Jay DeFeo shows are closing—“Renaissance on Fillmore” at Napa’s Di Rosa Preserve and “Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective,” at SFMoMA
Anyone interested in artist Jay DeFeo—and who isn’t?—should not miss two important shows which are closing this week.
Situated in Napa Valley’s Carneros region amidst a lake and wildlife preserve is di Rosa, visionary collector Rene di Rosa’s art-filled paradise, one of the Northern California’s most important contemporary art collections. Its impressive stone Gatehouse Gallery is pure poetry. Situated on the edge of a bird-filled lake, with a wall of windows to take in the panoramic view, the space is filled with natural light and a sense of openness. It houses rotating exhibitions which draw from di Rosa’s own collection and which offer a look at important work by emerging and established artists, all with an essential link to the Bay Area.
“Renaissance on Fillmore, 1955-65” is a compact gem, thoughtfully curated by Michael Schwager, chairman of Sonoma State University’s Art and Art History Department and a former di Rosa curator. It brings together works from 17 artists, including Jay DeFeo and Wally Hedrick, who were a pivotal part of the remarkable and eclectic group of painters, poets and musicians who came together in San Francisco’s upper Fillmore district between 1955 and 1965 and literally changed the course of American art. The 17 featured artists either lived and worked in the building at 2322 Fillmore or were active in the neighborhood’s pioneering art galleries, such as the Six Gallery, King Ubu, and Batman Gallery. Works by Paul Beattie, Joan Brown, William H. Brown, Jerry Burchard, Bruce Conner, Jean Conner, Jay DeFeo, Sonia Gechtoff, Dave Getz, Wally Hedrick, Craig Kauffman, James Kelly, Les Kerr, Hayward King, Ed Moses, Deborah Remington, and David Simpson are included, along with photographs, posters, and exhibition announcements documenting this extraordinary period in Bay Area art.
Northern, California seemed an especially welcoming environment for both Abstract Expressionist painting and this new hybrid of art, music, and literature that was lumped under the rather inelegant rubric “Beat,” a word with multiple associations—the rhythm of Bebop jazz, the cadence of spoken poetry, or the sometime desperate conditions under which these artists struggle to create their work. (Michael Schwager, curator)
There are three works by DeFeo in this show, all from 1957-58, as well as three portraits of her in her Fillmore Street apartment/studio taken by Jerry Burchard in 1958. No matter the scale, whether it is a 4×6 inch graphite and colored pencil drawing or “Song of Innocence,” (1957), a 40 x40 inch oil painting which presents a flurry of pastel colored brush strokes organically bursting into a flaming bloom, DeFeo was a master of her space.
If you go, don’t skip Swinging in the Shadows: San Francisco’s Wild History Groove (DVD, 2011 directed by Mary Kerr), an informative video which covers the entire Fillmore art scene, including slow birthing of Jay DeFeo’s colossal masterpiece, The Rose (1958-66). Not only does it capture the vibrant life that DeFeo and her husband Wally Hedrick led during that magical era that they lived with the painting which dominated the front room of their famous flat-studio, it recounts several legendary parties. One included a very drunk Willem de Kooning being pried off DeFeo and then driven around in a sports car. When finally sober, de Kooning thought he had been in New York because of the remarkable art he saw that evening and DeFeo’s painting in particular “blew his mind.”
Details: di Rosa is located at 5200 Sonoma Highway Napa, California 94559. Directions: Mapquest. Hours: NOV-APRIL: Wednesday-Sunday 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Closed Monday & Tuesday Fee: suggested donation $5. Tours: Guided tours of the collection and grounds are available Wednesday through Sunday. Tours are $12-$15 and are a wonderful way to learn more about di Rosa and its important collection of Northern California art, and offer plenty of time to enjoy the art collection and grounds.
When Jay DeFeo died in 1989, at age 60, she was at the height of her creative powers. Despite her iconic status as the creator of the monumental painting “The Rose,” she was little known outside a small circle of art insiders. SFMOMA’s retrospective (finally!) offers a revelatory, in-depth encounter DeFeo’s work, giving this artist her well-deserved tribute. Presenting close to 130 works, including collages, drawings, paintings, photographs, small sculptures, and jewelry, this definitive exhibition traces DeFeo’s distinctive vision across more than four decades of art making. How did she do it? Aside from innate talent, she worked obsessively throughout her life, never letting go of ideas until she had thoroughly exhausted them.
