contemporary art / history of art

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.

Artwork of the Month / April 2024