This will mean more to some of you than others

Tue, 21/08/2018 - 05:03 -- eyeline
Louise Lawler at the Museum of Modern Art

For forty years Louise Lawler has been practising her own form of institutional critique in predominantly photographic work that takes art and the artworld as its subject matter. Much if not all of this work can be understood as a continual framing and reframing, physically and conceptually, of works of art. Lawler is interested in the contexts in which art is found, and how these contexts determine the conditions under which it appears as art. These conditions can include the placement of artworks within the domestic spaces of private collections, the arrangement of work in a commercial gallery, exhibition opening protocols, the forms of artist publicity, the theatre of the art auction, titling, and provenance, amongst other things. Why Pictures Now, Lawler’s career survey exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, showed her at once witty, sly and deft in a collection of works that strive constantly to refashion the notion of the work of art.

The exhibition revealed the range possible within Lawler’s practice of photographing art in different sites. In addition to the documentation of work in domestic, institutional and commercial interiors—a format that has more variety than this description might suggest—Lawler can work very large and very small, and again, to markedly different effect. Her ‘adjusted to fit’ works—mural-sized images applied directly to the wall, depicting typically large-scale installations of multiple iconic works by other artists—read as depthless stretched surfaces, an ironic take on art appearing in many super-sized museums. By contrast Lawler’s paperweights, which encase her own images of art in situ, instantiate a physical presence, at once miniaturised and pocketable. Since 2013 Lawler has been producing ‘tracings’, black and white drawings of her own photographs, converted to a vector graphic and printed onto vinyl that is then stuck to the wall.2 Installed in MOMA, these extremely austere if funny pieces came after many photographs rewarding close looking, as well as a series of vibrantly coloured walls of ‘adjusted to fit’ work. Here their effect was muted. Also on display was an extensive collection of ephemera, although in Lawler’s practice nothing can be so summarily dismissed by this term. Even ephemera, an image of her ‘Why Pictures Now’ matchbook cover in an ashtray of 1981 for instance, can be traced.

Lawler can be coy, withholding. In How Many Pictures (1989), Frank Stella’s brightly coloured Damascus Gate 1 (1969) is invisible but for its reflection on a wooden floor. In I’ve Always Liked That Picture (2005/2006), Bruce Nauman’s Self Portrait as a Fountain (1966) peeps behind archival wrap, a fold in the conservator’s underlay on which the picture rests rhyming with his armpit. Lawler begs the question: which picture, the Nauman, or hers? She can make an artwork disappear into the surrounding architecture by stretching anamorphically a shot of a Robert Longo Men in the Cities work installed in a Manhattan office, and positioning the resulting Arranged by Donald Marron, Susan Brundage, Cheryl Brundage at Paine Webber, Inc., NYC (adjusted to fit) (1982/2016) at the entrance of MoMA’s sixth floor exhibition space. And from a desire to look she can tease an absolute hunger to see in photographs such as Pictures That May or May Not Go Together (1997/1998), shelved canvases on a conservator’s rack, showing only frame edges, and Twice Untitled (2004/2005) which depicts two works, backs out, leaning against the wall. Tiny labels identify them as both by Félix González-Torres.

Lawler’s images have been called ‘extraordinarily porous’.3 Their capacity to contain something other than or in addition to their ostensible subject—the work of art they depict—is the measure of her often minimal intervention in framing. Porousness can also suggest a lack of retention, a capacity for seepage that threatens to unmoor the subject, that work of art so carefully framed. Lawler rarely gives interviews or explicates her work, but one comment she has made would caution against any easy conflation of her photographic subject matter—the work of art depicted—with her true subject. ‘I’m trying to say that somehow the rest of the world counts, even though I know it doesn’t seem like that at all, because most of my work appears to be about the art world.’4

