Tacita Dean, … my English breath in foreign clouds @Marian Goodman

JTF (just the facts): A three-part exhibition on the fourth floor:

A Concordance of Fifty American Clouds displays a total of 50 images, made in 2015 and mostly unframed, on the four walls of the North Gallery. Images are variable in size, from 3 ½ x 5 ½ to 48 x 48 inches, and consist of the following:

  • 19 spray chalk and white gouaches on slate
  • 15 hand-drawn 3 color blend lithographs
  • 10 gouaches on found postcards
  • 2 chalk drawings on blackboard
  • 4 hand-printed silver gelatin photographs with chalkboard paint, mounted on paper

Portraits, a 16 min. color film on David Hockney with optical sound in 16 mm., completed in 2016 in an edition of 4 with 1 AP

GAETA: Fifty photographs, plus one, a total of 51 photographs, variously framed and matted, in the South Gallery, and completed in 2015. Images are variably sized, from roughly 7×11 to 41×62 inches, and available in an edition of 4+1AP. They consist of the following:

  • 9 hand-printed black-and-white silver gelatin prints on glossy paper, mounted on paper
  • 11 hand-printed black-and-white silver gelatin prints on matte paper, mounted on paper
  • 12 hand-printed C-prints on matte paper, mounted on paper
  • 12 hand printed C-prints on high gloss paper, mounted on dibond
  • 7 hand-printed Cibachromes

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Had she been born 150 years ago, Tacita Dean would have written poems or novels about tragic ocean voyages, defunct factories and windswept lighthouses, artists and writers, jetties and dolmens instead of making films and photographs about them. Her schooling as a visual artist has trained her to tell stories through images. In doing so, however, she has imbued them with an English literary sensibility, that venerable one that prizes Nature as a replenishing source for wonder and work. Light, water, earth, stone have been the chief materials filtered through the lens of her cameras and recorded on her Nagra.

…my English breath in foreign clouds may be her most overt—and indulgent—effort to stay in touch with her native Romanticism. The title, a quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard II, reflects Dean’s response to a change of scenery in 2015 when she left her home in Berlin for an 18-month residency in Los Angeles. She was surprised by the color and texture of the clouds that she saw on the drive along Sunset Blvd., and she surprised herself by wanting to draw and paint them.

They are displayed high and wide across all the walls in the light-filled North Gallery. The panoply of blue and white and gray rectangles and squares is a soothing and expansive sight after the confines of a walk along 57th Street. The exhibition wasn’t designed to taunt New Yorkers, but it can’t help making them envy the upper spaces Westerners wake up to every day.

Dean’s decision to draw rather than photograph America’s skies suggests a reluctance to compete with Stieglitz as well as a wish to revert. Clouds are among the first things any child wants to put down on paper.

Her substrates include antique postcards of California roadside scenes; gelatin silver photographs; and slate or blackboard. Clouds are colored in (or colored on) all of them. There are also 3-color lithographs of wispy white vapor trails across bright azure squares.

She has shown an attraction before to drawing with chalk on blackboard, most recently in her exhibition Fatigues from 2013, in which the snow-topped mountains of Afghanistan stretched across dark gray panoramas. The repurposed slate (with the drill marks still visible in the corners) for her cloud sketches makes for an even better contrast of materials, thoughts of weight-less Heaven balanced by the ground of stony Earth. Each gray-and-white work features notes written in her tiny white script (“and so and so and so” or “with the Southern clouds contend”) that remind us of her ties to Shakespeare and Wordsworth, by birth and temperament.

Unlike a landscape, which has at some point in its history been fought over by nations and owned as a parcel of real estate, or the oceans, churning sites of conflict that are similarly guarded by the countries that touch them, the Earth’s clouds are free agents. Local phenomena, a product of micro-weather conditions, they have no respect for borders. As such, they can be a cure for homesickness.

In a pocket gallery is her filmed portrait of another English artist enjoying temporary exile in California: 78 year-old David Hockney. The camera watches him sitting in a plush armchair and staring at recent portraits in his huge studio while smoking five cigarettes. The takes are close-up and the silences long. He says one sentence, “It’s very enjoyable, smoking, that’s why it won’t go away.” He then laughs, a sound that rattles his stooped, bony frame. And that’s all, folks. Even if there is perverse pleasure in watching an old man doing something that he knows is not good for him—his English breath is inhaling fumes more toxic than L.A.’s smog—and even if this man is one of the finest portrait artists alive, sitting and watching him do nothing but puff and puzzle for 16 min. is not a compensatory pleasure. Hockney gets the better of the deal.

In the South Gallery is another wall-to-wall installation, this one her photographic reconstruction of Cy Twombly’s studio in Gaeta, Italy. Taken in 2008 but assembled in 2015, four years after his death, her images picture it less as a series of spaces than as a collection of fragments. There are no outdoors or over-head views where we can step back and get our bearings. Clutter and claustrophobia prevail. Everything is shot to highlight imperfect details. We glimpse the bases and corners of paintings and sculptures; post-it notes (“The Soul We Once Had”) scribbled in his distinctive cursive; the frames of windows and doors; art monographs on a shelf beside a green tchotchke; and notes on cardboard (“The Rise and Fall of Ctesiphon”) that refer to the literary world of his beloved classical antiquity. It is as though she had decided that, posthumously, the place should be seen as a shattered vase or pot for scholars to spend decades reassembling.

The result is more exciting as a conceit than as an exhibition. Twombly is not an artist one quickly associates with Dean. But she wrote her thesis on him in 1988 at the Falmouth School of the Arts, and some of her early experiments with Super 8 and 16mm film recall the smudgy second-guessing of his canvases: she would photograph a drawing as she was slowly rubbing it away.

Gaeta is therefore another of Dean’s elegiac tributes and, as is often the case with her, she summons the dead through the texture of things they touched. Dust, plaster, paper, glass, metal, tile—the substances of the articles in his studio are the subject of her photographs. The frayed edges around her field of vision suggest that our memories are broken pieces no matter what we do or wish.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $4000 for the hand-drawn 3-color blend lithographs to $175000 for the diptych. The film Portraits is $85000 and the set of Gaeta prints is $750000. Dean’s photographs have only been intermittently available in the secondary market in the past few years, with recent single image prices ranging between roughly $4000 and $18000.

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