« Le Laboratoire des formes » de Jan Groover

Jan Groover, Untitled, ca. 1989
© Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne – Jan Groover archives 

Jan Groover Laboratory of Forms at the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne

« Technical prowess? I know as much as I need to know and no more. I’m interested in seeing the thing« .

Jan Groover

The creative legacy of American postmodern photographer Jan Groover is currently presented in an unprecedented exhibition at Lausanne’s Musée de l’Elysée.  Drawn from the archive of Groover’s studio which was donated to the museum’s collections in 2017 by her husband, artist and critic Bruce Boice, the show is a result of extensive conservation and historical documentation efforts conducted by the museum.

Spanning two continents, the exhibition covers Groover’s early years working in New York producing urban diptychs and triptychs and her acclaimed Kitchen Still Lifes (which continue to astonish some thirty years on), to her later outdoor compositions explored during her lesser-known time in France. What remains constant throughout is the fundamentally visual aesthetic from a passionate artist, teacher, painter and exceptional maker of alluring and enduring photographic images.

Curated from some 20,000 exhibits by Elysée director Tatyana Franck and collections coordinator Émilie Delcambre-Hirsch, the show includes photographs, negatives, slides, contact sheets, albums as well as preparatory works, exhibition prints and personal notes amassed in November 2018 from Groover’s home in Montpon-Ménestérol, France. 

It’s a great opportunity to benefit from an almost entire work”, says Émilie Delcambre. “MoMA, the Met and even collectors own prints, but most of Jan Groover’s images from the beginning to the very end of her career can be found here.”

The ensemble is indeed a gratifying representation of this late-twentieth century photographer who changed the perception of the photographic genre as an art form. 

Jan Groover, Untitled, ca. 1975
© Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne – Jan Groover archives 

Diptychs, triptychs, polyptychs and moving to a new aesthetic

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1943, Jan Groover studied painting at the Pratt Institute in New York City and later at Ohio State University.  Abandoning the abstract painting she had started with, her focus shifted wholly to photography in 1971. At this point, her first noteworthy pictures began to emerge; a diptych depicting a cow in a field and one other of a white rectangle blocking the view of the animal intimated the fresh, artistic path that Groover would take, away from the photojournalistic trends of the era. 

Of the cow diptych, Groover said “…..Then I played around with trying to figure out, if you have a cow and grass, how do you make the grass as important as the cow? That led me to begin making triptychs. Once you have three pictures, what’s in the picture is nullified by having three”.

Speaking about his wife’s work, Bruce Boice stressed the photographer’s will “that the whole surface of the photo have the same magnetism and the same importance”. Her career-long mantra was to make everything in the frame matter. 

From her studio on the Bowery on New York’s Lower East Side, Groover pursued an experimental approach in all respects. Though photography became her new raison d’être, she continued to explore the same preoccupations of those artists she admired. The influences of 14th and 15th-century masters such as Fra Angelico, as well as Cézanne, Morandi, Edward Weston and the motion photography of Eadweard Muybridge pervade the visual in her oeuvre.

Monochrome polyptychs produced in the early Seventies captured everyday objects – the cow, a coffee cup or an aeroplane flying overhead – and reveal the beginnings of her formal and aesthetic explorations. They were a reflection of the conceptual ideas prevailing in the art world at that time and also marked the period when Groover began to experiment with emerging colour techniques, moving from gelatin silver printing to chromogenic film.

Between 1975 to 1977, her attention shifted towards urban and suburban architecture. Her images capturing the suburbs of New Jersey and of the facades of New York buildings are nostalgically represented in the Elysée show. Particularly noteworthy are the car sequence series from the mid-seventies. Groover was a collector of Muybridge and interested in both the formal and conceptual aspect of his human and animal locomotion studies. Working in sequence to investigate depth and light, her fascination with the relationship between time, space and speed, drove her lens towards cars and other vehicles. Groover photographed them at either a stand-still or at full speed, from near or far, in monochrome or with flashes of primary colour,  and often dissected by a pole or linear element to emphasize perspective and distance between camera and subject. 