Titles often work to split or complicate authorship, while skewing any clear sense of a photograph’s ostensible subject. Is It (2008/2009), for instance, which shows the characteristic shadow of an early Calder stabile against the dot screen of a Kusama white ‘Net’ painting, seems to play two stylistic signatures against each other, but in Lawler’s treatment what results is something so muted and diaphanous in feeling—it is not a stretch to call it lovely—that instead of rehearsing an eighties debate about authorship, we are left simply wanting. In Does Andy Warhol Make You Cry? and Does Marilyn Monroe Make You Cry? (both 1988), the titles refer to an identical photograph of Warhol’s 1962 round painting of Monroe, taken at the 1988 New York auction of the Tremaine collection, with auction label clearly visible. Lawler uses affect explicitly to lever the question of authorship in these two works. Is this a Warhol image or a Monroe image and, more to the point now than when the works were first shown, why should pictures make us cry?

Looking again at Lawler’s work from the early eighties, specifically those photographs of works of art in domestic interiors, her gaze seems more complex, the target of her critique more diffuse, and the engagement of affect more apparent now than when the work first appeared. In a work like Monogram (1984) for instance, a white Jasper Johns flag installed above a bed with monogrammed, white coverlet, Lawler’s view of art-at-home can look like a catalog of decorating errors as much as an index of class. In Pollock and Tureen (1984), a Pollock, partly glimpsed behind a Limoges tureen becomes another bit of bourgeois décor, trophy wallpaper. Lawler’s target of critique appears as multiple possibilities. The ‘failure’ of modernist painting, and with it, the legacy of modernism’s utopian impulses? The leveling effect of the market which turns everything—old paintings, older porcelain—into commodities? Or is it simply the realisation of art’s function as status marker?

Lawler is considered part of the Pictures generation of artists and although her work was not included in the eponymous 1977 exhibition organised by Douglas Crimp, she was part of Douglas Eklund’s generational reexamination in 2009. Against the more strident and hugely influential model of criticality typically associated with many Pictures artists, Eklund invoked something sounding like resignation, suggesting that for this group of artists, ‘art… in the end is always just a pawn in a much larger game’.5 Lawler can be scrupulously attentive to this larger game. Wall labels in the exhibition listed the owners of individual works from numbered editions and while this clearly signals an understanding that provenance determines value, it is not at all clear how such transparency escapes the market logic it appears to criticise. This is surely her point: there is no outside of the market, even or maybe especially at MoMA whose imprimatur will work its own effect on the market value of any work shown within its walls.

At the same time, and in an entirely different register, Lawler shows works of art as part of something that might be considered smaller and more intimate: the décor of a bedroom, the backdrop to a sideboard, witness to wine and too many cigarettes, as in Still Life (Candle) (2003). This radically deflationary edge to her work can feel affecting, but in showing art-at-home Lawler does not exclude the ‘rest of the world’. What results suggests that the distinction between the world of art and the ‘rest’ is not fixed in any single work.

In WAR IS TERROR, (2001/03), a Julia Margaret Cameron portrait of Julia Jackson, the photographer’s goddaughter and favourite niece who was later Mrs Leslie Stephen, the mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, is shown against an Indian cotton print hung on a bedroom wall. Although positioned centrally within Lawler’s photograph, the Cameron work occupies only a small portion of it and not every critic recognised the sitter. More space in Lawler’s photograph is devoted to the surrounding textile, which helps re-frame the deeply matted Cameron portrait. Ariella Budick in the Financial Times was flummoxed: ‘Why does a Julia Margaret Cameron portrait hanging over an Indian-print fabric bear the title “War is Terror”? (Dunno)’.6

Roxana Marcoci, the exhibition’s curator, calls this work one of Lawler’s ‘most antiwar pieces’. She continues, ‘Lawler is placing an emphasis on this matriarchal lineage, pointing to the strength of Julia Margaret Cameron’, one of the earliest women photographers to achieve critical acclaim, ‘and the anti-war views of Woolf’, whose argument against the patriarchal values that she thought leads to war, Three Guineas, was published in June 1938.7 The work succeeds, according to Marcoci, in ‘bringing together both historic and contemporary strains of feminism and pacifism’.

