Work

Victor Burgin’s ‘Photopath’ Unlocked Multi-Dimensionality in Photography 50 Years Ago. Now, the Work Is Resurfacing in New York


“A path along the floor, of proportions 1×21 units, photographed. Photographs printed to actual size of objects and prints attached to floor so that images are perfectly congruent with their objects.”

So read a set of simple, if ambiguous, instructions that Victor Burgin wrote on a single index card in 1967. When followed, the prompt yields a line of photographs that are exactingly printed to mimic the floor on which they’re installed—so much so, in fact, that it’s easy to miss them altogether. 

This was Photopath (1967-69), an era-defining work of mid-century photo-conceptualism that still mystifies today, even if—or, indeed, because—it leaves its viewers with more questions than answers. Photopath is the subject of both a new book and a show. The latter, a dedicated exhibition at Cristin Tierney Gallery that opens today, marks the first time in more than 50 years that the influential artwork will be installed in New York.

Victor Burgin, typed instruction for Photopath, 1967. Courtesy of the artist and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.

Burgin, now 81, wasn’t a photographer when he created Photopath 51 years ago. He didn’t own, or even really know how to use, a camera. What the technology represented to him was a means to an end—or, more accurately, the “solution to a problem,” he said in a recent interview.

The British-born artist was getting his graduate degree at Yale in the late ‘60s and was hyper-conscious, as many young artists are, of his place in the iterative evolution of artistic ideas and movements—that process where a generation of makers responds to the one that preceded it, and in doing so, establishes a new set of issues for the successive generation to take up. 

“We felt, back then, that our generation had to find the problem. Once you found the problem, then you knew what your artistic problem was; it was solving that,” Burgin said. 

On the artist’s mind were the slightly older mid-century minimalists—Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and his then-teacher at Yale, Robert Morris—whose formally rigorous work often resisted close examination and instead gestured outward, to the spaces in which it was installed. But Burgin was after something more elusive, something even non-material. 

“It struck me then that maybe I found the problem,” he said, recalling it in the form of a question: “What could I do in a gallery that would not add anything significant to the space yet would direct the viewer’s attention to [their] being there?” It was into this context that Photopath was born.

Victor Burgin, Photopath (1967-69), installation view, Nottingham, 1967. Courtesy of the artist and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.

The artwork was one of several index cards that Burgin wrote after he had returned to the U.K. Creating instructions for hypothetical artworks satisfied his desire “to do away with the object” in his work, but the cards, too, felt unfulfilled; he needed to enact the prompts to complete them.

So he did. Photopath was first realized on the scarred wooden floor of a friend’s apartment in Nottingham in 1967, then again at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1969 and at the Guggenheim in 1971. 

Though the piece was conceived as a kind of sculpture—or an anti-sculpture, perhaps—its impact, in retrospect, feels emphatically photographic. Like few artworks before it, Photopath exploited the medium’s uncanny ability to nestle in between image and object, illusion and idea. If the artwork doesn’t compel its viewers to consider these ideas intellectually, it at least makes one feel them through interaction. Do you treat it like a sculpture or a picture? Or is it not an artwork at all and instead just another stretch of floor? Do you step on Photopath’s prints or walk around them? 

“It is hard to imagine an act of photography more straightforward and uncompromising than Photopath,” writer and curator David Campany explained in his recent book on the artwork and its legacy, published last October by MACK.

“It aims to fulfill the basic potential of the medium, which is to copy and to put itself forward as a stand-in or substitute. Yet,” Campany went on, “in meeting this expectation so literally, it somehow estranges itself.”

Victor Burgin with Francette Pacteau photographing the brick floor at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, 1984. © Andrew Nairne / Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge. Courtesy of Victor Burgin and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.

To date, Photopath has only been installed a handful of times, the most recent instance of which came in 2012 at the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964-1977” exhibition, when it was laid upon the polished wood boards of the museum’s Renzo Piano-designed atrium. After the run of the show, Burgin’s prints were discarded, leaving a dark, ghostly silhouette on the sun-soaked floor. He had, in a sense, created another type of photograph.

“I thought, ‘That’s just perfect.’ It really returns [the artwork] to the origin of photography,” Burgin said, noting that the show felt like a fitting conclusion for the artwork. He thought that would be the final time Photopath would be shown.

But that changed last year when Campany approached the artist with the idea of writing his short book about the artwork—a piece of writing that blends analytic art theory and personal experience, often to lyrical effect. What Campany identified in Burgin’s artwork was a kind of foresight for how photographic technology is used today. 

David Campany, Victor Burgin’s Photopath, 2022. Courtesy of MACK.

“[J]ust as Vermeer had pursued an important technical development in the picturing of three-dimensional space, so too had Burgin anticipated aspects of representation that are just as pervasive: the replication of surfaces, and the uncertain space between images and their mental impressions. Fake leaves on plastic plants. Laminated tabletops imitating stone or wood. Synthetic clothing pretending to be denim or leather.”

