Hilla Becher is a plump, jolly sort, very much belying the tight, disciplined census of lumpen industry that she chronicled in camera with her late husband Bernd. A few nights ago at her gala opening at the Museum of Modern Art, John Baldessari squired her past groaning boards of sushi and crab cakes to greet her many fans.
The show itself is small and controlled, a survey of the Bechers’ repeated interdiction of industrial structures over a lifetime. Seeing the actual prints, rather than muddy reproductions in art magazines, opens a crisp portal into anthropomorphic whimsy, as concept defers to form.
Grim are the associations of coal mining and steel production, of course: human sacrifice on a bower of heavy metal. Yet, the Bechers’ work is replete with humor, the laughter of space aliens visiting a future earth, extinct of humans, but full of the Bechers’ heavy toys.
Gas tanks become rolling balls and fat silos. Coal bunkers in Germany are office buildings of dust. American blast furnaces stroke themselves with monster fingers. The winding towers of Wales glide down effortlessly like roller coasters. Cooling towers in the Ruhr Valley stiffen into ladies’ corsets, while water towers from everywhere are nothing less than architectural royalty.
Repetitions of ordinary form with subtle variations in the Bechers’ opus emerge as pregnant with dignity and meaning as a Bach cantata. In these structures, born from material necessity, function becomes poetry, weightless wonders of illusion summoned from silence.
"Bernd and Hilla Becher: Landscape Typology," May 21-Aug. 25, 2008, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).