Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A lab note on Kodak Medalist paper, single weight

Privitera-Wilson, untitled, 2014

Rich Turnbull and I hosted a chemigram workshop at the International Center of Photography recently - nothing new about this, we do it a couple of times a year.  But this time, instead of having students gain the theoretically valuable experience of coating their papers with varnish, we decided to forgo the unpleasant odors associated with that task and instead provided them with pre-coated papers.  A sensible idea, right?

So we looked in our storage locker for papers and pulled out a ream of Adorama RC, 5x7" and a box of Ilford FB, 16x20", which we cut to size.  On the shelf below lay a variety of vintage papers, Velox, Portriga, and the rest.  My hand hesitated, then reached for a pack of Kodak Medalist.  It was unopened, expiration date 1965.  I said why not give some to the students, heck we hadn't had a chance to try it out ourselves, this'll be a good test.  I coated 6 sheets with Golden MSA varnish and shuffled them in with the other 40 or 50.  We headed up to 43rd Street.

That afternoon we came to the part of our workshop where we need the coated papers.  Everyone was instructed to grab a bunch, incise them, and toss them into the tanks of fixer and developer.  On the backs of the paper we'd written what each was, but no one really cared.  Chemigram workshops seem to generate a mist of intoxication that is quite separate from the chemistry used; the students were giddy or serious, chatty or thoughtful, but their eyes were glued on the inexorable changes in the way the front of the paper looked, not the back.

In this type of chemigram process we can speak of the paper reaching a mature phase when the resist on the paper starts to weaken its grip and lift off ever so slightly at the edges.  This could take 15 minutes, it could take 30 or more.  It's at this point, whenever it comes, that the artist must respond quickly to a rapidly deteriorating environment on the paper or lose control entirely.

Among the first papers to reach maturity that afternoon was one by Paulette Privitera-Wilson, seen above.  She controlled it and brought it home in a splendid way.  Others did too, among the early papers to mature.  Rich and I looked at each other and said something's going on here.  They're all deep red, magenta, deep orange, rich purple - and they're all Medalist!  On most papers the chemigramist has to work to get these colors, really work, and often they don't come easily.  But here every beginner in the class was getting them.  We agreed we'd meet later at MGC to talk this over.

Medalist single weight (SW), surface F
The first thing we had to do was confirm this finding.  That night we coated Medalist single weight (SW) papers as well as double weight (DW), using various brush-on and spray varnishes: Liquitex Soluvar, Golden MSA, Krylon Clear Acrylic, Rustoleum Acylic.  As soon as they were dry we performed random chemigram maneuvers on them and brought them through the trays to completion.  Here are some that Rich gave me.

Medalist SW, Liquitex Soluvar

Medalist SW, Liquitex Soluvar

And one of my own using Krylon:

Medalist SW, Krylon Acrylic Spray
On the other hand, when it came to double weight the performance was more mediocre - although we did notice a faster response compared to contemporary Ilford or Adorama, both fiber and RC (not shown).  Here's Rich again, this time with Rustoleum on DW:

Medalist DW, Rustoleum Acrylic Spray

Another observation, a footnote, is that in attempting to make etched chemigrams with Medalist SW we found that the bleach part of the process works fine but the etch part not so much - in fact quite poorly.  The veils vanished before they had a chance to appear.  This may be due to the thinness of the paper but more likely to the thinness of the emulsion itself.  An interesting experiment might involve fattening the emulsion layer with an overcoat of liquid emulsion, such as Rockland Colloid's Liquid Light.  We assign this as homework.

Medalist SW chemigrammed
Medalist SW as etched chemigram

Overall then, what's going on here?  Clearly the thinness of the SW papers made diffusion that much easier, at least through the back of the paper; we don't think the G surface of the DW, lustre, had anything to do with it.  So the attack on the SW was more aggressive and faster, but what about the colors?  Something in the DW was getting filtered out or was being degraded, and that same something wasn't even present in the modern papers.  We decided to turn to the George Eastman House museum of photography in Rochester NY for help.

