Candida Höfer's photographs of libraries are sober and restrained – the atmosphere is disturbed by neither visitors nor users, especially as she forgoes any staging of the locations. The emptiness is imbued with substance by a subtle attention to colour, and the prevailing silence instilled with a metaphysical quality that gives voice to the objects, over and above the eloquence of the furnishings or the pathos of the architecture.
The Institute of Contemporary Art is pleased to present an exhibition of the work of German artist Candida Höfer (b.1944, Eberswalde, Germany). "Candida Höfer: Architecture of Absence" is a touring exhibition organized by the University Art Museum, California State University, and the Norton Museum of Art. The Institute of Contemporary Art is the only northeast venue for this show.
This exhibition surveys over thirty years of work. It consists of 38 chromogenic prints, all of which have been borrowed directly from the artist's studio and her gallery in Cologne. It includes iconic works that have never been shown in the United States as well as the artist's recent and ongoing projects.
Candida Höfer photographs rooms in public places that are centers of cultural life, such as libraries, museums, theaters, cafés, universities, as well as historic houses and palaces. Each meticulously composed space is marked with the richness of human activity, yet largely devoid of human presence. Whether it be a photograph of a national library or a hotel lobby, Höfer's images ask us to conduct a distanced, disengaged examination through the window she has created. Not purely architectural photographs, her rhythmically patterned images present a universe of interiors constructed by human intention, unearthing patterns of order, logic, and disruption imposed on these spaces by absent creators and inhabitants. Her photos of ornate, baroque interiors achieve images with extreme clarity and legibility while the camera maintains an observant distance, never getting too close to its subject
Artforum art critic Hans Rudolf Reus writes of her work, "Only when observed can the elements of the photographically frozen moment in the building finally begin to play. At the same time, memories of familiar rooms and the odor of the unlimited archive of libraries, museums, and theater foyers mix themselves into even the occasional image of a contemporary building." The New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman writes, "Ms. Höfer is a straight photographer whose humanity and improvisatory spirit come across if we are patient enough to appreciate the serendipity of her light, the subtlety of her color and the quiet, melancholy pleasure she seems to take in finding, as if almost by chance, poetry in institutional form."
"Candida Höfer: Architecture of Absence" examines Höfer's unique oeuvre and the relationship of her architecture work to that of the Becher Circle-noted students of the Düsseldorf Art Academy's renowned professors Bernd and Hilla Becher, including Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, and Axel H ütte. Höfer studied photography under Bernd Becher from 1976 until 1982. Since 1975 she has had solo exhibitions in museums throughout Europe and the United States, including the Kunsthalle in Basel and Bern, Portikus in Frankfurt am Main, the Hamburger Kunsthalle, and the Power Plant in Toronto. She has participated in group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Kunsthaus Bregenz, the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, and Documenta 11. She represented Germany at the Venice Biennale (together with the late Martin Kippenberger) and is represented by galleries in Europe and the United States. She lives and works in Cologne, Germany.
Among the prominent disciples of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, Candida Höfer may still be the most underrated, as these two gorgeous shows remind us. ''Traces,'' at the Goethe-Institut, is a small group of photographs, from the past five years, of the interiors of libraries and museums: Beinecke at Yale, the Pierpont Morgan in New York, the Deutsche Bücherei in Leipzig and others. Sonnabend Gallery offers a larger number of new pictures: other buildings (museums, palaces, libraries) in Venice, Germany and the Netherlands.
For more than 30 years, Ms. Höfer has been compiling her deadpan inventory of public spaces, a social catalog of architectural history. Empty and vast, these places can sometimes seem like just occasions for photographic spectacle, the pictures are often so chillingly awesome. But Ms. Höfer is a straight photographer whose humanity and improvisatory spirit come across if we are patient enough to appreciate the serendipity of her light, the subtlety of her color and the quiet, melancholy pleasure she seems to take in finding, as if almost by chance, poetry in institutional form.Her real topic is ambience, a fleeting sensation. Her challenge is to avoid both the dry architectural document and clinical abstraction. When Ms. Höfer's work succeeds, it implies a secret world. You might say she captures the ghosts moving through these spaces, leaving their traces.
They appear in the willowy shapes of three pools of light, like the Three Graces, cast by the trio of tall windows onto the marble floor of the Ca' Rezzonico. Blinding light through the doorway of the archaeological museum in Venice is another trace, which dissolves the sculptures in the room, leaving only an arrow visible on the interior wall, pointing visitors as if into the ether. And in a library in Utrecht, Ms. Höfer catches the ghostly interplay of distilled white light through arched windows with the white of a sculptured bust, different from the white on the railings that frame shelves of books, some yet another white -- a kind of formal call and response.
Her self-portrait in a mirror at the Palazzo Zenobia, nodding toward Velázquez, is a reflection of a reflection of a room full of trompe l'oeil paintings of sculptures, themselves illusions, ghosts of ghosts. Ms. Höfer stands at the center, nearly hiding behind her camera in the empty space, capturing the essence of absence. MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
“I photograph in public and semi-public spaces that date from various epochs. These are spaces accessible to everyone. They are places where you can meet and communicate, where you can share or receive knowledge, where you can relax and recover. They are spas, hotels, waiting rooms, museums, libraries, universities, banks, churches and, as of a few years ago, zoos. All of the places have a purpose, as for the most part do the things within them.”
Along with Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer belongs to the first generation of students who attended Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photography class at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. Cool objectivity, a precise grasp of details, and an eye for structure are what characterize the work of the teachers – and of their students. In Candida Höfer’s case, she also brings to bear a distinctive interest in rows and orders. Since the 1980s, her principle motif has been interiors which she captures in thematic blocks and standardized formats.
