16 May 2013

"Everything Was Already There": Jan Groover

"I pretended I was  a painter, for awhile.  Almost as soon as I got out of school I started photographing - photographing the history of photography, repeating lots of things.  I was still pretending I was a painter, that way I could relax and make photographs, even make stupid  photographs, and it didn't matter.  I didn't have to take it too seriously....And then one day I had the thought that I didn't want to have to make everything up, so I quit painting.  Then I found out that you have to make everything up anyway."

The late photographer Jan Groover's work belongs to the type known as  formalism,  wherein the relationships between objects are implied through their formal properties. The older and more familiar Pictorialist photography told stories deliberately.    Paradoxically, Groover's concentration on the formal properties of objects  resulted not in dryness but rather in a rich visual experience.  

Like Daniel Boudinet in France, Jan Groover demonstrated that color and artistry in photography were not incompatible, an idea that was still debatable  in the 1970s.   In that struggle for recognition,  Groover's exhibition at the Museum of modern Art in 1978 was a milestone.  John Szarkowski, who curated the exhibition, wrote that "her works were good to think about because they were good to look at."    The public was dazzled and when Groover's forks appeared on the cover of Artforum, she was  vindicated.
Groover studied painting at Pratt Institute, inspired by the works of Morandi, de Chirico, and  Fra Angelicao, and the thrill of seeing Cezanne's painting of a lemon.  Around 1970, she turned to photography at the moment that a minimalist aesthetic looked fresh, after a decade of Pop Art.   With some success in New York under her belt, Groover received her first NEA fellowship  in 1978.  She bought a different camera anf tried photographing stille lifes of dried flowers but her efforts proved fruitless.  "They were disgusting" Groover later recalled.

 "You're having a hard time?  Why don't you go to the kitchen sink and take a look?' suggested her husband, the art critic Bruce Bois.
"So I did.  I was there for a long time, in one way or another, with those kinds of objects.  It was great.  I could deal with all the things that I knew about art."
Things like foreshortening and playing around with space. In her kitchen still lifes, Groover reprised the history of photography, calling up the ghosts of such French masters as Nicephore Niepce and Dauguerre.
The next year Groover began to work with platinum printing, a process used by many 19th century photographers.  Platinum prints were  known for their subtle tones, from silvery-greys to rose-browns, and were weel-suited to Groover's formal, restrained style.

"What does a lemon do?  A lemon lies down.  It can't do anything else but lie down.  an apple sits.  It doesn't lie down, it doesn't do anything but sit.  A pear lies down and stands up... So all these objects have these attitudes.  Now some objects have bigger attitudes.   An apple could have a big attitude, depending on what it sits with.  A lemon has somewhat of a private-language attitude to me because Manet did a beautiful painting of a lemon.  Then there are some objects like bottles that are containers, and its containership means something. ...So building up still life to have all these characters - I don't know what the sentences are, but I know the sentences make sense to me, when they make sense."    As for the plastic fish and little dog in the lower right corner, the viewer can only speculate.

On Fox Talbot: "His photograph of his dining room table with a ll that stuff on it just drives me nuts.  And I've tried to do that picture... It's such a great thing to have this round table with all these guys on it that don't touch other.  It's an odd little puzzle.  I''m just crazy about his photographs.  Well, he did everything - he mapped out the territory.   I mean, to have to fight today with the first guy to do photography is pretty amazing."    Groover's reaction to Talbot's table explains a lot about the droll aspect that we sense in her arrangements.  There is nothing inherently limiting in Groover's still lifes; it is more like a full table.

Jan Groover was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1943.  Groover and Bois move to France in 1991.  In 1994, Tina Barney produced the documentary Jan Groover: Tilting At Space.   Jan Groover died on January 1, 2012  in Montpon-Ménestérol, France. She was 68.

For further reading: Pure Invention: The Tabletop Still Life: Jan Groover by Constance Sullivan, et al, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. :1990

1. Jan Groover --untitled, 1988, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
2. Jan Groover - untitled, 2006, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
3. Jan Groover - untitled, 1979,  Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
4. Jan Groover - untitled (tabletop), palladium print, 1983, from Pure Invention, Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
5. William Henry Fox Talbot - Breakfast Table, 1840, photogenic drawing, Science Museum, London.
6. Jan Groover -  untitled, 1979, Galerie Paul Frehces, Paros.
7. Jan Groover + untitled, 1897, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.



Kim said...

I like this post very much. Leads me to many creative thoughts. Thank you!

Jane said...

Kim, yes! Jan Groover had an earthy sensibility that we don't necessarily encounter in such a rigorous, formal artist. Groover's work was so good it does inspire us.

Dogford Studios said...

Great post! Jan Groover had a big impact on my development as a fine art photographer and took photography to new directions. At a time I experimented with a 4x5 vintage press camera and did Polaroid Image Transfers with similar arrangements of still life objects. www.edwardfielding.com

Jane said...

Edward, yes! Sometimes the way to make something new is to munch on something old, as Jan Groover knew, and you do, too. And a very interesting website you have - I hope people click through here to enjoy it, as I do.

Bill Fullerton said...

Her triptychs do similar things with time and place that she does in these images with 3 dimensional space.

Jane said...

Bill, thanks for making me think in this cold weather. I wonder what made Groover change. Admittedly, the triptychs were easier to plan in large spaces, outdoors. Whatever it was, she managed to make color express space and movement, if I can put it that way. I'm still not sure what to make of her statement: "Formalism is everything."