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When Thomas Demand became a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute soon after he moved to Los Angeles in 2010, the German artist assumed he would be able to wander through the Getty’s archive looking for inspiration—“to browse around and go fishing,” he recalls. “But that’s not how it works.”
I interviewed Demand last month at the Graham Foundation (4 W Burton Pl), as installers finished setting up the exhibition “Model Studies,” which he curated. The show juxtaposes Demand’s recent photographs based on his Getty research with works by French artist Fernand Léger (1881–1955), American photographer Francis Bruguière (1879–1945) and anonymous 1920s architecture students at the Soviet Union’s VKhUTEMAS school, whose black-and-white photographs are displayed in handsome, minimalist vitrines designed by German artist Thomas Scheibitz.
Demand’s conceptual practice emerged from his training in sculpture. Working from images he finds in the news or online, he constructs life-size dioramas of significant spaces, photographs these models, then destroys them. His 2001 photograph Poll, which is in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s permanent collection, depicts the Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center, where Floridians’ ballots were re-counted after the 2000 presidential election. The desks, phones and ballots—all blank—in the image are made out of cardboard and colored paper.
At the Getty, Demand sought out the “one odd archive where all the stuff that they can’t file is sitting around,” several miles off-site, he tells me. He discovered models of unrealized projects by California architect John Lautner (1911–94), whose Chemosphere house and other residential projects often show up in movies as villains’ lairs.
Demand “wasn’t a big fan” until he visited a Lautner building, when he “had the same feeling of standing in an original idea as you have when you see Corbusier.” The artist took pictures of 12 Lautner models to capture ideas that aren’t “visible when you photograph the real buildings,” he explains.
It’s impossible to identify Lautner’s decaying models from Demand’s close-ups of their cardboard walls, faux landscaping and other details. The artist’s interest in abstractions that retain a connection to the real world—“just not a figurative one”—inspires “Model Studies.” The VKhUTEMAS photos, which he found at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, depict forms made for the Moscow school’s Space and Volume courses. Bruguière’s lovely black-and-white photographs record his circa-1930 experiments with paper cutouts and light.
“Today, no one knows him any more, [but] he was very ahead of his time,” Demand says. In Bruguière’s images, “you lose the idea of what is foreground and what is background.”
Six Léger drawings are the most figurative works in the show, yet the hardest to grasp. Made in 1916, as the artist suffered in the trenches of World War I, they portray soldiers at rest as faceless geometric forms. “You wonder, if you might die tomorrow morning, how can you make drawings that are so formalistic?” Demand asks. They appear with the French artist’s semi-abstract illustrations of Charlie Chaplin, which he created for a poem by Yvan Goll.
The artists in “Model Studies” didn’t know each other, but Demand compares the rarely shown works he unearthed to “distant relatives.” Like his photographs, they remind us that abstraction and representation are more complicated than they appear.
“Model Studies” is on view at the Graham Foundation through Jun 1.