Production still from the ART21 New York Close Up film Mariah Robertson’s Chemical Reactions. (Courtesy: ART21)


How much does artistic intent matter? Many critics over the years have used an artist’s written statement along with biographical details as the basis on which to assess and interpret a work—certainly an easy-enough approach that gives a critic a base for judgments. Yet, as Roland Barthes famously argued in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” once an artist has released their work into the world, an artist’s stated intentions and other such extratextual considerations matter less than what it conveys to an individual viewing the work. “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text,” Barthes wrote, “to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.”

WHAT: Mariah Robertson, Special Online Presentation

WHERE: Van Doren Waxter, 23 East 73 Street, New York,

WHEN: May 13 – May 30, 2020

This argument becomes even more intriguing to ponder when it comes to works of art where not even the artist is entirely in control of what they produce. Thus the appeal, for some at least, of “action painters” like Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, and arguably most famous of all, Jackson Pollock. What Pollock dripped onto his canvases, to some degree, mattered less than the sheer visceral force conveyed in those drips, with Pollock willing to venture beyond logic and easy comprehensibility into the irrational subconscious. Is it possible to make sense of such works except to simply bask in the surfaces, however puzzling they might be?

Consider then works of Mariah Robertson, a photographic equivalent of such action paintings. For more than a decade now, the Brooklyn-based photographer has been creating her own large-scale abstract photographic images through a photochemical process that involves the manipulation of developers and bleaching fixers. (One of her more majestic works, the massive 11, is a part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.) The results can be wild and whimsical, but when it comes to what they “mean” in a literal sense, not even Robertson can necessarily tell you. “I don’t even know what’s happening on, like, 75% of it,” Robertson said in this ART21 New York Close Up segment back in 2014, “and then it’s done and I wash it, and I’m like, ‘That’s amazing! Who did that?'”

One shouldn’t take everything an artist says about their own work as gospel, of course. In Robertson’s case, though, such an admission allows our imaginations to roam free all over her photographs. Currently, interested art viewers have an opportunity to do just that with a special online presentation of some of her work at the website of the New York gallery Van Doren Waxter.

Mariah Robertson, 141 (left) and 181 (right), unique chemical treatment on RA-4 paper. (Courtesy: Van Doren Waxter)

There, one can see works such as 226, in which streaks and blotches of white, demarcated by orange lines, seem to fight with streaks of blue. The whites in 141 and 181 look like fireworks lighting up a sky bathed in myriad shades of blue, while 134 and 135 can be seen as inversions of each other in their stark contrasts of colors. In 183 the streaks of color seem on the verge of being launched, boomerang-style, into a sky just outside this particular photographic canvas.

Mariah Robertson, 183, unique chemical treatment on RA-4 paper. (Courtesy: Van Doren Waxter)

I couldn’t tell you what any of this interplay of photographic colors means any more than I could necessarily make literal sense out of, say, the scratched and hand-colored celluloid surfaces of a Stan Brakhage experimental short film. However, I do know that I’ve generally derived pure sensual pleasure out of seeing Brakhage’s rapid-fire film manipulations projected on a large screen. Likewise, Robertson’s photographs instill a similar sense of delight, even in the physically diminished form of the virtual online exhibition (here’s hoping I’ll get to see these in person hanging at a gallery someday). But then, light versus dark has always been a visual theme that has fascinated me generally. Your mileage will vary, of course. But why diminish the magic by attempting to wrest meaning out of it? As Bob Dylan famously sang, “How does it feel?”