Yto Barrada, Gregor Huber, ed.
(Aperture and Editions Xavier Barrall, 2022)
In 1966, New York-based interdisciplinary artist Bettina began creating photographic portfolios of her works, including her sculptures, abstract photographs, and serial geometric designs. Bettina pasted her carefully composed photo materials onto black paper and labeled each page in white pencil with neatly blocked letters. After a studio fire destroyed all of her work and killed her cat, these photo album portfolios became a way for Bettina to preserve her work and ease her anxiety of losing it again. The desire to archive his own work, which underpinned the philosophy of much of his photographic practice, became a necessity and a means of surviving as an artist after the tragedy of the fire. A selection of these portfolios is reproduced in Bettina and their sleek, simple design style informs the zine-like feel of this expansive book.
Bettina is the first monograph dedicated to the artist who died in 2021 at the age of 94 while this publication was in progress. Like many female artists of her generation, Bettina’s work remained largely unknown during her lifetime. Her first solo exhibition was in 1980 at the OK Harris Gallery in New York and she didn’t have another until this year, when Les Rencontres de la Photographie, an annual photography festival in Arles, France, went up Betina. A poem of perpetual renewal. The exhibition in Arles is a companion to the book and was organized by the publishers – artist Yto Barrada and Gregor Huber – after the book won the Luma Rencontres Dummy Book Award in 2020 (which financially enabled its publication) . In the career of an artist, a gap of forty years is long, and the story of what happened or did not happen during those years for Bettina is certainly the subtext of this publication. What becomes clear as she sifts through nearly 250 images of the artist’s work is that Bettina believed in the merit of her designs, preserving them for a future audience waiting for her.
Since meeting Bettina in 2015, Barrada has been the shepherd of her rediscovery. In her text in the book, she describes the evolution of their relationship. When they first met, Barrada found Bettina overshadowed by the boxes and books that filled the artist’s studio at the Chelsea Hotel. “We see Bettina and understand that a disaster happened a long time ago,” Barrada writes. This sense of doom had been the focus of two documentaries – Sam Bassett’s ‘Bettina’ (2007) and Corinne van der Borch’s ‘Girl With Black Balloons’ (2010) – and it was to Barrada’s credit that she rebuffed the artist’s initial claim that all of his works had been destroyed. Over time, Bettina started unpacking her archives, and in 2019 the two started working on the book. Bringing in Gregor Huber as designer, the three set out to create a monograph with “a punk energy [that would] reflect the raw elegance of Bettina.
Bettina opens with a section on his Xerox works, another method of duplication that propelled his creative output. In the first Xerox, a large line-drawn circle sits in the center of the page with the text “SANCTUARY protect the magic” at the top. The edges of the Xerox are visible in its reproduction, which preserves a sense of the work as an object that exists beyond the page. This untitled Xerox, like much of Bettina’s work, is concept driven and demonstrates her kinship with other artists of the 1960s and 1970s who similarly worked with image and text to catalog information. . But this work also evokes the spiritual registers that Bettina sought to evoke in her works.
The overlap between rigorous conceptualism and an interest in mystical phenomenon is best exemplified by a series that Bettina began in 1977. The fifth point of the compass / New York from A to Z, studies in constant random, fixed focus-Time Lapse, Bettina photographed random events on the sidewalk under her balcony. “I looked over the balcony and saw these people walking below me,” the artist recalls. “And I thought…I’d like to capture that.” You find mystical coincidences when you focus on something hard enough. The artist would continue the series for eight years, creating photographic typologies of pedestrian activities, organized from A to Z. A selection of the photographs from this series are reproduced in the photography section, where editors successfully use the format of the book to create a sequence of linked images that unfold around each page. In the ‘READER’ group, photographs of people walking and reading are printed in various sizes, creating a rhythm that brings out the magical synchronicity of New York, always there if you take the time to look.
Like many of Bettina’s other projects, this series spans from one medium – photography – to others including film, Xerox and concept texts. As artist Robert Blackburn observed in 1986, “[Bettina’s] photography, film, sculpture are one, because the photographic medium is used not only for documentation, but as an inexhaustible source of inspiration from which other disciplines emerge and merge.1 Despite the fact that Bettina often moved from one medium to another, the sections of the book are separated by medium, which makes each section feel like an unsuitable container for what it contains. Works derived from The fifth point of the compass, for example, are displayed in the Xerox, Photography, and Film sections. A chronological structure might have been a more effective approach to clearly presenting the evolution of Bettina’s hybrid practice.
Sometime in 2020, when it looked like the book would never be finished, Bettina wrote to Barrada, “I NEED MY FIRST BOOK TO BE LESS COMPLETE, CHEAPER AND MORE AVAILABLE TO MORE PEOPLE. ” With this mandate, the publishers have produced a book that privileges access to a wide range of Bettina’s works. This democratic selection invites us to explore Bettina’s radical faith in attention.
- Robert Blackburn, “Critical Examination”, 1986, Bettina archives. Quoted in Bettina.