More than 70 photographic portraits, landscapes, and still-lifes, anchored by the diptychs and triptychs that have become St. Paul-based artist JoAnn Verburg’s signature, will be on view at the Walker Art Center January 12–April 20.
Present Tense: Photographs by JoAnn Verburg, organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, is presented in a loosely chronological fashion, following Verburg’s diverse investigation of different series over long periods of time—many of which are still in progress. The exhibition progresses from Verburg’s life-size portraits and images of swimmers made during the 1980s, to still lifes in domestic settings from the 1990s, to recent groups of images of Italian olive groves.
Verburg often works simultaneously on her various subjects, ranging from portraits to composed and “found” still lifes to landscapes. They are frequently presented in diptychs and triptychs that demonstrate how the content of a picture can be enriched by using more than one photograph at a time. Verburg’s use of a large-format camera and a radiant color palette make her photographs pleasurable balancing acts that intimately describe the physicality of her subjects while deftly exploring time and space.
Susan Kismaric, curator in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, explains, “Verburg’s work is lyrical and sensuous, and, most compellingly, it is grounded in an attention to human interaction—between the people in her pictures, and between her work and its audience—which keeps both artist and viewers perpetually approaching a threshold between searching and finding. Verburg follows her idiosyncratic impulses about what to photograph. She works in alternating series, and nurtures intuitions and ideas.”
Early Years and Influences
Born in 1950, in Summit, New Jersey, Verburg lives and works in St. Paul and Spoleto, Italy. She began taking photographs at age six, in part due to her father’s encouragement. He worked as a chemist and then as an executive for Ansco (GAF), the American manufacturer of photographic papers. After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1972 with a Bachelor’s degree in sociology, Verburg worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1972–1974). During this period, she met many artists working in mediums other than photography—including Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg—and was inspired by the 1972 monograph and exhibition of photographer Diane Arbus that was organized by MoMA.
Verburg earned a Master’s degree in photography from Rochester Institute of Photography in 1976, the thesis for which was an exhibition she curated at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester. Titled Locations in Time, it featured 19th- and 20th-century photographs and included the work of such contemporary artists as John Baldessari, Robert Cumming, and Jan Groover, juxtaposed with that of earlier artists such as Antonio Giulio Bragaglia, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Otto Steinert. The exhibition addressed photography’s ability to articulate issues of time through serial frames and time-motion studies, ideas that have strongly informed Verburg’s own work throughout her career.
Verburg was interested in the way that performance artists of the 1960s and early 1970s, such as Carolee Schneeman and Hannah Wilke, integrated photography into their work as a means of documentation. She came of age in the 1970s among a group of photographers—Rineke Dijkstra, Nicholas Nixon, Judith Joy Ross, and Stephen Shore among them—who shared an enthusiasm and curiosity about the process of photographing realistic subjects and settings, generating new ideas by viewing the real world through the photographic lens.
In 1977, Verburg, along with photographer Mark Klett and photography historian Ellen Manchester, launched the Rephotographic Survey Project, one of several photographic surveys sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1970s. The project retraced the steps of several 19th-century landscape photographers of the American West, such as William Henry Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan, and attempted to make photographs from the precise vantage points that their forebears had used, providing then-and-now views for a book, called Second View: The Rephotographic Survey Project, and an exhibition. This project prompted her initial interest in multiple-frame works—diptychs, triptychs, and larger serial works.
In 1978, the Polaroid Corporation asked Verburg to launch its visiting-artist program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the 30 or so photographers who Verburg invited to participate in the program—and to take 40 exposures each on Polaroid’s 7-foot-high, 300-pound, 24-by-20-inch camera—were Chuck Close, Jim Dine, Olivia Parker, and William Wegman. Verburg closely observed these artists working, a process through which she gained a new perspective on her own work. She used the camera to make portraits of these artists on the side, including one of Andy Warhol that is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. During her three years at Polaroid, Verburg kept an 8-x-10-inch camera set up with Polaroid film and taught herself to photograph using color film.
Moving to the Twin Cities in the early1980s, Verburg made quick connections to the Walker Art Center and its visiting performing artists, inspiring photographs that are among her best-known images. “I feel a great debt to the Walker’s performance curating. The connection with Walker is huge,” Verburg says. During her first years in Minnesota, Verburg photographed performers at the Walker, including Ping Chong’s Figi Group; the stage director and playwright Robert Wilson, who was working in collaboration with musician David Byrne on the Knee Plays, a music-theater piece; and the Trisha Brown Dance Company, in residence at the Walker in 1981. “The performers really talked about the body, and their language about dance really affected me,” she says. “I hadn’t really thought about the body as an artist, but I definitely felt something when I made my first image. I pinned it on the wall and it was like a magnet—I couldn’t stop looking at it. It gave me more impetus and avenues to pursue in thinking about the viewer as a physical being and not just as a disembodied eye.”
In 1981, Verburg was a visiting artist at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Among her first works made there was a series of multipanel images of life-size heads. Her consecutive portraits of groups of people, appearing in different combinations, suggest connections made, lost, and regained, and examine how individuals define themselves in relation to others. The three-part work With Michael and John in Minnesota (1982) is one of the most striking pieces in the series, due in part to the highly controlled arrangement of the subjects in each frame. The two male figures are the artists Mike Kelley and John Miller, and Verburg herself appears in the third frame. By 1983, Verburg had settled in Minnesota permanently, and her focus shifted to the personal. The three frames in 3 x Jim (1989) form a neat description of a seemingly ordinary moment imbued with a pensive overtone. The work’s gravity lies in the existential idea that people are fundamentally alone as individuals, not knowing what others think or feel from moment to moment; the image is made all the more poignant by the vulnerability of the subject’s naked shoulders.
