Thomas Joshua Cooper

Ritual Object (Message to Donald Judd and Richard Serra), Derbyshire


Not on display

Thomas Joshua Cooper born 1946
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 118 × 168 mm
Presented by Tate Members 2015


This is one of a group of black and white photographs in Tate’s collection by American photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper which depict landscape formations in a range of locations as a dedication or ‘message’ to artists or other creative figures who have influenced Cooper in some way (Tate P81147P81155). Made over a period of roughly two decades, ranging from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, their titles identify the location in which they were taken, in England, Scotland, France and the United States. The titles also appear to dedicate each work to a figure who has influenced and inspired Cooper’s work; these figures are painters, sculptors, photographers and poets, both precursors and peers. They are drawn into his work with such ritualistic titles as A Premonitional Work (Message to Paul Cézanne and Timothy O’Sullivan), Bibemus Quarry, AixenProvence 1995 and Ritual Object (Message to Donald Judd and Richard Serra), Derbyshire 1975. In his titling Cooper implies that he is in dialogue with such figures when making his work, something that he characterises as an ‘ongoing conversation’ (quoted in the press release for the exhibition Messages, held at Haunch of Venison, London in 2013).

A Premonitional Work (Message to Paul Cézanne and Timothy O’Sullivan), Bibemus Quarry, AixenProvence 1995 (Tate P81147) was made in a slate quarry in Provence in the south of France. A pool of light illuminates a section of the sheer rock face, while the rest is plunged into darkness. The sharp angles and roughness of the rock contrast with the soft patches of sunlight. The title pays tribute to the nineteenth-century French painter Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) and nineteenth-century American pioneer in the field of geophotography, Timothy H. O’Sullivan (c.1840–1882). O’Sullivan was official photographer on the United States Geological Expedition of the Fortieth Parallel, which began in the state of Nevada.

Ritual Object (Message to Donald Judd and Richard Serra), Derbyshire 1975 (Tate P81148) documents a small rectangular object situated on the ground within an area of long grass. The object’s uncompromising geometry contrasts with the softness of the surrounding vegetation. The enigmatic box recalls the minimalist work of the two American artists named in the title. Another work, Ritual Guardians (Message to Morris Graves), California 1980 (Tate P81149), establishes a connection with the American expressionist painter and mystic Morris Graves (1910–2001) who was best known for his depictions of birds, tree and waves. Cooper’s photograph shows a nocturnal woodland scene, whose darkness makes it difficult to decipher, despite the small patches of illumination.

A Premonitional Work (Message to Caspar David Friedrich and Francis Frith),
Blaneau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, Wales 1992 (Tate P81150) shows a grouping of sharp, jutting rocks that are reminiscent of a work by one of the figures mentioned in the title: Caspar David Friedrich’s (1774–1840) The Sea of Ice 1823–4, which depicts a shipwreck in the middle of a jagged sea of broken ice. Cooper’s title also makes reference to Francis Frith (1822–1898), the nineteenth-century English photographer who, in 1860, embarked on a project to photograph every town and village in the United Kingdom.

An Indication Piece (Message for Timothy H. O’Sullivan), On the River Dove, Derbyshire, England 1994−8 (Tate P81151) makes another reference to the American photographer O’Sullivan. Here, the forest undergrowth appears to be consuming the trees themselves, blurring the ability to read the photograph according to the conventions of landscape photography. It reads more as an abstraction, with an overall patterning that flattens the picture plane. This is also the case in Mythic Stone (Message to E.S. Curtis) Beeley Quarry, Derbyshire, England – ‘Leaf Stained’ 1984 (Tate P81152) and Mythic Stone (Message to E.S. Curtis), The Trossachs, Scotland – ‘Ice Cracked’ 1983 (Tate P81153), the titles of which refer to Edward S. Curtis (1868–1952), an ethnologist and photographer of the American West and of Native American peoples. Mythic Stone (Message to E.S. Curtis), Culan, Ayrshire, Scotland – ‘Salt Soaked’ 1983 (Tate P81154) also references Curtis and shows a glimpse of land on the coast of Scotland giving way to a rocky shoreline.

Ritual Hieroglyph (Message to Minor White), Horsley, Derbyshire, England 1978 (Tate P81155) pays homage to the American photographer Minor White (1908–1976), whose close-up views of such objects as tree trunks or peeling paint rendered them abstract and enigmatic. Cooper’s similarly detailed view of a rock face makes its subject difficult to decipher, lending pictorial significance to each crack and crevice in its structure. The dark shadows which threaten to envelop the scene add to this effect.

Cooper frequently composes his photographs so that no horizon line is visible, resulting in an experience of immersion in the depicted landscape. This approach links him to the tradition of Romantic painting with its concerns to convey a sense of the sublime. In an interview, he has said:

I am interested in making an intelligent art of high emotion with a specific cultural purpose. There are issues of the spirit which involve longing and belonging which reverberate through all of the work, I approach this lyric tradition through gazing, duration is an essential condition of gazing, it infuses all of the pictures that I make.
(‘Thomas Joshua Cooper – An interview with David Bellingham February 1998’, Source, issue 14,, accessed 1 September 2014.)

In the same interview, Cooper discussed his use of titles to suggest mood and intention:

It was always my intent that this use of language, with reference to: Indication, Ritual, Premonitional, etc, would indicate both a relationship to a philosophy of participation in the landscape and to a very deep interest in a certain kind of poetry. It could be observed that where my earlier pictures were concrete and their textural references somewhat oblique, that now the reverse might be seen to be the case. The sea pictures [see Tate P20231P20233 and P78605P78606] like The Swelling of the Sea, The World’s Edge, and From Where the Rivers Flow reference through their condition as messages historical figures as diverse as Magellan, Timothy O’Sullivan, Robert Adams and Boetti.
(Interview with David Bellingham 1998,, accessed 1 September 2014.)

Further reading
Thomas Joshua Cooper, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives, London 2001.
Thomas Joshua Cooper: Point of no Return, exhibition catalogue, Haunch of Venison, London 2004.

Helen Delaney
August 2014

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