Prepare to be mesmerized and, as a rule of thumb, double the time you think you think you’ll need to take this in. There’s no need to hurry. “Only by chancing the ridiculous, can I hope for the sublime.” said Jay DeFeo in a 1959 Museum of Modern Art catalogue statement. “Only by discovering that which is true within myself, can I hope to be understood by others.”
Details: Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective closes Feb. 3, 2013. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) is located at 151 Third St., S.F. (415) 357-4000. www.sfmoma.org
Closing Monday: “Cindy Sherman” at SFMOMA, the most comprehensive U.S. exhibition of her groundbreaking work in 15 years and the only stop on the West Coast
Entering SFMOMA’S 3rd floor Cindy Sherman exhibition, viewers are first greeted by a colossal photo mural featuring several different 18-foot figures from daily life chameleon Cindy Sherman has taken on. Ranging from what might be woman in a dance class, to a society woman in a red brocade housedress, to a blonde babushka gardener sporting a country-fair medal and cradling a bunch on freshly-picked baby leeks, to a showgirl in a feathered leotard, the women don’t fit into any pat category but hint at the multiple and varied roles contemporary women play.
Sherman created the floor-to-ceiling mural specifically for her travelling retrospective, which first opened in New York at MOMA in February (2012) and will close its run at SFMOMA on Monday, October 8, 2012. Sherman helped install the SFMOMA show herself and tweaked the mural especially for the Bay Area, using different characters than those included in New York. The mural shows how her work has changed with evolving digital technology and the magic of image editing. Instead of the elaborate stage make-up and prostheses that made her famous—seminal examples are on display in the interior galleries—she has now embraced Photoshop. The mural itself is printed on several gigantic sheets of a special type of contact paper.
The 155 images on display through Monday constitute the largest collection of Sherman’s work ever exhibited on the West Coast, and this is the only West Coast showing of the retrospective, which moves to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (November 10-February 17, 2013), and then to the Dallas Museum of Art (March 17-June 9, 2013).
Untitled Film Stills: The exhibition includes a complete set of her seminal Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), perhaps her most well-known and recognizable works. Organized and hung per Sherman’s instructions after she visited SFMOMA, these 70 black-and-white photographs, roughly 8 x 10 inches each, are presented in tightly stacked rows that completely fill a small interior gallery’s walls. The subject: movie roles for women influenced by 1950s and ’60s film noir, big-budget Hollywood and European art house films. In each of these photographs, resembling back lot movie stills, Sherman plays an archetype—not an actual person, nor a replication of a scene from an actual movie—but a self-fabricated fictional character in a setting that clicks into our collective subconscious as “the housewife,” “the prostitute,” “the woman in distress,” “the woman in tears,” etc. Sherman doesn’t title any of her works, a decision which invites the viewer to freely associate. These recycled tropes, which reverberate off of each other, evoke any number of reactions but most certainly…how does she do it, and by “it,” I mean the dropping of one persona and complete embodiment of another?
Centerfolds: All 12 of her controversial Art Forum magazine centerfolds (1981) are included. The series takes the horizontal centerfold as its conceptual and physical framework and is comprised of 12 life-size 2 x 4 foot images, shot close-up and then cropped to appear squeezed into the frame. It depicts young women in various elaborate outfits—plaid kilts, gingham dress, wet t-shirts—provocatively posed and uncomfortably baring their disturbed souls. While Sherman was commissioned by the influential magazine to do the series, it was rejected by editor Ingrid Sischy who thought the images might be misunderstood, and the series consequently never ran. These images have since become some of her most widely discussed and influential work.
Society Women: Some of her strongest work appears at the end of the exhibition—a 2008 series of untitled portraits of aging society women, done in such grand scale that they are nearly life sized, intensifying the tension, vulnerability and uncertainty associated with women and issues of stature, aspiration, wealth, age, beauty, and desire. Each portrait appears sympathetically done at first glance but, upon closer inspection, becomes a subtle critique of the subject. In “Untitled #466,” Sherman portrays an elegant woman wearing a shimmering turquoise caftan, with lovely jewelry, regally posed in what appears to be the courtyard of her Tuscan-style villa. Not one hair is out of place but her exposed foot speaks volumes—it’s clad in thick support hose and pink plastic slippers of the Dollar Store type.
