Selected reviews, books, interviews, & catalogue essays > Publications as Author

Sitting at a small table in the dark, illuminated only by a desk lamp, the artist Joseph Kosuth was giving a lecture about his work at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. He appeared to be reading directly from a stack of papers in front of him. As Kosuth wrapped up, he held the last few pages up to the lamp.

To my friend, Dean Kessmann, who was sitting in that darkened auditorium one evening thirteen years ago, the pages appeared blank. Had Kosuth really been reading from a printed text that whole time, or had it been a performance? Dean’s initial amusement at Kosuth’s possible prank gave way to an appreciation of the scene’s beauty:
“a handful of white pages appeared to be glowing and floating within the darkness, an idea brought to light, an illuminated manuscript of another kind.” [1]

Kosuth, a pioneer of late 1960s Conceptual art who famously argued for artists to forgo aesthetics for ideas, had inadvertently created an aesthetic experience that inspired an entire series of physical artworks: Dean’s 2009 project Art as Paper as Potential: Giving/Receiving, which takes 365 pieces of standard blank paper as source material for a video, a lightbox-mounted duratrans print divided into three sections, and a series of archival pigment prints. [2] The project illuminates the larger conceptual themes that his work investigates: relationships between abstraction and representation, compression and expansion, and physical objects and digital information. [3]

For me, though, what stands out is the way that Dean’s project functions as an extended meditation on blankness. Blank spaces are captured —and often take center stage— throughout Dean’s photography of the past decade. In addition to Art as Paper as Potential: Giving/Receiving, the projects Test Strips, Charting Color on Neutral Ground, and that which is no longer there, if it ever was offer up blankness and mine its latency to reveal hidden subjects. In dictionary terms, to be blank is to be colorless, expressionless, unfinished, empty. Blankness suggests avoid or an unbroken surface. A space to fill in, or a space to rest. In everyday life, blank spaces—mental or physical—can be hard to come by. When we do find them, it’s hard to slow down to appreciate the quiet, neutral oblivion they can provide. It’s often only in these blank spaces where we can make peace with absence, accepting it as a natural and necessary part of our existence.

More than a year into a global pandemic, I can’t help but project onto Dean’s work the profound isolation and loss we’ve all experienced to varying degrees. Our lives may seem full of blank spaces now. Spaces left behind by the experiences we should have had and the people who are gone. Dean could not have foreseen this reaction, of course, but good art speaks to whatever moment in which it finds itself.

* * *

Dean’s first serious investigations, as a student in Illinois and Missouri in the early 1990’s, were with black-and-white film shot using a large format camera. Because he had not yet been exposed to many contemporary artists, his process was, by his own description, that of a photographer emulating photographers who worked 50 to 75 years earlier. He didn’t make enlargements from his 4 x 5 inch negatives; instead he used the light from an enlarger to make 4 x 5 inch contact prints. In Dean’s words, he “didn’t have any in-depth formal training as an undergrad in photography. … There weren’t many options [at my school]. I took the few courses offered—taught by the graphic design professor—and supplemented them with independent studies and internships to earn the equivalent of a minor in photography.” [4]

Dean worked with the photographer Richard Sprengeler, who became a friend and mentor. [5] The two would explore St. Louis together,
cameras in hand. Sprengeler also introduced Dean to the work of Edward Weston and Paul Strand, whose large-format photographs sought to record honest images of their surroundings.

Of these formative years, Dean says, “It was a very formal way of working. Whereas Sprengeler was producing multiple bodies of work, one of which is now a forty-year long documentation of the city of St. Louis and the surrounding areas, I wasn’t interested in content in the least early on. It was just about making interesting black and white photographs of whatever random thing I decided to take a picture of—mostly the detritus found in urban environments because that’s what I was attracted to. But there was no conceptual component to the work or any sense that I was recording the history of these places.” [6]

But don’t always trust what we as artists say about our own work. By the time Dean saw Joseph Kosuth give his lecture at the Hirshhorn in 2008, there were plenty of rich conceptual threads that had been weaving their way through his work for decades, and his practice had evolved to incorporate various digital methods. Art as Paper as Potential: Giving/Receiving, initially inspired by that lecture, continues to spin out those conceptual threads, but also speaks to time and the daily struggle of making art.

