Conceptual artist Christopher Williams’ first retrospective is now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York - but don’t tell him that. 'I’m uncomfortable with the term conceptual artist, but I’m equally uncomfortable with the idea that I’m a photographer,' he says. 'Also I was incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of a survey or retrospective.'

Coming from another artist, such statements could be taken as pure contrarianism, deployed to shield, wedge, distance, or simply whine, but for Williams they are a way to reset expectations and invite the viewer into the cross-disciplinary territory he has spent the last 35 years conquering. It is a terrain populated with photographic artifacts (cutaway cameras, Kodak color guides) and glossy ideals (apples, soap, attractive women) that are so slightly and precisely askew, vexing even as they delight. Out of analogue serial production he coaxes endless parallels.

At 58, Los Angeles-born Williams has the easygoing yet brainy charm of a teacher - and he is, at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where he followed Bernd Becher into the role of professor of photography. He compares himself to the magnifying bubble on his iPhone. 'You can move that little bubble around to enlarge images and words, and I think that’s what I do,' he says. 'Instead of being locked behind the camera, I move around. I’m often beside the camera, never in front of the camera, sometimes behind the camera. And I’m as much a photographer as I am a picture editor and a graphic designer.'

The full range of Williams’ practice is represented at MoMA, where 100 photographs - hung low and spaced generously, as if to allow room for their unwieldy titles - are joined by video and film works as well as what the museum describes as 'architectural interventions'. Williams looked to that last category as a way to eschew the inherently backward-looking nature of a retrospective.

The exhibition begins with striking red graphics taken from the show’s previous incarnation at the Art Institute of Chicago. It follows with wall fragments from previous MoMA exhibitions (including the recent Magritte blockbuster, entitled 'The Mystery of the Ordinary'), and finishes by looking forward, via a cinderblock wall, to the retrospective’s spring 2015 outing at Whitechapel Gallery.

'This is an exhibition that redefines the idea of montage, both montage in space - as here photography has been expanded into architecture and as a form of installation art - but also a montage of so many ideas within a single picture frame,' says MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci, who describes Williams as 'a cinephilic artist with a Brechtian flair for quotation'.

For all of the layered complexity and bold non sequiturs of Williams’ work, there is plenty of pure enjoyment to be had in 'The Production Line of Happiness' (a title borrowed from a Jean-Luc Godard documentary) and in the accompanying catalogue-cum-artist’s book. A few steps away from the photo of a 1964 Renault balanced on its side there is a close-up of a pair of beetles (the insects, not the cars) flipped on their backs in surrender.

And when it comes to portraits, the human subjects are distinctively joyful. 'If you look at the work of many of my colleagues, nobody’s smiling. Photography and conceptual art is a very serious business,' says Williams. 'So I thought, I have to find a space to have a position - smiling is maybe the area I can work in.'