Grids and Threads, Bastienne Schmidt

ISBN 978-3-86859-505-5 https://www.jovis.de/de/buecher/vorschau/product/grids-and-threads.html

ISBN 978-3-86859-505-5


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Mapping with Grids and Threads

Terrie Sultan in Conversation

with Bastienne Schmidt

TS In looking over the course of your career, one of the many things

that stands out is your comfort with many different mediums and

approaches to artmaking—photographs, drawings, painting, collage,

and sculpture. Why do you work in so many disparate mediums?

BS I have always been interested in the concept of duality of process.

The idea of being boxed in to one medium, such as photography,

painting, or installation never appealed to me. By using different

mediums, I am speaking different languages and introducing new elements

to add meaning to the process itself.

TS You also move fairly seamlessly between representation and

abstraction. What is the connecting thread between these two artistic


BS There are a few different things at play. One is my early fascination

with photography, which pushed me towards representation. I was

very interested in working to capture human emotions. But there was

always a very strong geometric component in terms of composing the

picture. I studied both painting and photography in Italy. When I came

to the States, photography took precedence as a way to make a living.

But I never made a clear distinction that one approach was artistically

more important to me than the other. Painting and photography call

for different languages, one is the language of abstraction and conceptualism,

and the other is a language of humanism.

TS That’s interesting because I find that even though the grid works

have a basis in geometric abstraction and minimalism, there is nothing

particularly austere about them. You have imbued them with a

warmer, more human approach to that particular structure.

BS For me, it is intriguing to look at the human touch within the grid.

A computer-generated grid would not be of interest to me, because

it is the little mistakes or imperfections that create that emotionality,

a kind of sub-context in the work that makes it alive for me.

TS Another element that strikes me here is your approach to what

has been traditionally thought of as women’s work, such as sewing,

weaving, and quilting, which you share with a number of artists, from

Alan Shields, Sheila Hicks, to Steven and William Ladd. Do you think

about that when you’re working?

BS I do think about it, but I also liberated myself very early on. I

don’t have to fit neatly into a box; I never did. Some of my approach

to materials is grounded in my having lived in so many different

countries—Greece, Italy, Germany, and the United States—and seeing

how these types of “making” are viewed differently in different

cultures. Growing up in Greece, I was always surrounded by poor

materials—peeling paint, material scraps. And later, I was drawn to

the Arte Povera movement for similar reasons. From all this I gained

a recognition of beauty in imperfection. I’m a wanderer in between

the mediums and between what artistic approach I use.

TS Can we talk a little bit about erotica? Because some of the materials

that you use here strike me as being very sensual.

BS It would have never crossed my mind to think of the work that

way. It’s certainly not conscious on my part. But I do care a lot about

the tactile feeling of materials. I have memories of my mother making

doll clothes and being comforted by the touch of the fabrics.

TS Me too, that touch is comforting in a certain kind of way, but

also a feeling of sensuality. And I have to say, I did find some of your

compositions to be pretty suggestively erotic. Maybe that says more

about the viewer than it does about the maker.

BS Now that you say it, that’s what attracts me a lot in Eva Hesse’s

work. Many of her shapes could be considered more female or erotic.

But on the other hand her images could be read also as archetypical

shapes that have been used for centuries.

TS In this case, I am specifically thinking of the Grids and Threads

Threading Space

Jacoba Urist

In the emblematic 1913 work, 3 Standard Stoppages, Marcel Duchamp

rethinks one of the most fundamental aspects of physical reality: the

distance between points on a line. Duchamp dropped three individual

strings one meter long, from a height of one meter onto a set of

horizontal planes. He then glued each piece of string to the canvas

below in the shape of their fall, creating a curved tool of reference.

If a thread, he said in the project’s instruction notes for replication,

“twisting as it pleases,” retains the length of a meter, a new image of

the unit exists. Both literal and ironic, the Standard Stoppages undermines

our rational assumptions of measurement and the world’s

sense of scale becomes a kind of riddle: what exactly is an interval of

space—if anything significant?

