Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

Review: Noemi Smolik on Thomas Ruff

Noemi Smolik reviews Thomas Ruff's new show at the Kunsthalle Dusseldorf.

 - November 13, 2014


THOMAS RUFF, ‘r.phg.05_II,’ 2014. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2014

Thomas Ruff’s “Photograms,” a series begun in 2012, represents most of his new exhibition at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf: after becoming fascinated with the photograms of artists such as Lászlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, Ruff began to experiment with the process himself, but Ruff transfers the analog technique into digital. The darkroom is instead set up inside a computer, with objects three-dimensionally projected, exposed to light, and moved. Through this controlled procedure, virtually exposed waves, crystals, spirals, lenses, and patterns leave their imprints on virtually generated paper. The C-print process then transfers these traces to real pieces of paper measuring approximately six-by-five feet. The resulting framed photograms create an impression that is spherical and remarkably pictorial. Some of these images are highly geometric in composition, with an illusionary depth created by the interplay of light and shadow. Others are chaotic or arbitrary; some are crystal clear while others are indistinct; some are bluish or greenish in tint; and others display astonishingly vivid shades of luminous yellow, red and blue, such as the image phg.05 III (2013). They are created without any use of the camera lens, and, consequently, these images expand the range of Ruff’s photographic experiments, the complexity and diversity of which are without equal in the contemporary art scene.


THOMAS RUFF, ‘phg.09_II, 2014,’ © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2014

The “Interiors” (1979–1983) and “Stars” (1987–1992) series’ are also on view. The small “Interiors” images show the meticulously photographed home décor of Ruff’s parents and friends from the Black Forest region; they testify to a subtle but frightening smugness and narrow-mindedness.


THOMAS RUFF, ‘Interieur 1A, 1979,’ © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2014

Giant black photographs of stars, which Ruff acquired from the European Southern Observatory, could potentially serve as an effective contrast to the “Interiors,” but within the constellation of this exhibition, however, they do not, which highlights issues with exhibition with the installation and presentation of the various individual series.


THOMAS RUFF, ’17h 38m/-30°,’ 1990, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2014

The images from the “Night” series (1992–1996), positioned side by side can also produce a slightly bland effect. Inspired by the nighttime photographs that suddenly began appearing on television during the First Gulf War (1990 – 1991), Ruff also began to make use of night vision devices. But he employed them to photograph utterly peaceful courtyards, streets and house entrances in his city of Düsseldorf. These images have a greenish tinge, due to the device’s amplification of low light, and they succeed in wresting light impressions even from the darkness. While making inroads into dark with light, they still leave a mysterious, enigmatic, or even dangerous impression.


THOMAS RUFF, ‘Nacht,’ 1992. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2014

The 2014 series “Negative,” which appears in the same gallery, features blue-tinged images of black-and-white photographs from the nineteenth century that have been transformed back into negatives. The images depict studios of the era when the competition between paintings and photographs began as well as portraits, oriental landscapes, and nudes. With their bluish tinge, a result of the reversion to the negative, these images create the impression a world of ice that has become almost transparent, from a time when the photograph still served as a document. With this new series, Ruff returns to the beginning of his artistic development, when he was dealing with documentary photography. Here, he has turned this kind of photography upside down.

Noemi Smolik is a critic living in Bonn, Germany, and Prague.

Translated from German by Alan G. Paddle.

“Thomas Ruff: Lichten” runs through January 11, 2015, at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. 

THOMAS RUFF, ‘neg◊artists_01,’ 2014. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2014