“Photographic ‘skins’ are everywhere in contemporary life,” Campany concluded. “They are not pictures, at least not in the conventional sense, but are a fact of our contemporary material, visual, and virtual experience.”

Victor Burgin: Photopath” is on view now through March 4, 2023 at Cristin Tierney Gallery in New York. Victor Burgin’s Photopath by David Campany is available now through MACK.

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Betty Blayton Taught Art to Hundreds of New York City Kids—Including Basquiat. Now, Her Own Work Is Getting the Blue-Chip Treatment


“This book is dedicated to all the children who have and will attend the Children’s Art Carnival—with the hope that they will become creative, productive, and balanced adults.”

So wrote the late artist and pioneering arts educator Betty Blayton in the dedication of her 1978 handbook on how to introduce children to the arts, a task she understood well after nearly a decade of running the Children’s Art Carnival in Harlem. (A young Jean-Michel Basquiat was one student.)

Blayton came to New York City in the early ’60s and, not long after, moved to a loft on Bond Street in the Lower East Side, reasoning that she needed to be close to where Andy Warhol hung out if she “was going to be the first famous Black artist in America,” as she said in a 2003 interview.

“I had to be where it was happening,” she continued. “But I ended up spending the next 35 years working in Harlem.”

Blayton came to the city looking to be part of something. And then the community she joined ended up looking a lot different than she’d imagined. Nearly a half century later, many of the visual artists in her circle are getting the mainstream attention they never had back then—people like Norman Lewis and Richard Mayhew.

Now, New York’s Mnuchin Gallery is presenting a survey of Blayton’s work, including more than 50 mostly abstract paintings dating from the 1960s to 2015, the year before her death.

The show reflects the holistic, mind-body-and-soul approach she also applied to her work as an education and institution builder—including as the co-founder of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Installation view, "Betty Blayton: In Search of Grace." Artwork © The Estate of Betty Blayton. Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York. Photography by Tom Powel Imaging.

Installation view, “Betty Blayton: In Search of Grace.” Artwork © The Estate of Betty Blayton. Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York. Photography by Tom Powel Imaging.

“Comments about her should be about her impact on the world, along with her work,” said the artist Richard Mayhew. “Because her paintings reflect who she is.”

After meeting Blayton in the early ’60s, fellow artist Norma Anderson watched the progression of her work—from her early dabbling in sculpture with their mutual friend Arnold Prince to her later paintings on large, round tondo canvases, many of which are included in the show.

In trying to explain her work to Anderson, Blayton would describe how some pieces were influenced by various spiritual and meditative concepts she’d been exploring. Anderson “never really understood” what Blayton meant, she said, but “it didn’t matter what the ideas were, the paintings really came across beautifully.”

Walking through the show at Mnuchin, any attempt to tie Blayton’s artistic development to a linear timeline quickly falls by the wayside. Probably for that reason, curator Sukanya Rajaratnam grouped the works by style, not date, with earlier pieces positioned as possible influences to more recent ones, proving that some stylistic similarities actually reappear almost 30 or 40 years later. There are suggestions of figuration that ebb and flow throughout, with the mainly circular canvases finding cohesion through Blayton’s expert use of color, structural design, and textural layering.

Betty Blayton, Consciousness Traveling (2012). © The Estate of Betty Blayton. Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York. Photography by Timothy Doyon.

Betty Blayton, Consciousness Traveling (2012). © The Estate of Betty Blayton. Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York. Photography by Timothy Doyon.

For a long time, Blayton’s art practice was overshadowed by her renown as an educator. When stepping into that role, especially as a woman, people couldn’t see much else.

Blayton’s first big show, at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery in Harlem, only came a year after her death.

Rajaratnam previously organized exhibitions for David Hammons, Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas, and Mary Lovelace O’Neal at Mnuchin, and got the idea for the Blayton show after “looking at artists who hadn’t made the cut” into the landmark museum exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.”

“Betty’s name came up,” Rajaratnam said. “There were quite a few women who were left out of that narrative and were integral to the conversation around this period.”

As much as is the case now, a point of commonality among these artists was
how they operated from a position of disadvantage. For many, including Blayton, they chose to start work as art educators mainly out of necessity.

They were “keeping on and doing what you need to do to be in an environment in which the support systems are so scarce,” said Susan Stedman, an artist and arts administrator who knew Blayton, “with a dearth of professional opportunities among galleries and curators and institutions.”

To make ends meet, Blayton worked as a recreation counselor at the New York City department of welfare, along with Anderson. Their friendship gave them a “feeling like ‘I’m a group of people that knows what it’s all about,” Anderson said.

Artists in the group would offer support for each other’s practices and give advice on where to find work. Using one tip, Blayton got a job at HARYOU-ACT, a government-supported entity providing art education to kids. Anderson and Norman Lewis also worked there, reinforcing the “sense of interconnection that [these artists] shared, socially, and artistically,” Stedman said.