“The women in this body of work are in many ways tragic,” said says Eva Respini, Associate Curator of Photography, MOMA, who organized the show. “Because they are presented in larger than life size, you can really see every detail and that speaks to this contemporary way of being and the fact that photography is very complicit in the way in which identity is manufactured today.”
While many may mistake Sherman’s photographs for self-portraits, these photographs only play with elements of self-portraiture and are really something quite different. Sherman is just the model. “Everything is carefully constructed,” says Respini. “These are really all about identity—an exploration of multiple identities. She was her own model because it was convenient.”
The exhibition also includes selections from her major series: “Fairy Tale/Mythology” (1985), “History Portraits” (1988-90), “Sex Pictures” (1992), “Head Shots” (2000), “Clowns” (2002-04), “Fashion” (1983-84, 1993-94, 2007-08).
A fully illustrated catalogue, Cindy Sherman, accompanies the exhibition, with essays by exhibition curator Eva Respini and art historian Johann Burton, as well as a new interview with Sherman conducted by filmmaker and artist John Waters. The local curator is Erin O’Toole, assistant curator of photography at SFMOMA.
Details: Cindy Sherman runs through Monday, October 8, 2012. SFMOMA is located at 151 Third St. (between Mission and Howard), San Francisco. Hours: Monday-Tuesday,11 a.m.-5:45 p.m.; closed Wednesday; Thursday, 11 a.m.-8:45 p.m.; Friday-Sunday,11 a.m.-5:45 p.m. Admission: SFMOMA members are free. Tickets: Adults $18, seniors (62 and older) $13, students (with current ID) $11, active U.S. military personnel and their families are free, children 12 and under accompanied by an adult are free; half-price admission Thursday evenings 6-8:45 p.m.; the first Tuesday of each month is free.
A vital and once-controversial piece of San Francisco history has finally come home. On Friday, SFMOMA announced that it had acquired artist Robert Arneson’s Portrait of George (Moscone), 1981, a large-scale commemorative bust of former San Francisco Mayor George Moscone that incited great controversy when first commissioned and unveiled by the city more than 30 years ago. The famous bust was originally commissioned by The San Francisco Arts Commission as a public artwork for the Moscone Center in 1981. Portrait of George was to be the centerpiece of the Moscone Center, however, it was rejected due to controversial references to the 1978 assassinations of the Mayor and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
Robert Arneson’s Portrait of George not only marks an important moment in San Francisco’s history, but it also marks a turning point in Robert Arneson’s artistic trajectory. After the rejection of Portrait of George, Arneson took a more critical, political direction in his work and he went on to create some of the most powerful expression of his career. The bust went on view at SFMOMA on Friday, June 1, as part of an entire gallery devoted to Arneson’s work.
“Since becoming director at the museum in 2002, I have sought to acquire this important sculpture for San Francisco,” says SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra, who organized the exhibition Robert Arneson: A Retrospective in 1986 during his tenure as curator at the Des Moines Art Center and who has a longstanding commitment to supporting the artist’s work. “I could not be more pleased to finally share this cultural icon with the public and ensure its safekeeping in SFMOMA’s collection.”
Portrait of George (Moscone) was purchased for an undisclosed price through SFMOMA’s Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for Major Accessions; it comes from a private collection, in coordination with the artist’s estate, which is represented by George Adams Gallery in New York and Brian Gross Fine Art in San Francisco.
Complex History and Provocative Pedestal: Robert Arneson took an unusual approach to the commemorative public sculpture by creating a portrait bust of Mayor Moscone that was not a straightforward likeness but the blend of caricature and portraiture consistent with Arneson’s signature style. Early sketches of the proposed work were well received. When the finished sculpture was unveiled at the Moscone Center inauguration on December 2, 1981, it struck a nerve with the public and its bold 58 inch tall pedestal, with its graffiti-like scrawls and 5 bullet holes, became a huge subject of controversy.
Arneson conceived the pedestal as part of the sculpture. As the piece developed, he decided that rather than leaving it a neutral supporting element, it should come alive with words and images chronicling Moscone’s life. Biographical references (“Hastings Law School” and “State Senate”) and some of Moscone’s favorite expressions (“Trust me on this one.” and “Are you having any fun?”) were unobjectionable. Other inscriptions specific to events surrounding his assassination provoked controversy, such as references to Dan White’s murder weapon (“Smith and Wesson”), the dual slaying of the city’s first openly gay official (“Harvey Milk, too!” and “gay”), and White’s famous defense plea based on his penchant for binging on junk food (“Twinkies”), as well as “BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG” and depictions of blood-stained bullets.
