Yto Barrada, Part-Time Abstractionist @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A total of 46 photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against blue walls in a series of rooms and catwalk spaces on the museum’s third floor. The exhibition was curated by Elisabeth Sherman. (Installation shots below.)

The following works are included in the exhibit:

  • 10 gelatin silver prints, 2014
  • 1 color video from 16mm film, 2014, 4 minutes 3 seconds
  • 3 photograms, 2016, 2017
  • 11 photograms, 2017
  • 12 photograms, 2019
  • 6 photograms, 2021
  • 6 unexposed Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper, 2023
  • 1 sculpture, 2024
  • Julius Siroka, 2024, watercolor on paper

Comments/Context: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the International Center of Photography, so it’s not altogether surprising that its recent exhibitions have turned inward to celebrate its many milestones and accomplishments. In its role as a collecting museum, the ICP’s permanent collection is featured in a wide ranging group show Selections from ICP at 50, From the Collection, 1845–2019 that has been running (in one form or another) for a good portion of the year. As a teaching institution, the school is represented by Shared Spaces, 2024 ICP Recent Graduates Exhibition, bringing together the work of seventy recent students. And the ICP has also begun a new series of exhibits focusing on its alumni, beginning with this show of recent work of Yto Barrada, who was a graduate of the ICP’s Full Time Documentary program in 1996.

The subtitle of this show “Part Time Abstractionist” is an apt moniker for Barrada. The French-born artist, who splits time between Tangier and New York, makes art in a dizzying range of mediums, including but certainly not limited to photography. Her most recent gallery show in London (here) included dyed textile works, metallic sculptures, letterpress prints, and a film installation, and several of those efforts wrestled with geometric abstraction in various forms, including colored stripes, triangular arrays, fan-like shapes, and stacked square quilt motifs, among others.

Back here in New York, this show makes a quick survey of Barrada’s last decade of work in photography, much of that time spent in darkroom-centric explorations of the abstract possibilities of photograms. The earliest project in the show (from 2014) provides an aesthetic bridge of sorts, with images of found plumbing assemblages that take on abstract sculptural qualities. Set again walls of white subway tile, the faucets, shower heads, and other less identifiable pipe constructions stand with Giacometti-like formal thinness, alone or in clusters like crowds. From afar, they might be precise line drawings on graph paper, testing out combinations of vertical and horizontal fragments.

These linear ideas are then more strictly formalized in a series of photograms Barrada made of perforated sewing templates made to teach seamstresses. Each exercise is laid out in lines made of tiny holes, so when the templates are used for light-based image making, those holes become patterned arrays of small white dots against a black backdrop. Barrada’s pictures revel in the precise geometries of these arrangements, with compositions divided into quadrants, and striped with chevrons, diagonals, and squared corners. The severe monochrome aesthetics of these works recall the order of Frank Stella’s black paintings, or perhaps a Barnett Newman vertical zip, before continuing on to more examples, in the form of insistent verticals, cross forms, up and down Ws, and even a lone circle.

In subsequent projects, Barrada seems to have improvisationally searched out found objects that might make intriguingly playful photograms. Two mini projects find Barrada bringing color into her photogram process. One experiments with the transparent square shapes of cellophane candy wrappers, leading to shadowy overlapped compositions of intermingled color. The other starts with the bold shapes of the wooden pieces from the vintage children’s game Blockhead!, and then creates iterative photogram compositions in a range of colors, including purple, blue, green, brown, and the usual black. In the same way that the game turns on piling up the squares, circles, rectangles, and other parallelograms, Barrada’s images feel similarly cluttered and overlapped, as though the precariously built towers had just collapsed into jumbled piles on the tabletop.

More recently, Barrada has turned her attention to her activities in the darkroom as a subject in and of itself. In one project, she used her makeshift dodge and burn tools in her photogram compositions, the cut cardboard and bent wire shapes evoking gentle floral forms and the paper cutouts ranging from jagged voids to sawtooth openings; she then went on to arrange those same tools in a glass vase like a bouquet of abstract flowers. In another, she reused some leftover paper tests in a series of folded works, where pastel pinks, yellows, and blues are interrupted by sharp edged lines, pleats, fans, and weaves.

There is a disarming simplicity to many of these projects, which highlights Barrada’s far reaching artistic curiosity and her propensity for at hand innovation. Many of the works on view seem to celebrate the what if experimentation of stepping into the darkroom and trying out different ideas, not entirely knowing what might emerge. As a show designed to encourage future students, it celebrates playful open-ended risk taking and finding art wherever it may lay.

Collector’s POV: Yto Barrada is represented by Pace Gallery in New York (here), which hosted a multi-venue survey of the artist’s work in 2018 (reviewed here). While Barrada’s photographic work has begun to enter the secondary markets in the past few years, there have been too few public transactions to chart much of a reliable price history. As a result, gallery retail likely still remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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