Review: Bernd and Hilla Becher, Water Towers at Sonnabend


Exhibition Reviews


For the past few days, I have been trying to come up with a joke that starts with “How many water towers does it take to…” Unfortunately, humour (just like so many things) is (are) clearly not my forte. Not that Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work has anything to do with humour anyway. This is no laughing matter, ladies and gentlemen! In any case, the Bechers’ photography seems to be a good case of ye olde “if you’ve seen one you’ve seen it all,” except what they’re trying to show is the exact opposite. Because, you see, they - the water towers in this case - are all a little bit different (click on the image above and you will see). This, of course, makes for a neat reference: Karl Blossfeld, another German artist obsessed with shapes of things, in his case plants. (more)

The exhibition at Sonnabend combines the well-known water towers with a typology of New York rooftop water tanks, which I hadn’t seen before. The latter are shown sequentially, unlike the former, which come in the famous grid form (see photo). I prefer the grid form, especially the one set up in that smallish back room (where I took the panorama), because that’s just an awful lot of water towers. Everywhere you look, you see water towers, water towers, water towers.

I think that room provides the very best way to fully understand the Bechers’ achievement, the true point behind their work, both conceptually and technically. If you have never seen this work this is the show to see.

Still, there are parts of me that appreciate Bernd and Hilla Becher more for what they did at the Düsseldorf Art Academy than for their photography. I know I shouldn’t say this. This is probably in part due to the fact that if I ever shed tears over conceptual art it’s mostly because of, well, boredom. There are only so many water towers or gas tanks or whatever else you can look at before you will say “No, really, I do get it.”

Needless to say, that’s my personal preference. I do think it was extremely important to create a visual archive of many of those industrial structures that are now gone; but I’m probably not interested enough to think that you really need to see each and every one of them. There is a level of obsessiveness behind this endeavour, which I’m fascinated and slightly uncomfortable with.

The one thing you will notice when you visit this show is how well the Bechers did this work. Everybody and their grandmother are producing typologies now, but if you look at the Bechers, you see how they really need to be done: Each of the images is perfect. There’s no sloppiness. You don’t see typologies done so perfectly too often. In fact, when you see them you can almost be certain it’s the Bechers. It’s pretty amazing actually. So this show also is testament to the enormous amounts of hard, hard work these two German artists put into their photography.

compare: DLK’s review