July 12, 2012  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Surface and Light: Liz Deschenes

Liz Deschenes. Moiré #25. 2009. Chromogenic color print, 54 1/16 x 40 1/8″ (137.3 x 101.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2012 Liz Deschenes

Moiré (from a French textile description) occurs when two patterns (meshes, concentric rings, grids, etc.) are overlaid, creating visual interference at their intersections. In a new photograph in the Museum’s Collection, in which two layers of dots are superimposed, this effect is striking. The optical pulsations of the pattern cause our eyes to cross and our vision to blur. The pattern is reminiscent of the oscillating patterns prevalent in Op art, but here it is unique to photography: mechanical reproduction overwhelming our vision through its (mis)registration. To make this work, the artist exposed a sheet of perforated paper against the bright white expanse of an open window. She recorded two exposures, and then superimposed the two negatives slightly off-kilter on an enlarger.

This picture is one of two important photographic works by the artist Liz Deschenes (American, b. 1966) that have recently entered the Museum’s collection. These acquisitions are the result of a wide cross-departmental look at the artist’s elegant and meditative body of work. The aforementioned large-scale photograph, Moiré #25, was recently acquired by the Department of Photography, while Tilt/Swing (360° field of vision, version 1)—which is made up of six unique photograms—has been acquired by the Department of Painting and Sculpture.

Liz Deschenes. Tilt/Swing (360° field of vision, version 1). 2009. Six unique silver-toned black-and-white photograms, 136 x 192 x 58″ (345.4 x 487.7 x 147.3 cm); installation (room): 206 x 192 x 216″ (523.2 x 487.7 x 548.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2012 Liz Deschenes

The installation of Tilt/Swing is informed by Herbert Bayer’s 1935 diagram of 360-degree field of vision, in which “all viewpoint possibilities” are realized through a ring of panels installed around the central viewer, rather than flush against the wall. In her photogram process for this work, Deschenes exposed sheets of photographic paper to moonlight and then fixed them with silver toner indoors. This cameraless photographic method has also been utilized by the artist in other recent projects, including one for the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and draws from the avant-garde experimental processes of early-20th-century practitioners.

Man Ray. Rayograph (hand, scarf, brush and cotton). 1927. Gelatin silver print (photogram), 11 7/8 x 9 7/8″ (30.2 x 25.1 cm). Gift of James Thrall Soby. © 2012 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

In fact, several examples of photograms from the 1920s are currently on view at MoMA in a collection installation in the Steichen Photography Galleries, The Shaping of New Visions: Photography, Film, Photobook, organized by Roxana Maroci, Curator, Department of Photography. In one of Man Ray’s Rayographs, for example, a slender hand reaches across a tight crisscrossing pattern of woven thread. The “imperfections” in the constructed moiré pattern of Deschenes’s photograph call to mind the shimmers and folds of this area in the Rayograph (likely the precise photogram rendering of a scarf’s weave). Thirty years later, Berenice Abbott (Man Ray’s former assistant) also produced a compelling group of photograms while working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT hired Abbott to create photographs that could be used in physics education; her pictures document scientific principles, including forces and waves. Like Deschenes’s explorations of moiré patterns, Abbott’s highly detailed images of wave patterns are visual captures of naturally occurring phenomena.

Berenice Abbott. Photogram: Wave Pattern, M.I.T. 1958–61. Gelatin silver print, 6 3/4 x 8 1/8″ (17.2 x 20.7 cm). Gift of Ronald A. Kurtz. © 2012 Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics

Light plays a fundamental role in the process of both the Moiré photographs and Tilt/Swing. Moiré #25 utilizes the sun’s rays through an open window, while moonlight manipulates the shading of Tilt/Swing’s components. Deschenes’s elemental use of natural light, together with her frequent use of mirrored surfaces, has been playfully likened to John Szarkowski’s landmark 1978 MoMA exhibition Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960. In Szarkowski’s estimation, some photographers saw the medium as a vehicle for self-expression (a mirror), while for others it could be utilized as a process of exploration (a window). According to the press release for her 2009 show at the Miguel Abreu Gallery, “Deschenes’ [sic] Photographs function as foggy mirrors, and in a wry rhetorical twist upon Szarkowski’s definition it is the viewer’s introspection, rather than the photographer’s, that the dulled surfaces refuse to fully deliver.” Indeed, it is the surface itself, the material and physical presence of it, that serves as the mirror. In Deschenes’s words, her use of mirrored surfaces “takes the idea of the mirror in photography and doesn’t make it a metaphor, but actually makes it an object.”

Gary Beydler. 20 Minutes in April. 1976. Chromogenic color print, 13 5/8 x 18 3/4″ (34.7 x 47.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired with matching funds from David H. McAlpin and the National Endowment for the Arts. © Estate of Gary Beydler

Flipping through my copy of the Mirrors and Windows catalogue recently, I stumbled across an image by the California Conceptual artist Garry Beydler. This picture, 20 Minutes in April, consists of 16 individual photographs, each showing two hands holding a flat mirror up toward the sky. The skies (the sky that forms the background of the scene, as well as the reflected sky in the mirror) are quite distinct in each picture, indicating the passage of time. The work was made in 1976, shortly before the exhibition at MoMA, and shortly before Beydler quit making art for good (though his photographs and films have been recently resurrected in exhibitions such as State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970, at the Berkeley Art Museum). Instead of reflecting the viewer, or reflecting the image-making apparatus (the camera), Beydler’s mirrors only reflect the sky. A project like this one riffs on the traditional photographic signposts of lenses, time, mirrors, windows. Deschenes takes a kind of inspiration from such riffs, but builds upon them, sometimes even literalizes them. As Deschenes has recently pointed out, “photography is capable of representing much more than a moment in time.”