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The Photograph Five

Mary Ellen Bartley

January 3, 2023

The photographs in Mary Ellen Bartley’s series Morandi’s Books – meditative still life compositions in muted colors transformed by collage elements – are gently disorienting despite their formal precision. Their palette and compositional restraint, not to mention their understated geometry, are clear homages to the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. When the pandemic hit, Bartley was in the midst of a residency at his studio and library in Bologna, Italy, photographing his books. The pandemic cut the residency short, but she began working in her Sag Harbor studio on a series of still lifes and collage works in which she combined her original photographs with vellum, pieces of cut-out paper, or aged glassine typical of the papers that covered many of Morandi’s books. These elements disrupt the visual plane and sense of spatial depth in the pictures, adding a beguiling layer of complexity, visually and figuratively. Bartley’s photographs of the tattered and well-read volumes, many of them on other artists, that informed Morandi’s thinking and his work, make them feel like sacred relics. Morandi’s Books was on view at Yancey Richardson Gallery from October to December and will be on view at the Drawing Room in East Hampton, N.Y., from January 13 to February 27, 2023.

Bartley responded to five questions from photograph.

Name a photograph that brings you joy.
Luigi Ghirri, Marina di Ravenna. This is a perfect photo: it has equilibrium, simplicity, beautiful color, the sea, even a tiny human, yet it’s layered, complex, and playful.

Cover of Twenty-five Years Ago, by Joan Lyons (Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1998)

Favorite photo book?
Twenty-five Years Ago, Joan Lyons, a simple book that shows through the thing itself: the artist’s wallet and the ephemera within, the pre-feminist world the artist lived in. I saw this book at the Visual Studies Workshop Artist Book Library while on a residency there, and it has really stuck with me.

Pablo Picasso, Fruit-Dish with Grapes, 1914. © 2022 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, included in Cubism and the Trompe L’Oiel Tradition

Last exhibition you saw?
Cubism and the Trompe L’Oeil Tradition, at the Met, an impressively well-researched and presented exhibition where I learned the wonderful term papyrophilia, a love of papers. 

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le petit prince allongé sur le ventre, New York, 1942. Courtesy the Morgan Library Museum. Included in The Little Prince: Taking Flight, on view through February 5.

Favorite museum?
The Morgan Library & Museum: To continue with the theme of papyrophilia, they have wonderful shows of works on paper, which include excellent photography exhibitions and, of course, book-themed shows.

Favorite work of art that’s not a photograph?
Any one of a number of Giorgio Morandi’s later still-life paintings with that reoccurring peachy-pinkish box.

Mary Ellen Bartley, Large White Bottle and Shadow, 2022 © Mary Ellen Bartley. Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson