When floating on an open sea, out of sight of sand, or in a desert plain without compass or guiding hand, one comes to know the need for reins and for the mannered things of man.

-Robert Béton

When we last heard from Richard Archer, he was in the Painted Desert, driving a rental car that he had picked up in Los Angeles, and headed north. He planned to stopover at the Great Salt Lake to check out the Spiral Jetty. Would the recent news he had heard of the artist Robert Smithson’s death in an airplane crash have made the eccentric mound, jutting into the strangely pink inland sea, appear all the more otherworldly? Archer’s ultimate destination was just outside Portland in Beaverton, Oregon, home of View-Master. There he intended to immerse himself in the company’s archive of picture reels. Going back to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the View-Master stereopticon system was first introduced as an alternative to postcards. Each reel contains seven glorious 3-D Kodachrome images of subjects, ranging from the scenic to the fantastic—from Carlsbad Caverns to Disneyland to Saturn. When viewed through a device that resembles a pair of tourist binoculars, images appear suspended in time and cupped in silence, impossibly distant yet miniaturistically detailed. It is a virtual reality, the View-Master’s view, and one imagines Archer’s plunge into the archives as an almost dangerously deep departure into picture worlds. Pure speculation, of course, since there is no evidence Archer reached either the earthwork or the archive. Or that he even made it out of the desert. This was in June 1974 just months after Archer had emerged from seclusion so deep that even his closest friends presumed him dead. (The writer J.G. Ballard assumed that he had “hitched a ride on an alien spacecraft and was heading toward some distant star.”) “Can’t say I was too pleased that no one wrote up an obituary on me,” Archer joked with Reyner and Mary Banham, the recipients of his letters from America. The first, dated May 13th, tells of inaugurating the trip with an itinerary tribute to Reyner’s celebratory book about Los Angeles: “following your leads as if L.A. were Baedeker.” Archer’s reference to the classic European Grand Tour guidebooks also tips a nod to the “mock tribute” that Banham himself paid in the film documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. The British architectural historian bombs around the city of angels in a rental car equipped with a “BAEDE-KAR visitor guidance system.” “It is a fiction,” Banham informs his viewers. He’s speaking not of the freeways, which were apparently empty ribbons back in 1972, but of the mellifluous female voice that today every rental car with GPS-navigation features comes equipped with.

And so are Richard Archer’s letters: a fiction, that is, by Douglas Blau. They are a fiction he created as a catalogue text for the artist Vija Celmins’ 1992 retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art, at the University of Pennsylvania (making this current exhibition the second presentation of Blau’s work by ICA).1 Titled “Solid Air,” the fiction frames a small graphite drawing by Celmins that Archer allegedly acquired. It depicts the surface of the ocean. To the Banhams, he describes the drawing’s “near-photographic precision,” belied by traces of a “rigorous dedicated hand.”  He calls the drawing “description as inscription” and carries it, like a text or talisman, on his trip to the desert, marveling “that I can hold the ocean in my hands.” Archer’s letters end with an ecstatic image of himself, in mock Saint Simon mode, a hermit atop a ruined Doric column: “No doubt someone will eventually find me, staring at the stars, my View-Master in one hand, the Celmins in the other.” Incidentally, an “assortment of psychedelics” was also packed for the trip.

So who was Richard Archer? Not much has been published about him, but one gleans from his writings (and the occasional byline) that he was an American born in 1937, living in London since at least the 1960s. There he became associated with the Independent Group of artists, architects and writers. Informally led by Banham, they were taking modernism to a new high, by assimilating the low—images, objects, and aspirations of popular culture—within their work. It was Archer’s passion for movies, for film and cinema culture—picture shows and picture palaces—that seems to most clearly define a body of work that otherwise eludes categorization. An early essay reads like a film shot through a car window, with each view described in such transporting detail there are blurs of motion around the words’ edges. Traveling fast, yet going nowhere, the piece ends where it began with the author Archer sitting motionless behind the wheel.

Turning to stills, Archer wrote a series of essays based on images from contemporary art, including—not surprisingly given Douglas Blau’s fiction—one about the work of Vija Celmins. It was in fact a pair of her paintings, based on newspaper photographs, of massive military planes suspended in flight. The two pictures appear alongside a concise description by Archer of a moment spent in perfect concentration, of time standing still. So intensely do pictures and text correspond, one might fail to notice that neither Celmins, nor her art, are mentioned anywhere on the page. The same is true of Richard Artschwager, Malcolm Morley, Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, and the various other artists, whose photo-based paintings Archer literally reproduces in print. Rendering each equivalent and illustrative of the other, these singular essays inform and form the very act of looking.

