For more than forty years, Los Angeles–based artist Uta Barth (born in West Germany, 1958) has made photographs that investigate the act of looking. In her multipart works, she explores the ephemeral qualities of light and its ability to overwhelm and entirely destabilize human vision. In certain series, the repetition of motifs—including aspects of her home—creates a rhythm that suggests movement, carrying viewers from one image to the next. Barth also highlights photography’s abiding connection to the passage of time with her sequential images captured at intervals over a particular period.
This exhibition traces Barth’s career from her early experimentations as a student to later studies of the eye’s capabilities and the camera’s role in helping an artist translate visual information into a photograph. Barth’s most recent work is displayed here for the first time: a project commissioned in celebration of the Getty Center’s twentieth anniversary.
Works from the start of Barth’s career are multifaceted and experimental. They exemplify the fits and starts of a young artist trying to translate complex ideas into physical prints. At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she earned her master’s degree in fine arts (1985), Barth was strongly influenced by theories of the “gaze,” or how the perceptions of individuals define power relations within social dynamics.
The artist’s body plays a central role in many of her works from the 1980s. In their exploration of the physical experience of being looked at or being blinded by light, some photographs are inherently confrontational. Others display words written directly on her skin that provoke questions or form the connective tissue of a sentence. By isolating these small elements of language, Barth rejected the possibility of creating a specific narrative, leaving us with an inscrutable fragmentary text. Devoid of greater context, the photographs appear to embrace the potential for ambiguity in both images and language.
In this series, Barth focused on an unoccupied plane in space, resulting in photographs that appear blurry and make ordinary places and objects appear elusive and ultimately hard to discern. Slivers of architectural details and furnishings are occasionally evident in the images of interior spaces from 1994, but these prints yield little narrative information.
A single photograph in the gallery, Ground #52, presents the central subject, the top of a sofa, in clear focus. Displayed amid prints that make use of blur, this work suggests that crisp detail invites quick glances, while images that are more difficult to understand slow the viewer down. By removing the traditional subject, the artist creates photographs that are more atmospheric than descriptive, encouraging us to consider the very act of looking.
In the 1990s Barth deliberately blurred the focus of her camera to create images that destabilize the viewer’s expectation of a photograph.
The atmospheric urban scenes depicted in the Field series relate to film production stills like those used in storyboards. Barth has likened the works to location scouting, an activity closely associated with Los Angeles and the film industry. Rather than literal descriptions of specific places, these photographs are suggestive of a mood.
In the mid-1990s Barth made ........................in passing.”, a portfolio of images torn from magazines that she cropped to isolate out-of-focus backgrounds, thereby pushing the figures to the edges of the frame. The results highlight backgrounds containing little discernible information, emphasizing the importance of details along the periphery.
The untitled diptychs present an almost stereoscopic view of outdoor spaces. In this series Barth sought for the first time to render a delayed visual reaction through sequential images. The works represent the moment when we passively perceive the world and catch sight of a detail that briefly holds our interest, compelling us to look again. Barth’s second image, made minutes or even hours later, is never the same as the first.
... and of time
In 2000 the Getty Museum invited eleven artists to create works in response to art in the collection. Barth found inspiration in Claude Monet’s Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning, 1891, a painting that demonstrates the role of light in altering the perception and appreciation of a subject. In a series of multipart photographs, she examined the daylight streaming through her living room window, producing variations on the scene of a sparsely appointed interior bathed in warm, soft light. The series underscores how prolonged observation, especially of our immediate surroundings, prompts a nuanced understanding of the mundane.
white blind (bright red)
During a period of bed rest following an illness, Barth found herself looking out the window at power lines and gnarled tree branches visible against a clear blue sky. The experience of prolonged staring at this dense network of interconnected lines resulted in optical fatigue. When she closed her eyes, the lingering afterimages captured her imagination.
