Why Pictures Now, the first New York museum survey of the work of American artist Louise Lawler, is an exploration of her creative output, which has inspired fellow artists and cultural thinkers alike for the past four decades. The exhibition consists of a sequence of mural-scale, “adjusted to fit” images set in dynamic relation to non-linear groupings of photographs—of collectors’ homes, auction houses, and museum installations—distinctive of Lawler’s conceptual exercises. Additionally, a deceptively empty space presents black-and-white tracings of Lawler’s photographs that have been printed on vinyl and mounted directly to the wall.
A display of the artist’s ephemera from the 1970s to today highlights the feminist and performative undercurrents of her art. The defiant, utterly quizzical sound piece Birdcalls (1972/81), for which the artist turned the names of well-known male artists into bird-like squawks and twitters, will be installed in the Museum’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. In foregrounding her work’s relationship to the economies of collaboration and exchange, Lawler shifts focus from the individual picture to the broader history of art. Her careful attention to artistic contexts, modes of presentation, and viewers’ receptions generates witty, affective situations that contribute to institutional transformation.
Among the most intriguing aspects of Lawler’s working process is her continuous re-presentation, reframing, or restaging in the present, a strategy through which she revisits her own images by transferring them to different formats—from photographs to paperweights, tracings, and works she calls “adjusted to fit” (images stretched or expanded to fit the location of their display). Lawler’s critical strategies of reformatting existing content not only suggest the idea that pictures can have more than one life, but underpin the intentional, relational character of her farsighted art.