Since the sixties, the Düsseldorf artist Hans-Peter Feldmann has been collecting, producing, and exhibiting photographs like a batty archivist, combining the humor of American conceptual artists like John Baldessari and Richard Prince with the gravitas of Germans like Gerhard Richter. His relationship to the art world has been eccentric—in 1980, he destroyed most of his work and went into early retirement, only to pick up, a decade later, more or less exactly where he left off—but a recent European retrospective has made up for lost time. Two current shows demonstrate the extraordinary range of his archives, from pathos to casual wit. The first, at P.S. 1, is an installation of his 2001 book project 100 Jahre—101 photographs of people ages 8 months to 100 years, arranged at perfectly regular intervals around the perimeter of a large, open gallery. The subjects are all Feldmann’s family, friends, and acquaintances, identified only by age and first name; inevitably, viewers pause to compare wrinkles with a stranger who was born the same year. In an earlier book, Die Toten 1967–1993, Feldmann compiled newspaper images of everyone who died as a result of terrorism in Europe during those years. 100 Jahre is an archive of life to match Die Toten’s archive of death, and both speak volumes about photography in postwar Germany, where a simple family snapshot can stand for the “banality of evil.”
The second exhibition, at 303 Gallery, is a delightful but baffling mix of mostly new photography, drawings, and peculiar juxtapositions of prosaic materials. It’s just what one might expect from an artist who not long ago exhibited the left shoes of gallery staffers (the piece eventually sold, leaving them with half their footwear). A man’s khaki jacket is pinned to the wall like an animal skin; eggs are arranged on the floor in the form of an arrow; matches and a crumpled and singed sheet of newspaper lie in a corner. Cute as they are, these throwaway assemblages, and others involving cardboard, rope, soy sauce, and toy trucks, suggest only that Feldmann should stick to playing with photography. His best work here, like Photographs of car radios taken while good music was playing (1970s–1990s), reintroduces an element of individual taste to the neutrality of early Conceptual photo-books like Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-six Gasoline Stations.
The unifying element is a kind of cultish attention to the amateur photograph—the archive turned curiosity cabinet. For his largest series at 303, Feldmann has rephotographed snapshots from his extensive flea-market collection. Most are personal: parents with their young child in a diner booth, the oddly cropped exterior of an ugly suburban house. Feldmann’s wife’s hand can be seen intruding on each image, grasping each print by the edges. This is photography at its most intimate—something that’s not only meant to be sorted and filed away in albums, but to be held, gently, in the palm.