Maybe. Or rather, yes, and no. Genealogy—the maternal line here, which goes by the name Pattle—links Cameron, Jackson and Woolf but the claims of feminism can only be made at the cost of ignoring the subject of Cameron’s portrait. Julia Jackson was no feminist as we would understand the term today. Married to Leslie Stephen, her domestic life comprised an extensive round of visiting, good works and nursing, in addition to the care of eight children, the supervision of seven servants and constant ministration to Leslie’s needs. She embodied the Victorian ideal of the Angel in the House, and in 1889 signed ‘An Appeal Against Female Suffrage’.8 In the words of Alexandra Harris, author of a 2011 study of Woolf, while Leslie Stephen ‘might have thought otherwise, Julia saw no need for educating daughters’.9 Woolf’s Three Guineas is animated as much by the need to redress the lack of formal schooling for women like herself, the daughters of educated men, as the desire to prevent future wars.

The facts of Julia’s life do not invalidate Marcoci’s feminist argument, itself a form of institutional framing, so much as fudge it, show it to be partial and only ever incomplete. Titles too are frames and, as we have indicated, Lawler has used titles to allow for a complication of her images’ ostensible subject: which picture? Monroe or Warhol? Kusama or Calder? While Julia Jackson is the subject of Cameron’s photo—and we will pay further attention to her shortly—is it correct to say she is also the subject of Lawler’s? Again it is a case of yes and no. It is the Cameron photo, the portrait taken of Julia Jackson by her aunt and along with it their familial relationship and Jackson’s later life as Mrs. Leslie Stephen, in situ in what Marcoci tells us is the ‘guest room of a private home outside Avignon’ that comprises Lawler’s subject here. But any account of this larger subject must return to Julia Jackson, Julia Margaret Cameron and the Pattle legacy.

Julia Margaret Cameron, along with her sister Maria, Julia Jackson’s mother, was one of the seven Indian-born Pattle sisters, renowned, all but Julia Margaret, for their beauty. John Ruskin called them ‘Elgin beauty with dark eyes’.10 Another of the Pattle sisters, Julia Jackson’s aunt Sarah, lived at Little Holland House in Kensington with her husband, Henry Thoby Prinsep. Here, from around 1850, Sarah welcomed artists and writers, among them Holman Hunt, Watts, Burne-Jones, Ruskin, Thackeray, Rossetti, Leighton and Tennyson, along with British Prime Ministers Gladstone and Disraeli. (Cameron photographed several of the Little Holland House regulars.) Julia Jackson, who came of age while living at Little Holland House, modeled for Burne-Jones who painted her portrait in 1866 and used her as the model for his Annunciation (1876-79).

Julia Jackson the pre-Raphaelite model is also known as Julia Prinsep. Several photographs, including one in London’s National Portrait Gallery, from around the same time as Cameron’s, identify her this way, and as Julia Prinsep Stephen her life is recorded in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, an enterprise first directed by Leslie Stephen. Virginia Woolf, writing a memorial sketch of her mother some decades after her death, refers to her several times as Julia Prinsep, and most tellingly perhaps, her headstone in Highgate Cemetery, London, reads ‘Julia Prinsep Stephen’.11

As Julia Prinsep, Cameron’s subject is thus aligned with another of those deep familial networks that Virginia Woolf called ‘a large connection’.12 Like the Pattles, but more illustriously, the Prinseps had long been in India. John Prinsep, Henry Thoby’s father, traveled to India as a cadet, joined the East India Company as a young man and helped establish the Indian indigo business, making a fortune in the process. In addition to producing the first copper coinage in India, he worked in textile production, bought ships and became an East India Company shareholder. His seven sons similarly distinguished themselves in India, as merchants, colonial administrators, artists and orientalist scholars. (The Prinsep Ghat in Kolkata was erected in 1843 in memory of John’s son, James. It still stands.) Another of those seven sons, Julia Jackson’s Uncle Thoby had been a colonial administrator, a director of both the East India Company and the Council of India.

