St. Paul resident JoAnn Verburg takes her remarkable photographs to MoMA
by Elaine Klaassen
We are all angry at our mortality. We don’t like it that our life has a set length to it, AND we don't like it that we can only be our own selves. One of our big challenges in life is to get away from seeing everything through, and with, our own eyes only. The mark of a great artist— in any medium— is the ability to make possible our escape from the confines of our own defining egos and to help us cross over to where we’ve never been—almost as someone else.
When I read “Les Misérables” it changed what I was aware of. I saw architecture, homes, public buildings, streets and parks completely differently. I saw the meaning of design and its relationship to society. I went around for weeks describing everything I saw in Victor Hugo language, as though Victor Hugo was seeing it, not me.
There’s a photographer in St Paul, JoAnn Verburg, who was chosen last fall for a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City—in 2007. Holy MoMA!!! She’s in good company: Henri Matisse, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollack (as well as the sculptor Lee Bontecou, the painter Elizabeth Murray and the photographer Lee Friedlander, to name a few). Verburg’s work will be accorded new power and prestige by virtue of being seen in the venerable institution where art energy converges into critical mass. But that’s not why I like her. It’s because she lent me her eyes—like Victor Hugo did.
was gracious enough to give me a long interview and, later, one afternoon, to
set up a mini-show for me in her studio. After I left, I was in a state of heightened
consciousness. I’ve always said that if the world was ending tomorrow
I’d go outside and look at the light. Yet, much as I love light and its
colors, I was seeing light as I hadn’t seen it before. I kept seeing colors
and textures and accents and hues in stunning configurations everywhere I turned.
Verburg’s artistic largesse had alerted my senses and had led me into
a timeless matrix of unprecedented spiritual and poetic synapses. I felt high
and oddly happy.
* * *
Verburg told me that “in the beginning everything was about the sun.”
Now, her newest work is a series of portraits all in shadow, relying on the
inner light of the subjects. Verburg keeps on making pictures. Just because
she’s having a show at the MoMA doesn’t mean she’s going to
take a break and have parties. I mean, sure, she has parties but she doesn’t
stop working. The day I went to look at her photos, she and her husband, the
poet Jim Moore, were having a dinner for “vegetarian friends who don’t
(but should) know each other,” and she was also hanging up a new photo
fresh out of the dark room that was going to her April show in Seattle, Poet
Moore insisted on sweeping instead of vacuuming because I was there to look
at photos. He knew the photos would give me a less-than-ideal feeling if I saw
them accompanied by the sound of a vacuum cleaner.
Verburg’s work is very technical and very spiritual. Those two abilities
are not in conflict; it’s not a paradox, but a beautiful balance.
“Missing Children,” one of Verburg’s smaller works, is shiny
and attractive. On a glassy table top there are grapefruits, an apple, a gleaming
yellow ceramic plate, wilting red flowers in a plastic ribbed glass, flat white
pottery cereal bowls, a thick, old-fashioned barrel-shaped glass, an orange
coffee press, and a transparent container of orange juice. They surround a milk
carton with pictures of MISSING CHILDREN. Milk and crumbs pool in the bottom
of the bowls; dregs of orange juice nestle in the glass; and there’s a
little coffee left over in the French press. I’m sitting at the table.
Breakfast is over. The children are still missing.
Verburg calls the theme “the kitchen table, a metaphor for the most personal,
intimate, relaxed and vulnerable place a person might find themselves. It’s
a place of openness.” The photos from these simple day-to-day places are
injected with some kind of printed news from the outside world—unpleasant,
undesirable, terrifying. Unsettling words and images reach someone “in
a dream state.” She says, “One’s politics are determined in
moments of privacy, not when someone’s yelling polemics. What seems so
disparate and separate are a lyrical, beautiful moment and a horrible decision
you have to make that is political. They’re not such separate things—these
pieces have to do with putting a lyrical, private moment together with difficulty—
the political, public difficult side of life ... both aren’t in different
worlds, they are different aspects of the same world.”
