Barbara Ess - Archives and Piero Penizzotto on view through October 21
White Columns

Now on view!
Two new exhibitions
September 12–October 21, 2023

Barbara Ess – Archives

Piero Penizzotto

Barbara Ess, Have You Ever Experienced Ecstasy?, 1981. Black and white silver gelatin print, 43 x 59 in. © Estate of Barbara Ess. Courtesy of the Estate of Barbara Ess and Magenta Plains, New York.

Barbara Ess – Archives

White Columns is proud to present Barbara Ess – Archives. Featuring materials drawn from the artist’s estate, the exhibition is a partial account of the life and work of Barbara Ess (1944-2021), a hugely influential and mercurial artist who was a photographer, musician, publisher, educator and longtime pivotal figure in the downtown New York art and music scenes. Forming a ‘portrait’ of sorts, the exhibition seeks to illuminate hitherto under-acknowledged aspects of the multifaceted artist’s life and work, underscoring what The New York Times described as a “rarefied position in the space where philosophical inquiry meets the cool-kid avant-garde.” Through her assignments for students, reading lists, diary entries, artist statements, and much more besides, we encounter Ess as continually probing the boundaries of the seen and unseen, what she called the “in here” versus the “out there.”

Barbara Ess was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1944 (although her birth was often publicly dated to 1948.) She graduated with a degree in Philosophy and English Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, followed by a brief stint at the London School of Film Technique. By the late ‘70s she had returned to New York, where, over the next 30 years, she formed a number of bands in and around the city’s No Wave scene including The Static, Disband, Daily Life, and Y Pants among others.

From 1978-87 Ess ran the iconic mixed-media publication Just Another Asshole, often edited in collaboration with her longtime creative collaborator and romantic partner Glenn Branca. Across zines, records, and books, Just Another Asshole gathered together essays, short stories, artworks and more by a truly idiosyncratic – and now iconic – coalition of downtown luminaries including Kathy Acker, Michael Gira, Kim Gordon, Dan Graham, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cookie Mueller, Richard Prince, Lynne Tillman, Martha Wilson and David Wojnarowicz, among many others.

In 1983, Ess began making photographs with a pinhole camera, discovering the process by which she would go on to produce many of the most iconic images of her career. A page of handwritten notes on view in this exhibition, dated to November 12 of that year, notes the discovery: “Today I made my first pinhole photos. One of the most exciting things I can remember. The possibilities (…)”

Many of Ess’ earliest exhibitions as a visual artist coincided with her involvement with White Columns throughout the early ‘80s. In 1981 she, Virginia Piersol and Gail Vachon performed as Y Pants during White Columns’ legendary Noise Fest festival (organized by Thurston Moore); Ess also created the artwork for the subsequent Noise Fest cassette and with Kim Gordon co-curated and participated in Noise Fest’s accompanying exhibition The Big Beat, featuring art by artist-musicians.  That same year she was a part of a three-person show, Books, which displayed artists’ books made by Ess alongside those of Glenda Hydler and Meredith Lund. In 1982 she had an early two-person show with her close friend Susan Hiller at the gallery. Two works believed to have been included in that 1982 show are presently on display: Untitled (Water + Baby (Barbara’s) head) and Untitled (Dogs). Birth, and babies, would often figure in Ess’ work.

A denied grant application submitted by White Columns on Ess’ behalf revealed that the organization and artist sought funding for Ess’ early Census project, in which she photographed the interiors of 11 out of 16 identically designed apartments in her building on Spring Street, including her own, which she cohabitated with Branca. (Census was presented at Franklin Furnace in 1980.) Ess continued to live in the Spring Street apartment until her passing in 2021. (She created work from and about her apartment once again in 2018; following a bad bout of bronchitis that kept the artist homebound for several weeks, images from Ess’ eerily prescient Shut In series would form a component of the artist’s first solo exhibition with Magenta Plains.)

As a beloved professor in the Bard College Photography program for over two decades, Ess’s assignments were frequently inventive, sometimes so much so that they veered into becoming works of art in and of themselves. One such assignment directs students to “use” a photograph in 26 different ways, listed from A to Z. Some of the ways to “use” a photograph are: as a window, as a mirror, as a weapon, as a hiding place, as your mother, to remember yourself, to forget, as your sensorium. A sign hung on her office door, with a quote attributed to Ess but assumedly printed by a student: “There’s a lot of ways to cook this egg.”

Barbara Ess – Archives concludes with the collaborative artwork A Portrait of Barbara Ess, 2021-23, organized by artist and founder of F Magazine, Adam Marnie. Ess was, amongst many other things, a master self-portraitist, but here, across a group of 23 framed photographs by many of Ess’ closest friends, we, the viewer, get to encounter Ess as those who loved her did. A Portrait of Barbara Ess underscores just how important community was to both Barbara’s life and work.