No art accompanies Archer’s most original piece of writing. Just two empty frames—one vertical, one horizontal—appear as placeholders for every picture conceivable, which is exactly what the text contains. Published in the October 1969 issue of New Worlds, Archer’s “Wonders of the World: or How to Build a Universe” takes us traveling in quest of images. Prom flea market stalls, to library stacks, to supermarket shelves (once stocked with pulp encyclopedias), we follow our guide, who holds up picture after picture to view. Postcards, film stills, newspaper photographs, bookplates and magazine clippings, accrue into another sort of Baedeker’s guide, this time to a world of printed matter. Then suddenly, the narrative shifts from the cosmic to the specific. It ends with twelve pictures, described in sequence. As disparate as they are, curiously these twelve cohere, like the stones in a mosaic, or splices of film in a montage. They form a seamless totality that the writer Archer, with his seemingly infinite capacity for looking at pictures, drifts away into. A deep-sea diving expedition is the final image he describes, along with himself getting lost in its depths. And indeed, it was a couple years later in 1970 that Archer actually did disappear for a period of four years, only to briefly resurface in London then vanish again in the Painted Desert.

Having come full circle, at what point was it clear that Richard Archer is himself a fiction? A character created by Douglas Blau?2 Less evident may be the fact that Blau, the author, is also the self-portrait subject of Archer’s imaginary oeuvre. Simply put, as Blau writes of Archer, so might we read about Blau, albeit disguised as a figure from an earlier generation. Since the 1980s Blau, who was born in Los Angeles and lives in New York, has used words and pictures interchangeably to create a unique body of work. He emerged as a critic, but one whose texts only indirectly address the ostensible subject of his writing. An early book review, for instance, takes the appearance of the word “drifting” (on page nineteen of Achille Bonito Oliva’s The Italian Trans-avantgarde) to cut loose the assigned reading and embark on an appreciation of the 19th century travel writer Robert Béton, for whom the wonders of the world were only as interesting as the “driftings” they inspired.3 In Béton’s highly pictorial prose, the anchor of his impressions remains submerged beneath the “craftily styled links” wrought in the depths of concentration.

Blau posits Béton’s influence on Oscar Wilde, and the crafting of his infamous dictum in “The Critic as Artist”: “To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own.” It’s a moot historical point. Since Béton never existed—he is another of Blau’s fictions—Wilde could not have read him. (How like a fiction by Borges, who wrote extensive reviews of books that did not exist and then recommended these books most highly.) For Richard Archer, Béton’s precedence nevertheless remains apt. Both are similar characters. Visionary writers, their work, and the writing about them, gives fractal form to Blau’s art as a whole. His work is filled with metaphors of submersion and being swept away, with hallucinatory states of concentration, with frozen time, and descriptions made all the more vivid by references to perfume, taste and music, all of it induced by looking at pictures.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Blau became known at large as an auteur curator, whose essays and exhibitions were instrumentally linked to a peer generation of Pictures artists. The name comes from one of post-modernism’s seminal exhibitions and texts, Douglas Crimp’s “Pictures” of 1977, which included the work of Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, and Sherrie Levine, among others.4 The title came to more widely designate artists who were using found and appropriated pictures from all realms of culture (from advertising to movies to art) to make new images in all forms of media (from photography to painting to video). The recognizablity of the pictures, and of their sources, was key to this art’s critical reception. It seemed to suggest that pictures were empty signs, waiting to be filled, their meanings wholly dependent on the contexts of their reception. And that meaning was as mutable as the endless frames and contexts for images that artists constructed through their work. At least that was the general theory. In his championing of the Pictures artists, Douglas Blau took an opposite tack. He focused on painters who were using contemporary strategies to refer to the tradition of representational painting and its history in Western art. According to this tradition, pictures have had literal meanings for centuries, from preliterate periods, like the Medieval era, when churches could be read as bibles illustrated by frescoes, to modern times, when the complexities of individual existence and social being are made legible to us by icons of all kinds. For Blau, it seems that art’s object is to make the relationship between reading and looking, depiction and meaning, not just accessible, but completely engulfing.

