Yto Barrada, Gregor Huber, eds.
(Aperture and Editions Xavier Barrall, 2022)
In 1966, New York-based interdisciplinary artist Bettina began creating photographic portfolios of her work, including her sculptures, abstract photographs, and serial geometric drawings. Bettina glued her carefully composed photo documents to black paper and wrote on each page with white pencil and 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 fear of losing it again. The desire to archive her own work, which underpinned the philosophy of much of her 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 its sleek, simple design style defines the zine-like feel of this voluminous book.
Bettina is the first monograph dedicated to the artist, who died in 2021 at the age of 94 during the production of this publication. Like many artists of her generation, Bettina’s work remained largely unseen during her lifetime. Her first solo exhibition was at the OK Harris Gallery in New York in 1980 and she did not have another until that year when Les Rencontres de la Photographie – an annual photography festival in Arles, France – was held Bettina. A poem of eternal renewal. The exhibition in Arles accompanies the book and was organized by the editors – artist Yto Barrada and Gregor Huber – after the book won the 2020 Luma Rencontres Dummy Book Award (which made its publication financially possible). Forty years is a long gap in an artist’s career, and the story of what happened or didn’t happen for Bettina during those years is certainly the subtext of this publication. What is clear from viewing the nearly 250 images of the artist’s work is that Bettina believed in the value of her creations and preserved them for future audiences that awaited them.
Ever since she met Bettina in 2015, Barrada has been the shepherd of her rediscovery. In her text in the book she describes the development of their relationship. When they first met, Barrada found that Bettina was eclipsed by the boxes and books that filled the artist’s studio at the Chelsea Hotel. “You see Bettina and you understand that a catastrophe happened a long time ago,” writes Barrada. That sense of catastrophe has been the focus of two documentaries — Sam Bassett’s Bettina (2007) and Corinne van der Borch’s Girl With Black Balloons (2010) — and it’s to Barrada’s credit that she overcame the artist’s original claim that all their artworks had been destroyed. Over time Bettina started unpacking her archive and in 2019 the two started working on the book. With Gregor Huber as their designer, the three set about creating a monograph with “punk energy”. [that would] reflect Bettina’s raw elegance.”
Bettina begins with a section on her Xerox work, another duplication method that fueled her creative output. In the first Xerox release, there is a large lined circle 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, allowing the work to be perceived as an object that exists beyond the page. This untitled Xerox, like much of Bettina’s work, is conceptually driven and shows her kinship with other artists in the 1960s and 70s who similarly worked with image and text to catalog information. But this work also evokes the spiritual registers that Bettina wanted to evoke in her artworks.
The intersection between a rigorous conceptualism and an interest in mystical phenomena is best illustrated by a series Bettina began in 1977 The Fifth Point of the Compass / New York From A to Z, Studies in Random Constant, Fixed Focus-Time LapseOn the sidewalk below her balcony, Bettina photographed random events. “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 if you focus hard enough.” The artist continued the series for eight years, creating photographic typologies of pedestrian activity organized from A to Z. A selection of the photographs from this series are reproduced in the photography section, where the editors successfully use the book format to create a series of coherent images that unfold as each page is turned. In the READER group, photographs of people walking and reading are printed in varying sizes, creating a rhythm that brings out the magical synchronicity of New York City that’s always there when you take the time to look.
Like many of Bettina’s other projects, this series extends from one medium—photography—to others, including film, Xerox, and conceptual writing. As artist Robert Blackburn observed in 1986: “[Bettina’s] Photography, film, sculpture are one, because the photographic medium is not only used for documentation, but also as an endless source of inspiration from which other disciplines emerge – and merge.”1 Though Bettina often flowed from one medium to the next, the book sections are separated by media, making each section feel like an inappropriate container for what it contains. Derivative Works The fifth cardinal pointfor example, appear in the Xerox, Photography, and Film sections. A chronological structure might have been a more successful approach to clearly show the development of Bettina’s hybrid practice.
Sometime in 2020, when it seemed like the book would never be completed, Bettina wrote to Barrada, “I NEED MY FIRST BOOK, LESS COMPLETE, LESS EXPENSIVE AND MORE AVAILABLE TO PEOPLE.” With this assignment, the editors have a produced a book that provides access to a wide range of Bettina’s artwork. This democratic selection invites us to explore Bettina’s radical belief in attention.
- Robert Blackburn, “Critical Review”, 1986, Bettina Archive. Quoted in Bettina.