ALMA EGGER with Joachim Pissarro
Fresh Window Gallery presented the exhibition NightLight from September 5 through October 18, 2014. The two-person show featured the work of Swiss-born painter Marc Egger and Japenese-Russian painter and sculptor, Miya Ando. The exhibition examined our daily interactions with night skies and metropolitan lightscapes. One was able to re-enter the long lost tranquility of the nocturnal experience creating an opportunity of reflection. Both bodies of works are to be seen—and with notably different effects—under day light, and in full obscurity.
The following conversation with gallery owner Alma Egger (also the daughter of the late Marc Egger) reflects on one’s out of the ordinary experience facing these works.
Joachim Pissarro (Rail): Thank you for inviting me to discuss this group of works which I find a complete discovery, revelation in fact, epiphany one might even say in the true sense of the word, because it is like a revelation that comes to light and light is such an important factor here.
Would you want to tell a little bit about how these works came about? I recall that in the first five seconds of looking at this group of works, if I knew nothing of Marc Egger, I would have begun to say that they seem to be generated out of the context of the second New York School people like Olitzky, Larry Poons, or post-Rothko and so on, but this is just the first superficial veil and impression which needs to be superimposed or juxtaposed with a second impression that can only happen once you turn off the lights. Do you want to take us through how these were generated and how you came up with this show?
Alma Egger: My father, Marc Egger started with phosphorescence in 1967 in order to paint a radar. Egger was engaged in digital technique and was interested in the operation of the radar system and so discovered the use of phosphorescent pigments that exist organically or inorganically in nature. These pigments have the property to absorb light and to return it as optical colors and, in a way, its properties are similar to those of radars. Fascinated with these newfound pigments, he examined their possibilities extensively with his color examinations, with which Egger connects to the Homage to the Square (1962) series of Josef Albers, where color and area purely present themselves. He was impressed by the Josef Albers exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1961, which he saw during his first stay in New York. He experimented with phosphorescent paint in what appears as abstract artwork. However, Egger rejects the term “abstraction” for his paintings, because it’s not a reduction of objects, nor a negation of the natural phenomena of the colors. Egger noticed the artistic movements but never integrated into one of the groups. As he grew older and more accustomed to the handling of the paint he was able to manipulate it in different ways. He painted nonfigurative, gesture like, sometimes with literary contents, then again in a controlled geometric manner. In his later work he turns towards cosmic themes.
Rail: So the handling is different? What do we call the paint?
Egger: It is phosphorescent pigment mixed with acrylic paint.
Rail: Phosphorescent pigment mixed with acrylic paint, therefore a water-based medium. So it is mixed with water.
Egger: But at the same time it is more dense and porous.
Rail: You would never know it is acrylic because it has this viscosity, so it looks much more greasy or oily than acrylic.
Egger: In these works you can see the brushstrokes and much less geometric abstraction and more emotion and gesture. There is movement. Through his relationship with Albers he was more interested in geometric abstraction even though that was always superimposed with this interest in radar and so we need to tell the viewer that when they come here they will have two completely different experiences juxtaposed to one another, lights on and lights off.
Rail: Let’s take one painting for example and see what happens with the lights and without the lights. It seems reminiscent of Monet: the notion of alloverness and even the tones—lavender, purplish, mauve. And here you definitely can see a reference to the water lilies. Was he an admirer of Monet’s work?
Egger: Yes, he would always take me to the Impressionist rooms at the Met.
Rail: But you were careful to say that these are not reflections.
Egger: His newest works were more about the cosmos and the universe.
Rail: So these are the newest works?
Egger: Yes, they are all from 2013 and 2014.
