JTF (just the facts): A total of 35 black-and-white and color photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against pink walls in the main gallery space, the smaller entry room, and the office area. All of the works are archival pigment prints, originally made between 1976 and 1981 and printed recently. All of the prints are on 16×20 inch sheets, and are available in editions of 5. (Installation shots below.)
A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Radius Books (here). Hardcover, 11.75 x 11.75 inches, 112 pages, with 57 black-and-white and color images. Includes an essay by James Welling.
Comments/Context: Being stuck at home during the lockdowns and quarantines of the recent pandemic forced many of us to tackle those lingering domestic projects that we had long been finding reasons to avoid. For the artists among us, that often meant organizing the old archives and storage boxes, updating the inventories, and cleaning out the work rooms and studios that were temporarily idle, in a sense, both trying to stay productive and getting ready for the next push forward, whenever it might come.
In Tina Barney’s case, the dutiful pandemic project she took on in the summer of 2020 was the sorting of thousands of 35mm negatives from early in her career, particularly those from the late 1970s when she was just getting started as an artist. Such a task surely mixed very real nostalgia for the people and places in the pictures with a dose of cold eyed criticism, each frame now re-evaluated with the benefit of knowing how Barney’s photographic career had actually unfolded. The methodical process must have felt a little like treasure hunting or retroactive pattern matching, ultimately leading to those few images that still hold their own, many with a hint or echo of the aesthetic, compositional, emotional, or subject matter themes she would explore more fully later on. Coming in at 35 pictures in this show (expanded to 50+ in the accompanying photobook), Barney’s edit is appropriately tight – we don’t need a sprawling look back at The Beginning (as the show and book are appropriately titled), just a succinct sampler to sketch in the loose but resonant framework of the past.
What’s fascinating to watch in the passing of these first few years (from roughly 1976 to 1981) is how Barney was actively thinking about arranging her compositions. At first (in 1976, in black-and-white), Barney seems to have been experimenting with a version of Winograndian serendipity, like finding a synchronous arrangement of different women walking along on one Fifth Avenue block in New York City. This same kind of clustering can be found in an image taken at Club Med, where various patterned cover ups, salt-encrusted margaritas, bare feet, and a dog are jammed together in a densely overlapped foot-level vacation scene. By a few years later (now in 1978, and in color), Barney seems to have started to see this kind of frame packing as a more natural occurrence in the world around her, noticing it in particular at the edge of a crowded summer swimming pool, with the light blue curved edge of the pool, a mother with a child on her back, several lounging parents, and a few brightly patterned kids swimsuits wrestled into a moment of tenuous visual balance. Of course, we’re applying some hindsight-driven aesthetic logic here, but by 1979, many of the pieces we think of as part of Barney’s mature eye were seemingly starting to appear.
Many of the images from 1979 feel a bit more assured in terms of Barney embracing the visual possibilities available during her summers on the East Coast and in Idaho, not only by intentionally packing and arranging the frames but by looking more closely at the social and cultural codes embedded in these situations. In one image, a sun-tanned, wavy-haired lifeguard (with zinc oxide covering his nose) supervises a gaggle of waterpark kids with easy going summertime casualness, while in another, a group of kids looks on curiously at the strangeness of a dead swordfish lying in the bed of a blue pickup truck. Barney’s image “The Guest Bedroom” hits on a subject she would return to repeatedly in the future – a woman combing her hair in front of a mirror, with the trappings of the floral wallpaper and curtains, the white furniture, and the fuzzy bathrobe offering clues to the customs and routines of a certain social class. And two other pictures from Sun Valley offer a mountain setting for such observations, from the trout fishermen in their waders lounging in the long grass to a group relaxing in the hot tub, with Barney placing the wooden railing perfectly to provide a bit of privacy and anonymity to the naked bathers.
Barney’s images from just a year later (1980) start to feel even more controlled. “Golf Lesson” captures a teacher repositioning his student’s leg against the expansive backdrop of the driving range, while “The Gun Club” uses a similar mountainous view as the setting for gun enthusiasts huddled around the back of truck examining guns and ammo. Both images feel stage managed (even if they aren’t), the mannerisms and gestures seemingly held just for an instant. “The Art Gallery” is clearly more intentional in its arrangements, with foreground plants on the coffee table used to interrupt our view of the art and those sitting on the nearby couch, with the kind of subtle visual humor we find in Lee Friedlander’s work. And according to the press release, “Amy, Phil and Brian” is the first picture Barney actually staged outright, balancing the central alignment of the kids on the diving board with figures on either sides of the pool.
Intermingled among the visual evidence of this progression of compositional complexity, other closer in images find Barney examining details and surfaces, paring down to singular observations of color and texture. She notices men in seersucker blazers and dark ties, girls in white pinafores, and striped shirts in green and red, each a nuanced signifier of social class. Other pictures find her narrowing in on cowboy boots, a red towel, the necklace on a lifeguard, and the palm tree shadow patterns cast across some yellow towels on the patio, Barney’s eye uncovering small stories and visual marvels in the otherwise overlooked.
In 1981, Barney would leave her 35mm camera behind and make the switch to large format, stranding these early works on an island of no return. But their rediscovery offers a tantalizing trail of aesthetic bread crumbs we can now follow to link the different stages in Barney’s career into one largely continuous flow. In the coming years, she would both pare down and amplify her vision, making each image a carefully conceived tableaux of social manners and cues. The early pictures here find her circling around that eventual path, as if testing it for viability. And while there are undeniably standouts in this overlooked bunch, they mostly show us that the development of Barney’s acute eye was an incremental process – she didn’t magically arrive fully formed, but worked at it over a period of years until her artistic voice started to coalesce. As seen here, the images of family traditions and domestic rituals that have become her hallmark started rather modestly, with attentive observations of her everyday surroundings that eventually evolved into a distinctly original personal style.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $16000 each. Barney’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $3000 to $42000.