewing, from which a photographic print is made and which, due to digital photography, is in danger of disappearing completely. The series encompasses the entire spectrum of historical black-and-white photography and is divided accordingly into various subgroups.
The source material for the series press++ are mainly black-and-white press photographs from the 1930s to the 1980s, originating primarily from the archives of American newspapers and magazines. Thomas Ruff scanned the front and back sides of the original documents and combined the two sides in order to merge the partially edited photograph on the front side with all the texts, comments, and traces of use on the back. The disrespectful treatment of this type of photography becomes visible when printed in large format, since, for the editors of newspapers, these photographs are not aesthetically valuable products but merely transmitters of information without artistic value. Similar to the Newspaper Photographs from the early 1990s, Thomas Ruff chose images that cover all aspects of newspaper reportage—from politics to society, from science to technology, from culture to fashion.
Photograms of flowers by Lou Landauer (1897–1991), which Thomas Ruff had acquired, as well as his work on the Photogram series, gave him the idea of working with another photographic technique that has been used since the mid-nineteenth century: pseudo-solarization, also known as the Sabattier effect. This is a technique discovered by chance, with which, during exposure in the darkroom, the negative/ positive is exposed to a diffuse second exposure, resulting in a partial reversal of light and shadow areas in the photographic image. Ruff first digitally photographed flowers or leaves arranged on a light table. During the subsequent processing on the computer, he applied the Sabattier effect. Similar to the Photogram, he uses contemporary means to refer to an “old” photographic technique and shifts the limits of its possibilities.