The project offers three different components: a large, lightbox-mounted duratrans print divided into three sections of 365 individually scanned blank pieces of white paper; a video, in which the same 365 sheets of blank paper that were scanned for the lightbox piece slowly rotates, the pile diminishing and then growing back up, sheet by sheet; and a solitary stack of 365 individual archival pigment prints, which are sometimes displayed on the wall in an arrangement that represents the actual dates on a calendar in which the work is on view. [7]

For the duratrans print, Dean imported each individually scanned sheet of paper into Photoshop one at a time, building the composition organically from left to right. Sheets overlap in varying ways, producing varying degrees of opacity. The final arrangement is Dean’s own “illuminated manuscript.” It suggests a deconstructed book whose words are erased or not yet written. This tension between erasure and possibility continues in the video, as the stack of 365 sheets methodically delete and replace themselves. For Dean, it’s here that the giving and receiving of the project come into play:

The idea of giving and receiving in this
project primarily exists in the video
piece. As that pile spins, it goes down
one sheet at a time, so things are
leaving. And then, as it gets down to
the final sheet of paper, the pile starts
to grow back one sheet at a time, so it’s
now about receiving. I think about this
piece in terms of things coming into
the studio and things going out. This
continuing process of ideas coming in,
ideas going out, work coming in, work
going out. Both physical and conceptual. [8]

This daily negotiation with the slippery nature of ideas is familiar to most artists. Especially if we’ve internalized the lessons of Conceptual Art, we may fear the dearth of ideas that the metaphorical blank page represents. In the third element of Art as Paper as Potential, Dean upends this metaphor by showing us that a seemingly blank piece of paper is not really blank at all.

As Dean went through the process of preparing each individually scanned piece of paper for printing, he significantly increased the contrast to emphasize the subtle variations within each sheet. When he held a sheet up to light, he found he could match it to its scan. Each sheet, even though an industrially produced sheet of standard printer paper, contained unique information. A fingerprint formed in pulp.

The scans were darkened as a nod to the positive/negative relationships in photography. In particular, the translation of a piece of negative film into a positive print. The collective stack of 365 prints records the time of its own making—a small monument to the seemingly mundane day-to-day transactions that happen in life and in the studio. But blank spaces are not boring. They are full of small, subtle shifts that can provide revelations if you take the time to examine them.

This thread—of paper and its possibilities—continues in Dean’s 2011 project Test Strips, in which he returned to his roots in the darkroom after a decade of working digitally. While digital technologies are constantly upgrading and changing, the fundamentals of positive-negative photography remain more or less unchanged since its discovery by William Henry Fox Talbot in the nineteenth century. Anyone who has waited patiently in a darkroom for an image to manifest in the developer tray knows the thrill of witnessing photography’s magic. Test Strips was an opportunity for Dean to renew his longstanding relationship with photography’s essential nature.

During that decade of capturing and editing images digitally, Dean was still connected to traditional film photography through his teaching. At the end of each semester, students in his introductory black-and-white photography course would leave behind their unused 8 x 10 inch silver gelatin photographic paper. Dean collected this paper at the end of an academic year and used it to produce the abstract photograms that make up Test Strips.

To make these photograms, Dean deployed a photographer’s standard technique for determining the proper exposure for a particular negative. Normally, a negative is placed in the enlarger and sections of the photographic paper beneath are exposed to light in increasing time increments. The exposure for the final print is chosen from these “test strips.” The photograms also reference the Zone System, a technique that photographers use to expose and develop their negatives to help them make final prints that closely match how they previsualized what the real-world scenes would look like in black and white. The eleven distinct bands in each Test Strip photogram match the eleven distinct tonal gradations of the Zone System.

Dean took a random approach for determining the width of each band. Some photograms contain larger areas of darker tones, others lighter. Each band its own separate step along the spectrum of the paper’s base white to maximum density black, each band a measure of the amount of time that light was allowed to activate the chemistry contained in the silver-gelatin paper.

This visualization of time is underscored in the way the photograms are installed, allowing for an ebb and flow between black and white. Whether arranged in a single row or in a grid, the photograms bring you in and push you out—echoing the rise and fall of the stack of paper in Art as Paper as Potential’s video component.

I can’t help but see the photograms in pairs, the varying widths of their bands laid out like the pages of an open book. Like the pages of the deconstructed book I see in Art as Paper as Potential, these pages are also blank. To the extent that they contain anything, they hold the record of Dean’s methodical manipulation of each band’s exposure to light. Analogue film photography was originally intended to capture representations of our knowable, observable world. In Test Strips, Dean captures the absence of a subject.

And in a reversal of the more common practice of digital editing tools mimicking analogue effects, the arrangement of the tonal bands in each Test Strips photogram mimics the stair-step patterns that can appear in digital images. Rather than produce a smooth gradient, Dean chose to create an analog image that references digital banding. Because, as much as he is rooted in traditional photography, Dean’s work has fully embraced and exploited the many ways that an image can be captured digitally.