In 1987 he advanced this view with “Fictions: A Selection of Pictures from the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries,” an exhibition that was installed in two New York galleries.5 “Fictions” presented the work of contemporary artists such as John Bowman, Brauntuch, David Deutsch, Mark Innerst, Joan Nelson, Mark Tansey, and Michael Zwack, alongside historic paintings by Ralph Albert Blakelock, Thomas Cole, Hubert Robert, and Elihu Vedder, among others. Collectively these artists’ works expressed a visionary and romantic sensibility that Blau amplified with some explicitly eccentric inclusions, like a painting by Chesley Bonestell of Saturn from Its Moons, Iapetus, 1948 (a picture Richard Archer regrets was not the source for the View-Master reel of “Saturn and its Rings”6), a film still from Blade Runner, and a 19th-century photoengraving.7 There were also a few photographs by Barbara Ess, Cindy Sherman and Edward Steichen, and a collotype by Thomas Eakins of The Gross Clinic (a study for the painting that Philadelphia just recently rallied to keep permanently in the city).8 The catalogue expanded on this selection with a picture essay by Blau, followed by his own essay titled “Pictures.” About this essay, a profile of the writer C. E. Swaye (1899-1942), perhaps no more need be said here than to point out that Constance Swaye was a nom de plume of Douglas Blau’s during the mid-1980s.

“Fictions” was the first in a series of exhibition projects to apply curatorial practice to the creation of explicit narratives or fictions, in which the catalogue was always integrally a part. It is through the essay titled “The Observer” that accompanied Blau’s 1990 exhibition “The Times, The Chronicle &The Observer” that the fiction of Richard Archer is first introduced. And it is Blau’s narrative of Archer’s writings that essentially serves as the curatorial text on the individual paintings in the show by Celmins, Artschwager, Richter and others, who comprise Archer’s own generation of Pictures artists.

There gets to be something a little Twilight Zone in all these triangulations between actual subjects and artificial ones, between Blau’s representation of his work and the work itself, between fact and fiction. And it only gets more disorienting the deeper one delves.9 Go back to the start of this essay and read the Robert Béton quote that opens “Solid Air (Richard Archer’s Letters on Vija Celmins)” to feel a little rush of the dizziness, like breathing inside a bell jar, at the exquisite self-containment of it all. Not that Blau ever lets the experiment go too far; he is too keen an observer for that. Indeed, in the essay “The Observer,” where he traces the development of Archer’s work, he anticipates a major shift that would occur in his own two years later.

In 1992 Blau presented “The Naturalist Gathers ” first at a gallery in Los Angeles, then in a considerably expanded form, at a gallery in New York.10 Composed entirely of found reproductions—postcards, film stills, newspaper photos, pictures from books and magazines—all hanging in inexpensive black frames of varying dimensions, it was a panoramic picture show. As if one of Blau’s picture essays had been translated into three-dimensions, the catalogue had become the exhibition. It was certainly an immersive experience, all those pictures, stacked approximately four frames high, and traveling, jostling cheek by jowl, in an unbroken band the entire perimeter of the space. The overall impression was oddly minimal, given all the imagery. It took but one closer look to get sucked into the intricate and slow-moving procession that viewing this installation entailed. The very first picture was Charles Willson Peale’s self-portrait The Artist in His Museum of 1822.11 Another Philadelphia treasure, this painting depicts America’s first museum, with its mastodon skeleton, its gallery of cabinets (that turn the walls into a grid) full of specimens, and other curiosities, all assembled by Peale. Installed by Blau on a separate wall, this image sets the stage for what follows: hundreds of pictures of things being pointed to, or simply framed for us to look at.

Echoes of Richard Archer, who in his essay “Wonders of the World,” could be Peale, pulling back the curtain on his wunderkammer: “…he was a guide leading the way through a labyrinth of stalls at flea markets, swapmeets, bazaars and museums; and, like a barker at a fair, he lured his audience in to take a peek, not at some oddity or poor contorted freak but at the ordinary world fixed in the form of countless ordinary pictures.” Likewise, Peale could be Blau. And Blau Archer, who with this, “one of his more curious pieces…alternatively entered into and stepped back from the fictions, as if he were trying to attain some new perspective on the larger picture.” But the more uncanny resemblance is yet to come. Two years after the publication of “Wonders” Archer disappeared. And so did Blau in 1997 virtually drop from view.