The events of the late ’60s—John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the riots after Martin Luther King’s murder, the Vietnam war—triggered, for many, including Blayton, a reevaluation of  artistic priorities. In the Black community, it crystallized around activism against institutional racism.

Poster designed by Mahler Ryder. Courtesy of Norma J. Anderson.

In as early as 1967, Blayton organized “Points/Counterpoints,” a show featuring artists—Black and otherwise—who were “all kind of not in [the mainstream] and were just doing work that was exciting and fun,” said Anderson.

A spinoff of the show, “30 Contemporary Black Artists”—which traveled to numerous mainstream institutions, like the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the High Museum of Art—reestablished its organizational premise around Black artists (including the likes of Faith Ringgold and Norman Lewis). But “Counterpoints” was originally conceived to provide exposure for artists who were underrepresented by mainstream institutions. A lot of those artists also just so happened to be Black.

This is one of many examples of how dominant art institutions have mistranslated messages coming out of the Black arts movement. Yes, social action among this group of artists was always closely tied to race. It was hard not to be when confronted by the degree of institutional and societal racism at the time.

After the Whitney Museum didn’t hire a Black curator to organize the 1971 show “Contemporary Black Artists in America,” Blayton and Richard Mayhew, along with 15 other Black artists, withdrew from the exhibition, participating instead in a show organized in response to it called “Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum Exhibition.” Both Blayton and Mayhew contributed abstract pieces, which a New York Times reviewer claimed disqualified them as Black artists “except by race.”

Betty Blayton, Roots (1969). © The Estate of Betty Blayton. Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York. Photography by Timothy Doyon.

Betty Blayton, Roots (1969). © The Estate of Betty Blayton. Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York. Photography by Timothy Doyon.

“When Betty was coming up, it was what I call the fraught period of the emergence of Black artists,” said art historian Lowery Stokes Sims. “There were lots of conversations on: Did you do figurative art for the community? If you did abstract art you were accused of selling out to the mainstream. People were having these conversations back and forth.”

While Blayton continued to work on her painting until the day she died, she lost interest in seeking anointment by an art world that has little room for her as Black female artist.

“Betty’s situation was one that was pretty familiar to me in the ‘70s because there were a lot of women who in light of the lack of interest decided to create institutions that would address the needs of their fellow artists,” said Sims, “and create venues for exhibitions and programming for communities who didn’t have the resources or the reach to the mainstream museums.”

Blayton leveraged on a period in which mainstream art institutions—like MoMA, which partially funded the Children’s Art Carnival in Harlem—prioritized this type of outreach; not to bring the community into the museum, necessarily, but to create community outposts in neighborhoods in need of more resources.

In the end, Blayton corrected for the problems she herself faced in trying to find support as a young artist living in New York City. Maybe some disillusionment about the mainstream art world caused her to redefine the type of “famous Black artist” she ultimately wanted to be. Because she definitely became one. Not as she’d first envisioned, but her reputation as an institution builder reverberated through generations of artists, especially for people like Michael K. Williams, who, through working at the Children’s Art Carnival with Blayton, was able to feel “at home” in New York, he said.

Seeing the way she committed to the community was so “singularly gratifying,” he continued. Her influence on the community spanned far beyond her immediate one, helping establish institutions like the Studio Museum in Harlem—which is still, to this day, one of the mainstays of support for Black artists globally—and through other organizations springing up at the time, like Studio in a School, a youth-centered art school sponsored by Agnes Gund. Blayton’s work also lives on, Williams said, through “blueprints that the board of education in New York uses for their art education. Betty’s influence really is very pervasive.”

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Fifteen Years Ago, Keltie Ferris Was Peter Halley’s Student. The Artists, Now Friends, Sat Down to Talk Shop as They Debut New Work


Peter Halley and Keltie Ferris first met sometime in the mid-2000s, at the height of the abstract painting revival. Halley, a pioneering Neo-Conceptualist renowned for his disciplined grids, was head of painting and printmaking at the Yale School of Art; Ferris, a graduate student with a knack for wielding fluid materials like spray paint. Nevertheless, their work had a lot in common: a love of color, especially jangly fluorescents; an embrace of digital influences; and a desire to release painting from both its figurative and abstract forebears.

Through the course of the teaching relationship, each found a respect for the other’s practice, and the conversation has continued—even if the two artists don’t actually talk as much as they once did. To pit their paintings against each other today is like seeing estranged cousins reunite: time has changed them, but you can’t deny the shared DNA.

You’ll get to do the chance to do just that this week at Independent New York, where both artists are presenting new paintings—Ferris with his Los Angeles gallery, Morán Morán, and Halley with The Ranch, Max Levai’s new gallery located on Andy Warhol’s old farm in Montauk.    

Ahead of the fair, the two got together to catch up, with Midnight Publishing Group News in tow to record the results. What followed was a wide-ranging conversation about working methods, color “friendships,” and setting up problems just to fix them. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The audio version of Halley and Ferris’s conversation will be published in this week’s edition of The Art Angle, Midnight Publishing Group News’s weekly podcast.