Verburg also began to make pictures of swimmers at this time, in which she exerted less control over her subjects, relying more on serendipity and accident. She posed friends in an indoor pool in nondescript swimsuits, so as not to suggest any particular culture or time, and set her camera’s tripod perilously close to the edge of the water, with the camera directed straight down. An image of a couple, Untitled (Sally + Ricardo) (1983), clearly describes the intense vulnerability of the woman, leaving the man in shadow, his attention elsewhere, out of the frame. The subject’s expression verges on the anxious, and she seems to look to the camera for help.
In 1984, Verburg and her husband, the poet Jim Moore, visited the Italian town of Spoleto. In Italy, Verburg was able to further explore her interest in paintings by Giotto. A work in the swimmers series, After Giotto (1983), makes formal references to a fresco in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi that depicts Isaac rejecting Esau. The facial expression, hand gesture, and apprehensive demeanor of the subject in Verburg’s diptych resembles that of the woman in Giotto’s work.
In the early 1990s, Verburg began to work exclusively with color film. This move allowed her to render the world in what she saw as more convincing terms, especially the three-dimensionality she felt came with color. She began making series of “found” still lifes and domestic views with newspapers, focusing on the intimate spaces of personal life, as shown in a series that depicts her husband reading or sleeping.
Secrets: Iraq (1991), a tabletop still life featuring a cup of coffee and that day’s New York Times, has been fractured into two views and rejoined as a diptych. Domestic tranquility has been rendered, but it is disrupted by the newspaper, which is a reminder of the violent world outside the photo frame—happening simultaneously, but silent, and visible to most people only through the picture. Frequently the still lifes depict newspapers reporting stories of destruction and loss, as with WTC (2003), in which Moore sits on a sunny porch with potted flowers and reads the disastrous front-page news of the September 11 strikes on the World Trade Center.
Similarly, in Still Life with Serial Killers (1991), commercial postcards of women’s faces, from paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, Georges Seurat, and Paul Gauguin, are propped against a wall next to a waterless vase containing a rolled newspaper that shows images of Charles Manson, the mastermind of several brutal murders, and the infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The harsh reality of the current events featured on that day’s newspaper reach into the serene setting of the picture.
Around 1995, Verburg began a series of photographs depicting the olive groves in the countryside surrounding Spoleto and its neighboring towns. She was impressed with the power and solidity of the trees, and also with the restorative solitude of nature that they signify. She also photographed the sacred woods of Monteluco, south of Spoleto, which were once a site of pagan worship and where holm oaks—believed by the ancient Romans to be the first tree created by God—make the forest mysterious and magical. Shot at dawn and dusk, in beautiful, rapidly changing light, these works often offer more than one frame of a section of the groves. In other works, like Thanksgiving (2001), which measures 15 feet across, six frames are aligned by their horizon lines so that the experience of viewing them is akin to walking off the road and into the trees.
Art on Call Audio Guide
Callers dialing 612.374.8200 any time day or night, inside or outside the Walker can hear JoAnn Verburg talk about her work. Information that is accessed via Art on Call is also available to the public through the Walker’s Web site (newmedia.walkerart.org/aoc) as well as in Podcast versions which can be downloaded to an iPod or other MP3 player.
In the Walker Shop
In conjunction with the exhibition the Museum of Modern Art has published a 184-page catalogue with 111 illustrations and an essay by exhibition curator Susan Kismaric focusing on Verburg’s unique multipanel works in photography’s common genres—the portrait, the landscape, the domestic view—and the way the works investigate the passage of time and the intimate spaces of personal life. Hardcover: $50 ($45 Walker members).
Target Free Thursday Nights
Thursday, January 24
Screening: the Knee Plays, 6 pm
Come early to watch a slideshow of JoAnn Verburg’s photographs documenting the original theatrical performance of David Byrne and Robert Wilson’s the Knee Plays, which premiered at the Walker in 1984. Relive this landmark music-theater work in the same space where it was originally produced by the Walker. With recorded music. 57 minutes.
Contemporary Art in Conversation: JoAnn Verburg, 7:30 pm
JoAnn Verburg’s portraits, landscapes, and still lifes engage the viewer in a push and pull of time. Her images feature bodies floating in and out of space, newspaper headlines that recall past events, and olive trees that belong to no era in particular. Using a large-format camera and an old-fashioned expertise of the mechanics of photography, she imbues her classic subjects with a sense of immediacy. In this conversation with Walker consulting curator Siri Engberg and Museum of Modern Art curator of photography Susan Kismaric, Verburg discusses her 30-year photographic career and muses on the ways artists performing on the Walker stage in the early 1980s altered her view of photography.
Target Free Thursday Nights are sponsored by Target.
JoAnn Verburg and Ping Chong
Sunday, March 9, 2 pm
Free with gallery admission. Meet in the Bazinet Garden Lobby.
JoAnn Verburg and artist Ping Chong have been friends since the early 1980s when she began photographing Walker performing artists. A theater, dance, and visual artist, Chong has enjoyed a long relationship with the Walker; his work was commissioned and presented a number of times throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Hear about their creative friendship during this afternoon of stories punctuated by Verburg’s images. Listen as they discuss their thoughts on the unique experience of working from the margins of race, gender, and location.
Free with gallery admission.
Saturday, January 19, 12 noon
Thursday, January 24, 1 pm
Sunday, January 27, 12 noon
Friday, February 1, 1 pm
Sunday, February 10, 12 noon
Thursday, February 21, 1 pm
Friday, February 22, 1 pm
Friday, February 29, 1 pm