This is the first exhibition of new work by Douglas Blau in ten years. Sixteen works, all from this year, crystallize centuries of picture making into multifaceted new narratives. Like cinema or cartoons, these narratives unfold across sequences, strips and grids of uniformly framed images. Each frame is a collage cut and pasted from the world of printed matter, by now a familiar terrain of chromolithographs, halftones, photographs—in short, mechanical reproduction in all its forms. Besides glue, what holds these pictures together is the power of association. Correspondences between gestures, faces, colors, certain details, and entire images spark connections between fragments and between frames. As viewers, we are swept into the pleasurable activity of forging and following these links: formal and narrative chains of association that flow so seamlessly, we may lose sight of how ironclad they are. It only takes a step back, however, to register the precision (of details and references) and particularity (of tone, mood, color) of each composition. Every note is orchestrated.

Now sit back and listen to Playtime. Fifteen frames installed in a horizontal (three by five) grid make this the largest of Blau’s new works. It is also the centerpiece of the installation. From a distance, the central frame in Playtime, surrounded by busier images, looks quiet and dark; it draws the eye immediately in. The darkness emanates from a late nineteenth-century interior, a gloomy room perked up by the flickering presence of two little girls in white pinafores. Or should I say, four little girls, since there are two identical versions of the same painting—Hide and Seek (1888) by the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase—overlapping inside the frame. This doubling puts pressure on the heavy curtain that one girl reaches to draw back, and thereby changes the picture from a children’s game to theater: the curtain is about to open. To see the play underway, turn to an adjacent frame, where a black-and-white film still offers a modern depiction of a night at the theater during the Gilded Age. This is the period in which all of the pictures in Playtime are set. An upholstered audience is watching a woman in a ruffled dress—she could be one of those little girls grown up—on stage with a man. What drama ensues? Drop down a frame, where another ruffled woman is embracing an indifferent looking man, in a sentimental picture postcard, captioned: “If forbidden sweets are sweetest, so are forbidden men most tempting.” The postcard is flanked by pictures of parlors, the perfect settings for intimate scenes.

Books on the parlors’ shelves lead the eye into the next frame, where pictures of books in precious bindings (many look cut from the glossy pages of Arts and Crafts auction catalogues) surround an illustration of a woman in an artistic yellow gown. She sits before shelves of books with one volume open on her lap. She is not actually reading—she is a genteel woman after all—but absorbed in looking at pictures. (As am I, a woman looking at pictures.) This realization ripples, but does not distract my own attention from the regimented rows of books. Their spines lead, like sprockets in a reel of film, right into the next frame. Here is another woman, seated in private study, reading, in this case, The World newspaper. The world is a stage, of course, and there is a toy theater sitting on the table in front of her. (Along with a shoe, that prop or possession known to turn a woman’s world topsy-turvy.) The picture, a film still, directs us to an adjacent frame, where I actually recognize the actress Julie Christie, but cannot name the film this still is taken from. It’s an ongoing game, identifying pictures and people, movies and paintings, sources and references; but ultimately this is a trivial pursuit compared to the game of concentration Blau’s picture narratives enforce. Whoever Julie Christie was no longer signifies; the actress is now just one of the many women and girls dressed to play the female lead in Playtime.

Seated at a desk, the woman looks up startled from something she is writing. Following the direction of her gaze, we can almost hear the voice of the man on the staircase in the next frame. Taken from another film, this picture is part of a montage, which turns an already oppressive staircase into a Piranesi-esque expression of twisted domesticity. He is not so much forbidden as forbidding, this man the woman rushes onto the landing to meet. The stairs lead down to the next frame, and into a great entrance hallway. The picture is accompanied by two others, one of servants listening at a door (perhaps to the master and milady having an argument in the front parlor), and one of a woman slipping papers into a desk drawer. Could the sound the servants hear be the rustling of her gown and papers as she hides the pages from view?

We are now in the lower right hand corner of the grid, and from this point the eye wanders the perimeter. One frame contains newsprint and glossy reproductions of a historic theater interior with candy-box seats overlooking an empty stage. There are many scenes, or sceneries, of domestic interiors. There is another shot of the forbidding man; this time the stern patriarch seems to be terrorizing the children, those little Hide-and-Seek girls, who crop up again, and again, in two more reproductions of that first painting. This time, it’s the soft burgundy of the velvet curtain and brittle polish on the mahogany floor that resound. And echo with two pictures of empty stages and curtains in the next frame. After casting a backward glance to see if it’s the same candy-box theater—check!—the eye is caught by something in the opposite corner. A little girl is playing with a toy theater, arranging the paper characters on stage. We watch her reach through the curtain in a fusillade of reproductions—color and black-and-white—of some scene from film. And suddenly the eye catches him. Another picture, tucked in among the rest, shows a man reaching through the curtain. If there were music, it would strike a sinister chord.

