David Matterhorn Captures Life in a Single Dash

“I had Lyme disease, when I was living out in the Hamptons in 2008,” the artist David Matterhorn was telling Gallerist over the phone. “I was complaining about it to a friend, and he illuminated to me that I had a treatable problem. Did I want to make this part of my life?”

“Life,” his friend said, “is just a dash.”

That comment was a eureka moment for Mr. Matterhorn. He began thinking about dashes, and this led him to visit gravestones, where a dash marks the breadth of a single life. He traced the stones, and then decided to photograph them, zooming in closely on just the dash.

The resulting photographs are richly colored fields that show the tombstones with incredible detail. Every little indentation and mark in the stone is visible, and a lone dash–raised from or painted onto or punctured into the stone–sits at the center of each one.

“At first I thought they were aerial photographs from another planet!” rare book and art dealer John McWhinnie exclaimed. He is showing Mr. Matterhorn’s “Dash” photographs at his Upper East Side gallery through Oct. 8, and they had decided to call together. “In the Bruce Lee one,” he continued, “it’s like the monolith scene on the Moon from the film 2001, but it looks like you’re floating over Mars.”

As Mr. McWhinnie mentioned, Mr. Matterhorn often photographs the graves of celebrities like Mr. Lee. He began with anonymous gravestones, but then began chasing more popular names after coming across Jackson Pollock’s grave in the Hamptons. He has done Malcolm X’s dash, which is a rusty gold; Susan Sontag’s, which is gold and serifed, stamped into luscious blue rock; and Man Ray, a deep imprint in tan rock.

When we first heard about the project, it sounded kitschy. But the photographs work. They are intimate and moving but also cold and abstract compositions. The variety of the images that resulted from the simple conceptual conceit is astounding.

Mr. McWhinnie compared the works to German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, who spent their lives photographing types of industrial equipment, displaying them in vast networks of images. Superficially similar, when shown together their their unique aspects become more pronounced, they strengthen and feed on one another. The same could be said of Mr. Matterhorn’s images.

Finding his dashes, Mr. Matterhorn uses a website called Findagrave.com that documents the sites of the deceased. He has traveled the world in pursuit of names. “Going to these places and seeing my idols, connecting with the energy of these places, was a healing journey for me,” he said.

It has also been a project filled with uncanny experiences. At Houdini’s grave, in Ridgewood, Queens, his camera suddenly stopped working, and a strange error message appeared on the screen. “There’s a different energy there,” he told us. “There are energies at many of these places, whether you believe in the hocus-pocus of it or not.” The camera started working again only when he was back on the Long Island Expressway, driving home.

Mr. Matterhorn is also a musician, and he made finding jazz greats a priority. In Westchester he visited the grave of jazz pianist Thelonius Monk. While there, as he often does, he decided to see who else was buried nearby, leading him to Jam Master Jay, of Run-D.M.C., and the singer Aaliyah.

“Are you familiar with Aaliyah?” Mr. Matterhorn asked us. We are. “I had dated a girl that was friends with Aaliyah back in the day,” he continued. “When we went there, my camera turned off. It just wasn’t working. We left, and then my assistant and I came back. I said, ‘Hey listen, this is for my friend, this is not to take anything from you, this is to pay tribute to you.’ The camera turned on for a few shots and then it turned off, and it didn’t work for the rest of the day.”

At the opening reception for the show last month, Gallerist noted that the wine was particularly wonderful, rich with complexities and flavors we have never before experienced at a public opening. It was better than any we had ever tasted at such an event. What was this about? We learned that Mr. Matterhorn is also a successful wine buyer. The name Matterhorn is a nom de plume.

“I wanted people to approach my art with a fresh perspective and clear eyes,” the artist explained to us of his decision to operate under a pseudonym. (The wine in question was white Bordeaux, he told us.) His dealer added, “I think that was a brave call on his part, because he really could have traded on his success.”

We asked if there are similarities between the rare wine and art worlds. “The wines that I’ve dealt with actually have a dash,” Mr. Matterhorn explained to us. “They can have an amazingly long arc. Top-notch Bordeaux and Burgundies have a similar life span to a human. ‘82 Lafite Rothschild is going to live 70 to 100 years, not far off what a healthy person can expect to live. It’s basically time in a bottle.”

Given his fascination with gravestones, we were compelled to ask what he planned for his dash, thinking this was a unique line of questioning. “A lot of people ask me that,” he said. He laughed. “My own dash, like everyone’s, is a work in progress. I’m working on a piece about that.”

Mr. McWhinnie jumped back into the conversation. “Artistically, he has something up his sleeve,” he said. “I think that is something that David Matterhorn the artist is going to be working on for the rest of his life.”


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