Keltie Ferris, <i>Ultra Blue You</i>, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Morán Morán.

Keltie Ferris, Ultra Blue You (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Morán Morán.

Keltie Ferris: Hi Peter.

Peter Halley: Hi Keltie. Good to talk to you, as always. Yesterday, I was trying to think back—even from the time when you were a grad student, I felt an affinity with your work because of your use of contemporary materials—spray paint, et cetera—as well as the digital-aged energy of your work.

KF: A sense of paintings looking forward. Of course, all paintings look backward, and they have to because they’re paintings, but I think a thing we have in common is that we’re trying to look forward in time to the future. We’re both somewhat future-obsessed. 

PH: Looking back at your work for the last 15 years, that’s obviously in the work. But were you like that way back when, as a very young artist?

KF: I don’t know if I was then, actually. In fact, I came into school with the problem of being art history-dependent. I always had an art history book open while working, really. Getting away from that was probably the influence of you and the school, learning to think more about the present tense and the idea that paintings have a life in the future—that you should address what you thought the medium was going to become or what you hoped it would become, as well as what it had been. That takes you into the realm of science fiction, because one doesn’t know what’s going to happen. It has to do with an interest in technology, too, which [is what] the sprayed mark represents for me.

PH: My paintings are not very athletic. I do these studies sitting at a table, and then they’re put together in a very mechanical way. That’s another thing that’s always struck me about your work: you have a really athletic relationship to your paintings and drawings.

KF: That is one way in which we were very different! [Laughs] In the early 2000s, I felt—whether this is true or not—that it was near impossible to make a gestural painting that didn’t feel extremely indebted to the 1950s and thus have an antiquated, patriarchal throwback feel in a really negative way. I was an athletic person and a person prone to the gesture; I was looking for ways to do that that didn’t feel outdated. That’s one reason I started looking toward the future. It was a lot of experimentation with mark-making and materials. The spray paint mark was the one I landed on that I really stuck with. I guess the gesture is not really your focus, to say the least. 

PH: Yeah, it’s a little bit contradictory, but I consider my paintings idealist insofar as I want their content to come solely out of my head, not from the hand or body. They are tactile, but there’s no personality in how they’re made. It’s philosophically important, I think.

Keltie Ferris, <i>Butterfly Paths</i>, (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Morán Morán.

Keltie Ferris, Butterfly Paths (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Morán Morán.

KF: I like how that enables you to jump mediums or forms—from wall-based work to painting to more sculptural pieces, even to architecture and to writing. It all seems to knit itself together. It spawns from the head of Zeus and thus can take forms in many kinds of materialities, which gives you a sense of freedom that I’m jealous of. That’s one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot, looking over your work—like your last show at Greene Naftali [“​​Heterotopia II” in 2019]. You’re embracing the whole space, manipulating it, and the painting is integral to that.

PH: And you did the same in your last show [“FEEEEELING” at Mitchell-Innes & Nash this year]. I’ve always been interested in site-specific paintings—altarpieces, paintings at the end of a church or in the chapels to the side. I think about how you walk through a three-dimensional space and encounter a two-dimensional image. Most of my installations are based on that, the idea of an image that you encounter in a specific spatial setting.

KF: It’s interesting because that kind of ties you back to the body, you know? Because the painting is an object in a space. But in that case, it’s maybe more about the viewer’s body rather than your body, which is kind of cool. It’s like you’re handing over the body to them. [Laughs]

PH: It’s contradictory to how I want to make the work and how I want it to feel. In my work, the measurements have to do with human scale, which I grew up with through Abstract Expressionism. I think that was the first real human-scaled painting.

KF: Have you never made a larger painting, something, say, mural-sized?

PH: I did once, a 40-foot-painting in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, but what I found is that the components all have to have a human dimension, like something you can fit between your hands. Actually, that work was eight paintings put together in a grid. I just couldn’t just do one big image like that.

Peter Halley, <i>Too Late</i> (2021). Courtesy of the artist.

Peter Halley, Too Late (2021). Courtesy of the artist.

Your work isn’t exactly gestural, but it is painterly. What other painters do you admire? I’ve been looking at Joan Mitchell lately and those paintings drive me crazy. They’re so tortured. 

KF: That’s so true. I think a lot about Joe Bradley, too. To me, he’s very indebted to Joan Mitchell, and no one ever talks about it. I was thinking about Joe Bradley and his robots in relation to your building paintings. Katharina Grosse—I’m intrigued by the scale and sense of diversity in her work. I feel like I’m always stuck at a certain scale.

The thing is, I think a lot about painters that are really different from me. I love Malcolm Morley, for example—his ability to paint whatever he wanted to paint and to move from subject to subject.

PH: When you mentioned Katharina Grosse, that made a lot of sense to me. The way I see it, gesture for you is lyrical; it’s rhythmic. Her work also has that kind of lyricism or harmony.