Of course, Duchamp is probably known best for the tenet: It is my

deed of making a selection that makes a work, a work of art. Surely,

the Duchampian meter is an abstraction about dimension—as well

perhaps, as the most readymade of readymades. The artwork, after

all, is really only the smallest strand of fiber, hundreds upon thousands

of which occupy a person’s everyday existence without much of our

thought or emotional energy. Blankets, sweaters, even the most

ornate of textiles, often make up the singular, quotidienne moments

of human existence. And thus, contemporary artists—particularly

in the face of modern atrocities—have adopted fabric to evoke

the universality of suffering. Piles of garments, whether the delicate

snowsuits in Ai Weiwei’s Laundromat to the bright saris in Patricia

Cronin’s Shrine for Girls, conjure a sense of collective responsibility and

personhood. And yet, the Standard Stoppages are a deliberate, aesthetic

reflection—beautiful, yes, in their concept as Duchamp would

say—but also in their ordinariness and humility, slivers of filament on

canvas, grand in a sense of pure visual simplicity.

So too is Bastienne Schmidt’s most recent series of conceptual photography

and geometric figures—captivating in their concept and

their aesthetic integrity. Here, in her new monograph, Schmidt constructs

a deceptively simple tableau of thread and string landscapes,

as well as a collection of systematic meditations on the power of

white space and delicate boundaries. Taken as a whole, she is asking

us to reflect on the arbitrariness of typology: how do artists and

architects bifurcate three-dimensional planes? Or as Schmidt once

posed the question to me: how do we confirm spaces?

Recently, William Eggleston reflected on the speed of his medium. A

photograph is made so quickly, he said, like in a one hundredth of a

second. Today, it is nearly impossible to view an image without a sense

of that split-second motion, where the artist has taken decisive and

irreversible action. Unlike a painter, there is no stepping back for the

photographer to possibly add looser, fuller brush strokes. More than

any other art form, we bear witness to the flicker of creativity and

insight. Even so, as curator Charlotte Cotton describes in her book,

the photograph as contemporary art challenges the particular notion

of the artist foraging daily life, in search of that precise moment when

a great visual appears in her frame. Instead, for the conceptual photographer,

the language is the intent, manifest in each handcrafted

effect and composition. As Schmidt put it once: the medium is the


In the first part of her book, Schmidt shows the world in both exaggerated

and reduced perspective, building her installations from

scraps of recycled fabric, twigs, and colored string, against the blank

canvas of snow—as though there is no true sense of scale. She has

captured the idea of space, rather than any of its tangible conditions.

In this context, there seems to be an inner dialogue with American

artist Fred Sandback. Although, because Schmidt’s thread installations

are photographic, there is an additional layer of process, and her original

artwork endures only a half-hour or so. Her images consider a

reality that purposely ceases to exist, conflating the “real” and the

manufactured world. But both artists, remarkably, delineate boundaries

through a porous approach. A minimalist sculptor, Sandback

worked with elastic cord and vaguely fuzzy acrylic yarn to pose his

own riddle in a sense: the illusion of volume without mass. Sandback

tightly secured thin lines of materials to the floors and walls

of galleries, defining—and redefining—three-dimensional form in

large indoor spaces. His work feels at once ephemeral and structural,

almost as if the work of a magician who has managed to reinvent

the depth of our physical universe. Interiors are elusive, Sandback

explained, you can’t ever see an interior.

Still, Schmidt’s art is deeply rooted in the legacy of raw materiality and

everyday life. There is an underlying pragmatism to each photograph.

One can’t engage her work without references to Arte Povera, the

group of mid-century Italian artists known for their use of found

objects and “poor man’s” materials, such as rope, rags, paper, and soil.

In Grids And Threads, for instance, strings are left undone, frayed to

achieve a sense of authenticity and transformation. For those associated

with Arte Povera, fabric is also indispensable, but has a different

role than it does for artists like Ai Weiwei and Patricia Cronin. At

base, there is a visceral, pre-industrial quality to Schmidt’s installations.

Like a painting or a sculpture, the maker’s hand is evident in each and

every photograph.

The second part of Schmidt’s project—a set of mixed media works

on Arches paper—focuses exclusively on a set of punched-out, 8 × 8

square grids, achieving a woven sculptural result. These are not only

quiet, monochromatic reflections on paper, rooted in the transcendent

traditions of Agnes Martin, Lucio Fontana, and Robert Ryman,

but also variations on minimalism and shape that become their own

kind of spirituality. And it would be a mistake to approach the two

halves of Grids And Threads separately: both reflect the delicate interplay

of perimeter and restriction. In this world of saturated ownership,

Schmidt has said, we stake a property, it is ours. While demarcations

can certainly be momentous—consider the various ways

people mark and honor the dead—they are fraught with problem-

atic implications. In this way, Schmidt’s string constellations become

reminders of the world’s fragility, of the national and private borders

we maintain, both as physical realities (see her previous work Home

Stills, about life’s domesticity) and as social constructs.

