A New View of Delft

Lyle Rexer

in "Le Due Porte", Charta, Milan, catalogue of the solo exhibition, Galleria Fotografia Italiana, Milan 2003

Two hundred years from now – if we could imagine such an age – Silvio Wolf may be seen as our Vermeer, an artist so intimate with our intuitions and precise in his reticence that we simply assume his presence, his relevance, his fidelity. What Proust will come forward in that distant time to find in his geometries, his imagined places and represented light, a new view of Delft, whose contours delineate the future’s sense of mortality and transcendence?

We can trace the arc of Western art’s preoccupation with light – ignoring its deeper roots in Zoroastrianism – from the Paraclete, stigmata and annunciations of the late middle ages, when light was pure sign, to the immanence of the Quattrocento, to the interiors of Delft, where light entered, conflating space and time in a confident embrace of the real. After that, we know the exact moment – or moments – when light was liberated into its own mystery and art took up the task of its registration. That was the moment of photography. It’s not that photography gradually usurped the image from painting and other arts. It usurped what was left to sanction images – light (and thus, the progress of time).

Wolf seems to have summed this up with lapidary elegance. I am thinking of his Icons of Light, which he has deployed in a variety of spaces, usually museums. These icons are photographs of framed paintings, their shapes distorted by the camera’s angle and their images deliberately obscured by captured glare. When I first saw these strange rhombuses hanging in a New York apartment, I thought they were a Calvino-esque joke about the belatedness of representation, its endless regression from the subject. Perhaps, too, they caricatured the limits of photography’s putative expressiveness. Now I see in them something far more sweeping, a leveling of all imagery to undifferentiated light and the bending of all form and significance (the frame) to a geometry determined purely by light’s path. Art, they seemed to say, is no less contingent than this. And photography, too.

We have come to the end of photography’s moment, an end signaled in so many different ways, from the light sculptures of James Turrell, Dan Flavin, and Bruce Naumann to the gigantic inflation of Andreas Gursky’s images, a terminus ad quem for photographic information. This is not mere critique but an evacuation, an exhaustion of the medium that has defined modernity. It is a true threshold we find ourselves approaching, and Wolf has long since crossed it. He waits for us on the other side.

So, it is no accident that this exhibition is a sequence of threshold experiences, cultural, personal and historical, experiences that have been ongoing for Wolf since 1980, when the imagery of The Two Doors first made its appearance. I detect, first of all, a profound sense of leave-taking in these rooms. It’s not that photography and for that matter representation are being abandoned, but rather that they are being subsumed into a profoundly reflective experience. The captured external light of photography is quickly transformed by its deployment in these spaces into a far brighter inner light. In this sense, the exhibition’s imagery must be photographic, that is, it must offer only the record of absences, of things and places physically unavailable, in order to direct us back to the spaces where we find ourselves, alone with our transitions, memories, and language. It seems to me that the images are there to do away with themselves, and if we experience this exhibition correctly, the photographs simply disappear before our eyes, leaving us instead with a sense of apprehension.

Wolf deliberately excludes any human imagery, not only because he wants to enforce the visitor’s isolation (there is something penitential in these threshold crossings), but also because he wants no stand-ins, no simulacra, no possibility for projection or evasion, no other bodies on which experience can be seen (or imagined) to register. The opening image of a skyscraper reflecting light, which Wolf considers the frame of the installation, is an obvious stand-in for the body. Architecture shelters us with a physical form. Yet it is more than that. Architecture is an imaginative projection of the body in space, and a representation of architecture must inevitably direct us back to our shifting experience within this real architectural space.

What I am trying to describe – and Wolf himself might take issue with the description – is a non-metaphorical use of photography as a meditative instrument. All the images in the installation, with the possible exception of Chessboard and Labyrinth, are paradoxical or nonspecific. They are intended not to hold our attention so much as direct it elsewhere – to their traces within us. Room three: The Threshold makes this point clear. Five photographic “skylights” provide light from several angles that is no light at all, but represented brightness.  What we retain is an imagined or remembered intensity and a sense of geometric complexity. Imagine an image by Vermeer or de Hooch stripped of its carpets, maps, ewers, pearls, windows, people. And of course, as we move across the thresholds, we accumulate the traces, modifying them, and us. We are the artwork; we complete it.

The only other artist working today who uses photographs to focus inner experience with this level of sensitivity is Roni Horn, and the comparison is striking. Both artists regularly return to images they have introduced years before, redeploying and recombining them like words in new sentences. Both have a strong linguistic – that is to say abstract and structural – orientation. And both move effortlessly between two and three dimensions, using imagery to transcend imagery. Yet with Wolf there is more of a straining after pure experience, an inclining toward some source of light that lies beyond us. In this exhibition, and ultimately in all Wolf’s work, we move back and forth between internal darkness and external illumination, and that movement is the measure of time. When the darkness and the light change places, time stops. And insight replaces blindness.