Nick Brandreth pointed us toward cadmium.  Aha.  That friend of painters for two hundred years and counting, that bringer of life to reds, yellows, and oranges.  Cadmium since the 1950s had been formulated into several photographic emulsions, particularly the chlorobromide or warm-toned ones, for its ability to sharpen tonalities through its anti-foggant properties: it made low-level distinctions sharper.  The side effect was the brilliant pigmentizing of the emulsion, but this would have escaped the notice of conventional black-and-white photographers and would have to await the rise of chemigramists in the new century.  Meanwhile in portraits, the market Medalist was mainly created for, it produced excellent results.  Yet as public awareness grew of the toxicity of materials like cadmium, which doesn't degrade in the environment but keeps accumulating, pressure grew on Kodak to reformulate its emulsions, and it finally did so in the 1970s, selectively, at a precise date unknown to us.  But we do know, from testimonies of photographers from the period, that Medalist was never the same after.

The form of cadmium that was used in emulsions may have been mainly cadmium sulfide or cadmium selenide and in hindsight the quantities were negligible, though very significant and helpful to a chemigramist.  Should we sound the health alarm?  Probably not.  By far the greatest part of our cadmium intake comes from the food we eat and the air we breathe, from soils, plants, aerosols spewed up by volcanoes, and so forth, and not from handling Medalist.  A good summary is found in a 2010 article at Environ Health Perspect. Dec 2010; 118(12): A528–A534.  

And not all emulsions had their cadmium stripped out at the same time, not even at Kodak.  I've been told that Ektalure's emulsion contained cadmium until the mid 1980s.  Perhaps a reader can confirm this.  It would not surprise me to hear of a photo paper made somewhere in the world that still employs cadmium.  I'm a buyer if you can find it for me.

The next workshops in New York are scheduled for February 28 at Manhattan Graphics (Turnbull), March 28 at ICP (Collins/Turnbull) and five Sunday classes at JCC Manhattan (Eva Nikolova), April 19 - May 17.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Christina Z Anderson's etched chemigrams

Anderson, Angel, etched chemigram, 10x8", edition 1/1, 2014

Christina Z Anderson has been an influential artist, educator, and author in the alternative photography arena for more than a decade.  You will recognize her name: it is woven into the very fabric of this blog in uncountable ways.  During most of this time her own creative work has centered on gum bichromates where her efforts have come to redefine the prevailing standards of technique in that exacting process, while permitting her at the same time to develop in her images very personal takes on home, family, memory and loss.  A sense of this substantial achievement can be seen on her website.

The news I have to report - and it is big - is that Chris is not just producing a lot of chemigrams these days, which up to now have been a sort of sideline with her, but etched chemigrams.  This method was first introduced in August 2014 at the end of our post on Leonor-Leigrano papers and in the accompanying comments.  To make an etched chemigram, you first have to make a chemigram itself.  In a way this is the larger challenge, to make something that has an intrinsic value worth destroying.  Not only does this require mental concentration, it also takes time, often a lot of it: Chris reports that some of her chemigrams take up to 6 hours to complete, a believable figure although we each work differently.  So after 6 hours is she ready to rip it apart in copper chloride, acetic acid and hydrogen peroxide?  It seems so, and we're indebted for her courage in this. 

In her series called 'Remnants' Chris applies the method to the emotions she felt on revisiting New Orleans recently, ten years after Katrina.  Stairways leading to ravaged houses, stoops smashed and scattered among the weeds, vacancy, despair, it's all here.  The starkness of the etched chemigram, with destruction of the image as premise, seems the perfect way to convey this.  And with her deep experience in mordançage after years of teaching it, Chris is finding this to be a natural fit.

Anderson, Wave, etched chemigram, 10x8", edition 1/1, 2014

Anderson, Stoop 3, etched chemigram, 8x10", edition 1/1, 2014
At times she dispenses with the chemigram form altogether (since how much good stuff can anyone want to destroy) and jumps right into the mysterious, pitiless world of bleach-etch without preamble.

