contemporary art / history of art

Artwork of the Month / April 2024

Large White Bottle and Shadow
Mary Ellen Bartley

Archival pigment print
71,12 cm x 93,98 cm (28 inches x 37 inches)
Edition of 7

Mary Ellen Bartley’s photo “Large White Bottle and Shadow” shows four aged books arranged around a white bottle. On the left, the first book is standing upright with its spine to the observer. It leans on a hardcover standing on its fore edge. On the right of the vessel are two volumes inclined to each other. The spines are visible, although the second one from the right is halfway covered by the other one. Its posterior book cover is partly behind the bottle. Moreover, this tome seems to have a protective cover of glassine, which overlaps two-thirds of the vessel.

While the books are held in cream-coloured shades, the background is in light grey tones whereby the colour progression corresponds to the light incidence. The undefined source of light must be located at the left outside of the image space. Due to the shadows, its position should be a bit in front of the arrangement and slightly elevated. The ensemble is placed on a seemingly wooden ground, with traces of various lines.

In the image, there are several hints to its background. Even though the photo’s title is relatively descriptive, the single elements easily reveal their origin. First of all, it is a still-life with a bottle, which could be identified as one of the many vessels the Bolognese painter and etcher Giorgio Morandi depicted. Moreover, the discreet colouring refers to the master. However, Mary Ellen doesn’t adopt the artist’s simple title “Natura Morta” (ital. for still life), but points to the pictorial content.

Three of the displayed books are recognisable, they are all monographs on painters: Ingres, Cézanne and Vermeer. By their condition the volumes could be the original editions by Jean Cassou (1947), Joachim Gasquet (1921) and Vitale Bloch (1954). So, they are published in Morandi’s lifetime and are actually part of his private library. The monograph on Paul Cézanne is important, since the French artist influenced the master’s work in particular. Additionally, Vitale Bloch was a friend of Morandi and also wrote about him.

People who know Tacita Dean’s film “Still Life” from 2009 could recall the drawings on paper, while looking at the surface where Mary Ellen placed the books and the bottle. Morandi used these sketches to define the position of his objects in his paintings and etchings. This is another reference to the master’s work.

Finally, the light incidence from the left and the corresponding shadows in Mary Ellen’s photo are similar to many of Morandi’s still lifes. Actually, both artists used natural light coming from a left-hand window for their compositions. Herewith, and considering the composition and the colour scheme, Mary Ellen’s photo reminds the paintings of Morandi. However, the Bolognese artist seldom depicted books. Though, sometimes he introduced cuboids. Thus, Mary Ellen didn’t simply take a photo from an arrangement after Morandi but composed a still-life with objects important to him incorporating elements of his style and his research.

Her intensive interaction with Morandi’s oeuvre, originates from a first visit to his library in 2018. Two years later, at the beginning of 2020, Mary Ellen made a residency in Bologna, where she was allowed to work in Morandi’s apartment/studio, including his library. Her artistic dialogue with the master and his work was dramatically interrupted by the pandemic. Back at home, frustrated by the abrupt abandonment of her project, she reviewed the already taken pictures and started to add collage elements. Recalling the glassine covers of Morand’s books, she taped pieces of her own protective covers to her computer monitor, where the photos from Bologna were on display. In further experiments, she also used opaque and new transparent papers, like in “Large White Bottle and Shadow”.

In doing so, Mary Ellen experimented with surface and space. This was also a concern of the Bolognese master. With the transparent paper in the presented work, she introduced an additional three-dimensionality generating element into the image. At the same time the glassine functions like a screen where the white bottle and its shadow is projected on, an image within the image. The title-giving large white bottle and its umbrage is highlighted.

After the pandemic, Mary Ellen could continue her residency in Bologna. The earlier photos, the “collage-pictures” and later images form her series “Morandi’s Books”, which “Large White Bottle and Shadow” is a part of. It was first presented in 2022 in the Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York. In 2023, the series was on view at The Drawing Room Gallery, East Hampton and finally in 2024, the artist and her work could return to Bologna, to be presented at the Museo Morandi. Included in the show are three works by the master and a video recounting Mary Ellen’s artistic development and her experience in Bologna. This exhibition is still open until the 7th of July 2024. A bilingual catalogue was published on the occasion.


