Blog / Time Capsule: Thomas Ruff

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By J Caldwell

This article is part of a series looking at specific works of art from Time Capsule. View other entires here.

When I spoke with collector and curator of Time Capsule Jason Rubell, before he gave his recent tour of the Nasher Museum of Art, I explained that George Condo’s piece Immigrants, 1983 was my favorite in the show. The fact that he echoed this sentiment astonished me, so I held my tongue when I changed my mind after he told the background story of Thomas Ruff’s Porträts. 

In the summer of 1989, collector Jason Rubell stayed with an art dealer in Dusseldorf, Germany for a month. German photographer Thomas Ruff was well-known at that time, but had never had a show in the US. Ruff’s initial forays were in traditional reductive landscape photography, but by the end of the ’80s he was experimenting with transferring those concepts to conceptual serial photographs. In Ruff’s Porträt series 1986-1989, he took hundreds of Polaroids of his subjects (Polacolor by my best approximation based on the Andy Warhol polaroids from around that time). Rubell sat for Ruff and said during the session, “You lost yourself. You lost your inhibitions. Ruff reduced you to just the image.” In this series, Ruff’s subjects have a flatness that harkens to the stillness of landscapes in which he was rooted.

What drew me to the series after hearing Rubell’s tour was the fact that these images that I assumed were prints made from color negatives, were in fact, Polaroids. I have a long relationship with instant photography Initially, like most, this was from years of unfocused fun with the square format instant shots whenever I could afford to buy a back, which was not often, nor a priority. I still feel quite sentimental about the playful Polaroid aesthetic, but have of late shifted into more focused portraiture using the last of my remaining supply of original Polaroid integral and peel-apart film as well as the instant films from new-comers The Impossible Project (and, on the horizon, New55). I look now at the last remaining box of Polaroid 669 film that I have, more or less the same that Ruff was using for his serial photographs, and hope to pay homage to Ruff’s reductionist approach.

Images: Thomas Ruff, Porträt [J. Rubell], 1989, Porträt [P. Stadtbäumer], 1988, Porträt [B. Job], 1987, Porträt [I. Graw], 1988, Porträt [M. Syniuga], 1986, Porträt [C. Kewer], 1988. Chromogenic color print, 9 ¼ x 7 inches (24 x 18 cm). Collection of Jason Rubell, Miami. © Thomas Ruff. Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery, New York. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

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