Apart from surfaces and forms, light and color are strongly present in her works. Irrespective of whether the lighting is artificial or natural, Candida Höfer relies on the light available, considering it an integral part of the interior in question. Yet this does not imply that she regards her work as mere documentation. What she wants is to reproduce the particular atmosphere of a room – not as the human eye would, but through the eye of a camera.
Candida Höfer immerses herself fully in the aesthetic autonomy of abstract structures. Mainly, she shows us rooms bereft of occupants and thus not performing their actual function. Yet at the same time, the photographs cannot and do not wish to deny the existence of actual persons. Nothing is self-evident or assumed, everything has a story: empty rows of tables and chairs, books standing in a row, various architectural styles, overlapping historical epochs. Candida Höfer’s peopleless rooms are cultural spaces in which change is given tangible form. People are not omitted, they just don't happen to be present.
Still thinking about the landscapes of Elger Esser, contrasting them to Edward Burtynsky, which is probably not fair. But thinking of how photographers deal with space--and why a photograph may be the appropriate mode of capturing space in our uncontainable present, or perhaps (and here I'm thinking of Rachel Whiteread among others) more accurately, our uncontainable absence...
I am haunted by "Architecture of Absence," the Candida Höfer exhibit I saw last year at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. The large format images resonate with human potential--their emptiness speaking somehow to that potential. There is no nostalgia, no sorrow, but rather a revelation of intention, of expectation. Entrance ways, libraries, museums, theaters--all reverberating with human presence, despite the absence of human form. As if the hands that created the forms, and placed the forms, and picked up and put down the forms, were hovering there. And perhaps it is scale: the grand canvas, the sheer number of objects she is able to include. The images become a kind of cabinet of curiosity. Then there is light, the way Hofer courts it as it falls through space.
Big, bold and empty. Seductive, yet surprisingly intimate and evocative. The monumental photographs of Candida Höfer capture the contemporary zeitgeist of a world communicated through interiors, from grand historic palaces to upscale restaurants, libraries, museums and metro stations. From Venice to New York, Oslo to Madrid, whether making a photo of a hotel lobby or a national library, this German photographer asks viewers to engage in a distanced, objective examination of interior spaces. Not purely architectural, the rhythmically patterned photographs create a universe of interiors constructed by human intent, revealing the influence of order and logic imposed on these spaces by their now absent creators and inhabitants. inhabitants.
“Architecture of Absence,” a recent nationally touring, midcareer overview of 50 C-prints, offered the first major Englishlanguage survey. Organized by the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach; and the University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach; the exhibition examined the singular quality of Höfer’s work that has made her one of the most accomplished and inventive artists of her generation.
Artforum critic Hans Rudolf Reus writes of her work, “Only when observed can the elements of the photographically frozen moment in the building finally begin to play. At the same time, memories of familiar rooms and the odor of the unlimited archive of libraries, museums and theater foyers mix themselves into even the occasional image of a contemporary building.” Born in 1944, Höfer, the daughter of a ballet dancer and a theater critic/journalist, traces her preoccupation with architecture to the devastation she saw as a child in war-torn Cologne, where she observed the reconstruction process firsthand. As an adult, she focused this ongoing interest on interiors, on those public spaces typically seen as centers of cultural life.
Anonymous architecture was also a favorite subject of Höfer’s most famous teachers, Bernd and Hilla Becher. In the early 1960s, the pair used black-and-white photography to document gas tanks, cooling towers and other heavy industrial sites in Germany. Their work went largely unnoticed until the 1970s, when their detached, restricted aesthetic caught on with a new generation of photographers interested in minimal and conceptual art. Their rising currency in the art world won Bernd Becher a professorship at Düsseldorf’s Kunstakademie in 1976. When Höfer was 29, after already working as a freelance photographer and studying film with Ole John, she began her studies at the academy, which continued through 1982. Artists such as Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter had made the Kunstakademie the focal point of Germany’s postwar avant-garde. Höfer, along with Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, was among those photographers who studied with the Bechers as they shaped not only a new generation of artist photographers, but also an art market in Germany that began to boom.
Students in Bernd Becher’s class usually worked with the view camera, and Höfer adopted it at his urging. Beginning with her earliest work, her subject was not landscape or architecture, but space itself. She soon discovered that she preferred the spaces uncomplicated by people moving through her rigorously composed frames when photographing. While Höfer’s early style closely emulated that of the Bechers, she worked in color from the outset. Her exclusive focus on interiors and her unequaled gift for capturing interiors within the picture plane soon set her apart now associate curator of photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum), writes: “From 1979 to 1991 her depictions of architectural interiors—whether spas, museums, or lecture or performance halls—tend to emphasize a diagonal view of the space; a perspective view based on a two-point (or angular) perspective that encourages entry from one side or the other. Beginning in 1991, with images such as ‘Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen I,’ the relationship of the furthest wall in the space became increasingly parallel, creating an elevational view that approaches a one-point (or parallel) perspective. This one-point perspective is emphasized to tremendous effect in photographs made in 1997, such as ‘Deutsche Bücherei Leipzig IX’ and ‘Biblioteque Sainte-Geneviève Paris II’ in which desks, lamps, and ceiling treatments march back to that point, resulting in compositions that can be appreciated equally with each rotation of 90 degrees.” She was the last of her group to increase the scale of her prints to approximate that of paintings. In 1994, she added the square format (60 x 60-inch) to her approach, which served to emphasize the ethereal sense of quiet and the anticipation of presence that characterizes her images.
Virginia Heckert, curator of photography at the Norton Museum of Art