Jan Groover, Untitled, ca. 1978 © Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne – Jan Groover archives 

“Formalism is everything”

Groover’s celebrated still-lifes from the late Seventies using kitchen utensils were a turning point in the way photography was seen within the art market. As fellow artist Mel Bochner had earlier noted: 

In 1967 there was no place for photography in a contemporary art gallery. It was almost impossible to get an art dealer to look at, let alone exhibit, anything photographic”

Groover’s formalist flair for elevating the visual through space, light and forms permanently changed that notion and the Kitchen Still Lifes series which she began in 1977 were a game-changer.  Exhibited for the first time at Sonnabend Gallery in 1978, they took inspiration from the peppers, shells, bowls and fruit still lifes of Weston and Strand. Her resolutely formal approach transformed regular objects into superlative visuals and brought a sense of Renaissance grandeur to postmodern photography. Art critic Andy Grundberg, (writing in 1987 in the New York Times) said:  

In 1978 an exhibition of her dramatic still-life photographs of objects in her kitchen sink caused a sensation. When one appeared on the cover of Artforum magazine, it was a signal that photography had arrived in the art world – complete with a marketplace to support it.”  

Jan Groover, Untitled [Mel Bochner], 1980
© Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne – Jan Groover archives

Fierce, formidable, sentimental

Between 1979 and 1991, Jan Groover taught at Purchase College, SUNY (the State University of New York) as Assistant Professor on the photography program in the School of Art & Design.  In a series of recordings conducted specifically for the exhibition, friends and relatives share personal thoughts on Groover. Jed Devine, Professor Emeritus of Art+Design and close friend of Groover remembers her approach:

The expression that she used frequently to encourage students who seemed to be struggling with the increasingly conceptual notions about photography, she would always say “Just follow your nose”. And I think that is critically important  to know about her and how she approached her own work. She’d get a hunch or she’d be in the studio pushing stuff around, spray paint on an object and then see what came out of it. But she was a free spirit that way, just get the scent of something and then pursue it”.

Former student and acclaimed photographer Gregory Crewdson reflects further:

Every aspect of her as an artist and as a teacher, was enormously powerful and influential to me….. The great lesson I’ve learnt from her is how a print on a wall can have significance. What she was interested in primarily, was visual meaning. So, when I frame the picture now, I am committed to the idea that everything in the frame is important. That ultimately the form of the picture that will present and tell your the story. And when I say the form, I not only mean the framing, what’s included in the frame, what’s not, but also the lighting, the gestures, everything that’s part of making that picture. And that’s probably my biggest lesson learned from her.”

At the same time as she was teaching, Groover began to experiment with platinum-palladium photography, a process favoured by major modernist photographers including Alfred Stieglitz, Weston and Paul Strand. She would go on to use the technique for the still lifes, landscapes, portraits and intimate, familiar scenes. Warm monochrome portraits of art world contemporaries including Dorothea Rockburne, Mel Bochner, Romanian art dealer Ileana Sonnabend and Groover’s gallerist Janet Borden line the walls in the Elysée’s lower gallery. Her mother is also present, as are the Body Parts images where anonymous torsos, limbs, hands and feet are gesturally posed as human still life arrangements.

Urban East Coast to southwestern France

In 1991, two years after the election of George H. W. Bush and dismayed by what they considered as a deep shift towards conservative politics, Groover and Boice left the Lower East Side and moved permanently to the Dordogne region of France. Groover purchased a larger banquet camera and began to photograph her new surroundings in France including landscapes, churches and graveyards, her garden and a roadworks site near their house. Boice recalls:

“It was very much like what she was doing in New York except it was outside, because we hadn’t been outside for most of our lives, it was a great space, and so it was exciting.”

Groover continued to shoot some still lifes in her studio but also set up an outdoor stage embracing the new-found space available to her. Pursuing the technique of platinum and palladium in greater depth, she produced several series of the largescale banquets in a specific, elongated format and which conclude the Elysée presentation. 

Jan Groover, Untitled, ca. 1989
© Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne – Jan Groover archives 

Some of Groover’s work has been exhibited many times, including the 1987 mid-career retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Solo shows at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, New York have all reiterated Groover’s exceptional talent. The Swiss show is a comprehensive, scholarly review which presents her 40-year career in its entirety. 

Jan Groover died in Montpon-Ménestérel in 2012.  Through the generosity of her husband and dedicated guardianship of the Elysée team, her work will be conserved and promoted to a wider public, taking its deserved place in the historical canon of photography. 

Jan Groover at the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne until 5 January 2020
For further information go to www.elysee.ch

Exhibition view, Jan Groover, Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne © 2019 oneARTlover
Exhibition view, Jan Groover, Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne © 2019 oneARTlover
Exhibition view, Jan Groover, Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne © 2019 oneARTlover
Exhibition view, Jan Groover, Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne © 2019 oneARTlover

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