An Alchemical Collaboration: Edmund de Waal and Sally Mann at Gagosian

A new exhibition illustrates why the artists were drawn together.

“White is not a stripping back to reveal, but a starting place,” wrote Edmund de Waal. “A page, a wall, a handful of white clay, porcelain, a block of stone. It is the pull and push between the object and its shadow.”

Left: Edmund de Waal, “untitled (an exchange of territory, or world),” 2023 (detail), porcelain, silver, aluminum, and glass, 15 × 19 3/4 × 4 inches (38 × 50 × 10 cm) © Edmund de Waal. Photo: Alzbeta Jaresova. Right: Sally Mann, “Platinum, Stone #10,” 2022 (detail), platinum/palladium print, 8 × 10 inches (20.3 × 25.4 cm), edition of 3 + 1 AP © Sally Mann. Photo Rob McKeever

Black too can be an opening, revealing what is hidden and unknown. The interplay of black and white is expressed in both Edmund de Waal’s sculptures and Sally Mann’s photographs. Together, they produce a mysterious alchemy on view in an exhibition at Gagosian in New York opening this week: to light, and then return . The title of the show comes from Emily Dickinson, who wrote, “The spry Arms of the Wind / If I could crawl between / I have an errand imminent / To an adjoining zone.” The poem ends with “and hold the wick of mine to it / to light, and then return‒”

The adjoining zone where de Waal and Mann meet is this exhibition. The materiality of both their work links them, as does their use of overlapping space, texture, light and shadow. Edmund de Waal’s work is framed in white or black cases, with vessels grouped, Morandi-like, standing erect in stillness. Sally Mann’s tintypes are gray whispers barely captured. Wisps of movement, fleeting breaths caught. Both are non-narrative, shifting translucencies.

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Tintypes, invented in 1851, are complex to produce. The process involves coating a metal plate with collodion and a light-sensitive solution. Using this technically difficult nineteenth-century technique, Mann captures these still lifes using a “unique collodion wet-plate positive on anodized aluminum with sandarac varnish or with soluvar varnish.” The ghost-like pictures are evocative abstracts, as if the image is held in the moment of disappearing, like vapor, and produce a strange sensation, like vertigo.

Mann photographed tombstones she found at a stonemason’s near her Virginia home, and printed them in platinum and palladium to achieve a soft tonality. Other images in the show depict still lifes of much-used tools. The dark tintypes and light platinum prints feel textured and old. One can only imagine what the original source could have been. They are abstract yet solid, but with no defined edges, disappearing before our eyes. Like the past. Here today; gone tomorrow. An elegiac stance. Poetic. As Mann states in the show’s catalogue: “…objects carry memoires…These are things that have heft and weight, emotional weight…All things have resonance. They have stories.”

Tintype, ‘Still Life #14’, 2019
Unique collodion wet-plate positive on anodized aluminum with varnish
15 x 13 1/2 inches (38.1 x 34.3 cm). Photo Rob McKeever / Courtesy Gagosian

De Waal’s sculptures are cylindrical vessels and tiles made of porcelain, marble, platinum, steel, plexiglass, silver, aluminum and sometimes glass. The black or white groupings stand leaning together or solitary in freestanding vitrines—also black or white. The result is sophisticated simplicity. They, too, feel ancient; hand-crafted, with each vessel and shard unique. The titles allude to poems by Osip Mandelstam, like ‘salt, axe, stars’ from In the yard, I was washing, at night, and from Seamus Heaney, ‘and catch the heart off guard’ from the poem, Postscript. Another wall-mounted grouping in white and silver is titled after Dickinson’s letters: should you think it breathed, and another ‒ I could not weigh myself, myself.

Paired together, de Waals’ untitled (an exchange of territory, or world) and Mann’s platinum/palladium print, Platinum, Stone #10, speak to one another across mediums. While de Waal’s sculptures hold still, Mann’s photographs disappear and reappear, like an elegy that can be celebratory and mournful. “Elegy, yes,” de Waal told Observer. “The necessity and difference of Elegy, of how you remember someone or somewhere without that slippage into melancholy. It’s shared landscape for us both in what we make and write and read. We have lots of shared hinterland in reading.” Mann and de Waal both completed their dissertation on Ezra Pound.

Mann has known Cy Twombly since she was a child, living near him in Lexington, Virginia where she still lives today on her family’s farm, now spanning five hundred acres. In 2016, her photographs of Twombly’s studio, with her writing, were published in Remembered Light: Cy Twombly in Lexington.

“We were introduced in a perfect way,” de Waal said. “Cy T sent Sally my book, The Hare with Amber Eyes. We started to talk. I wrote a short essay on Sally’s images of Cy’s studio. We then had a conversation on stage at the Frick—a proper don’t-know-where-this-is-going-to-go, fierce thinking aloud together. We decided we needed to have an exhibition together. To be in the same space. Four years later, we are here.”

‘and catch the heart off guard’, 2022, detail
Porcelain, marble, platinum, steel, and plexiglass
22 7/8 x 16 1/8 x 5 7/8 inches (58 x 41 x 15 cm). Photo: Alzbeta Jaresova Courtesy the artist and Gagosian

The two artists also share an affinity for writing. Mann’s many books include At Twelve (1988), Immediate Family (1992), Still Time (1994), What Remains (2003), Deep South (2005), Proud Flesh (2009) and Remembered Light (2016). Her bestselling memoir, Hold Still (2015), was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. De Waal is renowned for his family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), which won the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Costa Biography Award, among others, and has been translated into over thirty languages. Other titles include Bernard Leach (1997), The White Road (2015) and Letters to Camondo (2021).

It is no wonder Edmund de Waal and Sally Mann were drawn together. Like de Waal’s favorite writer, Paul Celan, “breathturn” in Celan’s poetry is like the space held between two breaths; breathing in and breathing out. Or as Mann said, “in ecstatic time, where time seems to have slowed.” In this exhibit, gazing at their work, inhabiting the same space, time slows, breath pauses and the work shimmers. Should you think it breathed, indeed.

to light, and then return is on view at Gagosian on Madison Avenue from September 14 through October 28.

An Alchemical Collaboration: Edmund de Waal and Sally Mann at Gagosian