Grief and Art: An Uncomfortable Conversation

  • Location:
    Deutsches Haus (NYU), 42 Washington Mews, New York, NY

Grief and Art: An Uncomfortable Conversation

Wednesday, January 11 at 6.30pm
Deutsches Haus (NYU), 42 Washington Mews, New York, NY

Marc Pachter, former director of the National Portrait Gallery, and Heide Hatry will hold a public conversation about her new project: Icons in Ash. which Heide Hatry have been working for 8 years, and which is currently on exhibition at Ubu Gallery, 416 E 59th St., New York

Icons in Ash: Cremation Portraits. The portrayal of the human image arose many millennia ago precisely for the purpose of keeping the dead among us. Not just in memory, but in charged ceremonial objects that were intended to embody and preserve their spirits for their survivors and for the community as a whole. It was a way of integrating the inexplicable fact of death into life, of insuring that the dead and what they meant stayed present and abided in us. Heide Hatry, an intellectually challenging German visual artist working in New York, has created a new technique and purpose for portraiture, employing actual human ashes to create meditative images of deceased people, either at their own behest or that of their families.

The exhibition is particularly relevant and timely in light of the Vatican’s response on October 25th to what it called an “unstoppable increase” in cremation and its issuance of guidelines barring the scattering of ashes “in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way.” The Vatican decreed that the ashes of loved ones have no place in the home, and certainly not in jewelry. While the Vatican was silent on the use of ashes in painting, we can assume that Hatry’s work falls outside its newly articulated “canonical norms” and within its idea of “unfitting or superstitious practices.”

Marc Pachter is a cultural historian who takes a particular interest in American/ European cultural relations. He is Director Emeritus of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution and launched his interest in biography as a literary form as Editor of Telling Lives: The Biographer's Art (New Republic Press). He was called the Smithsonian's "Master Interviewer" when awarded the Institution's Gold Medal. Pachter lives in New York, Bangkok, and Berlin.

Heide Hatry is a New York based German artist, often described as neo-conceptualist, whose work transforms, transcends, or transgresses the customary relationship of artist to both audience and art. Among her fundamental preoccupations are identity, gender roles, the nature of aesthetic experience and the meaning of beauty, the effects of knowledge upon perception, and the human exploitation of the natural world. She studied and taught art at various schools in Germany while simultaneously conducting an international business as an antiquarian bookseller. She has curated numerous exhibitions, has shown her own work at museums and galleries around the world, has created nearly two hundred artist's books and edited more than two dozen printed books and art catalogs. Skin (2005), Heads and Tales (2009), and Not a Rose (2012) both document her own art and amount to collaborative conceptual artist's books involving some of the most interesting thinkers and authors in the world.

Review in Art in America

Tapping one of the oldest and most basic artistic impulses, the twenty or so works in Heide Hatry's "Icons in Ash: Cremation Portraits" commemorate deceased individuals in a fashion that is in some ways orthodox, in others conceptually striking. Black-and-white representational images eerily evoke specific persons, a few famous (e.g., novelist James Purdy), most not. The likenesses, based on photographs, are subdued and respectful. But the primary material-the cremation ashes of each subject portrayed-brings either solace or unease, depending on the viewer. Since these examples from an ongoing project are all commissions, it's likely that the pictures' owners feel an enhanced comfort, a stronger connection to the departed, by virtue of the substrate. Hatry, a German-born artist and former rare book dealer who moved to New York in 2003, is known for projects with a certain queasiness factor: large dolls covered in humanlike pigskin, flowers made from animal parts. Like many of her series, this one is accompanied by a volume of reflections by noted writers and cultural figures-Siri Hustvedt, Jonas Mekas, Rick Moody, and others. -Richard Vine