A MoMA retrospective is usually an indicator of an artist about to become a household name, but I suspect that the work of Christopher Williams is too difficult for that to happen. His show was sparsely attended when I was there, while crowds thronged through a concurrent Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit. An unfair comparison, sure, but given that MoMA is in the business of promoting art as a spectacle for tourists, I couldn’t help making it.
A contemporary of the Pictures Generation, Williams initially relied on appropriation to create his photographs, but only a couple of replicas of magazine covers suggest as much. The rest of his early career is taken up by deeply obscure black-and-white photos of subjects ranging from still lifes of vegetables to an ominous group of men, including military officers, gathered in front of a suburban house.
Williams, a Los Angeles native, grew up on movie sets, thanks to his father, who worked in Hollywood. This experience informed his best-known work, a series of photos that he directed rather than took. He employed a commercial photographer as a cinematographer, with the result resembling midcentury ads. Austerely elegant, they provide deliberate miscues about how such images are manufactured—if you know how to decode them. A color register next to a woman wrapped in a towel doesn’t match the hues in the picture; a black man holding a camera looks away from the viewer in one of a pair of black-and-white shots. His white shirt is also blown out, while his features merge into a dark backdrop. However interesting, in the end, these images are too close to what they pretend to be.—Howard Halle