Jan Groover, Formalism is Everything @Janet Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 37 photographic works (32 single images, 2 diptychs and 3 triptychs), variously framed and matted, and hung in the main gallery space with a dividing wall. The vintage prints use a mix of gelatin silver (2), chromogenic (15), platinum palladium (18) and inkjet (2) processes. Physical dimensions range from 2×3 to 30×40, and proposed edition sizes include 1 (unique), 3, 5, 10, or 15, depending on the work. The images were taken between 1973 and 2003. A short documentary film on Groover, entitled Tilting at Space (produced by Tina Barney), is on view in the back gallery. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Jan Groover passed away earlier this year, and while this show was already on the gallery’s exhibition calendar, it now has the feeling of a memorial tribute or a summing up. Taking the form of a loose retrospective, it gathers together superlative work from four decades and examines Groover’s evolving sense of photographic formalism. As I walked into the gallery, I had the immediate feeling of a weight being lifted off my shoulders, as if the sea of endless artistic mediocrity that I had been trudging through had fallen away. Here, at last, were a group of photographs made by someone who knew what she was doing.

While the show isn’t organized chronologically, the earliest pictures on view come from the mid 1970s, when Groover’s work was rigidly conceptual. Using sign posts and light poles to bisect the picture plane, she captured truck trailers and cars at the exact moment when the passing vehicles met the vertical element, creating flat rectangles of space or witty dollops of red, yellow and blue. They poke and prod at elements of elapsed time, visual structure, and two-dimensional composition.

Groover’s kitchen sink still lifes from the late 1970s are perhaps her best known works, and they haven’t lost one iota of their ability to astound some thirty years later. Whether in silvery tactile platinum or seductive color, they explore the essence of form, where the tines of a fork, the edge of a bowl, the scallop of a cake tin, and the flatness of a knife are carefully arranged to intersect and react, creating both reflections and areas of negative space that bring harmony to the compositions. The addition of a chambered nautilus, glass bowls, and whorled, undulating green peppers gave her even more shapes and volumes to play with, leading to overlapping lines and voids of grace and sophistication. Part of me is completely flabbergasted that these bravura kitchen images are still floating around; they should all be in museums by now.

The images from the early 1980s go back outside, applying lessons of formal structure to industrial buildings (reminiscent of Renger-Patzsch), picnic table arrangements, and even intertwined legs and arms, all in luminescent platinum. Her seemingly simple images of folded knees and elbows are intricately layered and sublimely elegant. In the late 1980s, Groover moved into the studio once again, playing with the scale of her still life objects (smaller), their surfaces (glossy or matte), and their interrelationships and orientations. While the color is more boldly operatic here, the forms lead back to Morandi, albeit with more depth of space. A few more recent images made digitally swing back to severity, removing the backdrops altogether and opting for deep blackness, her painted bottles and jugs piled in more clustered groups. It seems that the potential for innovative formal exercises never ceased.

While this show isn’t a comprehensive scholarly statement on Groover’s long and productive career, it is undeniably a powerful sampler of control and craft. It deftly combines wow moments, unexpected treasures, and deservedly iconic images into an impressively heady mix. In the end, her work is an attention-grabbing reminder for me that words like meticulous, restrained, precise, ordered, and disciplined still have a central place in the vocabulary of photography.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $9000 to $35000, based on age and scarcity. Groover’s work is not routinely available in the secondary markets, and auction outcomes in recent years (between $1000 and $13000) may not be entirely representative of the market for her best images.

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