Anderson, Stoop 5, mordançage, 8x8", edition 1/1, 2014
She brings to the enterprise considerable chops from a chemigram journey that shows no sign of ending.  The compulsive note-taking, the careful observations of paper reactions and toner compatibilities, sets a high bar for anyone wishing to enter the field and a model for those of us in it already.  One day we'd hope to publish a summary of her experiments.  Here's an example from a group of chemigram exercises on Adox Fineprint, using Krylon Crystal Clear acrylic spray as resist.  (Ventilate properly and wash hands after use; the MSDS can be found here.)

Anderson, Novel 1, chemigram, 8x10", edition 1/1, 2014
Incidentally, she finds selenium on Adox a wonderful toning choice, using it at the lower end of Fotospeed's dilution recommendations of 1+3.

But let us go back to the etched chemigrams of 'Remnants' for a moment.  In thinking about the power of these pictures - I do find them powerful, most of all Angel - I suspect it may derive from the gap the artist creates between an underlying reality (photograph of the scene, the house) which we know must have been there, somewhere, and the imagination of it as filtered through the mechanics of the chemigram prism, which in turn gets further deconstructed and scoured by a few exquisitely controlled strokes of bleach-etch.  The ruined house migrates and becomes part of our dream-world (the 'angel'), yet paradoxically - dreams are rife with paradox - a very tangible one, almost brutal.  It is this immediacy that elevates what had been a simple photograph far beyond what any photograph could do.

Thank you, Christina.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Gottfried Jäger at Photo Edition Berlin

Jäger, Fotopapierarbeit 1986-VI-1-3, 1986

In photography, the 1960s was a period of considerable excitement, uncertainty, and turmoil.  The achievements of the great experimental work of the Bauhaus, both German and its later incarnation in Chicago, were behind us, even if its aesthetic and methods were not fully absorbed by a wider public.  Scientific uses of photography began to tantalize with big steps forward in photomicroscopy and electron microscopy.  The advent of digital was on the horizon, nascent but inexorable.  Color photography was emerging and becoming an attractive, and soon a required, addition to black-and-white.  In painting and sculpture, abstraction of one kind or another was the ruling mode.  For certain photographers, there was a growing dissatisfaction with the dominant ethos of representational photography, of pictures that sought simply to capture and reproduce what was seen by the lens.  They had the radical vision of a photography that was about nothing but itself, not the messiness and the contingency of the external world.  They called for Fox Talbot's 'photogenic drawing' but for a new age.  They wanted to create, not re-create.  They debated what it even meant to be a photograph, that stubborn physical object composed of animal protein, silver salts, and light.

Jäger, 111104.4, 2011

Into this mix came a young artist and theoretician named Gottfried Jäger who, in a series of group shows beginning in 1968, crystallized and formalized this restlessness into an agenda, or more accurately several agendas, with robust-sounding names like Concrete Photography and Generative Photography.
Jäger, Fotopapierarbeit 2011-III-1-2, 2011

In reaching back to the antecedants of concrete photography, Jäger found a forerunner in Alvin Langdon Coburn, the early British abstractionist and disciple of Ezra Pound; another touchstone was Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who had preached the primacy of the emulsion as the ultimate locus of photographic expressivity.
Coburn, 1917

The name for his movement though not the doctrine as a whole came from Theo van Doesburg's 1929 manifesto on Concrete Art, which followed the De Stijl movement and the thinking of Mondrian.  Mondrian liked straight parallel lines and primary colors and more than anything, precision.  (For a while van Doesburg and Mondrian clashed over diagonals and broke off relations for several years).

Time has been kind to us and Jäger's turn of the concept was more tolerant: it embraced a broad spectrum of non-objective photography from computer-driven images (the term Generative Photography stems largely from this) to entirely cameraless work using chemical action operating at the emulsion surface; even strange apparatus had a place in his system, from oscilloscopes (Franke) to light-filtering contraptions (Humbert) to pinhole cameras (Jäger himself, early on).
Moholy-Nagy, 1922
What was important - what remains important - is the idea that you can create or discover a new reality of space and time just by rethinking the most minimal elements of photography, the physics and physicality of it and its optics.  It is this search for a crossing-over, a transmigration mediated by process and technique, that shapes the Jäger aesthetic in order to finally become one with it: ostensible 'beauty' is not a critical category here at all.  In this it is consummately postmodern.

