Mary Ellen Bartley is known for her photographs exploring the tactile and formal qualities of the printed book, and its potential for abstraction. Bartley’s work concerns itself with geometry and pure form; painterly in style, her photos also invite curiosity about the layered histories of the books themselves. Her photos are alive with questions – about what we do and don’t see and the stories we tell. Yet the spirit of her work provides a reflective response, a respite, from a noisy and chaotic world. By emphasizing the unique “aura” and materiality of printed matter, Bartley’s work offers a celebration of textural and tactile properties, a particularly potent act in this increasingly digital age.
Alongside her minimalist studio arrangements of anonymous books chosen for their specific physical qualities, represented in series like: Paperbacks, Reading in Color and Blue Books, are the projects realized in unique libraries and archives where she responds to collections and their habitats, developing projects over time spent with them. Bartley was a Watermill Center 2015 Artist in Residence and worked with the library there to create the installation and book Reading Robert Wilson. In 2017, she created the installation Library Copies at The Queens Museum working with Andrew Beccone's Reanimation Library. Her series Reading Grey Gardens both archived and reinvented the collection of books at the famed East Hampton estate.
Bartley also worked with the library and music archives at The Pollock Krasner House in Springs, NY. Most recently she was invited to work with the personal library of Giorgio Morandi, the twentieth-century Italian artist whose quiet still life paintings have been an essential source of inspiration from the beginning of her practice. The resulting series Morandi’s Books — meditative, quiet and rigorously observed, affirms her affinities with the painter and furthers her open-ended investigations of artists’ relationships to their books.
Born in New York, NY, in 1959, Bartley received her BFA from Purchase College, SUNY, and she lives and works in Sag Harbor, NY. Her work has been exhibited in numerous institutions including The Queens Museum, NY; The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; Houston Center for Photography, TX; The Drawing Room, East Hampton, NY; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY; The Watermill Center, NY; and National Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Guatemala City. Bartley has taken part in numerous residencies, including Casa Morandi, Bologna, Italy; The Queens Museum, NY; Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY; Penumbra Foundation, New York, NY; and Watermill Center, NY. Bartley's work is in numerous collections, including Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, NY; McEvoy Family Collection, McEvoy Foundation, San Francisco, CA; MoMA Library Special Collections, New York, NY; Parrish Art Museum, Watermill, NY; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; The Watermill Collection, Watermill, NY.