A deceptively simple show of 46 prints by the photographer Sally Mann are tucked off Madison Avenue in Gagosian’s ground floor galleries and together they present a visually and intellectually sumptuous offering. To read recent commentary on this exhibit before seeing it in person, as I did, would lead one to expect an elegiac, sad, somewhat depressing affair given that the photographs present the Lexington, Virginia studio space of Cy Twobly (a longtime, local friend of Mann’s parents) in the years leading up to his death and also given that one of Mann’s adult-aged children’s unexpectedly died during the preparation of the final prints. Consequently, I went in steeled to a degree.
But, absent that biographical information, a lighter, more floating atmosphere prevails, one that is ephemeral rather than ghostly and focuses on the contingent as opposed to the ominous. In this sense, the show presents in a more direct manner the age-old (though no less fun for it) interpretive dilemma of whether the artwork should be permitted to speak for itself or be interpreted through the life of the artist.
The prints on view are intimate in size, the largest could be carried under your arm, framed and were shot from 1999 through 2012. After spending time with them as images, it is also rewarding to bounce back and forth to see how the four different photographic processes used — gelatin silver, gelatin silver tea-toned, platinum, and inkjet — impact the emotional quality of the printed images.
None of the images actually show Twombly but his presence is forceful: his signature drips, splashes and painterly glitches unmistakable on walls and floors. Other images linger more on the acute angle of Virginia sunlight raking across walls and blurry interiors through regular storefront windows (apparently Twonbly’s studio occupied a former eyeglass shop on an otherwise small-town America street) have some of the haziness of his monumental canvases.
The pacing of the images and installation is leisurely. The tempo is that of strolling, lingering even, and of unhurried conversations. That feeling is enhanced by the poetic focus and off-kilter framing Mann employs. As she notes in the gallery’s release, “There is a sense of immutable, eternal life. And in these new works there is a sense about Cy’s own continuum—the ongoing quality of his great legacy and his art—it’s not a memorialization, it’s a living thing.”
And in that there is also the sobering, welcome and subtly made point that great feats of creativity are not the exclusive domain of city centers or artist-laden rural retreats: hard work can and does get done in humbler, modest, uncelebrated locales (Mann still lives and works in and around her hometown of Lexington, Virginia).
While the images capture the fleeting and fugitive moments of dust motes and warm light, the question to mull over is are these happy, fleeting moments, like the dead-quiet times on summer evenings when time itself seems to take a break, or is something more disquieting going on. Or both.
The exhibition is accompanied by a lovely catalog with an essay by historian Simon Schama and an interview between Mann and gallery artist Edmund de Waal and by wall text upon entering from a poem by Mark Strand called, “The End.”
“When the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky
Is no more than remembered light, and stories of cirrus
And cumulous come to a close, and all the birds are suspended in flight,
Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing
When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.”
All images copyright Sally Mann and courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.