Does the picture end there? No, the repercussive themes of childhood play and adult drama continue to unfold as long as we keep looking at Playtime. Plus, since there is no fixed flow, the pictures are bound to lead each of us along different paths, constructing our own associations and variations on the overall narrative. The process of interpretation is thus not unlike a game of chess, in which the sequence of moves may change, but the board and the game remain set. We can scramble the arrangement of Blau’s pictures in our minds, but not on the walls, where their placement and meaning is fixed. This rule holds as true for individual works as it does the entire installation.

Upon entering the gallery, the set up of the pieces strikes an immediate impression. Frames hang equidistantly in grids on the wall with expanses of empty space in between works. Some are in black frames; other works are framed in white. Like the keys of a piano, touched to strike a certain chord, the frames set the tone of the space. They ring especially clear in that corner of the gallery where the ceiling soars to double the height of the rest of the space. Six works in white frames fill this potentially crushing architectural volume with a sense of buoyant luminosity.



The installation commences with three works in black frames: The Course of Empire: Twilight (The Ambassadors), The Academy by Gaslight (Sculpture Hall Scene), and Public Gardens (The General’s Daughter). In the first, pictures of men in the urban metropolis at the turn of the century correspond with references to artist Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire (a series of paintings done around 1835 of the rise and fall of an imaginary city12) and author Henry James’s The Ambassadors (a dark, comic novel of 1903, featuring a middle-aged protagonist as one of several “ambassadors” dispatched to retrieve an errant son).13 Twilight time imbues the empyrean with a sense of coming darkness, or end. Even without these references, the work functions as an establishing shot, locating us in the same period as James’s trans-Atlantic literature, in which European old and American new worlds intersected. And so might we find ourselves in London or New York, Paris or Chicago, Vienna or Washington conveyed by the next two works, through museums and parks, where portraits of young women begin to develop into characters, or show different aspects of the same girl, in different episodes of a fiction that is unfurling. For that’s what is occurring.

Just as each frame contributes to Playtime, so does each work in this exhibition read as a chapter, character study, essay or aside, within a grand narrative. And indeed, like a modern novel, it experiments with many forms of depiction, modes of representation and states of abstraction. Upon turning the corner of the gallery, the frames shift from black to white, and so do the pictures turn from worldly and prosaic to dreamy and diffusive. Take (Dance of the) Dragonflies, for instance. Framed in white, this work takes us out of the public gardens, and out into the woods and meadows, where women in draperies dance among dragonflies. Poster subjects of art nouveau, these pictures float away on a palette of wisteria blues and purples. One row of frames literally breaks from the grid. Hanging just slightly apart from the rest, two women join in an erotic caress.

Moving on, the difference between black and white frames becomes gray. Maybe it’s not the contents, but the materials that set the tone. For what could be dreamier than The Conditions of Music, a picture framed in black? A languorous woman, played in part by Sarah Bernhardt in Orientalist drag, takes tinctures from a mauve vial. The work is named after an assertion by the British aesthete and academic Walter Pater, who wrote in his 1877 essay on the Renaissance painter Giorgione: “All art constantly aspires towards the conditions of music.” For Pater music held supreme because it delighted the senses by obliterating the distinction between matter and form. At the same time, music captivates the intellect by always approaching, but never giving figure to, depiction. Blau aspires toward the same by composing fictions without words that can also be read as paintings. Each piece of printed matter is a daub of color in a palette made up of myriad tones of ink on paper. From across the gallery, Blau’s assemblages might be seen to embody, in Pater’s words, “no more definite message for us than an accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a few moments on the wall or floor…caught as the colours are in Eastern carpet, but dealt with more subtly and exquisitely than by nature itself.”14 Into such sensual strains, the color of the frames—black or white—submits to the over conditions of making pictures, in which narrative falls in and out of the focus and foreground of aesthetic experience.

