Barbara Ess “Archives”

White Columns

poster for Barbara Ess “Archives”

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White Columns presents Barbara Ess – Archives. Featuring materials drawn from the artist’s estate, the exhibition is a partial account of the life and work of Barbara Ess (1944-2021), a hugely influential and mercurial artist who was a photographer, musician, publisher, educator and longtime pivotal figure in the downtown New York art and music scenes. Forming a ‘portrait’ of sorts, the exhibition seeks to illuminate hitherto under-acknowledged aspects of the multifaceted artist’s life and work, underscoring what The New York Times described as a “rarefied position in the space where philosophical inquiry meets the cool-kid avant-garde.” Through her assignments for students, reading lists, diary entries, artist statements, and much more besides, we encounter Ess as continually probing the boundaries of the seen and unseen, what she called the “in here” versus the “out there.”

Barbara Ess was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1944 (although her birth was often publicly dated to 1948.) She graduated with a degree in Philosophy and English Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, followed by a brief stint at the London School of Film Technique. By the late ‘70s she had returned to New York, where, over the next 30 years, she formed a number of bands in and around the city’s No Wave scene including The Static, Disband, Daily Life, and Y Pants among others.

From 1978-87 Ess ran the iconic mixed-media publication Just Another Asshole, often edited in collaboration with her longtime creative collaborator and romantic partner Glenn Branca. Across zines, records, and books, Just Another Asshole gathered together essays, short stories, artworks and more by a truly idiosyncratic – and now iconic – coalition of downtown luminaries including Kathy Acker, Michael Gira, Kim Gordon, Dan Graham, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cookie Mueller, Richard Prince, Lynne Tillman, Martha Wilson and David Wojnarowicz, among many others.

In 1983, Ess began making photographs with a pinhole camera, discovering the process by which she would go on to produce many of the most iconic images of her career. A page of handwritten notes on view in this exhibition, dated to November 12 of that year, notes the discovery: “Today I made my first pinhole photos. One of the most exciting things I can remember. The possibilities (…)”

Many of Ess’ earliest exhibitions as a visual artist coincided with her involvement with White Columns throughout the early ‘80s. In 1981 she, Virginia Piersol and Gail Vachon performed as Y Pants during White Columns’ legendary Noise Fest festival (organized by Thurston Moore); Ess also created the artwork for the subsequent Noise Fest cassette and with Kim Gordon co-curated and participated in Noise Fest’s accompanying exhibition The Big Beat, featuring art by artist-musicians. That same year she was a part of a three-person show, Books, which displayed artists’ books made by Ess alongside those of Glenda Hydler and Meredith Lund. In 1982 she had an early two-person show with her close friend Susan Hiller at the gallery. Two works believed to have been included in that 1982 show are presently on display: Untitled (Water + Baby (Barbara’s) head) and Untitled (Dogs). Birth, and babies, would often figure in Ess’ work.

A denied grant application submitted by White Columns on Ess’ behalf revealed that the organization and artist sought funding for Ess’ early Census project, in which she photographed the interiors of 11 out of 16 identically designed apartments in her building on Spring Street, including her own, which she cohabitated with Branca. (Census was presented at Franklin Furnace in 1980.) Ess continued to live in the Spring Street apartment until her passing in 2021. (She created work from and about her apartment once again in 2018; following a bad bout of bronchitis that kept the artist homebound for several weeks, images from Ess’ eerily prescient Shut In series would form a component of the artist’s first solo exhibition with Magenta Plains.)

As a beloved professor in the Bard College Photography program for over two decades, Ess’s assignments were frequently inventive, sometimes so much so that they veered into becoming works of art in and of themselves. One such assignment directs students to “use” a photograph in 26 different ways, listed from A to Z. Some of the ways to “use” a photograph are: as a window, as a mirror, as a weapon, as a hiding place, as your mother, to remember yourself, to forget, as your sensorium. A sign hung on her office door, with a quote attributed to Ess but assumedly printed by a student: “There’s a lot of ways to cook this egg.”

Barbara Ess – Archives concludes with the collaborative artwork A Portrait of Barbara Ess, 2021-23, organized by artist and founder of F Magazine, Adam Marnie. Ess was, amongst many other things, a master self-portraitist, but here, across a group of 23 framed photographs by many of Ess’ closest friends, we, the viewer, get to encounter Ess as those who loved her did. A Portrait of Barbara Ess underscores just how important community was to both Barbara’s life and work.

Barbara Ess – Archives has been organized by White Columns in collaboration with the artist’s Estate and Boo-Hooray. The materials in the exhibition have been drawn from the artist’s own archives, with select additional material from Magenta Plains as well as White Columns’ own archives. We hope that the current exhibition will lead to a formal retrospective evaluation of one of the most persistently original artists of the past fifty years.

Barbara Ess – Archives is accompanied by a newly-commissioned essay on Ess’s work by Kirby Gookin, whose diligent work in cataloging Ess’s archives will prove invaluable to future generations of art historians and curators alike.



from September 12, 2023 to October 21, 2023


Barbara Ess

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