Inspired by this experience, Barth rendered the subjects in a highly schematic manner, occasionally reducing individual limbs to thin linear forms. These photographs oscillate between faithful description and an intentionally distorted view that suggests the deterioration of vision.
By interspersing certain frames with planes of nearly solid color and images in which tonalities are digitally inverted, Barth created a dreamlike state in which crisp details and bursts of color are equally disorienting.
Observing the movement of shadows is a long-standing, universal method of tracking the sun’s progress across the sky. It is also an important way of situating oneself temporally and spatially. Exploring the passage of time in her immediate environment by photographing shadows has been a primary concern of Barth’s for over twenty years.
The photographs in Barth's Sundial series were most often made at dusk, sometimes minutes apart. They capture the various qualities of fading light as it streamed through the windows of Barth’s home, bathing the interior in a warm glow. The palette alternates between soft, alluring colors and jarring inversions of hues. The transformed scenes suggest moments of visual disengagement and the afterimages that appear when we close our eyes yet continue to see a version of what we have just witnessed.
. . . and to draw a bright white line with light
In this series, Barth manipulated light to “draw” lines that she then photographed. After noticing a horizontal sliver of light on the diaphanous curtains in her bedroom, she began to maneuver the fabric, altering the shape of the beam, which grew in width in the waning hours of the day. By sequencing the panels to show ever-widening bands of light, she made the passage of time palpable.
The presence of Barth’s hand in one panel reintroduces the artist’s body into her work, after it had been largely absent for over twenty years.
Compositions of Light on White
In her home, Barth observed rectilinear shapes of light cast on a set of closet doors. She strategically opened and closed the window shades to manipulate blocks of light and shadow, organizing them into a pictorial composition.
Over the last decade, Barth has repeatedly drawn inspiration from twentieth-century painters, with a specific interest in artists who continually returned to a motif or method of creation. This series shows the influence of geometric abstraction as developed by the Modernist Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872–1944).
Each composition in this series is divided into three parts. At the top is a long, narrow band of windows, often reflecting fragments of tree branches or a cloudless sky. Along the bottom is a thin band of gravel. An expansive white surface in the center reveals the uneven texture of the rough-hewn plaster wall of Barth's studio, illuminated by Southern California’s peculiarly bright sunlight. The imperfections in this area chart the wall’s retention of moisture over an extended period of dry heat. The surfaces bring to mind the Minimalist canvases of the American painter Robert Ryman (1930–2019), whose career was dedicated primarily to exploring the sheer diversity of tone that could be achieved with white paint.
In the Light and Shadow of Morandi
The prints in this series are awash with colorful refractions and stark shadows of glass vessels. As the title suggests, this body of work is an homage to the canvases of the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964), whose still lifes often feature humble domestic containers rendered in a manner that emphasizes their sculptural forms.
To capture the shadow of the vessels without including her own silhouette in the frame, Barth positioned the camera at an extreme angle and later digitally corrected the distortion. The unconventional shape of these works is the result of parallax, which occurs when an object’s position appears to change depending on the vantage point of the viewer.
. . from dawn to dusk.
Commissioned to make a work in celebration of the Getty Center’s twentieth anniversary, Barth created a multi-panel project responding to the architect Richard Meier’s complex structure. Her tightly formed, gridded installation references the square panels that adorn the Center’s facade, while individual images capture the architecture’s way of amplifying light and casting shadows, which animates parts of the campus as the sun moves across the sky.
Twice a month for a year, the artist set up her camera to make exposures every five minutes from dawn until dusk. Alternating between clear representations of a specific location—an entrance to the Harold M. Williams Auditorium—and atmospheric renderings characterized by soft focus and inverted colors, the work reacts to the sense of overwhelming brightness reflected by the travertine and painted-aluminum surfaces of the site. Barth has described the intensity of this light, enhanced by the architect’s choice of materials, as “viscerally disorienting.” Prints with inverted colors evoke the experience of afterimages, the optical phenomenon of continuing to see a version of what you just witnessed after closing your eyes.