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Ann Binlot: "He erased Marilyn Monroe from some of her most famous photos — and has since spent years ‘camouflaging’ celebrity portraits"

"Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (28)" Paul Pfeiffer/Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery

(CNN) — The basketball player floats in the air, his arms out-stretched wide, frozen in a position that evokes both athletic motion and stillness — perhaps even religiosity. His face is angled, obscured in shadow; absent are the name and number that would normally identify him on his stark white jersey. Several clues allude to the time period, however: His basketball shorts fall just below the top of the thigh, inches shorter than the nearly knee-length style favored today; his sneakers are Converse Chuck Taylor low-tops, a popular basketball shoe that debuted in 1957 before becoming obsolete amongst NBA players by the late 1980s. And a foggy haze wafting above the audience is cigarette smoke, with smoking only legal during NBA games before the ’80s.

The picture, “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (30),” is a 2015 work by the Filipino-American artist Paul Pfeiffer. He discovered the original image, a 1967 photograph by famed basketball photographer Walter Iooss Jr., on the NBA’s online archive. (It featured Boston Celtics players Bill Russell and John Havlicek as they rebounded against the Philadelphia 76ers’s Wilt Chamberlain during the NBA Eastern Division Finals at Boston Garden that year, though in Pfeiffer’s reimagining, only Russell is present.)

Pfeiffer’s unsettling, evocative manipulation of Iooss Jr.’s photograph, along with eight other basketball-inspired images from his ongoing series, “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” is currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) in “Paul Pfeiffer: Prologue to the Story of the Birth of Freedom,” a retrospective of the artist’s practice that also spans sculpture, videography, and original photography.

Pfeiffer selects images that are part of the zeitgeist, and that we might recognize in our memories, or place in the broader cultural consciousness. By removing specific elements of a photograph, though, his work reveals the relationship between its subject and scene — and the viewer. “They’re really like two sides of the same coin,” explained the artist. “The idea that what appears as the figure is only possible because of an intrinsic relationship with a supporting background.”

Pfeiffer described his process of retouching the original photos as a “camouflaging” — which he does meticulously using Photoshop and the help of skilled retouchers. “The Photoshop process ultimately reads like an eraser, but in fact is more like an act of camouflage,” he said over a video call with CNN. “To do that requires a choreographing of both the figure and the background.”

Hiding in plain sight

Having earned his MFA at Hunter College in New York in 1994, Pfeiffer was working at a post-production house, alongside teaching a digital photography class at the Parsons School of Design, when he first started experimenting with this process. He remembers becoming particularly inspired by a glossy reproduction of a classic Marilyn Monroe portrait he found on display in a Chelsea photo store while combing the city for photographs for his students to discuss.

In the photo — originally taken by photographer George Barris in 1962 — Monroe is smiling playfully as she cavorts in the water at Santa Monica Beach. It marked the actress’s last photo shoot weeks before her untimely death.

Equipped with a knowledge of printmaking and access to flatbed scanners at his job, Pfeiffer slowly “camouflaged” Monroe away, leaving the unremarkable barren beach behind — or, rather, in the foreground. The project grew into a collection of anonymized images known as Pfeiffer’s “24 Landscapes” series, in which viewers are encouraged to explore the tension apparent in the otherwise banal coastal scene, and challenge their expectations as to its value, with or without Norma Jean.

The series “raises questions about what ‘landscape’ even is,” Pfeiffer explained. “Is it an absence that we can project onto? What is its psychological meaning?” In other words, is a landscape already inhabited, or is it meant to be claimed?

In fact, the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” series also started out with five other studio-shot portraits of Monroe. (Pfeiffer again camouflaged her out entirely; his final images feature the monochromatic studio backdrop alone.) He later pivoted to basketball as a theme after seeing a game at Madison Square Garden. “Everything I think about in terms of film celebrities, is even more apt if we think of it in relation to athletes,” said Pfeiffer. “They have such a commercial, monetizable status in society and, at the same time, are totally interchangeable, totally dispensable… The simple act of erasing their name and number renders (them) anonymous.”

Though Pfeiffer has been working on his series’ for over 20 years, it remains potently relevant today. Pfeiffer relates the fleeting relationship between stardom and anonymity to the age of influencers and social media stars in particular. “There’s an odd tension in it… that spoke — and still speaks to — the kind of celebrity (culture) that we’re in currently.” he said. “The hyperinflation of the individual identity and at the same time, total replaceability.”

Its title, “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” addresses a similar duality, he explained, chosen because it “could speak to multiple histories… the intention was the disconnect between the title and the image, which was meant to provoke questions.”

“The very idea that you can erase the human digitally, the moment we’re in now,” Pfieffer added, “that feels like an end of the world moment.”

— Ann Binlot