Tacita Dean’s Still Life: The Artist in His Studio

On view currently as part of the Giorgio Morandi exhibition at the Center for Italian Modern Art are six photographic prints by the artist Tacita Dean, taken in Giorgio Morandi’s studio in Bologna, Italy, in 2009. They depict the mysterious marks that Morandi made on his tabletops, indicating the positioning of the still-life compositions he created, tracings of the myriad bottles and objects in his studio. These still images are related to Still Life, one of two 16mm films that Dean created in Morandi’s studio.

Tacita Dean, Still Life, 2009. Photographic print, private collection. Copyright of the artist.

Tacita Dean has long been fascinated with the artist in his or her studio. Some of the artists who have been the subject of her work include Claes Oldenburg, Cy Twombly, Mario Merz, Julie Mehretu, David Hockney, and Merce Cunningham. Her works are a kind of meditation on the passage of time in an artist’s life, somehow documenting the quiet space of creation and what she calls “the signifiers”—the scribbled notes, the item left on a bookshelf, the marks and materials, the everyday detritus of life lived. Born in Canterbury, England, she lives and works now in Berlin and Los Angeles, where she was recently the Artist in Residence at the Getty Research Institute (2014-15). It was in California that she discovered clouds, the subject of the first gallery of her new show at the Marian Goodman Gallery: “…my English breath in foreign clouds,” which is on view through April 23rd.

Installation view of Tacita Dean exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery. Courtesy of the Artist and Marian Goodman Gallery; photo credit: Alex Yuzdon.

The clouds in LA appeared to Dean to be unconnected to rain, as they are in England, but rather to “imperceptible activity of winds high above the earth’s surface,” and they inspired an incredible series of drawings made using spray chalk, white charcoal and gouache on salvaged Victorian-era school blackboards, as well as lithographs she produced with Gemini G.E.L. She titled each of the 50 works in “A Concordance of Fifty American Clouds” by drawing on Shakespeare’s rich descriptive language for clouds, with the title for the exhibition itself coming from Richard II.

The show also features a new 16mm film called Portraits (2016), which portrays David Hockney in his studio smoking a cigarette; as well as two other recent films, Buon Fresco (2014) and Event for a Stage (2015).

Tacita Dean, Portraits, 2016, 16mm color film, optical sound, 16 minutes, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Tacita Dean, Portraits, 2016, 16mm color film, optical sound, 16 minutes, installation view.
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

Dean’s film Buon Fresco was created in 2014, as part of the 800th anniversary celebrations of St. Francis’ pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. She has since childhood felt a deep affection for St. Francis, as the first saint who was a real man, who embodied a real humanity. She saw his life coinciding with the moment that Giotto began to bring naturalism into early Renaissance painting, and so she chose for her St. Francis project to film the frescoes in the Upper Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. Dean sought to have Giotto’s perspective, to film the frescoes at remarkably close range. She worked with a macro lens, photographing tiny details and capturing the extremely modern mark-making of the artist—uncovering a world completely invisible to the visitor at ground level, who reads the frescoes simply as a painted narrative.

In celebration of the launch of a new book based on the Buon Fresco work, she spoke at CIMA on March 3rd, in conversation with Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director at the New Museum. Gioni, in his capacity as the artistic director of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan, had commissioned Tacita in 2009 to undertake the project on Giorgio Morandi. It was an exceptional experience to hear the two of them discuss this work and how it came to be while surrounded by paintings of Morandi’s.

To watch the video of the conversation between Tacita Dean and Massimiliano Gioni, click here.


Tacita Dean in conversation with Massimiliano Gioni at the Center for Italian Modern Art. Still image from the video of the event; courtesy Geoff Feinberg.

During the course of the evening, we also had the privilege of screening Day for Night, a ten-minute color 16mm film, the second film that Dean created in Morandi’s studio. Sitting in the darkened gallery and having a still-life scene from the studio appear, with the only sound the flickering stutter of an old movie projector, was magical.

Gioni singled out “this refusal of an idea of time that is married to production” that he found in Dean’s work. He incisively explained that the demand that Tacita Dean or Giorgio Morandi makes of you is to slow down, to look attentively, to abandon yourself. In his eyes, it makes the work particularly radical. In an age today when time is compressed and accelerated, to slow down and look is the most radical thing you can do. Dean echoed this sentiment, explaining that it is harder to daydream now, which is as an active state lost to us today, since we are so attached to our devices and phones. “I regret those periods of emptiness that were so nourishing when I was young,” she told the audience at CIMA.

In her exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery one large room is dedicated to GAETA, 2015 – Fifty photographs, plus one, a mesmerizing series of photographs that Dean took in Cy Twombly’s studio in the sunlit harbor town of Gaeta, Italy, some 60 miles north of Naples, in 2008. These photos seem so redolent of life, one experiences a palpable sense of loss or absence at the thought that Twombly died in 2011, three years after these photos were taken.

GAETA Fifty photographs, number 38 (2015) Hand-printed C print on high gloss paper, mounted on dibond Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
GAETA Fifty photographs, n. 38 (2015); hand-printed C print on high gloss paper, mounted on dibond. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.

The curious “plus one”, which sits alone on its own wall, will have special resonance for those who have visited the Giorgio Morandi exhibition at CIMA, or have been fortunate enough to visit the studio in Bologna, which is today a museum. It is a photograph of the fragile brown paper that Morandi tacked up on one wall of his studio, marked with pale colored dabs from Morandi wiping his brushes.

"Plus one". Courtesy of the Artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.
“Plus one”, n. 17342; photographic print. Courtesy of the Artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.