Barbara Ess – Archives has been organized by White Columns in collaboration with the artist’s Estate and Boo-Hooray. The materials in the exhibition have been drawn from the artist’s own archives, with select additional material from Magenta Plains as well as White Columns’ own archives. We hope that the current exhibition will lead to a formal retrospective evaluation of one of the most persistently original artists of the past fifty years.

Barbara Ess – Archives is accompanied by a newly-commissioned essay on Ess’s work by Kirby Gookin, whose diligent work in cataloging Ess’s archives will prove invaluable to future generations of art historians and curators alike.

White Columns would like to express our sincere thanks to the Estate of Barbara Ess; Johan Kugelberg and the team at Boo-Hooray; everyone at Magenta Plains; and Kirby Gookin and Adam Marnie/F for their enthusiastic support of this exhibition.

The Barbara Ess Estate is represented by Magenta Plains, New York.

For further information about this exhibition contact:

Piero Penizzotto, Gracias por todo Ma, 2023, paper mache, foam and acrylic, dimensions variable  

Piero Penizzotto

White Columns is proud to present the debut solo exhibition by the New York-based Peruvian-American artist Piero Penizzotto (b. 1998, Queens, New York.)

Penizzotto constructs uncanny, life-size painted papier-mâché sculptures that explore the artist’s dual Peruvian-American identity through themes of community, friendship, and the ebb and flow of daily life. For White Columns, the artist has created his most ambitious work to date, a new tableaux of several interconnected sculptural works depicting members of his immediate family. Taken as a whole, these imagined scenes of family members variously sharing a hug, chatting, barbecuing, and playing around produce a vividly animated portrait of a family depicted at a distance, but captured with a striking emotional immediacy.

A series of QR codes adjacent to each sculpture in the gallery connect viewers to audio recordings of the subjects of Penizzotto’s sculptures. These interviews may also be found on the bottom of this page.

The exhibition is accompanied by a new conversation between Penizzotto and the writer, cultural critic and curator Carlo McCormick.

Carlo McCormick
: When we first met, you were still in art school and we were just coming out of the worst of the pandemic lockdown, but you seemed a bit disconnected from this big beast of the art world- that you hadn’t found much of a community or context for what you were doing. I remember you telling me that you didn’t see your culture reflected in any of the art you were seeing. Are your sculptures a way of making this absence more visible, of representing or physically manifesting something overlooked?

Piero Penizzotto: Yeah, I’ve grown a lot and have been exposed more to the art world since we first met 2 years ago. Before moving back to NY in 2019, I grew up in South Florida, which didn’t have a robust art scene that my friends and I felt like we could be a part of. We would have conversations about how collectively we can change that narrative that the art world has already put upon us, and thankfully because of Instagram it confirmed to us that other young artists of color from other parts of the USA were also feeling the same at the time. I’d say that we’re now in a renaissance of artists of color being able to have our voices heard, but there are still a lot of issues left to be resolved. Yes, representation is a key driving force in my work, but it’s merely just the starting point. I definitely have a lot more I want to explore in my work.

Carlo: I guess this new work is kind of an extended family portrait, and I’ve got to say just looking at them, so filled with personality, oddity and affection, that without having met any of them before I kind of love your family. Can you tell us something about them?

Piero: Thank you, I wanted to dedicate my debut solo show to them and really take this moment to tell them how I couldn’t have made it here without them. I’ve learned a lot from each of them; my mother and grandmother really carried our family on their backs and I’m forever in debt to them, my father and grandfather are the hardest working men I know and have dedicated their whole lives to the restaurant business, my brother Gianmarco is in the Marines and is living his dream of serving our country, and my youngest brothers Enzo and Maurizio are really bright and funny kids; I can’t wait to see what the future holds for them.

A lot has happened within the past four years. I moved out of my mom’s house and became an independent adult, started my art career and the world was collectively facing a pandemic. It had all hit me at once and all I could think of was just wanting to spend more time with my family. I regrettably didn’t realize that I should’ve made it a priority to make more memories with them before moving out. Now that I’ve finally had that realization, I’m hoping to inspire others to also get to know their family on a deeper level.

Carlo: I’m not sure if it is the same in visual art, but when it comes to writing there is a rule of thumb that one should be careful in portraying family members, that no matter how much we love them we know their faults intimately in a way that can make us assassins. Your family gathering feels like a pretty joyous occasion, but is there still a slight tendency to see our family in caricature?

Piero: I definitely don’t want to come off as if I’m seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses; my family, like everyone else’s, has their flaws. My brother Gianmarco and I didn’t have the best relationship growing up, it wasn’t until we both became adults and were physically apart that we finally started to rekindle our relationship through phone calls and sending memes. The piece Catching up for Lost Time depicts us sharing a laugh together in person. Although this piece is based on imagination and not an actual past memory that we share, I know it will become reality soon. The piece Gracias por todo Ma depicts my mother and grandmother hugging each other. Once in a while they would have arguments, but at the end of the day they are always there for each other no matter what. I’d say the most jarring aspect of this show is that both my mother and father are in the same room, hahaha. Even though they’re both happy now living their own lives doing their own things, having both of them in the same room not arguing makes me wonder “what if…”

So with all that being said, through the sculptures and the interviews of them, this show has been very therapeutic for me. I don’t want to spend this time I have left here holding any grudges, disdain, and hatred towards anyone, especially my family. Looking past all of our flaws, I want to depict the light I see at the end of the tunnel for all of us.

