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MoMA Review: Anonymous Sculpture (1970), Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher

Anonymous Sculpture is a wall-mounted assemblage of 30 black and white gelatin silver prints depicting industrial structures. Each photograph is framed the exact same way with the structure viewed frontally from a neutral angle at a modest distance that allows the structure to be viewed from base to top without giving the viewer a dwarfing sensation. The structure centralizes the composition of each photograph, while the arrangement of the photographs in a six by five grid on the wall creates an all-over composition that leads the eye toward no particular focal point on the picture plane. This composition allows the viewer to see the assemblage as a whole and examine the details of each individual photograph, reinforced by the small gap between each photograph that distinguishes them as distinct images taken at different times in different places. While experiencing this artwork, one’s eyes continuously zoom in and out as if the body is moving through space. Distance between the body and the buildings expands and contracts upon the viewer’s shifting gaze from part to whole, whole to part, and part to part.

Looking at the whole, the structures become shapes against a white background, drawing attention to their form as opposed to their function as real objects. The work obliges one to think in terms of  “a vocabulary—a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary—for forms.” (Sontag 8). The uniformity of white backgrounds across the images works in conjunction with their central compositions to emphasize form and repetition. Though repetition is present, pattern is not. Examining each photograph, one discovers intricacies of industrial design that differentiate each structure from each other and prevent a pattern from being realized in the grid, which itself is a pattern of repeated rectangles. Upon noticing the subtle differences in each image, the whole becomes increasingly disjointed, with certain structures standing out more to the eye. The bottom row of images especially starts to stand out, as the structures in these images lack metal exoskeletons.

Through their emphasis on form and repetition, Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher blur the “distinction between form and content which is, ultimately, an illusion” (Sontag 7). The artists’ strategic compositional choices succeed in reinforcing the role of the industrial structures as visual elements rather than as a source of content for the artwork and entry point for interpretation.

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