Based on collage, the structure of Blau’s narratives is fragmentary and familiar. The Age of Paper (Follies of the Day) shows the city at the dawn of the twentieth century, papered in printed matter. Advertisements, posters, broadsides, newspapers, on buildings, buses, theaters, this is the landscape Cubists, Constructivists, and Surrealists alike rendered into collage on paper and montage in film. Conflating the two, Blau cuts and pastes paper into films made of stills. His frames are filled with dynamic cuts and sequences that both condense and advance the work’s many narratives. Splicing, zoom-ins, fade-outs, double exposures, triple exposures, and other cinematic effects make these pictures pulse with movement, movement that is further syncopated in the line up of frames into uniform grids on the wall.

At this point it seems useful to know that after receiving degrees in art and art history, Douglas Blau studied cinema. Perhaps nowhere in this exhibition is his love of film and its structures more succinctly expressed than in Archer (Targets). Dominated by stills from a scene in The Age of Innocence, director Martin Scorsese’s 1993 period film, based on the 1920 novel by Edith Wharton (Henry James’s great protégé and friend), set in the Gilded Age, it features Winona Ryder as May Welland playing archery with her friends. In Blau’s adaptation, which could as well be titled, “Richard Archer (Jasper Johns),” the modern day Diana takes aim and is the target. A razor’s slice to her sightline cuts to the quick Johns’s famous claim that he painted targets because they were “things that are seen but not looked at.” In Blau’s work, targets are there to be both looked at and seen—in every picture frame.

Every fiction has its arch. Starting around 1880 in the Edwardian era and spanning the next thirty years, the narrative of this exhibition has led us through a labyrinth of bourgeois life at the turn of the century. As experienced through the main characters, all of them women, this reality is extremely circumscribed. When, in That Song about the Midway-Day, the girl makes her big foray into the risqué carnival zones of popular culture to see a puppet show, she sticks but a delicate toe into the world of the low.15 Otherwise it’s a visit to the family business (Work [The Office]), an afternoon spent sketching in the conservatory (Watercolor [The Naturalist’s Granddaughter]), and days at the museums, parks, and crystal palaces, which distract. The crux of the drama occurs indoors and through states of interiority—dreams, abandon, and reflection. The fiction ends as it began: in the company of men. The Conversation finds gentlemen sequestered in the library, taking refuge it seems from the twentieth century, which has just begun to dawn in the previous frames. The dynamism and clang of its industrial printing presses catalyze Douglas Blau’s picture narratives.

The exhibition does include one other work, The Conversation Piece from 1993/1995.16 It shows where he left off, so to speak, by representing the last time we saw Douglas Blau. He had developed his panoramic installations into more discrete works, based on the same materials and basic structure as The Naturalist Gathers.17 The Conversation Piece is a triptych, each section a-jangle with those small black frames (installed according to a template Blau created especially for this purpose). The frames contain depictions of political dialogue in all its variety, from tête-à-têtes to the legislative body, throughout the ages. Given that by the time Blau’s exhibition closes at ICA, Americans will have elected a new president, the work is a timely and relevant choice.18 It also serves as an index to the new work. Besides obvious differences, like the frames, the most significant change is Blau’s approach to narrative. Instead of assembling pictures to represent a subject across time, the new work renders subjects precisely drawn at a particular moment in history. This moment could as easily be represented by a contemporary movie still as by a contemporaneous work of art. (Blau admits to taking artistic license: when a picture just seems right, he will use it irregardless of representing a moment that’s a decade off, or so.) This new criteria suggests what he’s been up to all these years.

For the past decade, Douglas Blau has been collecting pictures of all aspects of Western culture and organizing them along historic and thematic lines. He’s been operating on the hunch his work began to suggest, initially to Richard Archer, that the world of pictures is not endless. There exist but a finite number of narratives that are repeated historically over time. Only details and variations are infinite, as recombinative as DNA. In building on this premise, Blau’s studio has meanwhile been transformed into a picture archive such as his character Archer may have gotten lost in. But for Blau, the archive has reached the opposite capacity. Stocked with the makings of every picture possible, his archive now sends him back out into the world of picture making.