Carlo: To me there’s a huge novelty to you using papier-mâché for your fine art, it takes some time to wrap one’s head around. As a medium it strikes one as very homemade and childlike, almost summer camp craft fair fare, and quite ephemeral in comparison to the monumental instincts of sculpture where marble is great and bronze is better. You clearly like how light and transportable even your full figure sculptures were, and no doubt the affordability of materials was crucial to you being able to make art on this scale, but did you see their frailty and material poverty as a problem or an attribute?

Piero: I definitely see it as an attribute. Papier-mâché came into my life at a time where it was the only possible way I could continue my sculptural practice from home during the pandemic. Realizing that all I needed was a couple of newspapers, glue, and paint to achieve the same, if not better, result as if I were to use wood or metal, gave me the confidence that I’ll always find a solution to the obstacles put upon me. And that’s another message I’d like to carry with my work, always be open to adapt to your practice regardless of the situation you’re in, you’ll come out as a stronger artist.

Carlo: Did you think of Claes Oldenburg’s early work, which was also papier-mâché? His sculptures of the late Fifties and early Sixties have this clumsy charm which is quite subversive, but which he abandoned as he moved into public art, so I wonder if you are absolutely in love with this medium or, like Claes, on your way to a more substantial physicality?

Piero: Funny enough I wasn’t aware that Claes had made papier-mâché sculptures until recently; from photos they do look interesting. Currently I don’t see myself moving on from papier-mâché entirely. I do have goals of creating public artworks in which I would have to create them out of a different material, but besides those circumstances, papier-mâché has a unique quality to it that I haven’t been able to achieve from previously working with wood and metal.

Carlo: I asked you to visit the sculptor John Ahearn at his studio in the Bronx because I thought he would dig what you were doing and that you would benefit from the experience. I know the obvious similarity is that you both make sculptures of people who are not historically rendered that way, but what I really wanted was for you to see how he painted his sculptures. I didn’t mention it at the time because I don’t like to tell artists what to look at, but I love the way John he paints, choosing colors and applying them in ways that are not hyper realistic but super effective in conveying humanness. I get the same sense from your work. It’s fantastic when they are in process because they have that ethereal quality of a George Segal, but when you paint them, they are so alive and present. Did you feel an affinity for Ahearn’s style, and can you talk a bit about your process of painting your work?

Piero: Yes, I really can’t thank you enough for connecting John and I honestly. Being able to learn from him in person and to build a friendship with him is something I really cherish and definitely wouldn’t have happened had it not been for you Carlo. I really appreciate how John has a deep relationship with the person he’s casting, he describes it as collaboration and feeds off of the energy they give to him. Growing up, John Ahearn, Faith Ringgold, and Red Grooms were the three main artists I gravitated to with how they depicted their respective communities. Like them, I focus on painting the necessary details on the person’s clothes and facial/body expressions to tell the narrative. Adding color to them feels like I’m bringing them, and the world they’re in, to life.

Carlo: There’s something really endearing about how your figures are not exactly to real life scale, how they are lifelike and exist very much in our space but feel intimately smaller. I guess size is surprisingly far more relative in sculpture when it is unleashed on the urban environment; how Charles Simonds could create these amazing miniature dwelling places around the city streets (like the ones he created in the stairwell of the Breuer building back when it was the Whitney Museum), while Keith Haring could blow up his subway drawing figures into massive steel sculptures, or KAWS can move fluently between vinyl figure artist toys and monumental public work. Is the size of your sculpture deliberate or just a matter of practicality at this point that may evolve with time?

Piero: Yeah, the life-size scale and the relation to the ground that my sculptures have are important factors in my work. I want to give the impression that the people I’m depicting are in the room with the viewer and that the viewer doesn’t have to look up to them because they’re on a pedestal. Not to say I have a lack of respect towards the people I’ve depicted, but the pedestal materializes the idea of a social hierarchy that I don’t subscribe to. In the future I have plans to recreate environments that I grew up in as full-scale installations while keeping everything life-size.

Piero Penizzotto is a Peruvian-American artist born and based in Queens, NY. Penizzotto’s practice, primarily sculpture and painting, is presented as an ode to the friendships and communities he is a part of growing up in New York and South Florida. He recently graduated from Hunter College with honors with a Bachelor’s in Fine Art. Previous exhibitions include Court Tree Collective Gallery, Brooklyn (2023) and Public Access Gallery, New York (2022).

The artist would like to thank his family and friends, as well as Carlo McCormick, Matthew Higgs, and the White Columns team.

For further information about this exhibition contact:

White Columns
91 Horatio Street
New York, NY 10014
Tuesday–Saturday, 11 AM–6 PM