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Over the past year or so, the Museum of Modern Art has proved very good at arranging single-artist exhibitions of two disparate kinds. The first type isn't a surprise, considering the entire museum's status as a modernist pantheon: meticulously arranged and conceptually flawless retrospectives of late 19th- to mid 20th-century masters. Gauguin: Metamorphoses was exactly such an exhibition, and Matisse: The Cut-Outs is poised to triumph in much the same way when it opens this October. Yet the second type of MoMA specialty may not be what you'd expect: unruly and unabashedly quirky exhibitions that cover artists from the late 20th century to the present--exhibitions that are at once bracing to contemplate and taxing to behold. In other words, you'll leave these with a bit of a headache, and with a head full of new ideas, new arguments, perhaps new everything.

Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness is the second type at its absolute best. It's also an unusually apt follow-up to this summer's Sigmar Polke: Alibis, a retrospective that irked me when I first visited but that has stayed with me for reasons I'm still trying to grasp. Unlike the unapologetically uneven Polke, Williams is an artist of relentless consistency: his reputation rests on lovingly precise photographs of consumer goods, commercial processes, and tidbits of nature, and his work as a whole draws on and integrates a few different lines of post-modern theory. But much like Polke, the 58 year-old Williams played a guiding role in the MoMA retrospective that bears his name. The personal touch elevates this survey, immeasurably.

In fact, Williams's personality announces itself even before you step inside The Production Line of Happiness, which has the rare quality of simultaneously feeling deafeningly noisy and ominously quiet. First the noise: by the entryway are works that Williams calls "supergraphics," huge red-and-yellow versions of Williams photographs transferred onto vinyl and stretched across MoMA's walls. Then the quiet: within the main display space are roughly a hundred photographs, often spaced and clustered to leave generous expanses of white wall. Some of the same effects will probably be in evidence when Williams's photographs move on to the Whitechapel Gallery next year, but certainly not in the same format. Working with Roxana Marcoci, Williams has constructed a site-sensitive exhibition, a show that will make you pay closer attention to museum contingencies that nobody ever seems to think about. This is probably the first time that I have been so aware of a museum's electrical outlets and lighting fixtures, and not because Williams's photographs fail to captivate--rather, because his installation succeeds putting the minutiae of place and time under excruciating scrutiny.

Scutiny of the photographs themselves requires a few modifications to the usual museum-going habits. Each image hangs relatively low, and no images are accompanied by captions. (There is an exhibition checklist, rife with technical detail and printed on paper of the same blisteringly red hue used in the supergraphics. Memorable, but certainly not-user friendly.) Once these adjustments are in place, though, the exhibition itself can be a smooth experience: the emphasis is on Williams's process and object photographs of the past 25 years, with the well-unified series For Example: Eighteen Lectures on Industrial Society anchoring the entire ensemble. The glaring colors, the unremitting focus, the hints of semi-insane cheeriness--all these can be adapted to, and all these start to make a funny sort of sense after fifteen minutes or so of The Production Line.

Treating this body of work in a strictly chronological manner is inadvisable, something I've barely attempted to do in this review and something that the written apparatus surrounding The Production Line of Happiness appears to discourage anyway. The exhibition catalog includes obligatory material on Williams's art student days and intellectual development--gracefully summed up by Matthew S. Witkovsky--then rapidly turns into an oddball pet project. A poem by Bertolt Brecht, a list of principles from Jean-Luc Godard, and a transcript of a 2006 lecture that Williams delivered on John Chamberlain's foam sculptures all made it in somehow. What's more, they all fit in nicely. Williams's photos locate, burnish, and elevate everything from chocolate bars to socks--all sorts of seemingly indifferent everyday objects. It is wonderfully fitting that his catalog--a very red and very technical and counter-intuitively beautiful object--should refurbish a few neglected poems and forgotten lectures of its own.

Yet reservations about Williams's project may set in as you're making your way out of the exhibition, or finishing up another section of the catalog: my own big qualm was that Williams had set out to critique a lot of things that don't need critiquing in the first place. Deconstructing the role of the museum is nothing new--in fact, Marcel Duchamp only needed a couple readymades to do that--and Williams's photographs, in trying to deliver a measure of novelty, often deliver manipulations that are dinky and disposable. The photographs in the series Erratum, for instance, use Kodak, Fuji, and Agfa film to capture the signature colors of the Kodak, Fuji, and Agfa brands. Great. Why does this matter? The exhibition itself features walls from earlier museum showcases, including MoMA's own Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, which occupied the same exhibition space last year. Did you notice this? Did anybody who didn't plug away at the exhibition pamphlet? Needless though they may be, such gestures are redeemed by their take-them-or-leave-them quality--which makes Williams easier on the eyes, and on the nerves, than other high-concept photographers. While you need to understand Thomas Demand's gimmicks and ironies to "get" a Thomas Demand photograph, you don't really need to pore over Williams's annotations, or over anything else, to develop a real appreciation for his art.

And what art it is. If The Production Line of Happiness proves anything, it proves that Williams is much less adept at picking apart our world than he is at building a world of his own: his images are so cogent that his ploys, his games, his quibbles all factor out. The installation is more poignant than I've let on--all that white, so austere, so strangely caressing--and so are the early black-and-white photographs that Williams has included, such as the Mustafa Kinte (Gambia) portraits and the Angola to Vietnam nature series. The politics of these compositions can be facile: yes, the first of these groups captures a black man wearing a white shirt and holding a camera, and yes, the second of these features the official flowers of nations on an Amnesty International blacklist. Christopher Williams, Post-Colonialist, is not the Christopher Williams that contemporary art needs. Yet every photographer needs some principle of selection, and when that photographer is Williams--whose shots of Kinte are both understated and forthright, and whose shots of all that vegetation are substantial and eerily gorgeous--even a none-too-great principle can yield images of undeniable presence, of inexorable clarity. Stop thinking. Start looking.

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From This Author Patrick Kennedy

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