Robert Polidori, Versailles @Mary Boone

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 large scale color photographs, framed in grey metal and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and a smaller back room. All of the works are c-prints, taken between 1985 and 2010 and printed in 2013. The prints on view are sized either 50×60 (in editions of 10) or 60×72 (in editions of 5); there are 12 prints in the smaller size and 10 in the larger size on display. A monograph of this body of work entitled Parcours Muséologique Revisité was published by Steidl in 2009 (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Back in the mid 1980s, Robert Polidori began his now famous project documenting the behind the scenes restorations at the Château de Versailles. Long before luscious photographs of rotting, ruined buildings became their own discrete genre, Polidori made sumptuous, large format images of the faded grandeur and in-process reconstruction of the palace, peeling back the worn layers of history with an eye for crisp detail. In the past decade, the artist has once again returned to this celebrated site, adding new images to his already comprehensive catalog of revisions. This show mixes pictures from both periods, offering an ongoing view of the slow march of maintenance and transformation.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Polidori’s images of Versailles is how he was able to consistently discover timeless moments of elegance, not in the perfection of the fanciest and most ornate public rooms but in the dusty transience of spaces being fixed up and retrofitted. Most of the images offer a startling contrast between the finery of lush damask wallpapers, gilded moldings, and artistic treasures and the roughness of wooden scaffolding, torn up marble floors, and crumbling fireplaces. Regal portraits and massive murals have been taken down, leaving exposed holes and empty spaces – they wait patiently to be rehung, sitting upside down or haphazardly stacked against a nearby wall; heavy sculpture fares no better, often left in place amid the clutter of construction debris. Polidori’s carefully crafted compositions juxtapose these competing elements with a rigorous eye for spatial geometry, using telescoping views of hallways and mirror multiplied chandeliers or squared off framing in pure morning light to enhance the visual contrasts. Interleaved with the wider views, small precise details revel in textures: a worn keyhole, the fraying edge of a hidden door, or the exposed wood of a molding being repaired. Captured as up-close photographic still lifes (with an eye for both bold and subtle color), these fragments of cracking plaster or grubby ripped silk offer themselves as snippets of evidentiary history, the remnants of continued use made gracefully explicit.

In the some 25 years since Polidori started this project, countless others have followed his lead and made large, stately images of grand interiors and fading glory. But what makes these particular images of Versailles so durable is their sense of history as a balanced and evolving process. Given its central place as a symbol and showpiece, the palace is a repository for both lofty aspirations and mundane practicalities, where heroes from the past preside over a present worn ragged by a never ending stream of tourists. These pictures don’t give us the cleaned up post card view of hermetically sealed history, but instead point us toward the hidden grandeur in aging and rebuilding. They give us a sense of something special, both in their pull-back-the-curtain secrets and their larger reminder of the continued intermingling of past and present.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The 50×60 prints are $30000 each, while the 60×72 prints are $45000 each. Polidori’s works are consistently available at auction, with recent prices ranging between $7000 and $55000. Robert Polidori is represented in New York by Edwynn Houk Gallery (here).

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Read more about: Robert Polidori, Mary Boone Gallery, Steidl

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