Photo Edition Berlin has embarked on the staging of a two-part exhibition entitled 'Concrete and Generative Photography 1960-2014' which is meant both as an homage to what Gottfried Jäger was instrumental in launching as well, perhaps, as an announcement of future work to be done.  Part One - The Pioneers, runs until December 20, 2014, and includes many of the original posse: Heinz Hajek-Halke, Herbert W. Franke, Pierre Cordier & Gundi Falk, Roger Humbert, Hein Gravenhorst, Karl-Martin Holzhäuser, René Mächler, Gottfried Jäger.  Part Two, with a contemporary and possibly more international cast, will arrive in the fall of 2015.

at the opening, October 18
You can download a pdf file of the informative 46-page catalog at the Photo Edition Berlin site.  For a thorough account of the history, concepts and methods of a large roster of experimental and non-objective artists, consult Jäger's Bildgebende Fotografie (Köln 1988).  The Folkwang Museum online is an excellent source of images.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

New chemigrams from Australia (signed MH)

Higgins, Untitled 377-4, 16x20", 2014

Matt Higgins (see March 2013 post here) is a man who inhabits his darkroom trays the way a monk inhabits his monastery or a lighthouse keeper his lighthouse.  He never leaves.  If he does he may miss something, an insight or a vision.  A chemigram, he knows, is a process based only provisionally on a plan; once set in motion it must be allowed to grow on its own, like a child, to hatch surprises that one is never quite prepared for, to show off marvels that you won't want to miss.  He calls the darkroom 'my playground.'  He almost apologizes when he has to dash to the airport to see off a girlfriend - no time to waste here.

He works with hard resists, not soft: after all he's Australian and don't they wrestle with crocodiles?  Epoxy enamel is his favorite hard resist.  He flashes the paper briefly, then rolls on the enamel, letting it dry overnight.  In the morning he'll attack the paper with what he calls a scalpel, a tribute to the surgery required for deep art.  He has pre-dulled the blade by running it over concrete, for if it's too sharp it will cut right through enamel, emulsion, paper and make a hash of everything.

Ilford is his paper of choice though he finds Kentmere equally good, and he's also been experimenting with older papers, some of which give him a greater tonal range because they take longer to develop.  He uses mainly RC versions but fiber based paper is not overlooked, as with Untitled 197-3 below, done by using a varnish similar to Golden MSA and letting the varnish harden, then crunching up the paper in a ball, flattening it and immersing it in developer until a satisfactory pattern emerges.  It's helpful to have a heat press handy to give it a final pressing after a fix and wash.

Higgins, Untitled 197-3, 11x14", 2014
Matt works two papers at a time, taking them down the trays at a rate which allows him to concentrate on one while the other soaks.  Working under safelight, as an area is revealed beneath the resist he'll flash it with his phone to get a good black, then move on.  Areas meant to be white aren't flashed.  The pictures are all unique; he does not edition them.  As for chemistry, he goes by the book: Ilford Multigrade at 1:9 dilution, Ilford non-hardening fixer at 1:4, both at 20 degrees celsius.  He likes his stop bath a little warmer to help soften the paint.

If the bulk of his current work is black-and-white and shades of grey, that doesn't stop him from engaging in some freer dipping and dunking occasionally to achieve the classic gamut of chemigram colors.  He does these like star turns.  Here's one that uses nail polish, out of the Cordier playbook, with lights on and short residence times in both fixer and developer:

Higgins, Untitled 256-3, 11x14", 2014
One of the recent pieces I like best is this one, where Matt's skill with scalpel is in the service of a sensuously muscular concept:

Higgins, Untitled 254-5, 20x24", 2014

Here's another, this one done last year, a truly bravura display of mastery.

Higgins, Untitled 178-4, 16x20", 2013
At one point in his writings he recites the litany of the chemigram darkroom like this: 'Developer, water, fixer, water, touch, push, tease, feel, developer, water, fixer, water, touch, push, tease, feel.  On it goes until I'm hungry and have to face the world outside again.'  His obsession makes us feel totally privileged.