I can feel the sublime repose of the couple “Martha and Doug,” from
a series of black-and-white photographs made in the early ‘80s. They are
half-submerged in a swimming pool, and the weight of the water and the weight
of their bodies are palpable. Martha rests her face on Doug’s strong back,
her wet hair wet slicked back, a tiny smile pulling on the corner of her mouth.
The water line and splashes of water on their bodies are sharply delineated.
Water is the medium for their physical and psychological meeting. The water
holds them up so they don’t have to hold each other up. Water is their
bond and their balance. “Julia Breaking Through” is from this group,
which explores the subtleties of balance.
In the hallway outside Verburg’s studio hangs a framed shot of a sand
pyramid. It was the original pyramid that Verburg happened to see on a beach
that led to her recent pyramid series. Since then, artist friends have made
various pyramids for her, and she has photographed them in different lights
and from varying angles. In one of them, called “Untitled (White Pyramid),”
the scarcely perceptible changes of shades in the all-white image dazzle me.
I love its sense of mystery. Visually, there’s nothing that tells you
what the pyramid is made of, where it is, how big it is. It could be in Egypt
or in your basement, it could be 2 inches or 200 inches high, it could be made
of sugar or clay or crushed pearls. Underneath lies the question: “What
does a photo really tell you?” Verburg says, “I like the ambiguity.”
The possibility of religious significance is also there; the luminosity makes
me think of the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001.”
It goes without saying that the pyramids are about something more than three-dimensional
triangles. “As an artist you don’t know what you’re doing—you
find out later,” says Verburg.
In a certain way, the photos of trees, some of which are enormous, are as abstract
as the pyramids. Verburg and her husband have been going to Italy for 22 years
and have a deep connection to an area outside of Rome, where the trees
were photographed. When Verburg showed her sacred oak and olive tree series
at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) a few years ago, her “catalogue”
was a poster of one of the works, with commentary on the back in both English
and Italian. While an important aspect of the photos is the fact that they represent
a Mediterranean landscape, and some of them the ancient olive industry itself,
my strongest response was purely aesthetic. They are so sensual, so composed,
so created. Some of them look like they contain hidden pictures, some look like
they’re in 3-D. It gives me immense joy to involve my sense of sight in
this way. They make me think of the Spanish saying I heard in the beautiful
city of Granada: “No hay pena mas grande que ser ciego en Granada. —There’s
nothing sadder than being blind in Granada.”
presence of the artist’s hand is so strong. There are sharply silhouetted
unripe olives, branches forming shapes like letters of a language, sunlight
reflecting bright orange off a gnarled branch, hidden ruts of a path among the
trees, wishbone trunks growing in clay, textured areas that resemble paintings
by Cézanne or Monet. Verburg goes after a contrast between sharp and
soft. She uses drawings to plan the compositions, spends hours with a tripod
finding the right distance. She has equipment that allows her to texture certain
areas of the photo, stretch things to fit. It is apparent that not only is the
produced result sensual, but the process of making
it is sensual as well.
Besides Verburg’s framed photos, she has created trademark installations
in which she developed film directly to glass. These large, unique works are
all in the Twin Cities—one at the Mill City Museum, two at the U of M
and five at LRT stations, from Lake Street to 28th Avenue. “I created
it [the technique] for my purposes. If someone in another part of the world
also created it, that’s their business. I had a need and created a solution.
I work intuitively, and in the case of public art works, I had an idea, a vision,
of what I wanted that was forming as I talked with the commissioning people,
the people in the neighborhood, other committees, and looked at the site …”
One of the sites at the U of M is Appleby Hall. It’s a glass ceiling with
its own obvious metaphor. Verburg says, “It’s a good physical way
to enter the educational experience, stretched, open and looking up. In the
general college ... there are all kinds of people—you could be almost
in any part of the world. There are nine panels, representing all continents.”
She made collages of her photos of skies and tree branches from China, Tibet,
Her photos of trees on glass can be seen at the LRT stations, part of the effort
the city has made “to create an environment we want to be in, that we
like.” She makes a strong case for beautifying our civic ambient. “If
public art is done in a spirit of trying to be sensitive to where it is, it
can be an inspiring addition to the lives of thousands of people who experience
it every day ... Strangers come in and get an impact, positive or negative of
Minnesota, of Minneapolis, and want to come back—or tell other people
to come. So, those things aren’t measurable in some really simple way
that end up 2 + 2 = 4.”