If Virginia Woolf referred to her mother not as Jackson but Prinsep—a family to whom Julia was related only by the marriage of her aunt—the largeness of those connections played a part. Julia’s reasons lay elsewhere. Imperial service had kept her father, Dr. John Jackson, in India; she did not see him between the ages of two and nine.13 She had grown up in Thoby Prinsep’s house and, until her death, kept his walking stick by her bedstead.14

These genealogical notes are only a partial account of Julia Jackson’s Indian connections, connections which are not unusual for a member of a class distinguished by what Quentin Bell, Woolf’s nephew, called ‘a dense and complicated network of family connections, the ramifications seem endless and everyone, it appears, knew, or was related to, or at least had been at University with, everyone else’. (Dr. Jackson had been at school with Tennyson; Margaret Cameron photographed them both.) Bell notes that within this class, which tended to settle in Kensington—the Stephen family lived in South Kensington—service in India featured ‘not uncommonly’.15 Julia Jackson, Kolkata-born and child of Empire, was photographed by her aunt, another child of Empire also born in Kolkata, who was married to John Hay Cameron, a jurist, a member of the Supreme Court of India with land holdings in Sri Lanka, where Julia Margaret died in 1879.

And what of Lawler’s frame, or rather framing, here? The Cameron portrait is surrounded by a piece of India cloth, edged as if to suggest it could be a bed cover. The cloth is blue, possibly indigo, and with very close viewing the print is discernible: elephants rampant over a botanical motif. It is difficult not to see the cloth, the stuff from which James Prinsep made his fortune, as evidence of imperial ambition, now rendered decorative, a marker of taste and in Avignon, where the production of les indiennes, the French version of Indian printed cotton popular since the early seventeenth century, was based, a piece of local colour.16

Lawler’s WAR IS TERROR (2001/2003) further signals the legacy of imperial ambition in the present, specifically in Afghanistan, by minimally altering the post 9/11 phrase ‘war on terror’, popularly remembered as part of the rationale for contemporary military intervention in the region. These two dates mark the establishment of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, in late 2001 by the United Nations Security Council, and the Security Council’s authorised expansion of the mission beyond Kabul and surrounds to the entire country in October two years later. If we take them not simply as records of the years in which Lawler was occupied in making the work, but as signs of the ongoing intervention’s expansion, this kind of temporal stutter can only remind us of the long and failed history of Western engagement with the region. Concluding his history of the British invasion of Afghanistan 1839-42, part of Britain’s efforts to thwart Russian ambitions in Central Russia, William Dalrymple notes the parallel between 2006, ‘just as the latest western invasion of Afghanistan was beginning to turn sour’, and the past when ‘after an easy conquest and the successful installation of a pro-western puppet leader, the regime was facing increasing widespread resistance. History was beginning to repeat itself’.17

Given her extensive familial connections to India, it is not surprising that Julia Stephen finds a place within the Afghanistan framework indicated by Lawler. Her aunt Adeline (nèe Pattle), eldest sister to Julia Margaret Cameron, had married Colin MacKenzie, a Scottish officer and later Lieutenant-General in the (British) Indian Army who played an important role in the First Afghan War (1839-42). And in 1844 Thoby Prinsep had published a study of Afghan history, working from the original scholarship of his deceased brother James, the founding editor of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

