Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nationalgalerie by Thomas Demand

The second of my installments of best books of 2009 also comes from Steidl, Thomas Demand Nationalgalerie.

This is a catalog was published in conjunction with Demand's exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and it was timed to mark two points in German history - the 60 year anniversary of the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany and the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since Demand's work always concerns itself with pivotal moments in history and reconstructing an artificial representation to be re-imagined and "remembered", this timing could not be more perfect.

As with many of Demand's books/catalogs there is a strong attempt to make an elegant object. Nationalgalerie has stark, egg-shell colored buckram covers much like any common library book - simple typography announces the title. Opening to beautiful wall-paper style endpapers, each of the 38 plates is printed on two-page foldouts which require care and patience to view. On the cover of each foldout short text passages by the German playwright Botho Strauß are printed. The passages less explain the images directly but philosophically question what we are seeing and re-experiencing.

For this exhibition, Demand chose exclusively 'German' works inspired by German history. Looking through the sequence, Demand jumbles that history into a distorted timeline that questions the relationship of one moment to the next, much in the same way that Richter's Atlas or Schmidt's Un-i-ty does through their own free association of images.

The plates in Thomas Demand Nationalgalerie are beautifully printed on fine paper stock and the size allows each image to be reproduced at a large scale. This scale is important yet not for the usual reasons. Demand's paper constructions lack the pollution of exacting details which photography usually obsesses over. His is a less cluttered representation where the viewer might be side-stepped by the small imperfections in his constructions momentarily but the overall cleanliness invites us to inhabit each in ways we wouldn't if it were a historical image. As Strauß writes of Demand, "Art alone has the power to exchange much for little. Consider Demand's models of sublimated space. The magical emptiness clears our world of a great deal of superfluity."

The one draw back to Demand's work in book form is that the same images are present in several volumes often making ownership of more than one unnecessary. I have acquired several over the years but the ones I have kept are few. The 2006 Serpentine Gallery catalog I wrote about last year is a must, the 2007 Processo Grottesco is a must have for the wealth of source material and wonderful design, and now this new Nationalgalerie volume has bumped a couple of the earlier retrospective books like the 2005 MoMA catalog and the 2000 Cartier catalog off my shelves. If you are looking for your first book from one of Germany's most important artists, look no further.


Peter said...

I think Thomas Demand is one of the most important photographers in Europe actually.

peter2 said...

one of the most important sculptors, maybe?

he prefers that definition of his practice. tend to agree. Photography is simply used as documentation of his sculptural creations.

Stuart Alexander said...

I would consider him a sculptor if I could see his "sculptural creations" with my own eyes. As it is, I find him to be one of the most over-rated photographers today. To misquote the printer Sid Kaplan out of context, that is "a lot of time and paper." And to what end? I would far rather look at a book of his source photographs.

Sebastian said...

good morning

this year i tend to disagree with the first two choices of best books. the "nationalgalerie" book is sumptuous and near damn perfect, and demand may be overrated or not, he is simply damn good at what he's doing, but the same with chauncy hare, who's work feels like a revelation, i feel both publications are not exactly nice photobooks, just real' good containers for strong work. can't sleep for choice #3.

Mr. Whiskets said...


To what end, they make me think about the images I have in my mind and their original context. You've expressed a certain skepticism about Demand before so I am not out to change your mind but the work questions a lot about how we perceive images and history and how we remember both.

I think this work is far from the gimmick I assume you think it is.

The book on his grotto creation has a lot of the source material you are asking to see.

Mr. Whiskets said...


The Demand is a very fine book. the Hare less so. On Hare it was sticking with Marvin Israel's original design which I wish was reconsidered. Not the sexiest of books in craft but the work is outstanding and that is what I responded to the most.

By the way, a noted source told me Hare wished the book to be printed in a simple one pass black (which was not done) to reduce the work from being perceived as "art." Interesting...

Vincent Borrelli said...

Those interested in Demand should take a look at James Casebere's work, particularly work form the 70s.

Vincent Borrelli said...

'from' [typo]

Some of the early work was recently shown at the Met (and is in the book of the same name): The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984

Stuart Alexander said...


I do not, as you suggest, dismiss it as "gimmick" as I would be more inclined to do with some of Vik Muniz's things. I understand the work. I would just rather look at the original document than a photograph of a life-size paper re-creation of a document. And I would much rather look at the paper creation itself than the photograph of it.

Anonymous said...

was reading NYT online today, and they are starting to list their films of the first 10 years of the new century. made me think - I hope you are going to give us your books of the decade (as well as the books of the year)

I know its hard, but it's been an interesting 10 years. I don't think you need one per year - there may not be that, but certainly 10 that matter from the nought-ies would be great.

also best publisher? (small + big?) best printer? that gets easier as one looks over a decade of titles.

would love read that if you have the time and energy.