Bartley’s Books in N.Y.C.

Plenty to contemplate in terms of conceptualism, structure, and the use of light and shadow
“Untitled 10‚” from 2009, is one of the photographs featured in a show on view at the Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York City. Mary Ellen Bartley, Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York

The minimal world of Mary Ellen Bartley has been in evidence in group and solo shows around the country and closer to home at the Drawing Room in East Hampton and the Parrish Art Museum, but her first New York City solo exhibition featuring her “Paperbacks” series at Yancey Richardson Gallery is something of an event.

In an intimate room, a well-edited selection of nine of her works hangs with space to breathe on the walls. It could have been tempting to use her minimal compositions as an excuse to pile on the work, but it was very wise to let simplicity and purity draw viewers into the exhibition. Once there, the grouping offers plenty to contemplate in terms of its conceptualism, structure, and use of light and shadow.

The photographer has been taking pictures of paperback books for a few years now, but it is a series she often returns to, “a muse, something that would keep my interest and I could go back to and look at differently,” she said in The Star in 2012.

Attracted to its geometry initially, Ms. Bartley plays with Conceptualism in denying the book’s actual function, to convey narrative and information. Yet, the books have also become a true still-life subject, serving a classical function as memento mori at a time when books on paper have become outmoded or even archaic with the rise of digitization.

But in this room, it is the formal qualities that take precedence. Printed at a standard 16 by 22 inches with a horizontal orientation, the format’s sameness emphasizes the differences between works, which are untitled and distinguished only by number.

Rather than use the book’s showier components such as covers or spines, her focus is on the base, top, and side pages in groupings that might be stacked or placed side to side. Sometimes she constructs separate piles, or skews the placement of the books so that they take on totemic qualities, like the mysterious rock formations of ancient cultures. The diffuse and natural northern light that the photographer uses to take her pictures softens the hard edges enough to invite viewers in, even when the books take up the front of the picture plane, effectively locking one out of it.

What can be startling is how different each book looks, whether it is the shape, width, or even the color and quality of the pages. Most of her images portray pristine, if sometimes discolored, sides, tops, and bases. In some works, however, she introduces remaindered or used books, which have the black marker line that is a sign of their status. When she incorporates those into the composition, typically just one or two shuffled into the deck, other associations emerge, moving from the realm of Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes of bottles and Rachel Whiteread’s casts of negative space to Barnett Newman’s zips.

The works on view are either some of her earliest from five years ago or from this year. At a time when much art seems to take for granted the visual saturation we confront every day in our interactions on a computer screen, Ms. Bartley reins it in, instead of competing with it. This makes experiencing her images as gratifying as reconnecting with a book in its more traditional role to impart information or a story. In the second dimension, its tactile qualities seduce viewers, reminding them of an intimacy so often missing in digitized interaction.

The exhibition is on view through Oct. 18. A solo exhibition, “Mary Ellen Bartley: Leaning Above the Page,” will open at Guild Hall on Oct. 25.