This unpicking of the long reach of empire, with its twin poles of conquest and orientalist antiquarianism, complicates the subject of Lawler’s photograph, at least as described by Marcoci who makes of Julia Jackson a conduit for the avant la lettre artistic feminism of her aunt, and the pamphleteering feminism, both literary in A Room of One’s Own and pacifist in Three Guineas, of her daughter. Marcoci makes scant mention of Vanessa Bell, Julia’s other daughter from her marriage to Leslie Stephen, but Bell’s experience is significant, particularly in light of Lawler’s title. In 1916, shortly after the introduction of conscription, Vanessa established Charleston, a country house in Sussex in order that her lover, painter Duncan Grant, and his lover David Garnett could work on a nearby farm and thus secure their status as conscientious objectors.18 Twenty years later, after editing a collection of conscientious objectors’ memoirs of the first world war, Bell’s eldest son Julian volunteered as an ambulance driver on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and was killed. His decision to take an active role combatting fascism perplexed his aunt Virginia who wondered if his desire for involvement was driven by ‘some (of the) male instincts’ she would go on to criticise in Three Guineas.19

Julia Jackson predeceased her grandson’s birth by almost a decade, but given Lawler’s title, can we not see her as a grieving grandmother, a stand-in for Vanessa, and indeed for all women who weep as a consequence of war? If WAR IS TERROR is poignant in this way, neither does it escape what might be called the conventional poignancy of many old photographic portraits like Cameron’s, an effect Roland Barthes attributed to their date, which allows the viewer ‘to compute life, death, the inexorable extinction of the generations’.20 For Barthes, whose grief at his mother’s recent death prompted an extended consideration of photography, this raised what he called a metaphysical question—why is it that I am alive here and now?21

Lawler might want to tweak affect but her work does not trade in conventional poignancy and while we can compute the generations through Cameron’s portrait of Julia Jackson, from the Dutch East India Company to Bloomsbury and its children, this does not align neatly with Lawler’s subject as announced by the work’s title. Yet neither can this title fully demarcate Lawler’s subject from that ‘rest of the world’ of the bedroom housing her portrait in a house outside Avignon. She shows the photograph above the bed, the work of art at home. And it is here that Virginia Woolf suggests a relationship between the Cameron image, Lawler’s title and her subject.

Woolf grew up in a house with many portraits, among them some by G.F. Watts and some by Julia Margaret Cameron. Late in life she worked on an autobiographical essay recollecting her childhood and youth. Moving through the Stephen family house, with its Pattle family portrait consigned to the servants’ basement sitting room, she arrives at her parents’ bedroom. ‘The double bedded bedroom on the first floor was the sexual centre; the birth centre, the death centre of the house. It was not a large room; but its walls must be soaked, if walls take pictures and hoard up what is done and said with all that was most intense, of all that makes the most private being, of family life. In that bed four children were begotten; there they were born; there first mother died; then father died, with a picture of mother hanging in front of him. The house mounted in three roomed storeys above that bedroom.’22

Woolf’s Three Guineas pacifism cannot be extricated from its criticism of the bourgeois households of educated men which stifled the educations and with it the aspirations of their daughters. Pacifism and feminism, in Woolf’s telling, are inseparable. Terror is not external to the spaces bounded by art at home.

Louise Lawler, (Andy Warhol and Other Artists) Tulip, 1982. Silver dye bleach print, 38 ½ x 60 ½” (97.8 x 153.7 cm). Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures. © 2016 Louise Lawler.

Louise Lawler, Why Pictures Now (traced), 1981/2013. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures. © 2016 Louise Lawler.

Louise Lawler, WAR IS TERROR, 2001/2003. Cibachrome (TM), Cibachrome mounted on aluminum panel, 76.2 x 65.41 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Barbara Lee, 2014.419. © Louise Lawler. Photograph Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Installation view of Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photograph Martin Seck.


1. Lawler’s Untitled (Dreams) (1993), a paperweight showing a work by Ed Ruscha and by Roy Lichtenstein over a bed is accompanied by a history of the two works’ provenance which is stenciled on the wall and includes this sentence. [Reference refers to the title of the article]

2. Lawler works with Jon Buller to produce the tracings.

3. Glenn D. Lowry, ‘Foreword’, Louise Lawler: Receptions, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2017, p.17.

