‘Fade to black’ might be old Hollywood’s scene-stopping phrase, but the true end for any cultural product is when it fades to the foggy, unremarkable grey of the forgotten. This appeared to have happened, on a literal level, to the murky images in Art for the Public (2009), the best of the three bodies of work included in ‘Invention Without a Future’, Lisa Oppenheim’s first US solo show: silver gelatin prints showing a truncated sampling of once-favoured styles of 20th-century abstraction, rendered in restrained greys and hung like the ghostly imprints of a corporate collection. This, in a sense, is exactly what they are: the images depict lost or destroyed art works from the collection of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the area’s interstate transportation agency. Oppenheim re-photographed the art from illustrations in a 1986 catalogue, Art for the Public: The Collection of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Each print is a composite of negative and positive slides that she printed slightly off-register, avoiding sheer grey by millimeters.
It was a neat trick: Oppenheim’s gentle nudge lends shadow and substance to marginal black and white images (bureaucratic printing being better suited to bare documentation than reproduction). Art for the Public (Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 116) (2009), based on a Robert Motherwell painting (stolen from JFK International Airport), resembles an aerial surveillance photograph of a barren landscape in which the artist’s stark ovoid and rectangular forms are transformed into jagged plateaus, cliffs and valley floors.
Other sources, mainly geometric abstractions such as Tony King’s Op Art-flavoured Triangle (1971), are visually simpler. More importantly, they were not the collection’s trophy pieces. Most of them were destroyed while in basement storage at the World Trade Center, a wretched footnote that also pegs them inextricably to a particular period of urban renewal in 1960s and 1970s New York, when ‘percent for art’ programmes (such as the Port Authority’s) stocked the city’s public spaces with often-unloved art. (Oppenheim must have seen plenty of the stuff as a kid growing up in downtown New York.) For precisely this reason, they make better examples of what Oppenheim calls the ‘absent present’, when a meagre mechanical reproduction is all that remains. ‘Invention Without a Future’, the exhibition’s title, refers to pioneering filmmaker Louis Lumière’s gloomy observation that his chosen industry might amount to little more than a novelty act. Is its application here the artist’s reflection on the legacy and limitations of these high-minded wallflowers?
Projected on a nearby column, Yule Log (WPIX) (2009) offered a more literal interpretation of the show’s title. The Yule Log, a looped film of a log burning in a fireplace, was broadcast by the television station WPIX for the first time in 1970, with the intention of supplying hearth-less New Yorkers with a cosy, fireside evening. Oppenheim’s conceptually tidy rendition features 28 brief film segments, each printed from the last and degenerating until the image loses all coherence. Flickering flames give way to wiggling daubs of primary colours, until finally the image – totally unrecognizable in the last clip – flares to white as if the film itself had melted.
In the back room, No Closer to the Source (July 20, 1969) (2008) was the show’s outlier, especially given the local – borderline civic – nature of the other works. Two synched projections showed the earth and moon rising on the night of the first moonwalk. Pairing the famous shot from Apollo 11 with one taken the same night by a backyard stargazer, Oppenheim submitted both to her process of permutation and degradation, enlarging them bit by bit on a photocopier to make a jerky animation. What first appear to be starry constellations looming closer turn out to be specks of dust magnified and mobilized off the page. No Closer to the Source ... looks a bit like amateur hour at the copy shop – purposefully so, in all likelihood, given Oppenheim’s love of drawing attention to the apparatuses of obsolete media. And it does have its charms: when has a photocopier ever been such an elegiac window on the past?