Charting Color on Neutral Ground, an ongoing project begun in 2016, collages several digital capture technologies—camera, scanner, and
information generated by computer applications—to create images that use the basic materials found in commercial photography studios as their subject matter. And, as in Art on Paper as Potential and Test Strips, Dean upends the figure/ground relationship by elevating the ground as the subject.

Early in his career, Dean worked as an intern and staff photographer in multiple commercial studios that did small-product photography for which the gradient background paper and color-calibration charts that appear in Charting Color on a Neutral Ground were items of everyday use. And the neutral gray background in each print is a direct reference to the Kodak Gray Card, used by photographers to produce consistent exposure and color within an image.

To construct the prints for this project, Dean photographed various gradient backdrops with a digital camera. Those images were placed on
top of the neutral gray background generated in Photoshop. The color-calibration charts were separately scanned using a flatbed scanner
and centered on the gradient backgrounds. The final touches are the drop shadows placed between each layer of the image. A cheeky nod to the popular graphic design trope of the late 1990s, they are additional digital information within the images that also reference our habit of having multiple windows open simultaneously on a single screen.

They also underscore the objectness of objects that normally read as generalized atmosphere or are cropped out of final images altogether. The background becomes a gray monochrome. The blue to white gradient backdrop becomes a sublime color field painting. The calibration chart becomes a hard-edged geometric abstraction.

Blank spaces are easy to overlook. In Charting Color on Neutral Ground, the tools of consumerism are raised to the scale and consideration we normally reserve for high art. In Art as Paper as Potential, the quotidian, plain white sheet of paper is made monumental. Test Strips gives form and pattern to invisible photochemical reactions. In each project, Dean asks us to pay attention to overlooked, underexamined surfaces.

The archival pigment prints that make up Dean’s most recent series, that which is no longer there, if it ever was, ask us to consider the illegible residues of urban life. The series is a subset of Meandering with Purpose, an ongoing project Dean started in 2018. Both the series and broader project are a return to his practice as a young artist in which he would allow himself to wander city streets, eyes and mind open to any and all possibilities, camera at the ready. While an artist’s ideas are certainly fostered through consistent intellectual inquiry, they are also nourished by unstructured, intuitive experimentation. Dean realized that he missed that freedom.

The images in Meandering with Purpose are generally recognizable as scenes of city infrastructure, captured to reveal their visual poetry. that which is no longer there, if it ever was documents micro views of this infrastructure, focusing on the surfaces of metal utility boxes that have become ad hoc neighborhood bulletin boards to create abstract images.

In Dean’s closely cropped images, the paper flyers posted by job hunters, pet seekers, and community organizers are long gone. Annotated with graffiti and slowly erased by the general wear and tear of weather and time, their illegible residue is a blankness defined by absence. The specificity of a lost cat’s name or a handyman’s phone number may be subtracted, but we recognize the evidence of their having been there—the Pompeian-like artifacts of a drip of spray paint, a bit of tape, a sun-bleached outline.

It’s these outlines within the images that I’m drawn to. As in Art as Paper as Potential, Dean has increased the contrast within each image to emphasize the small differences and details that would otherwise go unnoticed.

What was originally a more flat, scant image becomes a rich, gestural abstraction. The outlines overlap. They slip back and forth from
the surface. They simultaneously exist and disappear.

Like the blank of a white sheet of paper, these spaces provide a place for my mind to rest, a place to sit with absence.

* * *


[1] Dean Kessman, “Art as Paper as Potential: Giving/Receiving,” 2009
[2] As research for this essay, I listened to a recording of the lecture Dean saw Joseph Kosuth give in 2008. Sadly, there is no video, so I couldn’t see the moment that inspired Dean, though at one point I thought I could hear the rustling of paper.
[3] Dean Kessman, “Artist Statement,”
[4] Dean Kessmann. Personal interview. March 15, 2021.
[5] See Spengler’s photograph of a young, earnest, head-full-of-hair Dean on page 20 of this catalogue.
[6] Dean Kessmann. Personal interview. March 15, 2021.
[7] In the project’s original 2010 installation at Conner Contemporary Art in Washington, DC individual prints were hung in calendar formations on the wall to represent each day of the exhibition with the remaining prints stacked on the floor.
[8] Dean Kessmann. Personal interview. March 15, 2021.

To Sit With Absense

Essay by Molly Springfield for the catalogue: Dean Kessman: Light Years, Chemical Days, and Digital Seconds.