"Jan Groover, Postmodern Photographer, Dies at 68"
January 11th, 2012
The New York Times
January 11th, 2012
The New York Times
Jan Groover, whose relentlessly formal still lifes of mundane objects brought a sense of Renaissance stateliness to postmodern photography, died on Jan. 1 in Montpon-Ménestérol, France, where she had lived since 1991. She was 68.
Her death was announced by Janet Borden, her dealer, who said Ms. Groover had been ill for some time but did not specify a cause.
Ms. Groover began as a painter, and though she quickly moved on to photography, many of her preoccupations were the same as those of the painters she studied and admired: Giorgio Morandi, Cézanne, and Fra Angelico along with many other European masters of the 14th and 15th centuries.
Instead of feast tables or objects in the rooms of the wealthy, the still-life tableaus that first brought Ms. Groover to prominence in the late 1970s focused on the everyday implements of the kitchen, arranged in the sink: fork tines, spatulas, butter-knife blades, whorled and scalloped cake pans, shot in such a way as to confound perspective and to transform light into a kind of object itself in the reflective surfaces.
The pictures resonated not only as subtle documents of feminism but also as unusually beautiful investigations of the fictions that are inseparable from facts in the conventions of photography — inquiries being similarly undertaken by other artists of the time, like Tina Barney, Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince.
“I had some wild concept that you could change space — which you can,” Ms. Groover said in a 1994 documentary about her work, “Jan Groover: Tilting at Space,” produced by Ms. Barney and directed by Mark Trottenberg.
Some of the first pictures she exhibited took heavy cues from Conceptualism: triptychs showing, for example, three cars passing the same light pole on a prosaic stretch of street, or three similar suburban houses, echoing Dan Graham’s seminal “Homes for America” tract-house pictures from the mid-1960s.
But even in these pictures her painstaking attention to color and line announced that she was pursuing her own kind of concerns. “Even though it sounds stupid and it sounds cold, ‘Formalism is everything’ is not a bad thing to say,” she said in the documentary.
John Szarkowski, the longtime director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, who gave Ms. Groover a midcareer retrospective in 1987, wrote that “her pictures were good to think about because they were first good to look at.” In this, he said, he considered her a late-20th-century heir to Edward Weston.
Her carefully orchestrated large-format photographs — which came to include a wide variety of objects and, later, people — anticipated in some ways the now-prominent practice of more elaborately staged photography by artists like Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand and by Gregory Crewdson, who studied under Ms. Groover at the State University of New York, Purchase, where she taught for more than a decade.
The critic Andy Grundberg, writing about the 1987 retrospective for The New York Times, credited Ms. Groover with helping to elevate photography from its second-class status in the fine-art world. When one of her kitchen still lifes appeared on the cover of Artforum magazine in the late 1970s, he wrote, “it was a signal that photography had arrived in the art world — complete with a marketplace to support it.”
Ms. Groover was born on April 24, 1943, and grew up in Plainfield, N.J. She met her husband, the painter and critic Bruce Boice, who survives her, in high school art class, where he was impressed by her seriousness and ferocious intellect. “Generally people were afraid of her, I think, then,” he said in the documentary, “and they tend to be afraid of her now.”
She briefly returned to Plainfield to work as a junior high school art teacher after graduating from Pratt Institute in New York in 1965, but then received a fellowship to study at Ohio State University in Columbus. In 1978 she won a grant of several thousand dollars from the National Endowment for the Arts and, after cashing the check, immediately bought her first large-format camera, which she used to photograph the kitchen still lifes.
In 1991, demoralized by what they saw as a deeply conservative turn in American politics, Ms. Groover and Mr. Boice moved from the Lower East Side to Montpon-Ménestérol, a market town in southwest France.
Ms. Groover chose that occasion to buy an even bigger camera and initially used it to focus on the churches, graveyards and landscapes of her new surroundings, pressing even further in her exploration of photographic space and illusion. It was “like playing by myself,” she said, “and it’s fun.”