This long-planned exhibition, titled “Formalism Is Everything,” became a memorial to Jan Groover after she died on New Year’s weekend, at the age of sixty-eight. Trained as a painter, Groover turned to photography in the early 1970s and created an engrossing body of street scenes, portraits, landscape views, and, above all, still lifes. This last genre rightfully predominated in this career-spanning survey, which encompassed more than three dozen small and medium-size images. Groover has consistently been described as a postmodern photography, but her pictures have never derived their value from illustrating au courant intellectual theories, as the application of the term can sometimes suggest. Instead, on the evidence of this show, John Szarkowski was correct in his 1993 declaration: Groover’s “pictures [are] good to think about because they [are] first good to look at.”
“Changing space,” in her phrasing, is what Groover thought about most. Her signal achievement was to compose scenes in the ground glass—the sheet of glass used for focusing images in large-format cameras without a viewfinder—and thereby undermine the camera’s mechanical vision. In the best of these photographs, what the lens captures doesn’t always match what one sees. Take, for example, her tightly cropped still lifes of kitchen utensils arranged in a stainless-steel sink. Her lens passively records the quotidian scene in front if it, but the resultant images are estranging: Light is rendered palpable, reflections seem as solid as the objects reflected, and it’s difficult to determine how deep the space is that you’re looking into. These images seesaw between legibility and illegibility.
Groover explored in the studio for the remainder of her career, with regular detours out into the landscape. By the late 1980s, she had crafted a thoroughly unique visual language whose component parts were, first, everyday objects spray-painted in monochrome colors and, second, the sheets of paper against which she had sprayed them. Two untitled color images from 1988, hung on opposite walls in the gallery, use the same serrated column as a pedestal for painted jugs and vases. Other objects are scattered behind the column. The jagged edges of the haphazardly painted backgrounds create optical confusion that prefigures the work of such contemporary “abstract” photographers as Eileen Quinlan. The works likewise evoke the painters Groover studied and admired, from modernists like Paul Cézanne to early Renaissance masters who pioneered the compositional use of perspectival depth. The most recent works included here, ink-jet prints from 2003, reduce the visual complexity to offer what seems like a direct homage to her guiding spirit, Giorgio Morandi. In these photographs, chalkily painted vessels repose elegantly in front of depthless black backgrounds. This visual austerity, however, also erases temporal anchors: For all their simplicity, these photographs are radically indistinguishable. They could be from any moment in the era of color photography, and their subjects from nearly any moment in human history.
Forethought characterizes even the earliest, and seemingly most casual, photographs in the show. These two- and three-panel works, which first gained her art-world notoriety in the late 1970s, depict bland roadside environments, and appear at first glance related to the street photography of Conceptual artists like Babette Mangolte or the vernacular-landscape explorations of Robert Smithson. That may be. Yet a closer look reveals the care with which Groover crafted these compositions, despite taking them on the fly as trucks and cars passed in front of her lens. Streetlamp poles divide the pictures vertically like Barnett Newman’s zips, and activate as well the thin slices of negative space between the prints. Passing vehicles function as abstract blocks of color that lend the works a beguiling syncopated rhythm. In these photographs, as throughout her body of work, Groover forges what is at hand into deeply satisfying aesthetic experiences.