He'll be part of a team from the Australian National University to host an art summer school at Penland School of Crafts, North Carolina, USA, June 7th-19th, 2015, with Prof. Denise Ferris and others.  If interested contact Matt directly at

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Lumens, photograms, chemigrams: new pictures from Bashir

Bashir, Falling, 2014
After a 4-year hiatus (see the Bashir post for Sept 2010 here) I wanted to see what Bobby Bashir was doing - I never seemed to catch up with him although we'd spoken on the phone often enough.  I knew he'd left the Monterey Peninsula and was working somewhere near Paso Robles.  So a few weeks ago I called to say I was coming down.  He asked me to bring fixer and developer because he had none, and could I lend him some Foma and maybe some Forte, if I had any, two of his favorite papers?  It seems like he'd run out of supplies a few months back and just hadn't gotten around to reordering.  By midsummer he slows down, he says, the drowsy days make him less keen to do much outside of work, and his artmaking pretty much comes to a halt.  My visit hopefully would change that.

It was afternoon when I pulled in.  He greeted me outside the restaurant in high spirits and fussed over details of my trip.  Was I tired?  He insisted I eat before doing anything.  He signaled to a red-smocked girl leaning by the kitchen and in no time a huge plate appeared, laden with steaks of abalone, squid, peppers, squash and tomatoes - I was ambushed.  "But Bobby, you didn't have to!"  "You've got to try my new salsa on the abalone - it's a secret recipe!" he grinned.  We sat outside.  Business was slow, so Bobby helped me finish a bottle of cab as we traded gossip and laughed.  Before long - I'd finished what I could - he took me to a shed in the back where he kept a sort of studio which doubled as a gardening closet for the winter garden of the restaurant.  He was eager to show me his newer pieces. 

Bashir, Gathering, 2014

Bashir, Watching, 2014

Bashir, Knowing, 2014
I couldn't hide my excitement on seeing these.  A lot had changed: his palette was freer and darker, his intent more dramatic.  And yet he was working as he has always done and as he was taught, with simple steps and few variables.  The choices are still there: paper, developer, fixer, wash, sunlight, material to draw with, and time.  "Time is the most important of these, just like in cooking.  It's how everything happens, even life - especially life," he says, talking from the other Bobby inside of him.  "It took a billion years for the first bacteria to emerge on earth.  So I ask myself, how long should I leave a piece in the sun?  Where is the sun in the sky and what kind of light are we getting?"
As he talks he begins to assemble a few materials on a piece of Foma.  This one will feature blueberries and a few small leaves.  As a rule he wets the surface with tea, coffee, or fruit juice, or spritzes it with fixer or developer - just a smidgen - or sometimes sprinkles a few drops of a random chemical from the gardening supplies.  He's done and now moves quickly toward the sun, the paper and blueberries pressed between two sheets of glass.  The smush of berries leaks out the side.  He encourages this and rocks the setup back and forth so that liquids bathe different regions of the paper.  Then he props it on a wad of napkins on a crate, letting the sun strike it at an angle.  How long?  "Five minutes to an hour, that's my world.  Everything I do is inside that."  He says he's particularly fond of the slanting reddish light at the end of the day, the long rays favored by the poets.  He looks more serious today than I remember him.  Yes, there are still the festoons of flowers (or flowerlike materials), and the twisty garlands of tones that have given his work its special rhythm, but his intensity speaks of a determination to push this thing as far as he can, far beyond decoration and niceness.  I'm wondering if he had a fight with Chris.

While we wait for the sun and juices to join forces on his paper, he sets up trays, apologizing:  "I rarely use developer for more than a second, if that.  Still, I need that tray ready."  He has a fixer tray and a wash tray close at hand, and an eyedropper and a brush.  We have a moment, so he pulls out some lumens from earlier in the year to show me.  I'm reminded suddenly of the Flemish baroque masters who trafficked in that same conceit of flowers.  Here's Nicolaes van Verendael in 1676, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:

Van Verendael, Flowers beneath a cartouche, 1676

I realize too that what Bobby is making is really a photogram, in a sense, as well as a chemigram - that there is a continuum that takes us over all these separate 'disciplines' and demonstrates their common ancestry.  Chemicals, juices, stencils, cutouts, resists - these are the tools and it's just a shift in emphasis or outlook to pass from one to the other.  I watch now as his hands fly over the trays and minute interventions are made on the piece he's creating.  Then, at a certain moment, a moment very familiar to chemigramists, he stops.  "Done!" he cries, and there's that grin again.  He hangs it to dry; it'll be called Falling and it's at the top of this post.  He puts together a bundle of lumens to take with me.  We have an espresso, a hug, and it's adiós.  The red-smocked girl runs to my car at the last minute with a chicken tamale, all wrapped for the ride.

