Illustrating That Looks Aren't Everything

The original building in Brooklyn.
The original building in Brooklyn. (Courtesy of the Artists)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

NEW YORK Sometimes, all it takes to make good art is to point a finger -- or a camera -- at our world's most telling peculiarities. That, at least, is how many leading artists feel these days: They believe that content, presented as transparently as possible, is what ought to matter most; artsy form can only interfere. Photographers Andrea Robbins and Max Becher have made a career of such telling transparency. Their razor-sharp photographs seem like nothing more than windows open on the strangeness in the world. It's an effect that in itself demands an artful eye.

A few years ago, the pair showed us photos of middle-class Germans who spend their weekends and vacations dressed as Native Americans.

A new project called "770," showing at Sonnabend Gallery in New York, traces a single piece of undistinguished Brooklyn architecture that has cloned itself around the world.

770 Eastern Pkwy. is the address of the Brooklyn headquarters of the Lubavitcher movement, the largest group of ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews. The modest brick structure, in a banal neo-Gothic style, once housed a doctors' clinic. In 1940, however, it was bought by Lubavitchers for their sixth rebbe, Yoseph Yitzchak Schneerson. After his death in 1950, it was taken over by his much-venerated son-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh rebbe, who passed away in 1994. (Some of his followers believe him to be the Messiah, and therefore still "alive.")

Because of that man's fame and his reputed holiness, when Lubavitchers set up shop in other places, they often duplicate his home to house new centers for the faithful.

Robbins and Becher show us a "770" in Sao Paulo, where this little bit of Brooklyn in Brazil has somehow grown an understory parking bay, and sits dwarfed by neighboring high-rises.

In Milan it has been squeezed into a tighter space, between two neoclassical palazzi .

In Los Angeles, the bays of the original facade have multiplied to make the building nearly fill a city block, while at a camp near Montreal it has been shrunk to almost clubhouse size.

Archaeologists of the future, digging up these structures, might imagine that it was their repeated form that held some special meaning and attraction. They'd be wrong: These buildings are all about the content one of them once held.

770 At Sonnabend Gallery, 536 W. 22nd St., New York, through Oct. 21. Call the gallery at 212-627-1018 or visit to see further images of this and other projects by Robbins and Becher.

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