JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 large-scale photographs exhibited in white frames against light gray walls: 1 in the foyer, 11 in the main room, 4 in the smaller North room. Most are dated 2017; 1 is from 2015 and 1 from 2016. All are archival pigment prints, from an edition of 10, and sized either 30×22 or 40×30 inches, with the exception of a single 45×60 tent-camera image. This is the second installment at Houk of the ongoing Flowers for Lisa series (the first was reviewed here). The numbers in this selection are numbered (#1, 2, 23, 35, 39, 42, 49, 53, 54, 55, 60, 66, 69, 70, 71, 76) to correspond with the series of 76 in the monograph of the same name, published in 2018 by Abrams (here, $60 hardcover.)
Comments/Context: In 1986 then-33 year Abelardo Morell made an unabashedly sentimental photograph of his wife Lisa McElaney holding their infant son Brady—mother and child blurrily framed behind pebbled surface of a glass door in their Boston apartment. The Mary Cassatt subject, and his Impressionist treatment of it, violated almost everything the recent MFA graduate had been taught about the art of photography. Fears of ridicule made him pause. Looking through the ground glass before pressing the shutter, he remembers thinking: “Boy, they’re really going to hate this at Yale.”
If his teachers had suspicions then that they were providing aid and comfort to a heretic, one can imagine what they would think now after seeing Flowers for Lisa. Leaping through the digital wormhole of Photoshop, which he has called upon to help him make extravagant still-lifes of flowers, Morell in this series could hardly have traveled further from the hard-core tenets of black-and-white documentary and anti-romantic realism that guided his art school education in the late ‘70s.
Built from cracked perspectives and multiple exposures, aided by aleatory procedures and tricks he has engineered himself, the series began as a love letter to his wife—the two have been married more than 30 years—but soon became a test of his inventive powers as a photographer. Could he take one of the most shopworn and unprovocative subjects in art and infuse it with contemporary disquiet and pizzazz?
I believe he has, even if he has bent the rules he was taught so completely that you can hardly find a straight photograph in the bunch. As with many artists much younger than himself (b. 1948), it’s hard to tell here what was done by the camera and what to credit to a software algorithm.
He has worked digitally for more than a decade but never relied on its manipulative cunning as he does here. Photoshop was not just a handmaiden in the process of making many of these pictures; more often it acted as a full collaborator or partner with Morell.
In a conversation with Lawrence Weschler that opens the Abrams book, he describes the making of #5 in the series. The process began with a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Morell photographed flowers in a painting from 1853 by the American artist Severin Roesen. “I took eight or nine shots of it, from different distances and different angles, close-ups, details, and the like, and then, coming back, fed them to Photoshop and said, ‘Do what you will.’”
The mutation is more exuberant than the original, with traces of the 19th century hand less visible. The arrangement has also grown extra stalks and blooms, thanks to Photoshop. But as Severin’s was merely his own American reinvention of a Dutch 17th century flower painting, the differences between the eras are not unbridgeably vast. Morell has simply added temporal layers to a subject that over the centuries has never stopped evolving with the times.
Morell’s own interventions are considerable, and seem to have intensified the longer he extended the series. In #53, he removed an illustration of painted flowers from an art book and covered the page in a filmy wash, letting the watery drips roll down its surface in the rainy style of Pat Steir. The finale is a palimpsest: his photograph of his painting over a photographic reproduction of the untitled painting.
To make #61, he photographed and printed an Ellsworth Kelly drawing of flowers, which he violently altered by punching holes in the outlines of the petals. Lighting the perforated surface of the paper from the side, he re-photographed the raised studs in sepulchral black-and-white. It’s like a cross between a Lucio Fontana and a Robert Mapplethorpe.
In many respects, though, the series isn’t the departure it may appear to be. Still-lifes have intrigued him since the mid-‘80s, when he photographed the dark interiors of grocery sacks, refracted silverware in glasses of water, children’s toys, maps, and twisted piles of paper money. Optical distortion has been another preoccupations as well, not only in the visual riddles of his camera obscura compositions but also in his reflective studies of book illustrations from art history tomes or Lewis Carroll. The bouquets he has fashioned for Lisa are the sorts of flowers Alice might have marveled at after going down a rabbit hole or through the looking glass. Before relying on overhead perspective to make the table-top pictures here, Morell had discovered its Godlike oddities could be formally disorienting in Laura and Brady in the Shadow of Our House (1986) as well as Crayons (1987).
The series has allowed Morell to empty his memory bank and legitimize his imagination with vaunted references from the Old Masters and the movies. He doesn’t try to be coolly esoteric by disguising his floral sources. One can readily identify them from the title (After René Magritte #13, After George Braque #39, After Douglas Sirk #70, After Hitchcock’s Vertigo #76) or from the motifs (sunflowers are synonymous with Van Gogh, French gardens with Monet.) Photographers also receive explicit homages (After Imogen Cunningham #67, After Anna Atkins #71, After Manuel Álvarez Bravo #74) that join Morell to his own tradition of making pictures.
Read front to back, Flower for Lisa lacks tempo or momentum. Rather than build toward a bigger statement about creation or the environment, it seems to have grown spontaneously in response to whatever happened to pop into Morell’s mind on a given day. His enthusiasms are the motor that drives the narrative.
The theme and variations format, however, gives the series a harmonious unity that most forays in Photoshop seldom achieve. He takes an infectious joy in the unique resources of photography and the illusion of single-point perspective. Stripped of leaves and thorns, a group of flower stems in #7 have been massed in parallel lines of various lengths. Shot in close-up and from overhead, they recede into the dark background he has prepared for them so that they resemble tree trunks in a forest. He has cited the stage designs of William Kentridge as an inspiration; the humble crafts-based paintings of Arthur Dove may be another.
Some of these pictures converse to us in the symbolic language of flowers, a code of associations about hope, love, chastity, death, based in the variety of colors and species that artists and their audience have shared for millennia. Morell’s notes in the book, along with McElaney’s afterword, claim these pictures also depict aspects of their marriage that only they and their family will be able to parse.
Throughout his career, Morell has been willing to defy the latest trends and strictures, whether it was 45 years ago in making a photograph of a mother and child or ignoring Postmodernism or now with a series of floral still-lifes. Despite its digital underpinnings, Flowers for Lisa is proudly old-fashioned as an expression of gallantry. It dares his peers to dismiss the series for being out of step with contemporary anxieties and anger. A refugee who knew no English when he escaped with his family from Castro’s Cuba at the age of 13, he has shied away from any topics connected to politics. Like two of his role models, Harry Callahan and Lee Friedlander, he preferred to become fluent in the language of photography. This series is yet another example of how well he speaks it—and of what talent, tireless work, boundless curiosity, principled intelligence, and a stable home life can do for an artist.
Collector’s POV: Prices range from $18000 for the smaller prints (30×22 inch) to $24000 for the larger ones (38×27 inch, 40×30 inch or 30×40 inch). The only camera-tent image in the show (45×60 inches) is $36000. Morell’s work has become consistently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices at auction ranging between roughly $2000 and $30000.