KF: What about you? What painters are you thinking about?

PH: I just got through reading Ninth Street Women and a book on Helen Frankenthaler. I’m sort of enmeshed in second-generation Abstract Expressionism right now. It’s really interesting to look at gestural paintings in the 1940s and ’50s. They really were committed to the idea that putting paint on the canvas with a brush was like a record of their existential state. It’s quite fascinating.

Keltie Ferris, <i>Golden Rod</i>, (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Morán Morán.

Keltie Ferris, Golden Rod (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Morán Morán.

KF: It’s interesting that you are in that time period. These classics, as much as you may want to get away from them, they never go away. At least that’s how I feel. Is that how you feel about it, or do you go back there as a kind of happy place? Do you think about making work in conversation with the current moment or what’s come before you?

PH: Starting around 1981, when I began to work with prisons and cells connected by conduits, I was convinced that that was a paradigmatic base of contemporary life. At the time I was thinking about cable TV and electric systems and so forth, but it pretty much ended up being a roadmap for digital connectivity. I was consciously trying to map the space that contemporary life was turning into. The ideas behind that have to do with physical isolation and a technological connectivity.

KF: And you did it! Talk about seeing the future. [Laughs]

PH: People gave me a hard time back then; they thought I was exaggerating. It turns out I underestimated it all. [Laughs]

I’m still living in that basic diagrammatic space. The work veers toward that or away from that in different ways, but that’s still the spatial world that I’m inhabiting. You can’t help but to describe the world that you’re coming into as a 30-year-old painter.

KF: Newness is definitely important to me. I think a lot about the timeless quality of painting. Both of us are interested in constructing paintings out of smaller bits or smaller marks. I’ve always been interested in Seurat and the Pointillists, how they built images out of dots. To me, that was an early scientific approach to painting that was a precursor to how we make images now.

Keltie Ferris, <i>Untitled</i>, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Morán Morán.

Keltie Ferris, Untitled (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Morán Morán.

PH: I want to talk about color a little bit. When I used to teach all these talented people at Yale, I came to the conclusion that about nine out of every 10 artists are black-and-white oriented—they see in terms of chiaroscuro, light and dark, modeling. It’s really the exception that somebody thinks in terms of hue primarily. I think you probably do. Color and hue seem like they’ve always been primary components of your work. Has that been the case for forever?

KF: Yeah. I think it is a forever thing for me. I try to make work occasionally that’s black and white and it’s hard for me. In some ways it’s also simpler, because you’re taking out a whole layer of thought process. But, for me, it’s hard to find the heart of things without color. I think of colors in terms of the stories they tell and their connections to my own past experiences. I have many threads of color that I’m working on. There are color relationships that I ruminate on for years, on and off. Do you do that? Are there relationships between colors that you examine over time?

PH: Definitely. I’m looking at one of the paintings that I’m showing at the Independent. It’s all secondary colors—orange, green, purple. The secondary colors are always much more central to me than the primaries.

KF: Purple and orange—that’s a team or a friendship that I’ve been interested in for a long time. I like the awkwardness of it. Those colors make this outcast combination, even though they’re beautiful in their opposition. I’m also interested in other color relationships for the opposite reason. I’ve done a lot of red-and-blue paintings because of the centrality of those colors in our culture, from sports teams to flags to Pepsi advertising. I enjoy taking that centrality on.

Peter Halley, <i>How it Ends</i> (2021). Courtesy of the artist.

Peter Halley, How it Ends (2021). Courtesy of the artist.

PH: I think the way a painter chooses color as being akin to the way a composer chooses to work in a certain key.

KF: Yeah, color provides a harmonic key; you can work inside and outside of the rules that it sets up. I like to find the chords and discords and walk in and out of that sense of congruency as I work.

You have a thing for yellow, don’t you?

PH: I like yellow. I like red. [Both laugh]

KF: But it’s more complicated than that!

PH: Not really. [Laughs]

KF: I was making a lot of yellow paintings, but then people started talking about how happy they were and that seemed way too simplistic to me. So I stopped; I backed away from yellow.

PH: I did something kind of naughty for the Independent. I’ve made a painting with six blocks—three primaries and three secondaries. And then in the other painting, I cheated. I put black around everything. [Laughs]

KF: Why do you think that’s cheating?

PH: It makes everything glow. It’s easy. 

KF: Yeah, black—when it’s used as a separator between colors—that’s cheating, in that every color is contained and separate. It minimizes the interactions; it minimizes a lot of the excitement and the discomfort people get from color, which I think often comes when two or more colors interact.

PH: Do you use black at all? 

KF: Barely. For my last show three years ago [“(F(U(T( )U)R)E),” at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in 2018], I worked by making drawings and then filling them in with color. That was my attempt to take on black. That was me experimenting with being a different kind of artist, actually. My work at Independent is all about color, though.

