Sally Mann, Remembered Light: Cy Twombly in Lexington @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 46 color and black-and-white photographs, dated between 1999 and 2012, framed and matted in white, and hung against white walls in three rooms of the ground floor gallery. The prints were made with various processes: gelatin silver (13); gelatin silver tea-toned (3); platinum (9); and inkjet (21). Sizes range 8×10 to 20×24 inches. All are in editions of 3, with the exception of three platinum prints in editions of 5. (Installation shots below.)

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog (11×9 inches, 112 pp., with 58 duotone and 4-color illustrations), with an essay by Simon Schama and an interview between the artist and Edmund de Waal, published 2016 by Abrams (here), $50 hardcover.

Comments/Context: Art historians and curators doing research on Cy Twombly (1928-2011) will be grateful to Tacita Dean and Sally Mann for having photographed his studios. Although done late in his life or posthumously, their personal views of the places where he painted, drew, sculpted, thought, read, and paced in solitude every day for years are inventories of the things that he completed to his satisfaction and the many others he left unfinished at his death. As documents of his life and art at certain times, they have joined the world of artifacts, and may perhaps one day be worthy of study and controversy themselves.

Dean’s 2015 series, of his studio in Gaeta, Italy, was shown last spring at Marian Goodman (reviewed here); her 2011 film, Edwin Parker (Twombly’s given name), portraying him in Lexington (outside and inside the studio) during the year before he died, was screened widely in 2012, including at the New Museum. Mann also photographed his American studio and home but began her series earlier. Four of the images date to 1999; a handful of others to 2005 and 2006, with the majority shot in 2011 and 2012, when she seems finally to have pursued the project in earnest.

Twombly is not an artist with an obvious imprint on either photographer. Both women have observed the world through a representational lens; he did not. Portraits are a major portion of their oeuvres; they are not in his. He often painted on a colossal scale, a single canvas stretching across an entire wall. They have favored more intimate forms of address.

All three artists are nonetheless steeped in the themes of Romantic poetry as inherited and updated by Modernism—an awareness of nature’s evanescent beauty and cruel indifference, of psychic fulfillment in the smallest things and moments, of time’s slow, wasting powers and the looming inevitability of death.

Mann’s photos and Dean’s film reveal some shared aesthetic proclivities. Both are watchful of the hot Virginia sunlight that leaks through the windows from the street outside and that was hardly cooled by the thin rectangles of the blinds. His studios were crowded with works in progress and both photographers aimed their cameras at the pedestals or midriffs of sculptures rather than their full dimensions—perhaps because they couldn’t stand far enough away from them without bumping into walls or other sculptures. Both chose to invoke his absence in portraits of his empty shoes.

But while the light in Mann’s photos is often suffused—most of the color photographs have a soft gray-green cast—Dean’s palette (in the photos from Gaeta) is brighter; she focuses close-up on the sharp edges and corners of things, details that do not overtly figure in his art but that for her speak of his quirky flights of mind. Mann frames sculptures or bare interiors against windows and doorways, and the patterns of light on the walls and floors that attract her eye are less jagged than in Dean’s willful deconstructions. Sunlight is channeled through intricate spaces in Mann’s eye while Dean’s lets it bathe everything evenly. (The Italian studio was airier, more open to the sky, a seaside villa rather than a commercial warehouse.)

Mann is better at finding things and scenes in Twombly’s daily environment that have a corollary in his paintings and drawings. A pair of overhead shots, showing rows of tightly bunched up tissue papers that he used to wipe and absorb paint, can’t help but remind you of the roses, irises and other flowers that populated his work. Arrayed like mounds of ice cream on a marble counter, they also capture his blithe sensitivity to color. She photographs the web of drips at the base of walls, both because they’re what’s left from his time in the studio (while working on canvases now gone to museums or storage) and because they’re reminiscent of the “slovenly” gestures and painterly “mistakes” he so daringly incorporated in his canvases from the 1960s forward.

The standard against which all photographic documentation of an artist’s studio is measured is Brancusi’s of his own. Neither Mann nor Dean could feel his level of personal investment in their series, but both artists seem aware of his example. These are not the mundane photographs that an auction house would commission to record the contents of an attic for a sale.

What is most admirable about Mann’s pictures is their lack of bombast. Pretension was a sin that Twombly himself could be guilty of, and she avoids it by refusing to try to match the scale of his canvases. In a few of the tea-stained prints, she has scratched the negatives, as if in imitation of his graffiti-inspired lines. But for the most part, she has decided not to compete.

Rather than invoke the exalted history of classical Greece and Rome, as was Twombly’s wont, Mann chose a line from “The End,” a Mark Strand poem for the title of her show: “when the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky/Is no more than remembered light, and stories of cirrus/And cumulous come to a close, and all the birds are suspended in flight,/Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing/When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.”

To a long-time hometown friend and role model, who was already Lexington’s most famous international artist before she picked up a camera, she has responded with affectionate neighborly feeling. She must have seen some of these scenes in his home many times on numerous visits—the jumble of objects on his mantelpiece, George Washington peering out beneath a wreathed deer’s head—before she photographed them. There is more wry comedy than wrenching tragedy in the presence of his absence here. Which doesn’t make her miss him any less.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $8500 for the smallest inkjet prints to $18000 for the platinum prints and $20000 for the largest gelatin silver prints. Mann’s photographs are widely available in the secondary markets, with prices generally ranging between $3000 and $260000 in recent years, with most still under $20000.

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Read more about: Sally Mann, Gagosian Gallery, Abrams Books

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