With the innumerable retrospectives crisscrossing US museums, and foundations dedicating floor-upon-floor of wall space, one almost cannot escape the current societal obsession with artists from the ’80s. Amidst all the work of Basquiat, Warhol, Haring and their ilk, gallery-goers will still struggle to find women represented. Fascinating then, and valuable, is the exhibition Artist Portraits from the 80’s at Patrick Parrish—on show from 5 March until 18 April. On the walls of the TriBeCa gallery, visitors will peer at those aforementioned names (among equally famous actors and figures from Downtown New York) all captured with the most intimate intensity by Jeannette Montgomery Barron.
Not only does Barron’s work tingle with the energy of a profound artistic collection unified by style and vision, it also affirms her place among the names of the subjects. Artist Portraits from the 80’s may be Barron’s largest NYC exhibition, but the photographer has work in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art (as well as The Menil Collection, The High Museum of Art, The Andy Warhol Museum, and many other international institutions). From decades of commission and editorials to more than a handful of books, the Atlanta-born photographer’s portfolio carves across continents and categories, strung through with her unique sensibilities.
The Patrick Parrish exhibition can be linked to two immediate factors. First, a visit to Barron’s Kent, Connecticut studio reveals how meticulous she has been in archiving—evident in her physical workspace and within her desktop, too. “I have all my vintage prints in boxes and I have everything in my computer. Being a little OCD helps,” she says. Second, social media started the conversation. Barron had been putting her work on Instagram when Parrish reached out and asked if she would like to have a show. One year later, after Parrish had paid a visit to Connecticut, it came to be.
The origin story behind some of the portraits, however, is far more entertaining. “I met Thomas Ammann, the art dealer, and Matthias Brunner, his boyfriend, in Zurich,” Barron says. “They really liked my portraits and said they wanted to collect them. Thomas also said, ‘You should go and photograph some artists I know in New York.’ He gave me all their phone numbers, so I just called people and asked if I could take their photos.” A point worth emphasizing: this meant cold-calling some of the most famous individuals of the time.
Later, famed art dealer Bruno Bischofberger bought 40 photographs from Barron. “He was literally asking me to go through my closets to see if I had anything else,” she tells us. “That’s the way he collects. I said, ‘That’s it for the day, but I will go make some more.’ He gave me a show and told me he wanted to make a book, too.”
Walking through Patrick Parrish, an arc of ’80s figures begins to take shape, perhaps anchored by one magnetic portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe. Something else becomes evident: an emotional transfer between artists, one as the subject and another designing the moment. Barron remembers each moment clearly. “When taking a portrait, I get really nervous before and I always think to myself, ‘I will fuck this up, I will mess up this time.’ I never mess up. I get inspired by being around creative people.”
Although the time meant so much to her, Barron—who shoots on Fuji and the same Hasselblad she shot her ’80s portraits on (though outfitted with a digital back)—doesn’t idle in nostalgia. “One thing that keeps me focused on the present: I have two kids and I know their friends. They keep me current. That’s a big thing. I never want to live in the past. I have no interest in that. I want to keep doing something new,” she says.
Of those new things, next up is a book with Call Me By Your Name author Andre Aciman, called Roman Hours, due out in October on Ivorypress. To open a door to new collectors, Barron has also released a limited edition print of one of her most iconic Basquiat images for only $500. The exhibition’s limited edition catalogue, designed by Various Projects, Inc., is also unlike any other. Incorporating reprints of Barron’s previously unseen contact sheets, printing notes, and ephemera—as well as the exhibition poster—it’s another way to take home the work of a woman who worked with the greatest and matched their artistic magnitude.
Hero image by David Graver