By incorporating these elements Arneson had enriched the work to become more than just a personal memorial but a distillation of an unprecedented and intense moment in the city’s history. The killings of two popular civic officials stunned a community that was still reeling from the Jonestown tragedy only two weeks earlier, when 900 members of the San Francisco–founded cult Peoples Temple committed mass suicide in Guyana. Even for a city accustomed to political upheaval and violence, the deaths of Moscone and Milk were unrivaled civic blows. (Click here to read full SFMOMA press release which includes a description of SFMOMA’s public advocacy for the artwork as then Mayor Dianne Feinstein called on the Arts Commission to reject the artwork.)
SFMOMA curator Gary Garrels tells the story of Robert Arneson’s infamous portrait of former San Francisco mayor George Moscone
Portrait of George (Moscone) joins 18 other sculptures and drawings by Arneson in SFMOMA’s collection. Other major sculptures by Arneson in SFMOMA’s collection include Smorgi-Bob, the Cook (1971), California Artist (1982), Forge (1984), No Pain (1991), Chemo 1 (1992), and Chemo 2 (1992). The collection contains several major drawings, including an eight-foot-high drawing Vertical George (1981), which is directly related to Portrait of George (Moscone). SFMOMA also organized and presented Robert Arneson: Self-Reflections (1997), a major survey exhibition of Arneson’s self-portraits.
Click here for a SFMOMA interactive feature created in 2007 about Arneson’s life and work—with audio and video clips, archival photographs, and documentation of the original Moscone bust controversy. (Part of SFMOMA’s Voices and Images of California Art, a series of interactive in-depth profiles of 11 of California’s most celebrated artists.)
Rene di Rosa connection: The late Rene di Rosa, the Napa Valley grape grower and ebullient art collector whose di Rosa museum and sculpture preserve is world-renowned, was a friend of Robert Arneson. He met Arneson at UC Davis while he studying viticulture and Arneson was teaching art classes. At the time of Arneson’s death in 1992 at age 62 from liver cancer, di Rosa owned 39 of Arneson’s artworks and had spoken frequently about his appreciation of Arneson’s humor and incisiveness as an artist. He had watched Arneson’s career develop over a number of years from an artist who was initially reviewed in craft magazines because he was working in ceramics to a highly respected artist whose work garnered international attention. Arneson’s San Francisco Chronicle obituary (11.4.1992) quoted di Rosa as recalling that “Mr. Arneson felt that the controversy around the Moscone bust ‘was politicized. In that piece, Bob was setting out to state the facts of politics in a work of art.’ The di Rosa currently has a large Arneson ceramic bust, a self-portrait, on display in its main gallery.
Details: SFMOMA is located at 151 Third Street, San Francisco, across from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Summer hours (Memorial Day to Labor Day): open daily (except Wednesdays): 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; open late Thursdays, until 8:45 p.m. General admission is $18—Thursday evenings admission is half-price. For more information, visit www.sfmoma.org.
SF MOMA Gallery Talk: Curator Lisa Sutcliffe on Rineke Dijkstra’s Beach Portraits, Thursday evening, April 19, 2012
One of the most highly regarded photographers of her generation, Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra is well known for her psychologically probing portraits of ordinary people in states of transition. Her Beach Portraits, a very painterly series taken between 1992-1996, in which adolescents from all over—the U.K., Croatia, Poland, Ukraine—are posed alone against a background of sea and sky brought her immediate acclaim. More than simply documenting a transitional moment, Dijkstra reveals a heightened tension in her subjects who are delicately poised on the edge of an unknown future. These life-size photographs and videos, subtly colored, are celebrated for capturing the essential nature and complexities of growing up. Taken as a group, these portraits reveal fascinating cultural differences and some universal similarities and allow us to draw some profound conclusions about how people react under a watchful eye.
Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective, at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) through May 28, 2012, is the artist’s first midcareer retrospective in the United States, bringing together 70 of her large-scale color photographs, including many of the beach portraits, and five video installations, including two new video projections. The exhibition is coorganized by SFMOMA and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and curated locally by Sandra Phillips, Senior Curator of Photography, SFMOMA. On Thursday, April 19, 2012, Lisa Sutcliffe, assistant curator of photography, SFMOMA, will give a 20 minute gallery talk, sharing her perspective on one of Dijkstra’s portraits in her Beach Portraits series. Meet in the Haas Atrium at 6:30 p.m. before moving into the galleries. Free with museum admission.
