Putting green, Palm Springs, California, January 2012;
Daiane, New York Fashion Week, New York, New York February 2012
Alligator paw at Farmers’ Market, Quakertown, Pennsylvania, June 2012;
Pool toy reflection, Cherry Hill Farm, Pennsylvania, July 2012
Gumball vending machine, Quakertown Farmers’ Market, Pennsylvania, November 2011;
Memorial at Killing Fields, Siem Reap, Cambodia, October 2011
Pool toy, Cherry Hill Farm, Pennsylvania, July 2012;
Swan, Peabody Museum, New Haven, Connecticut, May 2012
Ishtar Gate, Archeological Museum, Istanbul, Turkey, November 2012;
Kiss impersonator, Las Vegas, Nevada, January 2012
As Susan Sontag wrote in her masterful critique, On Photography, “Any inventory of America is inevitably anti-scientific, a delirious ‘abracadadabrant’ confusion of objects in which jukeboxes resemble coffins.” Her words about the magical detritus of everyday life speak to artist Stephen Posen’s love of the visual world.
Exploring photography with a painter’s eye, Posen has revolved his painting process around the ontology of photography for forty years. In Ellipsis: Dual Vision (Glitterati Incorporated), the artist comes full circle with a series of 174 paired photographs. Blurring the lines between realism and abstraction, Posen uses the photograph as a poet uses the word, each image acting as both the symbol and subject of a larger idea.
Posen has paired his photos based on color, form, content, or some ineffable interface. It is the viewer that is charged with filling in the blanks between the images. The diptychs are playful, poetic, and endlessly compelling complements of visual energy, demonstrating the mastery of Posen’s eye as both photographer and editor. Teasing elusive connections with his provocative pairs, Posen invites us to participate in the expression of his work and offers a new way of seeing the world, without any preconceived context.
Posen speaks about his life in art with The Click. Of his earliest years, he recalls, “I think that there is no beginning. It’s something that flows from a point that you cannot specify and moves throughout your life, and you continue doing it because it gives you pleasure, and as you get older, it answers your questions. Art is a vehicle for exploration of your being.
“I lived in St. Louis, close enough to the art museum to walk, which I did. It was 1949 and I was ten years old. The museum was showing masterpieces from the Berlin Museum. I went in and it was the most astounding experience of my life to that point, seeing those Rembrandts and Rubens, all the great treasures rescued by the Monument Men who retrieved the artworks the Nazis had looted.
“There is a time of transition, a moment on the cusp of being an artist, an artisan, and doing commercial work. I faced that distinction in university. I was forced into making a decision about a major. I had gone into the Army straight out of high school. When I was discharged, my mother asked me what I wanted to do. I got a lot of pleasure out of creating art and was encouraged to do it from an early age. I was always the kid who drew murals in the back of the classroom and the one who entered the competition for the best Halloween windows.
“To be a fine artist was the pursuit I had chosen, and every step of the way, I was fortunate to have something happen that allowed me to continue, to risk, to take chances, and to rebel. I made the decision and segued into the Yale graduate program, where I received a Fulbright scholarship for two years.”
After receiving his MFA from Yale in 1964, Posen, together with a number of classmates (e.g.,Chuck Close, Richard Serra, Nancy Graves, and Brice Marden) went off to Europe on Fulbrights. Posen met his wife, Susan, in Florence in 1965. Susan was in Florence on the Sarah Lawrence Junior Year Abroad Program studying Italian and Art History. Stephen knocked on the door of Susan’s apartment in a loggia looking for her roommate. Covered in paint (he was an abstract expressionist), Posen asked Susan to join him for dinner. And that was that. The couple has never been apart since they first met.
The couple moved to a Spring Street loft in Soho in 1972. In the early 1970s, groups of artists coalesced to find loft working/living space. Soho was then an anonymous, commercial area filled with light manufacturing. Artists started to move in and fix up the raw spaces. The city instituted the Artist-in-Residence program, which was intended to alert the fire department to the fact that there were people living in the cast-iron front buildings, but legal living with proper certificates of occupancy was some years off.
