Public phantoms - 'Architecture of Absence' fills the Frye

There are ghost people at the Frye Art Museum these days. They hover around the photographs by Candida Höfer. We can't see them, but clearly they were there a minute ago or they're about to reappear.

This is one of the compelling features of "Architecture of Absence," the exhibition of 50 of Höfer's large-scale photographs of public rooms. She has invited us to enter some exquisitely rendered public spaces, and left us to enjoy them all by ourselves. As the Frye puts it, these are "spaces marked with the richness of human activity, yet devoid of human presence."

This first North American museum survey exhibition of Höfer's work gives American audiences the opportunity to become acquainted with an artist who is better known in Europe and whose depictions of the interiors of museums, libraries, auditoriums, dance studios, lecture halls, restaurants and private houses are becoming increasingly pricey throughout the world. The Seattle stop is but one venue for an exhibit that has already been seen in California and Florida and will move on to Philadelphia, Knoxville and Provo, Utah.

Many of these photographs measure 60 inches by 60 inches or more. They are large, very large. None is small. Each is a carefully rendered portrait of interior architecture, meticulously composed and so absorbing we can't take our eyes away.

But Höfer hasn't rearranged the spaces to suit her artistic vision, and she doesn't do anything to change the existing light. She photographs the interiors as she finds them. If there was a crumpled napkin on the floor of the cafeteria, it's in the photograph. The drink cup left near the exercise bar of a dance studio speaks to the thirst of the dancer who is no longer practicing. The discordant modern fire extinguisher sitting in the corner of the ornate 17th-century Baroque hall is as evident as are the sensuous and ecstatic allegories painted on the walls or ceiling. These bits and pieces left behind give testimony to the people who use these rooms; yet we viewers are free to concentrate on the space.

And what spaces they are. Höfer enables us to see their symmetry, their order. She provides a window that allows us to observe them in an entirely fresh manner. "Bahnhof Stadelhofen Zürich 1991" depicts a train station. The viewer is underground, looking toward the escalators and the sunlight beyond. As photographed by Höfer, this mundane location soars. The fixture above the escalators resembles an airplane. The escalators are lit in such a way that they look like a runway.

"Wikingmuseum Oslo I 2000" shows a Viking ship centered in a museum gallery. It's an ancient wooden vessel, all right, but the picture is really all about curves juxtaposed with straight lines. It's almost an abstract piece in muted tones, rendered in a manner that draws your eyes to the room's many arches, the repeated pattern they make. The ship appears to be floating above a scalloped sea, which is really nothing more than the chain that keeps visitors, when they are there, from getting too close to the object on display

Compare that to "Spieglekantine Hamburg IV 2000," the image of the shocking-red café in the offices of Der Spiegel magazine. Here the predominating motif is the circle. Circular tables and lighting fixtures, circles on the floor and, most amazing of all, a wall of circles that look like doughnuts, or maybe cupcakes, or sort of like candies or maybe even human breasts. But are they concave or convex? This color-infused image is mesmerizing.

The photographer points us to the rhythms and patterns that danced through the minds that conceived these interiors. She has uncovered the order and logic that frame them, and by doing so, she allows us to celebrate the work of humans without any humans being present.

Höfer received her training in Germany in the 1970s. She studied under the influential artists and teachers Bernd and Hiller Becher at the Düsseldorf Academy, which was considered the most influential German art school of the time. Her teachers and fellow students became immediate successes. It has taken a little longer for her work to receive equal adulation, although it is most closely aligned with that of the Bechers.

I started this piece with reference to the fact that these are ghost spaces, waiting for people to come or announcing that they just left. I'll finish by suggesting that you look closely at these photographs. If you do, you will see a distant shadow of a figure, or a leg jutting out from behind a wall, or the crook of an elbow extending from a desk. There are even the head and shoulders of a tiny, faceless man sitting at a computer screen. Part of the fun of this exhibit is the search for the details and the discovery of the unexpected presences in the midst of Höfer's exquisite symphony of color and form. Put this show on your list of things to see.

"Candida Höfer: Architecture of Absence" runs through April 16 at the Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave. Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays until 8 p.m., Sundays noon to 5 p.m. 622-9250. Free parking and free admission

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