New York Shotgun Reviews

Louise Lawler: Why Pictures Now

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Hoi Lun Helen Wong reviews Louise Lawler: Why Pictures Now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Louise Lawler. Pollyanna (adjusted to fit), distorted for the times, 2007/2008/2012. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. © 2017 Louise Lawler.

Louise Lawler. Pollyanna (Adjusted to Fit), Distorted for the Times, 2007/2008/2012; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures, New York. © 2017 Louise Lawler.

Part of the “Pictures Generation” of the late 1970s, Louise Lawler receives far less recognition than her contemporaries—Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and David Salle, to name a few. Known for her portraits of other artists’ work, Louise Lawler’s first major survey, which spans forty years of creative output, is at the Museum of Modern Art through July 30. As part of one of the first generations of artists raised with television, Lawler’s work anticipates mass media’s ability to inject particular meanings into its consumers, or in the case of art, its viewers. By rephotographing existing images outside of their original context, Lawler draws to our attention an essential question of the digital age: how meaning and reality is constructed through presentation.

Born in 1947 in postwar America and a volatile cultural moment, Lawler grew up with the influences of affluence, Hollywood movies, ad-packed magazines, and the rise of consumerism. While abundance pervaded, anxiety and tensions belied the seemingly placid age. Drawn to mass-media culture and the very idea of originality, Lawler employed the examining power of photography to scrutinize our relationship with a media-saturated society.

Lawler’s Adjust to Fit series, the most conceptually powerful body of work in the MoMA show, presents a sequence of mural-scale images of famous artworks that have been appropriated and restaged. These works are exemplary of Lawler’s career-long approach to recording the secret life of art. By revealing how a Murakami, Warhol, or Richter are displayed in a crowded narrow space, Lawler raises the question of how installation challenges our understanding of art, its value, and the market. The title, Adjust to Fit, nods to Lawler’s manipulation of work to fill the space available. The reformatting strategy that the artist employs in this series accentuates her interest in the relationship of artwork and its display space, and how integral these decisions are to the viewer’s experience.

Louise Lawler. Why Pictures Now. 1981. Gelatin silver print, 3 × 6" (7.6 × 15.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired with support from Nathalie and Jean-Daniel Cohen in honor of Roxana Marcoci. © 2017 Louise Lawler

Louise Lawler. Why Pictures Now, 1981; gelatin silver print; 3 × 6 in. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired with support from Nathalie and Jean-Daniel Cohen in honor of Roxana Marcoci. © 2017 Louise Lawler.

Sometimes Lawler’s pieces portray artworks still in process, while others show finished work hanging on the walls of a billionaire collector’s office, or at other privileged venues. On one hand, Lawler uses photography satirically to give a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the art market, and the transactional nature of artworks being de-installed from a museum show and sold to private collectors. On the other hand, she powerfully examines how one medium can interpret another. Prevalent in Lawler’s photographs are works by artists like Warhol and Richter, whose own reproductive methods with screen-printing and photography are themselves layered. The additional layers that Lawler instills in her works point the viewer toward things already in the world, and throw light on the implicit meanings in the original works that we oftentimes neglect.

With much poignancy, the exhibition provides an answer to the timely question of its title: Why pictures now? In an age when images and social media flood our everyday lives, Lawler’s works speak to a new era of mass media—the digital age and its oblique construction of reality.

Louise Lawler: Why Pictures Now will be on view through July 30, 2017.


Hoi Lun Helen Wong is an independent curator, writer, and art advisor based in New York. In 2013, she co-organized the exhibition Rationalized Vision—Xia Funing at the National Art Museum of China.