The Spring Street loft is a classic cast-iron front building of 3,600 sq. ft. Their floor has 12.5 foot ceilings and windows on the north and south sides. Like most of the Soho buildings that were built post-Civil War, the ceilings are covered with decorative tin paneling. When the Posens first moved in, the floors were of soft wood worn down by use so that the knotholes were raised. It was a pretty raw, unimproved space.
Posen has worked in his studio at Spring Street for over 40 years. He has an extreme amount of control over his process: He works with artificial light, and is able to block out ambient, city noise and everyone knows not to interrupt him. He observes, “The use of a space where an artist practices is a given, especially if there are physical materials to be manipulated, and walls on which to place work to contemplate and show others, or open views for sculpture. So for me it is a sanctum to shut out the outside and try to enter into an interior mind space. A studio is unique in the sense that the work that was done there and nowhere else is remembered as having happened there.
“I look for a rhythm in life, in my work, and try to imagine it always going forward, because to understand life, I have to try out the variations that are possible within my imaginative capabilities. Photography has been one step in this process, and it has varied applications within a studio. I am not a studio photographer; I use lights only for specialized projects like photographing paintings or an occasional portrait, but for the most part I am photographing outside the studio, and then evaluating that process by computer in the studio, printing out possible images as I have done for Ellipsis.”
As Posen writes in the book’s afterword, “Walking with a camera is like shopping the aisles of culture. It slices the world into infinite variation and meaning, and suggestions for further adventure. Frequently, I look for the detritus of urbanity loaded with history but isolated from its past context. In this process of isolating and cutting away from reality, the image acquires a new flexibility of meaning. I exploit this flexibility—to blur, soften, hone, formalize or further recontextualize an image already abstracted.
“I then combine two separate images into pairs derived in this manner using several strategies. My intent in pairing two photographs is to create a third and new possibility. More than any process I have worked with, photography offers exquisite decision-making, editing between like images or multiple variations of similar content. It is this editing process, first in the camera, then from my archives of my previously photographed images that is closest to drawing with the camera. This, coupled with pairing, is the place where my sensibility finds aesthetic satisfaction. Rather than manipulate images, I choose them. The seeing (the camera), storing (the computer), editing (the selection) then repeats itself again and again.
“My relationship to photography is somewhat circuitous. I am, and continue to be, a painter as well as a photographer. Indeed my painting practice has revolved around the ontology of photography for forty years. Simply put, I explore photography through a painter’s eye. I do this in my paintings by using drawing and paint to move freely between a photograph’s fictive space and its surface, including the white, iconic border.
“This has enabled me to utilize a fresh approach to photography and led me to make the side-by-side images or ‘pairs’ you see in Ellipsis. This was an intuitive choice derived by reviewing and looking for structural patterns, expressive equivalences, compositional choices, shared content and philosophy in disparate images, shot over a decade, including many from my travels to India, China, Cambodia, Turkey, Morocco and Ireland as well as closer to home, from the streets of New York City and the rural settings of Pennsylvania. This linkage between images provides surprising emotional resonance. I have no narrative intent, but engage in a thought process that creates an elliptical back and forth movement until a poetic occurrence makes itself known for me. I find this process to be self-revelatory. I am able to group and emphasize the weaving of my choices of imagery, revealing attitudes and fears about existence that I would have no other way of expressing.”
Posen’s dedication to exploration through the various mediums of art has allowed him to expand into new areas in search of new ways of understanding life. As he observes, “You only have one life and if you aren’t using your capabilities, you haven’t fully explained the world to yourself. You have to keep your eye on the pursuit of the prize, of what it is to be a sentient human being and what you have discovered along the way. You have to like the challenge of discovering who we are and where we are going. You can’t rely on other people’s discoveries to find yourself.”
Mosque door with curtain, Adana, Turkey, November 2012;
Airplane window, Atlantic Ocean, June 2013
Mosque ceiling, Istanbul, Turkey, November 2012;
Hot air balloon interior, Cappadocia, Turkey, October 2012
High school hallway, Marrakesh, Morocco, February 2011
Drum set at flea market, Quakertown, Pennsylvania, May 2013;
Logs, Riegelsville, Pennsylvania, July 2013
Road through Bethlehem Steel yards, Pennsylvania, July 2011;
Swimming pool hose, Cherry Hill Farm, Pennsylvania, July 2011