Everyone is then a dead one: Ritual and America in Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s Dolls & Masks

Philadelphia Museum of Art

May 19 – August 5, 2012

By Manya Scheps


The mask is no man.  Everybody has a mask on.

– Ralph Eugene Meatyard, 1972 lecture to the Society for Photographic Education in Louisville, Kentucky.


This summer, a touring exhibition of photographs by Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) makes its final stop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Curated by Peter Barberie and organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibition fills the walls with Meatyard’s eerie family portraits.  His wife and children inhabit the frame as bodies, their faces covered with masks or flanked by dismembered dolls. Tucked away on the lower level, the gallery’s content bemusedly — and unintentionally, we presume — plays off the novelty sunflower aprons at the neighboring gift shop and the clinking of silverware in the restaurant down the hall.

Meatyard’s photographs deny temporal placement, intermingling assumed ages and eras with backgrounds featuring decrepit buildings, obscured faces, and nondescript clothes.  The pictures take on a theatrical quality, as if to suggest scenes from an unmentioned drama.  As in a play, objects function as props and symbols.  Dolls stand in for humans while masks signify expression.  Human bodies become staging accents — his child is not his child, but is rather the gesture of a child. Layering his professional optician’s gaze with his own conceptual inclinations and modernist interests, Meatyard conflates mortality with a quiet and haunting permanence. The resulting vision is one that is both heavily abstracted and realist — as Meatyard calls it, “romantic surrealism”.

The dramatic underpinnings of his photography suggest an element of ritual, an idea that is prevalent in Meatyard’s work though infrequently discussed in curatorial texts.  The Dolls and Masks photographs are the result of weekend family excursions around Kentucky, each month enacting a similar idea at a different abandoned building.  The family had an interest in alchemy, making jam from violets and wine from elderberries they picked in nearby forests. In this mystical vein, the masks become less metaphoric symbols and more functional, as in Noh theater or tribal ceremony. Meatyard’s masks convey something otherworldly, static, and nonhuman despite their realist representations.  In the 1964 series Untitled, a young man stands against a wall wearing the same outfit but a different mask in each of the seven images.  He is the singular player, changing with each act.

This emphasis on seriality and family recalls modernist Gertrude Stein, a favorite writer of Meatyard’s. In her novel The Making of Americans, the repetition of filial histories becomes a rite of form enacted continuously with the same words, though each has a glaze of uniqueness.  Stein’s conclusion embodies a consciousness coming in and out of focus, patterned into the narrative of archetype.  I will quote it in full, as it is only through repetition that clarity of progression emerges:

Family living can be existing and any one can come to be a dead one and every one is then a dead one and there are then not any more being living. Any old one can come to be a dead one. Every old one can come to be a dead one. Any family being existing is one having some being then not having come to be a dead one. Any family living can be existing when not every one has come to be a dead one. Every one in a family living having come to be dead ones some are remembering something of some such thing. Some being living not having come to be dead ones can be ones being in a family living. Some being living and having come to be old ones can come then to be dead ones. Some being living and being in a family living and coming then to be old ones can come then to be dead ones. Any one can be certain that some can remember such a thing. Any family living can be one being existing and some can remember something of some such thing.

Meatyard’s photographs bear Stein’s influence: they envision archetypes of family (patriarch, matriarch) entrenched in something both ethereal and conclusive.   Ceremonies often revolve around mortality (births, funerals), and Meatyard’s work is no different.  Juxtaposing the young alongside visions of their death, inanimate and broken bodies among seasonally luscious flora, peeling wallpaper and clean white clothes, Meatyard creates frames of indeterminacy and nullification.  As if a ghost walked through the frame, his subjects erase themselves in a blurry moment of remembrance.

It is this erasure, this nullity, which the exhibition represents so well, perhaps inadvertently. The photographs rest in frames that are almost awkward in proportion: the mats are enormous compared to the tiny prints.  All are perfectly aligned on the wall, with small white cards offering nothing more than the title (usually Untitled) and year.  The display is so boring that on its opening day visitors took cursory glances and wandered off to the bright and cheery cafeteria. The spare design is a wise choice by the show’s curators, who have framed Meatyard’s work without splashy audio-tours or rich frames.  I imagine he would have been pleased to see the installation — a physical enactment of quiet resonance.

The vacancy in presentation recalls Meatyard’s interest in Buddhism, particularly sunyata, the idea of the void.  Sunyata is zero, non-existence — it is not nihilism, but rather positive consciousness interwoven with form.  In his early photographic days, Meatyard was introduced to Zen Buddhism by Minor White and continued to study the philosophy throughout his life.  Like John Cage and other modernists of the era, Meatyard put the ideas of the I Ching and other texts like A Buddhist Bible and Zen in the Art of Archery into his practice.  He undertook camera work without conscious focus, meditated on single delicate twigs, and shot the reflection of light on moving streams of water.  The result of his interest in Zen is also present in Dolls & Masks — hierarchy disappears as the black and white film serves to level the composition.  Indoor becomes outdoors as different textures recede into one another.  We are left with a composition both multi-layered and unified, the Noh-like masks inviting us to contemplate a rich space of nothing.

The parallels between Meatyard’s work, Steinian modernism, and Buddhism are testament to his ability to collage photographs with a sense of emptiness in abstraction. Like his Minimalist and Post-Minimalist contemporaries following the beat of Malevich’s drum, Meatyard sought to reduce his compositions to the essentials of form and light.  Much like Malevich’s Black Square, Meatyard’s works often have an abstracted center of negative space, with white-flecked figures and objects dotting the periphery and delineating the shape.  Gilles Deleuze describes a similar formal device in the rings around Francis Bacon’s figures, which turn Bacon’s paintings into “…a kind of amphitheater as “place”…the important point is that [the rings] do not consign the Figure to immobility but, on the contrary, render sensible a kind of progression, an exploration of the Figure within the place, or upon itself…Thus isolated, the Figure becomes an Image, an Icon.”  Meatyard, like many modernists, makes almost the opposite gesture yet achieves a similar result: he uses figures as rings around empty space (the rectangle of an open door, the circle of dark leaves), repetitively imbuing the work with an iconography that is richly aware of its own absence.

Meatyard veers off the modernist path, however: his work is not reductionist.  There is no effort to discover essence or purity through paring down.  The dolls and masks, family portraits without family, stay at once wholly symbolic and realist.  The depicted Meatyard family appears universal, corroded, and void, lending mystery and ghostliness to their ceremonious photographs.  They are Americans, making.   They live their ritual of alchemical photography, to quote Stein once again: “in a way it is a personal thing for them, in a way it is a family affair in them, in a way it is a way of living in a national way for them, in a way it is a way of living of the local way in them, in a way it is a way of living their kind in men and women have in being in living.”


Manya Scheps is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied fine arts. She is the editor of New Asshole and co-founded Talking Pictures, an art theory reading group, in West Philadelphia. Her critical focus is on DIY art, its production, and its social implications.