Schmidt has described how the physicality of white and the permeability

of paper allows shadows to “fall into the pieces.” As such, her

grids directly engage with Fontana’s legacy of spatial concepts. His

works—collectively known as ‘cuts’—blur our sense of a second and

third dimension, creating an illusion of depth. For his 1950s and 60s

masterpieces, the artist punctured surfaces of canvas, slashing deliberate

diagonal incisions with a sharp blade. I have constructed, he has

said, not destroyed. But if Fontana obscures the distinction between

painting and object, light and shadow, Grids And Threads presents a

kind of fourth dimensionality, carrying his use of perforation into the

realm of photography.

Ultimately, Schmidt is asking her viewers three monumental questions:

How do we keep space? How do we divide space? And how

do our partitions separate and unite us? As Good Fences Make Good

Neighbors, Ai Weiwei’s most ambitious public project to date, illustrates,

borders have particular resonance at this historic juncture. His

interventions—such as placing a gilded cage within the Washington

Square Arch—pondered the political and social impulses we have

to divide ourselves from one other. At the beginning of her career,

Schmidt says she was much more interested in social documentary.

But there is this ongoing dialogue now—a shared language, if you

will—between her painting and her photography, areas Schmidt masters

equally. White, Robert Ryman said in an interview, has a tendency

to make things visible; you can see more of a nuance. And it is through

this similar attention to color—and her bird’s-eye perspective—that

at last, as with Duchamp’s meter, once again we see the universe for

what it truly is: an exquisite, ironic riddle that can not be solved.

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Bastienne Schmidt

is a multimedia artist working with photography, painting and largescale

drawings. She was born in Germany, raised in Greece and

Italy and has lived in New York and Bridgehampton for the past

25 years.

Through photography and mixed media, she explores concepts of

identity and place. Photography and art fall for Schmidt into the

realm of archeology, exploring layers of history and meaning, and

reassigning value to them.

Schmidt was born in Munich, Germany and moved at the age of

9 with her family to Greece. She spent her childhood surrounded

by her father’s archeological work, which instilled in her a desire

to organize, map, and attempt to understand systems through her


Her work has been shown nationally and internationally in over 100

exhibitions among them at the Watermill Center, the International

Center of Photography in New York, the Brooklyn Museum, the

New Museum, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg

and the Southeast Museum in Photography in Daytona Beach,


Her artwork is included in the collection of the Museum of Modern

Art in New York, the International Center of Photography, the

Brooklyn Museum, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C.,

the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Bibliothèque

Nationale in Paris among others. She has published 6 monographs,

among them Vivir la Muerte, American Dreams, Shadowhome, Home

Stills, Topography of Quiet, and Typology of Women. Grids and Threads is

her seventh monograph.

Public Collections

Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France

Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY

Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ

Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Guild Hall, East Hampton, NY

The Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY

International Center for Photography, New York, NY

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, Germany

Museet Fotografiska, Stockholm, Sweden

Margulies Collection, Miami, FL

Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL

Parrish Art Museum, Watermill, NY

Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA

University of Texas, San Antonio, TX

Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England


Terrie Sultan

is Director of the Parrish Art Museum. She has more than thirty

years of experience as a museum professional, serving in senior positions

at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, the

Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Blaffer Art

Museum at the University of Houston. She has organized numerous

exhibitions featuring artists of national and international scope, and

authored some fifty books and exhibition catalogues. In 2003, she

was awarded a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the Government

of France.

Jacoba Urist

is an art and culture journalist in New York City. A regular contributor

to The Atlantic, Jacoba covers long-form contemporary art and

architecture stories that often tackle larger social issues such as how

artists should address human rights and the ways that 21st-century

artwork can amend U.S. history. She has also published numerous

art features in The New York Times and New York Magazine, as well as

artist profiles and exhibition reviews for Cultured Magazine. In 2018,

Jacoba was hired by the Smithsonian and Smithsonian Magazine to

produce and write on the State Of The Arts, a series by the nation’s

institution of cultural record that looks at the role of art and artists

in a world that can feel perpetually in crisis.

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