* * *
All the artists (and scholars) I know want only one thing: the means to continue
doing what they’re doing. They only want fame and riches to the extent
that those things enable them to keep engaging with the materials. What happens
when you’re given a retrospective show at the MoMA? Does it make you rich
and famous overnight, so you can keep making art for the rest of your life?
Verburg is about to find out. When I ask her why she got this show she
says she doesn’t know. “MoMA does exhibitions. The roulette wheel
was spun ... There are a lot of very capable artists out there who qualified.
I don’t think I got picked because I’m the only one who’s
the right person to show. The curator likes my work. The department chair likes
my work. I’m not trying to be overly modest. There are numerous talented
people. I feel very lucky and grateful that my work will have an audience at
that place in that way.”
She doesn’t have a bibliography, a biography or a resume, so I can’t
look up where all her work is. She doesn’t know either. The Minneapolis
Art Institute, the MoMA and many private collectors have bought her work.
curator of the retrospective, Susan Kismaric, began selecting from Verburg’s
enormous body of work at the beginning of this year. Verburg comments that the
show will be “heavily edited ... it will give my work a cohesion that
I would not.”
This week Verburg is helping Kismaric make the final selections, whittling the
initial group of 150 works to 75. They are going through the creative process
of deciding where photos will be placed, how they will be grouped, where the
walls will be. Kismaric will put together notes about the artist and the significance
of her serene, sensual and cerebral work to the larger sweep of art history.
On the phone from New York I ask Verburg about the definition of “retrospective,”
and she says she doesn’t really know. The definition doesn’t interest
her too much. “It suggests you have to be dead,” she thinks. Or
maybe other artists perceive it as “not a fresh young voice.” In
any case, she says it seems Kismaric isn’t exactly thinking of the show
as a retrospective now. Verburg has no idea what the title of the show will
be. She doesn’t care. She’d rather have a “snappy” title
* * *
I ask Verburg, why photography? It has to do with her idea of time. “I
love the way photography articulates time.” When she makes an image of
a tree or a face or a pyramid, she is not “capturing” a moment.
She’s not “stopping time.” For her, photography is about multiplying
time, bringing the present time of the viewer together with the present time
of the photographed image, the present time of the photographed image, of course,
being in your imagination. “I don’t want you not to feel like you’re
in your own body in a gallery or in a room. I want that fictional experience
of the olive orchard to be there in addition. I guess that’s what I mean
when I say you’re doubling time.” She concludes, “You’re
in your own time but you’re also in your imagination in a way that it
doesn’t feel like two different things. My current fascination—
has been for quite awhile now —is the viewer’s time in combination
with implied time of photo—how the two things come together.
“I used to go to a museum in Boston. There was a Vermeer painting there—
which was later stolen. I was doing photos at the time using a similar quality
of time as the painting, “The Music Lesson.” You see the back of
a person at the keyboard. As the viewer, you are sitting in the back of the
room, listening, but also waiting. The quality of looking at the painting felt
very parallel to what it would be like to sit in a room waiting and listening.
That quality of the viewer’s time being related to the kind of time you
could spend looking at photographs was hugely influential.”
When Verburg talks, she paws her words, turns them over and bats them around,
conscientiously rather than playfully, as though owing the thought her deepest
Verburg’s father had a job in industrial photography and there was always
camera equipment in the house. Once at a baseball game, her father offered to
introduce her to a famous photographer and she decided to ask him what she needed
to do to become a photographer. He told her three things, but she remembers
only one: “Always draw.” That was easy; she always had a pencil,
pen or crayon in her hand.
“Do you draw?” She asks me suddenly. I say that I used to quite
a bit. “Then you know that when you draw something you see it differently.”
Yes, that is true.
Her first photo influences were Life magazine and family slide shows. As a child
she half paid attention to Life “bringing in the world.” Her photos
are somewhere between what Life [magazine] was doing and art, she says. Photojournalism
isn’t “true” in the sense most people would call it true,
she comments. It’s “true in a subjective sense.”