Bashir, Loving, 2014
Bashir, Dreaming, 2014

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Leonar-Leigrano photographic paper, R.I.P.?

Cordier, Chemigram 28.8.76 III, 1976.  Private collection courtesy Gitterman Gallery
In the years prior to WW II, many of the most popular papers in Europe came out of the Leonar Werke AG, whose main plant was in the Wandsbek area of Hamburg.  The papers had special qualities and features to appeal to both amateur and professional alike, and brand names like Rano, Lumarto, Imago and Leigrano each gained wide followings.  Our interest today lies with Leigrano, if only because that was the paper of choice of Pierre Cordier after his invention of the chemigram in 1956.  The chemigram above is an example of a work done on Leigrano.  Leigrano 111 hard, to be precise, expiration date unknown.
Pre-WWI view of Leonar

Camera construction section ca. 1914

The Leonar firm had begun in 1893 as a partnership of a chemist and a merchant, manufacturing and selling photographic chemicals.  Soon the partners expanded into printing-out (POP) papers, popular at the time, and to the production of cameras: their first developing-out paper wasn't made until 1907.  Led by strong research and engineering, Leonar by the 1920s was able to introduce new types of paper coatings and emulsions to the industry, which helped establish it as a major player in most aspects of photographic developing and printing.  It introduced mass production methods to its factories and expanded its markets.  In 1932 it went public.

Leonar in the 1930s
Rolls of finished paper awaiting shipment

In 1943 Leonar was heavily bombed by the British and the Americans.  In the postwar years the firm rebuilt and modernized its operations (let no disaster go wasted).  Certain lines were discontinued, others given prominence.  Leigrano was singled out and seen to be a paper remarkable in its versatility, rich in silver, with a cool-tone bromide look in most developing agents; it had become popular with photographers of all types - in the street, in portraits, in the fine arts.  It's probably not an exageration to say that every German photographer in the postwar period used Leigrano at least in part, and that includes names like Otto Steinert, the Bechers, Hajek-Halke and Chargesheimer.  Not to mention the Swiss, French, Belgians and Austrians.
Leonar papers.  Note the interesting stains on the middle one.

But good things come to an end.  In 1964 Leonar was merged with Agfa, then owned by Bayer, which in turn merged with the Antwerp-based firm of Gevaert - the sort of corporate mischief so common in the history of photography, even to this day.  The separate identity of Leonar was allowed to disappear.  By the mid 1970s it had suspended operations entirely.  Requiescat in pace.

Yet somehow, like a revenant, it lingers with us, not only in memory and imagination but also tangibly in people's attics and cellars, for the Leigrano secondary market, despite the odds, is alive and well - when you can find it.  Just ask Wolfgang Moersch, the prominent fine arts photochemical manufacturer, inventor of ECO 4812.  When someone not long ago spoke to him of Leonar-Leigrano he said simply, "The very name melts on your tongue."  Michael Hummel recently brought to my attention a photostream on Flickr devoted mostly to lith printing that is chock full of outstanding examples of prints on long-expired Leigrano.

I've now entered the fray myself.  Last month I acquired some Leigrano from the descendant of a German prisoner-of-war interned in Alberta, Canada; he wanted to sell me his canteen and some medals too but I carefully declined.  Here's an etched chemigram I made from a sheet of it, Leonar-Leigrano 2a, expiration ca. 1945.
Collins, untitled etched chemigram, 2014
 I expect we haven't seen the end of Leigrano.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Preece retrospective at the Nevada Museum of Art

Preece, Unsettled Grid, 2014

This summer the Nevada Museum of Art celebrates forty years of experimental photography by the great darkroom pioneer Nolan Preece with a long-awaited retrospective of his work.  You've seen some of it on this blog, along with his writings, but never together in one space.  Here it is.  Until August 10.

