Bulbs, by Louise Lawler, 2005–6

In her photographs, installations, and objects, Louise Lawler executes a critique of art-world systems that is at once straightforward and subtle, rigorous and humorous. She is widely known for photographing various sites related to the distribution of art, such as art galleries, auction houses, private collections, and muse­ums. Works by other artists have provided the subject matter for a number of works, including her color photographs Bulbs (2005–6) and No Drones (2010–11). In Bulbs, strings of lightbulbs laid out on packing blankets bisect the composition. The bright yet muted lighting and soft focus in the foreground soften the institutional surroundings and project a warmth that seems unusual for the subject until it becomes clear that these bulbs are actually a sculpture by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a friend and colleague of Lawler who died from AIDS-related complications in 1996. Awaiting installation, the sculpture lies cold and mute on the tables. Lawler's unusual perspective—roughly at eye level with the lifeless sculpture—creates a composition that recalls a seascape with an endless horizon. No Drones pictures Mustang-Staffel (Mustang Squadron), a 1964 painting by the German artist Gerhard Richter that depicts a group of Mustang bombers, the planes that were used by Allied forces to help defeat the Nazis in World War II. Lawler photographed the painting at an oblique angle so that we see the hanging device attached to the stretcher bars behind the canvas. The title of the work is both a literalism (there were no drones during World War II) and a call to end the production and use of airborne instruments of war.

Alongside her work in photography, Lawler has deployed various other mediums throughout her career. From screening the legendary film The Misfits (1961) without the picture in A Movie Will Be Shown without the Picture (1979) to installing works by other artists in a new configuration for her Arrangements of Pictures (1982), Lawler uses conceptual strategies and intentionally contrived installations to expand her engagement with her subjects and to further question the systems that govern art as well as its display and consumption. For the audio work Birdcalls (1972–81), she sounded out the names of various well-known male artists—including Vito Acconci, Carl Andre, and Donald Judd—in the style of birdcalls. Birdcalls is a witty rejoin­der to the perceived earnestness that is associ­ated with many of the artists named, acknowledging their mantle while also poking fun at their plumage. Its humor is balanced by the knowledge that these white male artists are continually recognized as being at the forefront of serious art production, leaving little room for consideration of the significant contributions of female artists and artists of color to the discus­sion of advanced aesthetics. 

Slides by Night: Now That We Have Your Attention What Are We Going to Say?, by Louise Lawler, 1985
Slides by Night: Now That We Have Your Attention What Are We Going to Say?, 1985
Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; photography by Brian Forrest
In 1985 Metro Pictures, the gallery that has long represented Lawler, was located in New York City's rapidly evolving SoHo neighbor­hood. An area that was once home to warehouses and tenements but was adopted by artists during its most decrepit period in the 1960s, SoHo was a burgeoning shopping district by the mid-1980s. Savvy retail operations followed the galleries that had followed the artists who had gone to the neighborhood in search of affordable studio space. Lawler had already been using photography to document artworks in situations often deemed off-limits to artists, such as museum conservation labs. With Slides by Night: Now That We Have Your Attention What Are We Going to Say? (1985), she impli­cated herself and her gallery in the art-world structures that her work revealed. Echoing the illuminated nighttime signage of the retail outlets that were springing up in SoHo at the time, the projection work was on display only at night, visible through the storefront windows to passersby on the street when the gallery was closed. The slides pictured fruits, baseballs, and bells alongside Lawler's own photographs, which alternated in groups of three, like the symbols on a slot machine. When the three images matched, leading to a "jackpot," her photograph of classi­cal sculptures shot at a plaster-cast museum was the reward. Rather than a torrent of coins, viewers were treated to a parade of yet more images, all by Lawler and showing art in situ. Equating her gallery with both a shop and a casino, Lawler effectively called the art market a commercial gamble, and by aligning her own work with the mechanisms of retail and gam­bling, prompted viewers to consider art's posi­tion in relation to any other item up for sale.

—Corrina Peipon