Rail: Let’s focus on this painting. We see two planes of color superimposed, one on top of the other, with a nebulous line of yellow, light ocher, yellow-cream, and yellow light-greenish that separates the two planes. The one above is wider than the one below, but not by much, and the one above is composed of tonalities of pink, silver-gray, a few dashes of blue, green, and turquoise. And there are horizontal lines of yellow splattered across the canvas that rhyme with that big horizontal divide. And below one sees very nervously, quickly worked out passages of thinly applied blues, crimsons, and greens, and then the same tonality of turquoise as above. But then here we see dots of yellows. Well, we see dots above as well, but they are not really yellows. Dots of yellows and dots that seem to be the same as the background color, and what I am missing? The painting is signed on the bottom right. In the light it almost looks like it is etched or embossed into the paint itself. It seems the dots come out as well. There is a certain relief, which is in contrast with the thinly applied, quickly painted brushstrokes on the canvas. [Now we turn off the lights.] Suddenly the lights are off and time becomes a very important element here. The first things that jumped out were these lines here. I see four of them—yellow and orange—and then that divide comes up as well and then all of the canvas came out. I would be curious to repeat that experience. In other words, it was not immediate. It grows on you and it captures the retainer slowly, and then it is a completely different story: it is fascinating. What we now see in the dark, the description I gave of the painting being fast and so on, doesn’t fully go away but it is much less obvious than the relationship between the lines and dots. You were telling me earlier that he was fascinated with constellations and this becomes almost like a visual representation of some form of ether skyscape. We don’t know what the line means, but it could almost be like two different constellations: one above the other with shooting stars, it has the sense that things are floating in the stars or a burning meteorite in flames through the cosmos. It’s a totally different sense of what you are looking at. The colors are absolutely different. The yellow creamy ocher horizontal divide is now phosphorescent gold and silver mixed together, and all this, the dominant tonality that emerges out of the canvas is on this purplish background: blue, purple, and black. The black is where there is no color. And then the signature is signed and dated 2013. Do we have here the last work the artist worked on?
Egger: Yes, there are two last ones.
Rail: It is difficult not to mention this—there is definitely a strong spiritual sense in the works. It’s similar to van Gogh’s night paintings.
Egger: Egger really admired van Gogh because of his artistic honesty and how van Gogh talks of suggestive color in his letter to his brother Theo. Color is used suggestively with a strong emotional efficiency.
Miya Ando’s work, “Obon” (2012), is a Plexiglass tank of water with glow-in-the-dark ficus leaves, the leaves of the tree under which Buddha found enlightenment. She is a Japanese-Russian artist who works in Brooklyn. She took these leaves, bleached them, stripped them with a toothbrush until they just were the skeleton of the leaves, and put phosphorescent pigment on them and immersed them in resin. In Japan they have a festival every year where they put lanterns in water for the people that passed on.
I wanted to create a glow-in-the-dark show with my father’s work and the work of a younger artist, to examine the relevance of glow-in-the-dark, so that it is not just a thing from the ’80s. I wanted to create an awareness of our loss of the night skies and phosphorescent occurrences in nature due to the increase of light pollution.
Rail: These leaves are very delicate and fragile and at the same time very precious.
Egger: I worked with my father on picking out what works we would be exhibiting.
Rail: Your father presided over the selection of the show, not just for his own work?
Egger: We worked as a team. I showed him Miya’s work and he liked it and thought it was a good idea to put in someone younger so that they could have a dialogue. Weirdly enough, my father’s works, which were sent from Spain, because that is where he lived, arrived the day he passed away.
Rail: [With lights on again.] Amazing, it hurts the eyes. Suddenly I see yet again the light perception of the work differently. I see the opposition—there seems to be a deliberate complementarity between north and south, above and below. The reddish, pinkishness in the tones on the top is much more obvious. It is almost a play on the three primary colors and an inflection of secondary colors as well—the greens and purples. There is a simplicity to the work which totally belies and contradicts the complexity. It opens like when you start with a little dot and then come across a universe.
Egger: With light it is a landscape and at night a skyscape. It appears reminiscent of the landscape growing up in Mühlehorn, Glarus in Switzerland, with the lake and the mountains and the sky. And there you have a night sky, which you obviously do not have here in New York. With the light pollution you have less and less night sky.
Rail: Cities have killed the night. This is an intelligent group of works—profound, spiritually enlightening, and very powerful.
Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.