Having arrived at the brink of the future of Douglas Blau’s art, it’s time to bring forward another figure from the past. No fiction, the German art historian Aby Warburg is already omnipresent in contemporary culture. His great, unfinished project the Atlas Mnemosyne was to be an iconographic picture atlas for the ages. Announced in 1927, Warburg worked incessantly on amassing picture material of all kinds, from postage stamps to newspaper photos to fine arts reproductions. Assembled according to a principle of “montage collision,” the plates of the atlas just kept growing in number. When Warburg died in Hamburg in 1929, the Atlas was left definitively unfinished. As a conceptual project, however, its legacy looms large. Christian Boltanski, Hanne Darboven, Walid Raad, and Gerhard Richter are among the many artists whose work, based on archives and archival processes, is anticipated by it.19

Also, of course, Douglas Blau, with whom a comparison to Warburg yields more than just a penchant for picture archives. Both stand in curious relation to their respective disciplines. Blau is an artist who created the script for his own work as a writer. Warburg was an academic, who never published a book, but followed his interest in the nachleben or “afterlife” of classical antiquity to the American Southwest, to see the Hopi snake dancers and think about the marble sculpture of Laocoön and his sons writhing under the crushing weight of serpents.

Critical of traditional notions of style, Warburg invented an alternative art history based on an iconography of gestures, movements, and other arrangements that can be seen to visually propel cultural expression from one moment to the next. This emphasis on motion gives the plates of his Atlas—in which pictures appear arranged in informal grids—a curiously cinematic effect. One of the most conspicuous gestures contained by the Atlas might be called the ecstasy of mechanical reproduction. Indeed, one might even observe that while previous generations of scholars relied almost exclusively on texts, Warburg’s vision was a response to a modern picture world exploding with printed matter and pictures his Atlas attempted, impossibly, to encapsulate.

Less than one hundred years later, Douglas Blau’s work situates us at the opposite end of this spectrum. Digital media eclipses the world of printed matter Blau’s art is made from and depicts: a world dominated by Western culture and its narratives. In it, the roles of power, invention and authority have historically gone to white men, whose wives and daughters are at home dreaming and dabbling. Judging from Blau’s archive, there are plenty of pictures in store, and yet to come, of exotic adventures taken abroad, peeks into the lives of the working class and poor, servants and slaves, journeys into netherworlds and crime. However, in general, as the saying goes, to the victor go the spoils—and the power of stories, too. Blau’s pictures are cultural, not critical. How culture’s narratives will change as perspectives become increasingly global—and the West loses its hegemony—is a picture in formation. In the meantime, Blau’s work, poised to bookend Warburg’s Atlas of Memory, commemorates a history of the touch, look and tones of printed matter that new technology will soon make obsolete. At the same time, Blau’s project is also a paper analogue—a Baedeker’s Guide in frames—to the virtual world of the web where pictures can be streamed from exponentially escalating numbers of archives—both private and public—onto the screens that surround and engulf us in this new form of illumination. (I just downloaded “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles” from UbuWeb Film.20) As Richard Archer once fictitiously dove and was lost in a sea—such as the Laocoön was actually dredged from—so in fact may we all be swept away in looking at pictures thin as air.


The author would like to thank Geoffrey Batchen for his ever-insightful reading of her work, Ann Reynolds, Greg Dinkins, and Richard Torchia for fielding questions (on Spiral Jetty, View-Master, and Saint Simon, respectively), Thomas Devaney for mentioning Borges’ book reviews, and Paula Marincola for the lovely turn of phrase “auteur curator.”