Mary Ellen Bartley

Born in 1959 in New York, Mary Ellen Bartley studied fine arts at the Purchase College, State University of New York. Her minimalistic and conceptual approach is influenced by the British pioneer of photography William Henry Fox Talbot and the Japanese contemporary photographer artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. Another point of departure is her profound knowledge of art history and in particularly of 19th and 20th century painting. Thus, she knew works by the Italian painter and etcher Giorgio Morandi, whom she studied from books. It was only in 2008, due to a retrospective of the master in the Metropolitan Museum, when she finally could appreciate his oeuvre directly. This was a key experience for her, since then she started to search for objects appropriate to be photographed in their silence, arranged similar the ones Morandi had chosen for his compositions, without copying him directly.

Her special affection for books, guided Mary Ellen to try them as objects. First, she experimented with her own volumes, but soon she left her studio to search for volumes with specific physical qualities. The first resulting series was “Paperbacks” followed by “Blue Books”, started in 2009. Here she photographed volumes in blue shades, captured during twilight they appear in deep saturated tones. They are mostly placed with the cover front to the camera or sometimes staked, so that only the spines are visible. Due to this arrangement, the books form rectangles in the image plane. This gives the pictures a certain abstract character and remind us of Mark Rothko’s colour field paintings. Moreover, the choice of the illumination confirms the artist’s preference for natural light.

In contrast to “Blue Books”, the series “Paperback” (2009-2014) appears less abstract, even though the books are also posed geometrically and captured frontally. Though, the bystander looks at the edges and the pages of the books become visible. This generates a creamy white to beige range and underlining the natural colours of ageing paper. The physical materiality becomes evident. “Standing Open” (2010-2012) also underlines the paper quality. At the same time, it illustrates the character and the content of the depicted volumes. In “Library Copies” (2017), a series of black-and-white photos, Mary Ellen fuses the two approaches to show even more of the characteristics of the special origin. Whereas “Reading in Color” (2019) reminds “Paperback” regarding the arrangements of the books. However, here the edges are in bright colours.

Already in 2015, Mary Ellen started another approach to books. Instead of uniting volumes with similar physical qualities, she pointed to their history. In occasion of a residency at the Watermill Center, she photographed the library of Robert Wilson. Here, she focussed on the traces of the experimental theatre director and artist, which he left by bookmarks and notations. Especially the inserted slips of paper have a strong materiality. Two years later, Mary Ellen worked in Grey Gardens, in the former home of Edith Bouvier Beale and her mother Edith Ewing Bouvier, who were portrayed in the documentary film Grey Gardens (1975) by Albert and David Maysles. The resulting series “Reading Grey Gardens” is once more marked by saturated colours, though the view on the front covers reveals the decay of the books, which correspond to the state of the house, which was once more on sale and the books destiny was uncertain. Several volumes show from the cover detached fabric and marks of humidity. This illustrates the structure of them and points to their fragility. In 2018, it was the turn of the library of Jackson Pollock in the Pollock-Krasner-House. Here, Mary Ellen worked with collage, in rephotographing the new assembled images from the volumes. Similarly, the artist worked in 2021 for her series “Split Stacks”, where she reorganised stacks of coloured books to construct a kind of totemic piles.

Between these projects, Mary Ellen travelled in 2018 to Bologna, Italy and had in 2020 a residency at Morandi’s apartment/studio. Until the pandemic interrupted her stay, she worked primarily in his library. Back at home she experimented with seven everyday items and arranged them Morandi-like for the series “7 Things Again and Again” (2020). It was a method to get in touch with the master’s way of working. Moreover, she reviewed the library photos and added transparent and opaque papers to the existing images. Coming back to Bologna after the pandemic, she completed her series “Morandi’s Books” in adding objects the Master depicted into the book arrangements. This underlines the origin of the books and recalls the character of traditional still lifes. The results were first presented at the Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York (2022) and then at The Drawing Room Gallery, East Hampton (2023). In 2024, the series returned to its origins and is on view until the 7th of July 2024 at the Museo Morandi, next to some of the master’s works. One of these photos, “Large White Bottle and Shadow” is our Artwork of the Month / April 2024.

With her various series featuring books, Mary Ellen had many solo exhibitions and participated in numerous collective shows, mainly in the United States, but also in Canada, Guatemala, Germany, Austria and France. Additionally, her photobook “Reading Robert Wilson” was shortlisted for the Fotobookfestival Kassel, Book Dummy Awards 2015 and travelled with the shortlist show all over Europe. Several of her solo exhibitions are accompanied by short films describing the background of the respective works. The artist was awarded with many grants, residencies and honours and her oeuvre is represented in numerous public and private collections.

Mary Ellen lives and works in Sag Harbor, New York.