Mounted in spacious quarters in downtown Reno on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the show is a revelation of Nolan's journey from early efforts in the glassprint or cliché-verre technique, such as Dancer below, through a more recent, sustained period of chemigrams, some dramatically life-sized.

Preece, Dancer, 2001
Installation view

It's a must-see event, especially if you're a student of analog photographic abstraction, because there's no place else we know of to enjoy such a wealth of invention, of unabashed joy in the making of pictures using just developer and fixer and maybe one or two other odd chemicals lying around the studio - and light and paper.  He's a wizard with materials.  After spending an hour looking at his pictures, you will want to stop by the gift shop, buy supplies and make some yourself.  If only it were that easy.  The good news is that he does offer workshops and you may contact him for details.

Another installation view

Preece, Hole in Zone O, 1989

Preece, Silver Conglomerate, 2012

Rich Turnbull and I flew out for the opening.  It was a beautiful evening, a band played, drinks were served and before long everyone had a chance to file in and pay attention.  A great setting for wonderful art.

Rooftop, at the opening

Nolan's website is

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Cy Twombly's photographs

Twombly, Landscape, Villetta Barrea, 2008
The lushness of his paintings remains, that is the surprise.  But if so it's in a muted and muffled form, as if the earlier work had succeeded so well that the eye is now allowed to come to rest.  The scrawls have departed, and the huge canvases in rose madder and creamy white so admired by the public, with their quotations from Ovid and Homer, their antic and ancient energies amid swirls and loops and delicious doodles, are off hung in the greatest museums and sometimes, as with the Menil Collection in Houston, in museums all their own.  The photographs too are lush, but it's of a quiet, very settled kind of lushness, solid, mature, at times mannered perhaps but always masterly.  Another surprise is that these small works are every bit as powerful in their own way as the paintings, yet very few people seem to know about them. 

Cy Twombly (1928-2011) had been taking pictures, as we say - as opposed to making pictures - at least since the 1970s, often using the popular and inexpensive Polaroid SX-70 instant camera which was introduced to the market in 1972.  He was far from alone in this: Andy Warhol and even Walker Evans and Ansel Adams also toyed with it.  Twombly's dedication appears to have been much deeper however, seeing in the oddly pictorialist palette of the camera and its frustrating focusing system a way of celebrating memory, or the memory of a memory, though these are not his words.  In his painting and sculpture meanwhile he was ultimately addressing this same theme, using other tools.

He didn't show his photographs until late in life, in 1993 at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York - nearly half a century after exhibiting his first paintings.  The occasions for the photographs seem to be moods of reverie he found himself in, at times prompted by a desire to distance himself from his ongoing studio work whether in Italy or America.  An object would capture his attention, an idle view of fruit or flower - a hazy, deliquescent moment - you can imagine a smile crossing his lips or a tear welling in his eye, Verdi on the phonograph in the other room, as he got down close to snap the picture.

Twombly, Interior, Rome, 1980

The soft focus and the peculiar color saturation were part of the simple system he was using, but he was alert to its possibilities.  He tinkered with the photos, blowing them up, cropping them.  At some point - the histories have yet to be written - he found himself in Sauvigny-sur-Orge outside Paris in the workshop of the Fresson family whose ancestor, Théodore-Henri Fresson, in 1899 had invented an early type of carbon printing process.  Pigment-based, unlike the dye methods becoming common in the 1980s, the Fresson process, now using four colors, assured photographers of an unassailable archival quality to their prints.  For Twombly, the process turned his Polaroids into editions of unexpected nuance and sensitivity. 

Twombly, Tulips, Rome, 1985

Twombly, Interior, Bassano in Teverina, 1980

Twombly, Lemon, Gaeta, 2008

Twombly, Studio, Lexington, 2009

Gone from these are the glorious brushstrokes of his paintings, the excitement and freedom of his almost giddy imagery.  In its place he has given us complete intimacy and peace, sensuous and literary at the same time.  'I would have liked to be an architect,' he says.