James Welling

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Friends With Benefits: Sales From an Exhibition Aid the Foundation for Contemporary Arts

One recent weekday afternoon at David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea, the artist James Welling was in his element peering at a portrait of a photographer looking through a lens to a future that only the camera can see–a sort of postmodern stare-down fit for a Pictures Generation pioneer. The object of his eye was none other than Faye Dunaway, preening in a scene from an old movie about a shutterbug who sees murders through her viewfinder before they happen. The film, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), served as the source for the conceptual photo work, Woman with a Camera (2009), by the artist Anne Collier. The piece is striking, sly, and layered–and for sale as part of a 65-work benefit show for the storied Foundation for Contemporary Arts that is on view at Zwirner through January 28.

FCA has operated in New York since 1963, and its list of founders and early supporters is formidable: Jasper Johns, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Marcel Duchamp, Barnett Newman, Morton Feldman, Willem de Kooning, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, and many more. Its purpose since the beginning has been straightforward: for artists to give grants to other artists whose art would not be the same without such support.

Grants from FCA range from unrestricted awards of $40,000 to smaller but more immediate emergency grants–applications are reviewed monthly–in sums typically between $500 and $2,000. The origin story for the entire enterprise owes to an emergency grant of sorts assembled by Johns, Rauschenberg, and others from the sale of their work to help fund a financially strapped tour by choreographer Merce Cunningham's dance company in 1962.

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Drawing with Space and Light

James Welling's new work, "Choreograph," is a series of large-scale color photographs that features images of dancers digitally laid over images of architectural structures and landscapes in such a way that they resemble doubly exposed analogue film. The series was borne of chance. Welling was commissioned to photograph the Museum of Modern Art's sculpture garden, which was designed by Philip Johnson in 1953; he began looking at archival footage of events that took place in the garden, and found himself drawn especially to the dance performances. Around the same time, he was experimenting in Photoshop with RGB color channels as a way to understand the basis of human vision, which is informed by receptors in our eyes for red, blue and green. "The way the ["Choreograph"] images came about is similar to the way that the roots of an apple tree are grafted with the stem of another species of apple to create fruit," he explains over the phone from his studio. "I had this process of working with photograph RGB channels, and I grafted onto it the archival images of dance."

The resulting "psychedelic" images, as he describes them, inspired him to begin his own independent series of images of dancers layered with architectural photographs. In his studio in Los Angeles, he held six different sessions where he had some of his students at UCLA, where he teaches photography, assume poses inspired by choreographer Martha Graham and the Ballets Russes. He photographed them using tungsten lighting and a digital camera.

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James Welling, Now in Technicolor

In the past three decades, the postmodern artist James Welling has "made abstract photographs, more normative pictures and experimented with different processes," he says. "But for the last 10 years, I've been very interested in thinking about color." He captured Philip Johnson's Glass House in the late aughts through a set of colored filters and he digitally altered his 2009 pictures of Paris's Maison de Verre. However, with "Choreograph," on display starting tomorrow at David Zwirner, Welling has developed a more physical way of deconstructing color: feeding three black-and-white images into Photoshop's red, green and blue color channels, and dragging the "adjustment" sliders until he creates one serendipitous, psychedelic composition.

As the name "Choreograph" indicates, each piece centers on dance–and represents a reunion of sorts for Welling. Before finding photography, Welling bounced from painting to sculpture to an intense year of dance (and then moved onto performance art and video), and he says, unequivocally, that seeing the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform "blew my mind."

He speaks with similar ardor about "0521" (2015), which debuts exclusively on T; he also shared a GIF, above, that shows the piece in its various states leading up to the final result. "0521" consists of of four layers: first, a photograph of David Hallberg kneeling alongside another dancer at his and Francesco Vezzoli's "Fortuna Desperata," part of the recent performance-art biennial Performa 15. That's the red channel. The blue and green channels are images of the architect Marcel Breuer's Brutalist buildings (the Murray D. Lincoln Campus Center at UMass and the Annunciation Priory in Bismarck, N.D., respectively) to lend some spatial organization. The fourth layer is a picture of an oak tree. "Then, there’s about 15 color transformations," Welling notes, emphasizing his trial and error method, which means a finished image can take months to complete. "It's messy, but when a picture works, it's extremely exciting."

Welling volunteers a new thought that’s been percolating during the conversation: "A friend of mine said, 'The great thing about Beethoven was he used all of the keys on the piano,' and I want to use all of the colors in Photoshop." He pauses. "I actually want to have even more colors."

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People Who Live In Glass Houses: James Welling on His Andrew Wyeth–Inspired Photographs

Last week, when I spoke to James Welling at David Zwirner, the gallery was de-installing its De Wain Valentine show. Whirring drills threatened to upstage the soft-spoken photographer, who discussed his show at The Brandywine River Museum of Art, "Things Beyond Resemblance." He looked down as we spoke, his moss-colored glasses and wavy gray hair pointed toward a table between us, so he barely noticed when two men walked by, carrying a six-foot-tall Yayoi Kusama painting.

As Welling sipped a coffee, we discussed his series of photographs based on paintings by Andrew Wyeth, who Welling considers his first and greatest influence. For five years, Welling has photographed objects and places around the American modernist's studio. Though the photographs have been exhibited before, "Things Beyond Resemblance" is the most complete show of the "Wyeth" works. It also features Welling's first sculptures in decades–"Gradients," a series of blurry color strips that dot the Brandywine's 200-acre campus.

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