  1. Douglas Blau, “Solid Air (Richard Archer’s Letters on Vija Celmins),” in Judith Tannenbaum, Vija Celmins, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1992).
  2. The fiction of Richard Archer is introduced and described in Blau’s essay “The Observer,” Douglas Blau, The Times, The Chronicle & The Observer, exh. cat. (New York: Kent Fine Art, 1990). The exhibition ran from 19 December 1990 to 9 February 1991.
  3. Douglas Blau, “Driftings (an introduction by way of a preface),” Real Life 7 (Autumn 1981): 22-24.
  4. Douglas Crimp’s “Pictures” exhibition was held from 24 September to 29 October 1977 at Artists Space in New York then traveled to venues in Ohio, Colorado, and California. (A recreation of the exhibition, titled “‘Pictures’ at an Exhibition” and organized by Jenelle Porter, was presented at Artists Space in 2001.) Crimp’s “Pictures” essay was published in October 8 (1979); Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince were among the artists discussed who were not in the original show.
  5. The exhibition “Fictions: A Selection of Pictures from the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries” was presented simultaneously at Kent Fine Art and at Curt Marcus Gallery, from 17 November to 31 December 1987. The catalogue features a picture essay (the images reproduced in darkly-toned monochrome) that expands on the imagery of exhibition.
  6. There are several references in Archer’s letters to Bonestell, whose murals for the Griffith Observatory seem distilled into Archer’s description of looking at the full moon through the observatory’s telescope on his Los Angeles trip: “Everything appeared absolutely static, glowing coldly in that otherworldly light, and I felt as I often do when I stare into a painting by Chesley Bonestell: awed by the haunted desolation, aware of my own anonymity and limitations in relation to the enormity of that unexplored frontier.”
  7. The photo-engraving (copyright 1879) by Goupil & Co., Engravers, reproduces a painting from 1870 by Eugene Médard titled The Watchers. It shows a band of soldiers in front of a wall they are trying to look over.
  8. The campaign was the last of Anne d’Harnoncourt’s many triumphs in keeping Philadelphia culture at home during her tenure as the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her untimely death this summer marks the loss of one of this city’s, and culture’s, great ambassadors of art.
  9. A personal favorite is a fiction Blau composed in the form of an index to yet another book that does not exist. The paginated entries range from “Adam and Eve: apple as agent of transposition, 19” to the film “Zardoz (John Boorman), 52.” There are references, of course, to the writings of Richard Archer (“on Chesley Bonestell, 697-698”) and Robert Béton. The “Index” first appeared in 1992 (as a catalogue essay for an exhibition by Alexis Rockman) and was subsequently expanded and published as “Index (from the Naturalist Gathers),” in Deep Storage: Collecting, Storing, and Archiving in Art, exh. cat. (Munich: Haus der Kunst, 1997; rev. English ed. New York: Prestel, 1998).
  10. In 1992 “The Naturalist Gathers” was first presented in Los Angeles at Thomas Solomon’s Garage (July through August) then in New York at Stein Gladstone (November to December). In addition to the main spaces, both galleries had upstairs rooms, in which Blau installed “picture essays” on the theme of still life.
  11. Peale was an artist and a naturalist––as denoted by the painter’s palette and taxidermy instruments in the foreground of the painting (now in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts). His museum was located on the second floor of Independence Hall.
  12. Thomas Cole’s Study for Desolation (From the Course of Empire) was one of the paintings in Douglas Blau’s “Fictions” exhibition.
  13. The general stature of these gentlemen also invokes The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein’s painting of 1533 showing a portrait pair of diplomats with a mysterious image of a skull rendered in anamorphic perspective.
  14. This quote from Pater is also from his essay “The School of Giorgione.”
  15. The title cues “That Song about the Midway,” released on the Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s 1969 album Clouds.
  16. The work was originally composed by Blau for his 1993 exhibition “Genre: The Conversation Piece” at Sperone Westwater gallery in New York. There it was presented as a single span of pictures. The artist subsequently reconfigured the work as a triptych for the “The Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945,” a group exhibition, organized by Kerry Brougher, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1996. In the process of reconfiguring it, Blau created a template––a mylar pattern marked with each picture and nail hole, so that the work can be replicated exactly upon each installation. While in the earlier version, the frames were positioned by hand directly on the wall, like pieces of a mosaic cobbled together.
  17. One of the most important works Blau created in the interim years was “Stills,” a show held in 1994 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Occasioned by Chief Curator Peter Galassi’s invitation to create an exhibition in one of the photography galleries with a palette that was to come entirely from the MoMA Film Stills Archive, the installation of evenly-sized black frames ribboning the walls in regimented rows anticipates the uniformity of Blau’s current work.
  18. Hopefully the American public will have elected a new president––barring any “hanging chads.”
  19. Warburg’s other great work was his research library, which he organized in ever changing constellations of books, based on his current thinking, in an elliptical chamber––an architecture of mental space. In 1926, Warburg opened his private library of thousands of books to the public. It’s interesting to think of his library in relation to two artist’s libraries: Donald Judd’s in Marfa, Texas (where nary a book can be moved to pre- serve the master’s touch), and Martha Rosler’s library which, after visiting Marfa, she decided to make available to the public; starting in New York in 2005, Rosler’s library has since traveled extensively). To protect it from being confiscated under National Socialism, Warburg’s library and picture archive were transferred in 1933 from Germany to London and form the basis of the Warburg Institute.
  20. Directed by Julian Cooper, “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles” aired in 1972 as an episode of the BBC television series “One Pair of Eyes.” It is available online at UbuWeb Film,