If you go, be sure to watch her 12 minute video “I see a woman crying (the weeping woman)” (2009) which unfolds on three screens and is the first work in which she used the human voice. Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” (1937), in the Tate Liverpool, was used as the talking point for a group of British schoolchildren who are filmed having a prolonged serious discussion about what they see in the painting. To create the video, she set up three cameras on tripods and had the children look at a reproduction of the painting that was attached to the middle tripod, so none of them were looking straight into the camera lens but beyond it, at the image. Unlike a conventional portrait in which the subject looks at the camera, the children here were engaged with each one another and thus disconnected from the viewer. What they come up with and how they respond to each other’s remarks and begin to speculate on the woman’s emotional state and situation is truly fascinating.
Also riveting is her series “Almerisa,” (1994-2008) a study in how a subject, in this case a 6-year-old Bosnian girl in a refugee center for asylum seekers in Leiden, Netherlands, changes over time. When Dijkstra first photographed Almerisa in 1994, she was in her best and probably only dress, and posed lifelessly, almost like a rag doll, her feet dangling because they could not touch the floor. Concerned about what had happened to her, Dijkstra found the family after they left the center and settled into life in the Netherlands and began photographing Almerisa every two years or so, completing 11 portraits of her sitting in a chair, that also captured her maturation into a young woman. The final portrait captures Almerisa holding her own baby. The orthodoxy in this powerful series is one of honesty rather than beauty. The subject’s body and character are transitioning for many reasons that invite the viewer to embark on the same type of speculation that Dijkstra asked of the school children who encountered Picasso’s powerful portrait.
Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective is the second of three shows at SFMOMA this year focusing on Female Pioneers of Photography. The first was Francesca Woodman, September 5, 2011-February 20, 2012. The third is Cindy Sherman, July-October, 2012.
Details: SFMOMA is located at 151 Third Street, San Francisco, across from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. General admission is $18—Thursday evenings admission is half-price. For more information, visit www.sfmoma.org.
The art of Francesca Woodman has often been seen through the lens of the powerful and distinctive agendas of the 1970s and ’80s: feminist theory, Conceptual art, photography’s relationship to both literature and performance, Postmodernism. It has also been seen as part of the moment in history when photography fully entered the sphere of contemporary art. SFMOMA’s exhibition of Woodman’s work — the most comprehensive to date — is a chance to reassess her work and recognize the intensity of her vision. A panel of art historians joins the Francesca Woodman exhibition curator, Corey Keller (SFMOMA’s associate curator of photography) to discuss the impact and meaning of Woodman’s photography today.
Corey Keller, associate curator of photography, SFMOMA
Julia Bryan-Wilson, associate professor of art history, UC Berkeley
Amy Lyford, professor of art history and the visual arts, Occidental College
Peggy Phelan, Ann O’Day Maples Chair in the Arts and professor of drama and English, Stanford University
Details: Thursday, 7 PM, Phyllis Wattis Theater, SFMOMA. Advanced ticket purchase highly recommended. $10 general; $7 SFMOMA members, students, and seniors. Buy tickets.
Times flies. In the last days of our glorious Indian summer, a subtle reminder. If you haven’t seen the spectacular show “Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection,” you should: its three-month run ends Sunday, September 19, 2010. This is one of the largest exhibitions SFMOMA has mounted and it is the lynchpin of its 75th anniversary program, representing the museum’s latest coup—a novel partnership that will secure its place among an elite handful of the world’s contemporary art museums. The show presents 161 of the 1,100 artworks in the iconic collection that the late Gap founder Donald Fisher collected with his wife Doris over 40 years and essentially loaned to SFMOMA for a very long time. The details are still being worked out but a Fisher Family trust will own the works; a Fisher family foundation will interface with SFMOMA; and SFMOMA will house the collection for the next 100 years in its new museum-addition, thereby accessing one of the greatest private collections of modern and contemporary art in the world.
The enthusiasm is well-deserved— the Fisher collection is a private collection like no other, with a breadth and depth that is rarely achieved. It is particularly distinguished for its concentration of works by key artists Alexander Calder, Chuck Close, Philip Guston, Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol. It includes extensive groupings of seminal pieces by several of these artists and traces their creative evolution through entire bodies of works. Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, has done an exceptional job of showcasing this sampling over the 4th and 5th floors of the museum and the rooftop garden.
