Photographer Thomas Demand has been a hot artist for a while. Hes been championed by critics, collectors and curators. As photographer Tim Davis put it the other day, Demands work is airtight. With 24 large-format images of generic interiors and exteriors that the 40-year-old Berlin resident made during the past 12 years currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, Mar. 4-May 30, 2005, chances are that hell become even hotter. Finally seen in depth and in a superb installation to boot, the artist stylishly emerges from shadows cast by Andres Gursky and Thomas Struth, fellow Germans ten years older who pioneered the transformation of photographs into artworks as big as wall-sized paintings.
Demand manipulates reality the old fashioned way, both formally and iconographically. Hes not a Photoshopper. Instead, he two-steps. First, using ordinary cardboard and construction paper, the artist fabricates what is in essence a lifesize "set"-- a 3D replica of a kitchen, an office or even a forest glade. Then he photographs it. As a student in Munich, Demand took classes in theater and church design, while in Dsseldorf and London he studied sculpture. The interiors that Demand recreates from black-and-white reproductions in newspapers and magazines tend to be life-size; his outdoor scenes are smaller, though built to scale. If you remember the undersized, Minimalist modules constructed from cardboard that Erwin Heerich, a professor at Dsseldorfs Kunstakademie, exhibited in New York during the 1970s, you can picture how the younger artist has transformed his heritage as a sculptor, not just as a photographer. His environments are inventive, labor intensive, politically sensitive and appreciated more fully when a viewer is aware of European history, current events and cultural milestones.
Demand hasnt been the kind of artist about whom you can say, as Peter Galassi did of Gursky, his best pictures. . . knock your socks off. Nor does his work embrace the sort of Postmodern issues curator Anne Goldstein ascribes to Struths oeuvre when she notes how it is self-reflexive in relation to how meaning is constructed through photographys pictorial, associative, phenomenological, historical and physical properties.
Demands work initially seemed bland. Early on, he favored neutral tones: beiges, grays, lots of brown, black, and white. He made sculptor Tony Smith and painter Ad Reinhart look like colorists. Then, beginning in 1997, what had been scattered highlights -- a yellow coffee mug, a blue folder -- became more prominent: the rear wall in Studio that could compete with color-chart paintings by Ellsworth Kelly; a lush green Lawn the envy of any homeowner; gold Bullion cubes; and even an overpowering red logo in Podium. And Demands lighting became more animated, too. Uniformity has given way to polyphonic rhythms: the play between ceiling and floor in Calculator; the lit-from-behind world map in Mural; the penetrating sun in Clearing. In terms of just his ever evolving formal powers, its not difficult to wonder where Demand is headed.
According to Roxana Marcoci, curator of this wonderful survey, Demand uses a Swiss-made Sinar, a large format camera with telescopic lens for enhanced resolution and heightened verisimilitude. And he also uses his head. Though his subjects are often anything but banal -- a bombed bureau of the East German secret police, stacks of Leni Reifenstahls films, the disputed ballots cast in Palm Beach County during the Presidential election of November 2000, Saddam Husseins final hiding place -- his titles, including Office, Archive, Poll and Kitchen belie the political nature of the scenes he depicts. Although Demand photographs things that ought to be interesting in their own right, he obviously wants viewers to work a little, too. With a thoroughly modern medium, he has injected his picture-window-sized prints with the sort of stuff thats taught in art history courses. After all, the iconography of Titian, Courbet and Malevich -- or, more to the point, Durer, Kaspar David Friedrich and Max Beckmann -- isnt immediately apparent either. Why should a photographer be asked to reveal more than painters have?
Thomas Demands work has been compared to a number of other artists who fabricate reality shows. Hes been coupled repeatedly with James Casebere, another two-stepper who designs his own architectural models before photographing them. The movie set scenarios Gregory Crewdson stages for his pictures also parallel Demands ambitious preparations. Similarly, its not too far a leap to connect Demands esthetic to that of Vic Muniz, who also photographs replicas of cultural icons. In an insightful conversation between them published by Blind Spot magazine in 1996, the German told the Brazilian, The concept of constructing realities in the studio is much stronger than faking things for the camera. They are genuine sculptures documented.
Yasumasa Murimura could say the same thing about the performative aspects of his self-portraits. With the help of a team comprised of make-up artist, prop person, lighting specialist, camerman and art history researcher, the Japanese photographer, like Demand, creates compelling pictures with seemingly obvious subjects and a subtext with a political agenda that is not immediately apparent. During an interview a few years ago, Morimura mentioned how his riff on Goyas The Third of May 1808 related to the first Gulf War. This suggests that Los Nuevos Caprichos, the body of work he exhibited at Luhring Augustine last month, alludes to the snapshots from Abu Ghraib. Wouldnt a group exhibition featuring work by Demand, Muniz, Morimura and Crewdsen be a showstopper packed with revelations about the state of photography, movie values, art history themes and current affairs?
In the unedited version of an article on Anna Gaskell, Dana Hoey, Justine Kurland, Malerie Marder and Katy Grannan published in Art in America, I suggested that the popularity of photography was not that far removed from the television publics embrace of reality shows. During the summer of 2001, four of the top five shows being watched on the network channels belonged to this genre. These programs still dominate the ratings. And these days, some of the audience realizes the contestants are cast for their looks or the stereotyped roles they will play; live actions are edited as if a scriptwriter were on the set; and people like Boston Rob and Amber ignore the cameras with the skill of seasoned actors.
As it is, Thomas Demands current show is a must-see. Multileveled, it succeeds formally as well as iconographically. These days, youre probably responding more fully to his prints than you did when they were featured in 1996 in MoMAs New Photography 12. Just wait: Demand is still a few steps ahead of the rest of us. The best artists always are.
"Thomas Demand," is on view Mar. 4-May. 30, 2005, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.