PH: It’s very symphonic. I don’t know if you thought this was insulting, but when I wrote to you recently I said your new paintings look sort of Wagnerian. [Laughs]

KF: No, no, I thought it was dead on, in a way. I’ve been thinking a lot about sound and waves lately, how waves can take different forms.

Keltie Ferris, <i>Glow Down</i>, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Morán Morán.

Keltie Ferris, Glow Down (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Morán Morán.

PH: I’ve never asked you how you make your paintings. I’ll start by talking about mine. Everything is a landscape space. There are these two icons—either a cell or a prison, and they’re connected in different ways. Unless the form is presented against the wall, it’s form-figure-ground or form with a clear background. I work out the drawing, then after that I start working with color. For each composition, I’ll often make five or six paintings with different color approaches.

I have no idea how you do it?

KF: I work in a variety of different ways, but I began most of the work that’s in Independent by blotting color on top of color, making these monoprints that I couldn’t control. There were these forms that began, just two colors interacting. Then I either kept doing that—like in the largest painting [Golden Rod], where there are many colors blotted on top of each other—or I would use that form as a ground to work with or against. In some, there are drawn elements that float over this ground and kind of ignore it or work with it to create something more cohesive.

PH: So you’re really using the materials almost in a spontaneous way to trigger your unconscious, and then you compose?

KF: Yeah. Lately, my work has all been about ceding my lack of control in the situation. This blotting mechanism of getting color down, it’s as anti-compositional as it gets, because I literally can’t see what I’m doing. And I’m often very frustrated by it. But I’ve been using that frustration and sense of powerlessness to generate the next steps. It’s something that I’ve always done—just put something down and create a problem to fix, then go forward from there. It doesn’t feel unconscious, I have to admit. It’s really slow, and I feel as though I’m making very conscious decisions. It’s just one step at a time, rather than thinking of it as a whole.

Independent runs September 10–12 (VIP preview September 9) at the Battery Maritime Building, 10 South Street, New York, New York.

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What I Buy and Why: Artist Julian Opie on How Collecting Inspires His Own Practice and the Teensy Carl Andre Work He’s Afraid of Misplacing


Collecting objects and artworks has been a habit of artists throughout history, from Henri Matisse, who drew inspiration from his collection of decorative arts from Africa, to Andy Warhol’s dedicated patronage of young artists. British artist Julian Opie is no exception.

Opie’s art practice plays with ways of seeing by challenging our perception of the everyday, and he has built his own visual language that is informed at once by the vocabulary of classic portraiture and Japanese woodblock prints, Egyptian hieroglpyhs, as well as ordinary public signage. As such, the artist has throughout his career assembled a wide private collection of work that spans Roman sculpture to classical 17th-century portraits to work from contemporary artist peers.

A selection of works from Opie’s private collection will be shown alongside his work at a forthcoming exhibition at Newlands House Gallery in Petworth from November 6. We caught up with the artist about his collecting inspirations, how he badly covets a Monet, and the teeny Carl Andre sculpture that is constantly disappearing.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), No. 14. Koshigawa in Musashi Province (Musashi Koshigaya zai). From the series Fuji sanjurokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji). (1858). Collection of Julian Opie.

What was your first purchase?

Not really sure. I think it was a Japanese Ukiyo-I print by Kunisada (not my favourite). With Ukiyo-I prints you can buy some of the greatest art works ever made for not so much money. The artists of this period did make unique paintings but their greatest works are arguably the large run woodblock prints. Condition and fading vary greatly but you can buy a Hiroshige or an Utamaro for modest sums.

What was your most recent acquisition?

Honestly? Today I asked to buy a piece of ambient music by a young musician. I often use music in my installations and have bought or swapped these with various musicians. The last object I bought was earlier this week, a 19th-century wooden ancestor figure post from the island of Timor. Over the last year I have been collecting a lot of things from Indonesia from Sulawesi and Borneo and now Timor.

How does your own practice as an artist inform your collecting?

In two ways. I get guidance and inspiration from what other artists have made and also what I am currently interested in making leads me to find ways to understand and enjoy other artist’s work.

Joshua Reynolds, <i>Wilson Gale Braddyll</i> (1788). Oil on panel. Collection of Julian Opie.

Joshua Reynolds, Wilson Gale Braddyll (1788). Oil on panel. Collection of Julian Opie.

Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?

I don’t have a plan. It depends on what I come across. There are gaps that I’d love to fill. I’d like to buy the third great triptych of Hiroshige and also to own another and less damaged Fayum portrait from Roman period Egypt. These are painted in coloured wax and have survived well giving a clear and realistic snapshot of the people of the ancient world.

Which work do you most cherish?

Although I continue to enjoy and learn from the things I have bought, on a daily basis, for me collecting art is a way of engaging in the world rather than an amassing of treasures to cherish.

How do you acquire art most frequently?

From galleries. I always try to buy from good trusted galleries. They know their area and one can build up a good relationship, learn a lot and find great works.