As SFMOMA director Neal Benezra put it, “This is the culmination of decades. Of course, they had money and used it well, but money and enthusiasm don’t always lead to something of real substance. Don was very active on the SFMOMA board for years along with Doris and now their son Robert. They watched and participated and donated several significant pieces prior to this, demonstrating a strong commitment to contemporary art….This is just the beginning; there’s much more to come.”
Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through Sunday, September, 19, 2010. www.sfmoma.org 151 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA, (415) 357-4000. Closed Wednesdays. Adults: $18.
SFMOMA celebrates its 75th anniversary this year with a free weekend of activities, Saturday- Monday
For those of us who partied through the holidays, and dutifully made our New Year’s resolutions–mine included seeing even more art in 2010–here’s one celebration not to be missed–SFMOMA’s 75th anniversary show. “75 Years of Looking Forward” officially kicks off tonight with an exclusive, museum-wide member party that will preview the suite of exhibitions “75 Years of Looking Forward” along with a live performance by Magik*Magik Orchestra and the Dodos and entertainment by DJ Cliff Hengst.
On Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the museum will be offering a full slate of activities, along with free admission. ARThound normally avoids huge crowds, but Wednesday’s press preview for this show, proved such a dizzying experience of art overload, that I am recommending several visits to the museum just to be able to take in all that is offered.
Richard Avedon at SFMOMA: A Powerful Retrospective of the Legendary Photographer through November 29, 2009. SFMOMA is the show’s only U.S. venue
Throughout his celebrated six-decade career, Richard Avedon (1923-2004) has always drawn huge crowds. His fashion photography, portraiture and reportage, an innovative juggling of commercial and fine art photograph, have seared themselves into our memory. His current show at SFMOMA, “Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004” July 11 through November 29, 2009, is the first comprehensive retrospective his work since his death in 2004 and delivers over 200 of his signature photographs along with some surprises—lesser known photographs that are remarkable. SFMOMA is the only US venue this show. The exhibition was organized by Helle Crenzien in 2007 for The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art Denmark in cooperation with the Richard Avedon Foundation and it has traveled to Italy, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is installed here by Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography, with support from SFMOMA curator Corey Keller, Norma Stevens and James Martin from the Richard Avedon Foundation and the Jeffrey Frankel Gallery.
Aside from the famous models (Dovima, Suzy Parker, Veruschka, Twiggy), there are movie stars (Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn), rock stars (the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Björk), world leaders (Eisenhower, Kissinger, Ted Kennedy), writers and poets (Ezra Pound, Renata Adler), artists (Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol) and non-famous people. It all adds up to a show that equals the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2002 blockbuster show “Richard Avedon: Portraits.” Now that Avedon is dead, what kind of artist we judge him to be is ultimately based on the work we see and its presentation, which makes posthumous retrospectives vitally important.
This exhibition is organized chronologically, highlighting the major themes and benchmark moments in Avedon’s prolific career—his early post WWII street scenes; his breakthrough into fashion work in the 1950’s; his expansive reportage of American counterculture in the 1960’s and 1970’s; his Reagan-era series of portraits of non-famous people—cowboys, drifters—on the fringe and his iconic portraits of the influential and famous. The galleries are filed with unforgettable gorgeously printed pictures–medium-sized, large, larger and really really large, like the 31 foot long 1969 mural of Andy Warhol and several of his Factory gang, buck-naked.
With Avedon, it’s all about people—capturing them at that perfect moment in time when you sense you can read them— against a backdrop that is either a highly-stylized fashion environment infused with energy and movement or, for the portraits, a stark sheet. Either way, Avedon was in full control of everything down to the finest detail.
Of his early fashion photography, certainly the most famous images are those of his beloved models– “Dovima with Elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, August 1955” and “Homage to Munkacsi, Carmin, Coat by Cardin, Place Franḉois-Premier, Paris, August 1957” which captures Carmen gliding effortlessly in mid air as she steps off a curb into a Paris street. Avedon was inspired by the Hungarian-born Martin Munkacsi, whose work he had come across in Harper’s Bazar and Vogue. Munkacsi was a former sports photographer who revolutionized the static world of fashion photography by injecting it with movement. Avedon added to Munkacsi’s pioneering work by infusing the movement with soul and emotion.
