Today’s feature comes to us from visual artist Paul Sunday, whose exhibition titled Archive / Improv is installed in The Picture Collection at the NYPL’s Mid-Manhattan Library. Thanks to Mid-Manhattan Library’s Curator and Art Librarian Arezoo Moseni for her help in assembling this feature. ~Laura

A visit to the library, a solo exhibition

by Paul Sunday

I adore books and libraries.  For many years The New York Public Library has provided me with inspiration, serving as a refuge for study and research.  So, of course, it was thrilling to be invited to exhibit my work in NYPL’s Picture Collection at Mid-Manhattan Library.

Just out of college in the early 80s, the library was a frequent destination for me, an escape from the de-humanizing streets of midtown and a place to continue learning.  I spent many afternoons there exploring Dada, Surrealism, and the Bauhaus; poring over images by Man Ray, Rodchenko, Atget, Blossfeldt and Penn, paintings by Rothko, Malevich, and Reinhardt.  I’m eternally grateful for the art stacks on the third floor of Mid-Manhattan Library.  My studies in that space were essential to my development as an artist.  

One day back in 2015, I noticed on NYPL website that one of my artistic heroes, Richard Serra, would be making an appearance at the Library.  I have admired his work for decades, and there was nothing that could cause me to miss this event.  It was four o’clock on a beautiful April afternoon.  A precise, soft-spoken representative of the library introduced Mr. Serra.  I would later learn this was Arezoo Moseni, Senior Art Librarian, Curator and herself a brilliant artist.  Serra was, of course, charismatic and inspiring; speaking to the subject of his work and the history of his development with clarity.  In my brain, new connections unfolded, new perspectives revealed themselves.  It was a transformative afternoon.  

At the end of the talk, fans surrounded Serra, and I noticed that Arezoo was off to the side.  I shyly approached her to say thanks for organizing such a life-altering event.  After that first meeting, I frequently ran into her at the library where she seems to be an ever-present guardian spirit, advocating for the life of the mind in New York. I began taking my students to NYPL Artist Dialog events hoping that they might experience something like my epiphanies in Serra’s presence.  Eventually, I saw Arezoo after a Stephen Shore talk and the following morning she emailed me an invitation to exhibit in part of an ongoing series called Photo Walls in Picture Collection.  

Installation view of new photographs by Paul Sunday for Photo Walls in Picture Collection at Mid-Manhattan Library.

We met to look at some of my newer ideas and decided that the pictures would be of photographs from my archive, meditations on photographs as objects.  The tension between the materiality of a photo and its ephemeral aspect has always fascinated me, and The Picture Collection offered the perfect setting to expand on this theme.

Installation view of new photographs by Paul Sunday for Photo Walls in Picture Collection at Mid-Manhattan Library.

For the next six months, I created new work, meeting with Arezoo intermittently along the way.   The resulting pictures consider the current state of photography as a medium reflecting on itself in a hall of mirrors. Riffing on the vocabularies of installation, sculpture, and collage, I attempted to transform my old pictures and mundane objects into visual poetry.  My early interests in Dada and Surrealism resurfaced to add a dash of absurdity to the mix.  The improvisatory approach to process inspired the exhibition title, Archive/Improv.

Collaborating with Arezoo was a truly unique opportunity.  Showing newly developed work is a bold choice for a curator and a slightly unnerving challenge for an artist, one I welcomed with enthusiasm.  The pressure to finish new work knowing it would have a broad public audience was a great motivator.  As a curator, Arezoo subtly influenced the outcome of the installation in essential ways while still allowing me an incredible degree of freedom and creative autonomy.  She has an uncanny knack for pointing out intricacies of the work and allowing an artist to consider their output from new perspectives.  The approach is elegant, subtle and compelling at the same time.

Creating this site-specific installation changed my way of thinking about process and exhibiting art.  I realized that the artist has to let go, that the final product will not be perfect and that the ego must eventually go to the background.  The exhibition becomes something larger than the self, something from you but not about you.  It becomes a conversation with the public.

Equally important was the opportunity to speak publicly about the work and to invite a respected art world colleague to the conversation.  I had long admired Matthew Deleget’s painting and his Brooklyn-based gallery, MINUS SPACE.  It was an honor when he agreed to do the public dialogue.  It is strange to contemplate speaking publicly about oneself for nearly two hours, but upon recovering from the sense of attending a memorial for me, it was an extraordinary occasion.  I’m grateful to the library for providing a space to speak about the work.  Toward the end of the conversation, I spontaneously focused on the idea of fun in art making, which became a takeaway for many listeners.  I also learned that Mr. Deleget viewed my studio as a sort of work in itself, a mode of expression or an installation. The problem of defending my work in public, or so I thought, became an opportunity for sharing and even discovery.

So strangely, it seems that I managed to garner a solo installation by merely haunting the library.  My energy has become part of the place over the years and now more so than ever.  In the future, I will once again enter as an anonymous visitor and remember with nostalgia the time my images were on the wall.  I will return to those shelves again and again, and I will continue to take students there.  One of my favorite assignments is to send them into the stacks on a surrealist inspired treasure hunt.  The only instruction I give, “Find something new that excites you and then obsess over it.” 

Links to more information about Paul Sunday’s work at NYPL:

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