Is there a work you regret purchasing?

When I start buying in a new area I can get a bit carried away and buy things that in retrospect weren’t perhaps necessary. I did sell a few of these recently which felt good.

Patang Statue, Dayak tribe Borneo. 19th C. Collection of Julian Opie

Patang Statue, Dayak tribe Borneo. 19th C. Collection of Julian Opie.

What work do you have hanging above your sofa? What about in your bathroom?

Sofa: Roy Lichtenstein large interior print. Bathrooms are not great places to hang most art due to humidity. At the studio lavatory I rotate Hiroshige landscape prints.

What is the most impractical work of art you own?

Who thinks up these questions? I own a tiny magnetic Carl Andre sculpture that family members keep rearranging and is constantly in danger of being lost.

What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?

One of Alex Katz’s small paintings. There were a set of these in the next door booth at an art fair many years ago and I didn’t have the courage.

If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?

Stealing is disrespectful. If it were a gift… A Monet of the Houses of Parliament on the Thames.

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Painter Tschabalala Self Wants to Keep Her Life Separate From Her Work. Will the Art World Let Her?


For as long as women have been making art in the public domain, (often male) critics and curators have looked to their work to offer some great revelation about their personhood—their mental health or their beauty or their niceness or their rudeness. Yayoi Kusama’s art is “driven by her inner experiences” and “visual hallucinations.” Alice Neel is “brimming with politically charged empathy.”

These artists’ gifts, the narrative goes, come from a place deep within, inextricable from their character or spirit. Helen Frankenthaler’s biographer Alexander Nemerov once wrote that appreciation of the artist’s work required him to “abandon his expertise.” 

This is not to say that female artists—particularly those, like Frankenthaler, who had money and whiteness and virtually every privilege at their disposal—have not enjoyed robust careers or scholarship. But it has been nearly impossible to prevent the bleeding of their lives into their work—whispers about how daring or rebellious this one was, or how everything that one made comprised an act of resistance.

Viewers are often asked to separate the art from the artist, but only if the artist is a man who has behaved badly. They are almost never asked to do so if the artist is a woman—especially if she is a young woman, even more so a young woman of color. 

Tschabalala Self, Sapphire (2015). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Tschabalala Self, Sapphire (2015). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

***

If ever there were an artist working today who understands this dilemma—how revealing any real part of you can, through subsequent projection, forever inflict upon your work an irremovable stain—it is Tschabalala Self.

The 31-year-old artist has, over the past few years, become one of the most sought-after young creators in the United States. The glare of the spotlight has left her extremely deliberate about how much of herself she reveals. When we spoke about her major solo exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through September 19), she was precise and careful with her language. In conversation, she rarely goes off script and has a tendency to dive deep into historical references, careful not to betray any glimpse of the umbilical cord that tethers what she makes to the core of her.

“I actually prefer people not to know any real facts about me,” Self said earlier this summer. “It’s more interesting for them and for me, for people to just assume things and then for it to be ambiguous about whether or not it’s true.”

“Whatever they come up with I am sure will be more interesting than the truth,” she added.

Tschabalala Self, "Sunday" (2016). The Byron Nelson Family Collection. © Tschabalala Self

Tschabalala Self, Sunday (2016). The Byron Nelson Family Collection. © Tschabalala Self

While carefully maintaining her personal boundaries, Self has spent the past year and a half pushing herself to become vulnerable within the confines of her work. For the Baltimore Museum, she created three new paintings in response to works by Matisse—an experience she called “inspiring” and one that required her to reach beyond the safety of her purview, linking her work to something external. 

This fall, Self will create her first live performance, for the Performa biennial in New York. It marks her first time working with real bodies in lieu of fabric subjects. The piece—in which two actors, one male and one female, face off in a non-linear dialogue—will push her to relinquish some of the control she has so carefully cultivated.

“I want to take more risk in regards to what I’m willing to incorporate into my practice, to keep exploring my ideas and amplify them,” Self said. “Maybe I’m a little more open-minded now.”

***

It is no surprise that Self’s relationship to success in a predominantly white art world is fraught. She is uneasy when her works end up in the wrong homes or at auction, where collectors bid on Black bodies with wine glasses in hand. She has made her views on this abundantly clear in previous interviews

Her market ascent began shortly after she finished graduate school at Yale in 2015, where she came away with an M.F.A in painting and printmaking after completing her undergraduate degree in studio art at Bard College. 

By the time she entered the art world as a professional, eyes were already on her—she had little room to experiment privately. She signed with her gallery, Pilar Corrias, in 2017. She’s had solo shows at the Hammer Museum and the ICA Boston. Her 2019 Hammer exhibition, “Bodega Run,” which featured a series on the local bodega as a bedrock of community in Harlem, received rapturous critical acclaim.

