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First comprehensive Thomas Ruff exhibition in more than a decade at Haus der Kunst
Thomas Ruff, cassini 01, 2008, aus der Serie: cassini, c-print auf Dibond 3mm, hinter Mirogard-Glas gerahmt 108,5 x 108,5 cm © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011.

MUNICH.- In the first comprehensive exhibition in more than a decade, Thomas Ruff presents the work series that made him internationally renowned. The show depicts Ruff’s artistic development in chronological order: starting with his first series begun in 1979 of German ‘Interieurs’, via ‘Porträts’, ‘Häuser’ and ‘Sterne’, to the series of the 1990’s including ‘Zeitungsfotos’, ‘Nächte’, ‘Plakate’ and ‘andere Porträts’. The arch spans from ‘l.m.v.d.r.’ and ‘nudes’ via ‘Maschinen’, ‘Substrat’, ‘Zycles’, ‘jpeg’ and ‘cassini’ to the present with the topographical images of Mars (‘ma.r.s.’), begun in 2011. Included for the first time in a presentation and its mediation is material relating to the reception of the work and the sources that inspired Thomas Ruff. This material provides access to Ruff’s conceptual survey of the various uses and forms of photography.

Thomas Ruff, born in 1958 in Zell amHarmersbach (Black Forest), studied with Bernd Becher at the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf, during which time he created the ‘Interieurs’ series. The majority of the series‘ works were photographed in the Black Forest in the apartments of relatives or those of former class mates‘ parents. Thomas Ruff’s attitude towards these spaces is ambivalent: For him they represent “the epitome of the petite bourgeoisie” from which he had escaped but which also gave him a sense of belonging and represented a sentimental view of his childhood surroundings. In the ‘Interieurs’ series details are presented objectively and with reserve, whereby the choice of framing intensifies the character and mood of each room. Renovations of these spaces in the early 1980s ended the series.

The period in which Thomas Ruff studied was dominated by Minimal and Conceptual Art and by ‘Wild Painting’. The portrait as a genre was virtually non-existent, and it was precisely this that led Ruff to ask how a contemporary formal solution of this might look like. In his studio between 1981 and 1985 he photographed 60 half-length portraits in the same manner: Passport images, with the upper edge of the photographs situated just above the hair, even lighting, the subject between 25 and 35 years old, taken with a 9 × 12 cm negative, and because of the use of a flash without any motion blur. From a stack of colored card stock the sitter could choose one color, which then served as the background. The somber presence of the faces and the pictorial conception of the entire series contradicted the conventional presumption that a successful portrait provides a psychological interpretation. Yet the objective and meticulous representation of a face’s surface is also an indication that behind this begins a foreign, inaccessible world that Thomas Ruff believes is impossible to capture in a portrait: “A portrait does not go one millimeter under the skin, and a single photograph says nothing about the sitter’s personality.” This is the reason why he does not include the sitter’s name, age or occupation in the titles.

In 1986 Thomas Ruff decided to execute some of the portraits in a 210 × 165 cm format. Because he found the effect of the colors too dominate in these, he chose a light and neutral background for the portraits he made between 1986 and 1991. With the exhibition of these works in various galleries between 1986 and 1989 he gained much attention. His international reputation was solidified with his participation in documenta IX in 1992 and the presentation of his work in the German pavilion at the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995.

Like his teacher Bernd Becher, Thomas Ruff is convinced that one should also reflect the medium used in the images. Thus, the portraits provide information on how they are created: The lights used for illumination are reflected in the pupils of the subjects.

The series ‘Häuser’ was created between 1987 and 1991; like ‘Porträts’, these images had a consistent composition: frontal views with only a minimal foreground, such as a narrow strip of street or lawn, an almost completely absent middle ground and, overhead, a gray, neutral sky. The project is meant as a lapidary view of the surroundings; nothing elevated, only depiction.

Without passing judgement, Thomas Ruff’s view of these facades articulates the failure of the architectural utopia of the 1960s. Herzog & de Meuron soon became aware of this form of architecture photography and invited Ruff to participate in their entry for the Architecture Biennale in Venice in 1991 with a photograph of their building for Ricola. Thomas Ruff was encouraged subsequently by exhibition makers to photograph the houses of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (l.m.v.d.r, 1999-2001).

For the series ‘Sterne’ (1989-92) Thomas Ruff appropriated external material. From the European Southern Observatory in the Andes he purchased negatives of telescope images of the southern starlit sky, created detail images of these and enlarged them to 260 × 188 cm. He was fascinated by the idea that the light of a certain star may first reach earth after it has died and that astrophotography captures many levels of the past in a single image.

Submerged in greenish light, the images of ‘Nächte’ (1992-96) depict courtyards and streets in and around Düsseldorf, places that seem like potential crime scenes. They were taken with a camera equipped with an image intensifier, much like the night vision device that was invented for military purposes. The aesthetics of the series quotes images of the Second Gulf War of 1990—91 taken by the media. Back then, these images transformed the western TV viewer into a kind of voyeur and accomplice, who could watch the events without being seen.

Thomas Ruff works with found materials, such as newspaper images or cartoons (for ‘Substrat’, since 2001), used a device similar to the Minolta Mount Unit employed in the 1970s by state criminal offices for the production of phantom images (for ‘andere Porträts’, 1994-95), experiments with pixels reductions and enlargements (for ‘nudes’ and ‘jpeg’) and quotes an anachronistic-like aesthetics like the collage technique (for ‘Plakate’). All this attests to how intensely Thomas Ruff works on possible ways out of the conceptions of traditional camera photography. Against this background, it is only logical that, for some time now, he has been working with images that were taken by probes, telescopes and robots. With ‘cassini’ – images of Saturn and its rings – he poses the question of whether machines can take beautiful images and admits: “I have to confess that I would like to have made these images myself, but that would have been a very long trip and one with no return.” (Thomas Ruff in a film by Ralph Goertz, IKS 2011).

In his most recent series, Thomas Ruff transforms topographical images of Mars into pictures of fragile beauty. The photos were taken from the NASA website and were made by a camera in a satellite from an angle perpendicular to the planet’s surface. Through their subsequent coloring and the adjustment of the angle into a human “pseudo-oblique view”, they became a virtual preemption of a visit to Mars.

Thomas Ruff recently described photography as “the biggest consciousness changing machine that affects people”; the presence and quality of photographs in newspapers, magazines, film and television have changed dramatically due to the technological strides of the last decades, and the ability to manipulate them has risen steadily. For three decades Thomas Ruff has explored this development and constantly varied his own working methods. He made the step from analog to digital image production and, above all, he has explored the mixing of both with all its different possibilities. From the beginning, his approach has been conceptual: He studied genres, motifs and techniques with exemplary character, and, along with its subject, each series brings forth its own technique. As a whole Thomas Ruff’s works – spanning more than three decades – are united by analysis and a passion for seeing in a unique way.

The exhibition is guest-curated by Thomas Weski, Berlin.

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