4. Lawler cited by Douglas Crimp, ‘WAR IS TERROR’, Louise Lawler: Receptions, ibid., p.59.

5. Douglas Eklund, The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p.19.

6. Ariella Budick, ‘Views from the inside—Louise Lawler Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art’, Financial Times, 29 May 2017. See Accessed 1 June 2017.

7. Roxana Marcoci, ‘Louise Lawler HOW TO SEE the artist with MoMA Curator Roxana Marcoci’, MoMA, 9 May 2017, accessible through the MoMA website portal,

8. The anti-suffrage petition was published in the periodical The Nineteenth Century. See Diane F. Gillespie, ‘The Elusive Julia Stephen’, Julia Duckworth Stephen: Stories for Children, Essays for Adults, writings by Julia Duckworth Stephen, eds Diane F. Gillespie and Elizabeth Steele, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1993, p.15. Coventry Patmore, author of the narrative poem ‘The Angel in the House’, was an acquaintance of Julia Stephen’s.

9. Alexandra Harris, Virginia Woolf, Thames & Hudson, London, 2011, p.18.

10. Nine daughters were born to Adeline Pattle (nèe Antoine), including Maria, Sarah and Julia Margaret’s mother; two did not survive childhood, one dying at sea possibly on the voyage during which Maria was born. John Ruskin quoted in James King, Virginia Woolf, Norton, New York, 1995, p.7.

11. Virginia Woolf, ‘A Sketch of the Past’, in Moments of Being, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1985; Julia Stephen’s headstone can be found at Accessed 17 December 2017.

12. Woolf, ‘A Sketch of the Past’, op. cit., p.65.

13. Frances Spalding, Vanessa Bell, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1983, p.6.

14. Spalding, ibid., p.15.

15. Dr. Jackson from Colin Ford, The Cameron Collection: An Album of Photographs By Julia Margaret Cameron Presented to Sir John Herschel, Van Nostrand Reinhold, London, in association with The National Portrait Gallery, London, 1975, p.121. Quentin Bell, ‘Introduction’, The Diary of Virginia Woolf Vol One, 1915-1919, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, Harcourt Brace & Co, New York, 1977, pp.xix and xviii. Bell notes, p.xviii, there was ‘nothing in the least odd’ about Vanessa and Virginia’s lack of systematic education.

16. Just as in England where the British East India Company’s importation of colourfast Indian textiles since the early seventeenth century had threatened local wool and silk weavers, French manufacturers came under similar pressure from the same trade by France’s East India Company. In response, the French began making their own initially inferior versions and in 1686 the import and production of what came to be called les indiennes was banned. (England banned the wearing of Indian prints in 1701 and in 1721 it became illegal to wear English printed cottons made to emulate the Indian model). At the time of the French ban Avignon was under Papal rule and thus outside the law’s jurisdiction. French cotton manufacturers relocated to the city where local production of les indiennes flourished. The French ban lasted 73 years and when lifted, the cloth proved as popular as ever. Avignon remained for several centuries one of the major sites of French production. Cloth marketed today as provençal, often with Mediterranean rather than Indian motifs, has its origins in India. Under terms dictated by the British East India Company, indigo growing frequently proved ruinous for the Bengali peasantry.

17. William Dalrymple, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013, p.437. The first airstrike on Kabul was delivered by the RAF, in the third Afghan War in 1920.

18. Vanessa undertook volunteer work for the anti-conscription cause. Spalding, Vanessa Bell, op. cit., p.149. Charleston would become a country refuge for many in Bloomsbury.

19. King, Virginia Woolf, op. cit., p.567.

20. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, first published 1979, p.84. Cameron’s photograph of her niece is dated 1867, shortly before Julia’s first marriage to Herbert Duckworth.

21. Barthes, ibid., p.85.

22. Woolf, ‘A Sketch of the Past’, op. cit., p.116, 118.

Ingrid Periz is an art historian and writer based in New Jersey.