A series of three untitled prints hanging next to each other on the same wall, each 20 by 25 centimetres and dating from either 1980 or 1981, captures perfectly what is so obscurely magical about the photography of Jan Groover. We see the arms of two children, caught in mid-air; a woman’s legs, sitting down; the lower halves of a man and a boy, sitting next to each other, an arm slung across one leg. In each case it is wholly ambiguous whether the models were caught candidly – if so, how could the photographer have been so fortunate to have captured the arrangement of limbs with such geometric, almost constructivist, precision? But if they are posed, how could the gestures appear so unforced, so natural?
This show at Galerie Paul Frèches hosts 15 photographs, covering the period from 1978, when Groover shot her first still lifes, to 1989, just after her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and shortly before she left the US for France. Groover studied painting, but made her name as a photographer; the uniquely painterly eye she brought to the medium no doubt helped her become one of the first photographers to be featured on the cover of Artforum, in the late 1970s. From the outset, her approach to photography was as abstract as her paintings had been, revealing a secret life of objects arranged according to a seemingly occult understanding of harmony and correspondence. Never having been possessed of a character inclined to the hobnobbing of New York, she remained an outsider to the art world in her adopted home. Up until a sizeable tribute at Photo Levallois last year – the highlight of the festival for many – there had not been an exhibition of her work in France since the late 1970s. Groover died in Montpon-Ménestérol in January last year at the age of 68.
Here, each piece seems to present a surrealist chance meeting on a photographic plate, but without a hint of the satirical intent of Man Ray or André Breton. A Doric column in untitled works from 1986 or 1988, statuettes of a cherub and a hero half-hidden by shadow in one from a year later, may suggest classical allusion and any number of ironic or otherwise deflationary strategies. But there is a sense – particularly in the latter work – that the little stone figure really just wants to become a simple shaped and textured surface, like the crumpled sheet of black paper behind it. This feeling is reinforced by the way the lighting systematically compartmentalizes the corners of the frame – yellow in the top left, red in the top right, blue in the bottom right – suggesting nothing so much as a printer’s swatch or an artist’s palette.
Though reflective surfaces of one sort or another – a stainless-steel surface and the blade of a knife, for instance, in Untitled (1978) – abound in these works, one looks in vain for any glimpse of the photographer or her apparatus reflected therein. Though often dubbed Postmodern by critics, there is no literary self-reference in Groover’s works, no laying bare of the device. The function of these mirrors is rather to break up and distort space with disorientating, almost oneiric effect. Nor will the viewer find reflections of the artist’s biography in Groover’s famously austere reductionism. ‘Formalism is everything’ became her motto. In John Szarkowski’s catalogue essay for the artist’s 1987 retrospective at MoMA, the museum’s director of photography was fulsome in his praise for the ‘chalk lines’ with which she so fastidiously excluded from her work ‘any overt reference to autobiographical, much less confessional, materials’.
If there is, then, a Postmodernist aspect to Groover’s work, it is to be found in a suspicion towards narratives of all sorts (whether grand or petit) in a manner somewhat analogous to Pierre Schaeffer’s conception of musique concrète. Schaeffer sought to take sounds recorded from the natural or urban environment and strip them of their signifying power in order to produce a properly abstract music – as opposed to Romantic music, which he believed worked in reverse, proceeding from abstract musical ideas towards a tone poem suggestive of narrative and concrete referent. Groover likewise reverses the traditional methods of referential painting by working with real objects, and an inherently indexical medium, towards abstract compositions. A fork, a bottle, even a human body, become so many lines more or less curved, surfaces more or less smooth, more or less reflective; concrete tools for dividing and transforming pictorial space. Her still life photographs – in particular the two platinum prints on view here (both Untitled, 1983) – owe as much to the abstractions of László Moholy-Nagy as to the natura morta of Giorgio Morandi.