It is easy to see why: to look at Self’s work is to be jolted by her layered figures who are, more often than not, lone Black women depicted as assemblages of hand-painted and found fabrics like blue denims, floral prints of dinner-table cloths and sundresses, and tan brown textiles that recall the color of Timberland boots. Together, they map the textures of Self’s childhood in Harlem, where she was raised by her mother and a close-knit community of women, many of whom had deeply personal relationships to style.

Tschabalala Self, "Loner" (2016). Craig Robins Collection. © Tschabalala Self

Tschabalala Self, Loner (2016). Craig Robins Collection. © Tschabalala Self

Self’s prodigious body of work has placed her among the ranks of excellent Black female artists who are at least 20 years her senior: Amy Sherald, Calida Rawles, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kara Walker among them. In the art history of the future, these women will undoubtedly be grouped together for reinventing, in remarkable ways, Black figuration for the Black community.

For everyone else—non-Black viewers—appreciation can happen, but there will always be a gulf between them and a life experience that is not theirs by birthright. Within that gulf, projection, fetishization, glorification, and appropriation can flourish. Emotion is conflated with understanding and encroaches upon an artist’s ability to present work on their own terms. 

Just as Self is hyper-aware of how she as a creator may be perceived by the public, she is also conscious of what it means to have non-Black viewers take joy in her work. To admit to liking Self’s art as a non-Black person is to confront what compels you to linger before it: the winking, goddess-like energy of her figures, with their fulsome hips and thighs and breasts, their hair full of health.

Look even more closely, and you may find that the expressions of Self’s characters contrast with the energies of their bodies. They are contemplative, neutral, occasionally blank. Are you sure you are really seeing me? they seem to ask.

***

“I’m not very good at looking at myself in the third person,” Self said. “I can’t fully wrap my head around what other people truly think of me. I have ideas, you know… but I don’t know how accurate those are. I think that’s probably for the best because if you were to see yourself the way other people do, I would imagine that would be very toxic.” 

Tschabalala Self. Two Women (2019). Rubell Museum. © Tschabalala Self

Tschabalala Self, Two Women (2019). Rubell Museum. © Tschabalala Self

Self’s uneasy relationship with her audience should not be confused with a refusal to articulate what her work stands for. On her website, she proclaims that her pieces are “dedicated to naming” the phenomenon of how “collective fantasies surround the Black body, and have created a cultural niche in which exists our contemporary understanding of Black femininity.” Her art speaks truth to power pointedly and publicly—but that doesn’t mean she has to do the same as Self, the person.

When Self and I talk about how Black women artists are fetishized and how this might be prevented, she becomes a little less vague. “As an artist I believe you can take the reigns and assert some level of agency in the scenario if you choose to,” she said. “One must create boundaries and control their narrative. You do not have to concede and be complicit with that narrative that is projected onto you, you know what I mean?”

She is also wary of cultivating a kind of art-star persona that might make her less accountable for her actions. “If you think about how people talk about artists in films and biopics, they’re often depicted as these mythic figures,” she said. “All their sins are overlooked, all their bad deeds are explained away because they’ve become so godlike.” 

***

In an interview I conducted last year with Self and her partner Mike Mosby, a curator and DJ, Mosby described Self as “not really” a social person. She is selective about art events she attends and with whom, usually sticking to a tight-knit group of artist friends. 

Over the course of 2020, Self made daily pilgrimages from the home she shares with Mosby in Hudson, New York, to her studio in New Haven, stopping for breakfasts at Barbara’s (one fried egg, bacon, and two pancakes) and pizza at Brick Oven. She thought often about loneliness, and the loneliness of her figures. 

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that her two latest projects—the Baltimore show and the Performa performance—put her once solitary bodies in groups or couples. 

Installation view of Tschabalala Self: By My Self at the Baltimore Museum. © Tschabalala Self

Installation view of Tschabalala Self: By My Self at the Baltimore Museum. © Tschabalala Self

The inspiration for the Baltimore show came out of research Self conducted into the museum’s large Matisse collection. She came upon on a rare sculpture, originally titled Two Negresses, that portrays Black women embracing one another.

Self created three paintings to play off Matisse’s work, which was specifically intended for the white male gaze. Her figures, kinetic and bodacious women portrayed in bright colors and various textures, seem to challenge Matisse’s to a sort of contest of the spirit. They are also a celebration of the fact that Black women can now be depicted in the halls of museums by artists who look like them.

Installation view of Tschabalala Self: By My Self at the Baltimore Museum. © Tschabalala Self

Installation view of Tschabalala Self: By My Self at the Baltimore Museum. © Tschabalala Self

Self is still ambivalent about how much of herself to show to the world beyond her work. In lieu of performing in the Performa commission herself, she opted to hire actors. But after spending a year disconnected from most people, she is newly inspired to explore connection. 

“I think one positive thing that’s come out of this chaotic time—2020 to me was the straw that broke the camel’s back after several chaotic years—is that I’m more open to doing things I wouldn’t have considered doing otherwise,” she said. “Why not? Everything else that’s happened has happened. You might not ever get the chance to do these things ever again.”

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