In college she discovered the work of Robert Frank, the Swiss-born Jewish photographer
who collaborated with Jack Kerouac, and made a book called “The Americans,”
in which he looked at America from the outside, with detachment and irony. “When
I saw his work I thought photography could be art. It was a different way of
looking at the medium,” Verburg remarks.
I picture Verburg’s photos in my mind, and talk about them to myself,
I unintentionally call them paintings. That’s how they seem, although
they are obviously photos.
Comparing painting and photography she says the first corresponds to fiction,
the latter to nonfiction. “In painting, drawing and sculpture, there’s
no implication of truth as there is in photography.”
* * *
Verburg, who is pretty without makeup, small and trim, grew up in New Jersey,
and came to Minneapolis to teach at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design
(MCAD) in 1981. Before that, the launching pad for her career was a job she
had with Polaroid, in the days when computers were really huge and so were instant-photo
cameras. The machine was a “behemoth, on wheelchair wheels, weighed 300
pounds, could only make vertical pictures, and anything made outside turned
out to be too contrasting.” The pictures were 20 by 24 inches, or more.
Verburg’s assignment was to put together a visiting artist program for
the Polaroid corporation—“to figure out who was working in the art
world whose work was appropriate to work with that new medium ... painters as
well as photographers.”
After three years, Verburg was exhausted, working all the time, and didn’t
have a life. A visiting artists position opened up at MCAD and she got it. Suddenly,
only teaching three and one-half days a week, she felt like she was retired
and finally had time to do her own work, pursue her passion.
Two years later she got a Bush Fellow-ship. She met her husband at a meeting
for outgoing Bush fellows, of whom he was one, and for incoming fellows. “He
said some wise things, which I heard with great interest,” she recalls.
“He also made very good coffee.”
From the beginning of her career Verburg has done enough serious work to be
taken seriously. As an articulate visual artist, she gives gallery talks and
lectures. She honors her own work and her words. I can see how much when I ask,
“How strongly do you feel about people getting it?” and she responds,
emotionally, “Well, they’re not going to get what I got, ever. But
I’d like for people to get something ... I don’t know. How would
I even measure that? How would I even want that? I don’t even know quite
what the language is ... I don’t mean literally but I mean how I would
approach that question because I don’t know what another person’s
life is like and what another person would get out of a work ...” In other
words, she has no interest in telling you what to feel or think, she’s
not making propaganda, and she’s not manipulating you.
father was a scientist-turned-businessman. He was “inquisitive, curious,
fun and loving.” Her mother was very “intense, socially active and
concerned about poor and disadvantaged people. It was great how different they
were—two extremes.” Her parents’ interests and character come
together in Verburg’s work. She was the girl scientist/techie and at the
same time very interested in people. Her college degree was in sociology.
Verburg considers herself lucky to have had the parents she did, a demonstratively
loving grandmother, a safe neighborhood, material well-being and great friends.
She grew up with a lot of support, which gave her the privilege of being able
to take risks. “Not being afraid is such a privilege,” she exclaims.
The intense discipline apparent in Verburg’s work is also part of her
life philosophy. “All of us constantly face the abyss but I don’t
feel that rules out joy ... Even in the worst of times I believe in joy—it’s
almost like a philosophy, and that to, ah, yeah, here’s something I wrote
down maybe 20 years ago. Isaac Dinesen talked about ‘the courage to be
happy.’ I thought that was just the right word. It’s a choice. There’s
a lot of suffering in the world ... I do believe it’s important to stay
in touch with happiness, being balanced personally. My pictures are trying to
find balance in a world out of balance.” ||
Verburg is having a show in Minneapolis, Camouflage, which opens
Thu., May 25, 2006, 6–10 p.m., at the Gallery
Co in the Wyman Building, 400 1st Ave. N., Suite 210, downtown. It will
run through July 22. Gallery hours are: Mon.–Fri. 10 a.m.–5 p.m.,
Sat. 11 a.m.–4 p.m. and by appointment. 612-332-5252.
Verburg’s show at the MoMA
is scheduled for July 10 to October 8, 2007.