As Avedon quickly found his expressive groove in the fashion work, his career took off and he successfully and seriously embraced portraiture. His stark portraits have been described as unforgettable, as being unusually good at capturing character. The truth is that we read into these whatever we want to see. We all have an internal filter–whatever we think we may know about that person, we project onto their image. Critic Michael Kimmelman writes “The tradeoff with Mr. Avedon is between style and substance. It’s the tension he has made into his art.” (Art Review, New York Times, September 27, 2002.) Avedon’s 1957 portrait of Marilyn Monroe captures a weary starlet who seems smaller than life, whereas his 1963 portrait of a young Bob Dylan seems “charged with future” (Gabriel Celaya).
Avedon is one of the very few artists who started in a so-called non-serious branch of photography and transitioned into serious branch and was able stay there, not only as a fully accepted but also as a highly esteemed practitioner of photography as an art. (Helle Crenzien essay p 22 in Richard Avedon Photographs 1946-2004, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2007) His first major retrospective was in 1962 at the Smithsonian (he was 39), just as photography itself was being recognized by arts institutions. His fashion work drew the crowds, who also reacted enthusiastically to his vital portraits. The situation now is radically different—today, it is generally accepted that a commercial photographer can be an artist.
Walking through the exhibition, I had a talk with Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA Senior Photography Curator, and with Norma Stevens, Avedon’s long-term “person” (friend, colleague, and Founding Executive Director of the Richard Avedon Foundation in New York) and with James Martin, Managing Director, The Richard Avedon Foundation, who worked closely with Avedon as a technician up until Avedon’s death in 2004.
Geneva Anderson: As Avedon became more and more famous over the years, did his work process change? Did he become more and more picky about who he worked with, selecting subjects himself, or did he work on commission?
SANDRA PHILLIPS: He worked pretty much only through commissions. He had a very strange egalitarianism mixed with celebrity. I think what he tried to do was to show that people were remarkable and that famous people were as remarkable as people who are remarkable in different ways.
His work did change over time. It changed, I think, because the market place evolved. Harper’s became a less interesting magazine. It is significant that his last position was at The New Yorker which was kind of like Harper’s Bazar had been and he was very interested in making that a vital magazine. He also did these commissions In the American West—these people who are not celebrities, they are unknown and that was an interesting challenge for him. They are not humanitarian pictures; they are very serious pictures though that show the dignity that people have acquired through living as they have and where they have.
I believed the 1960’s shaped him profoundly in the way it shaped us–a period of tremendous upheaval whose resonance we still experience. He photographed all the players, the heroes and villains, from Janis Joplin, to the Beatles, to Warhol, to the
Vietnam Generals, to George Wallace. And his pictures of art aristocrat’s Robert Frank, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns come from the same special family as those more broadly known. Avedon saw them all as an individuals and all as models.
NORMA STEVENS: He worked both ways. He worked for Harpers, Vogue, The New Yorker, so if he wanted a photograph someone, like say Ezra Pound, that request came from him through the magazine. If the magazine brought him someone, he would do that too. It happened all along the way and I am talking about the portraits–they were something that were of enormous interest to him. He had fascination with the arts—artists like Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning and writers like Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker. By the time he got to The New Yorker, it was wonderful because they were interested and would bring him people that he might not have even known about and it was a wonderful collaboration.
Geneva Anderson: Did he ever refuse to photograph anyone?
NORMA STEVENS: Well, Madonna. When a celebrity comes, they have their idea of how they want to look and you can go along with it but Dick would always want to add his creative mark, how he saw what they wanted to portray. There might be a little struggle but, with her, she was not interested in working with him and he was definitely not interested in working with her.
Geneva Anderson: Did she approach him?
NORMA STEVENS: With celebrities, it’s usually mediated. She sent her people to our people (and that was me). She has people she loves working with like Steven Meisel. Dick was not her time of day. It would have been interesting though–don’t you think?– to see what would have come out of that?
Geneva Anderson: Did he strictly adhere to no cropping?
NORMA STEVENS: He rarely cropped. The prints you see here with all the black edge—that’s the entire photo. He did it in the camera and that was it. He used a big 8×10. The printers would go all through the night and prepare images for him to review in the morning and he would make comments like “it needs a little more drama.” And they had to interpret that.
Geneva Anderson: How did the advent of digital photography impact him?
SANDRA PHILLIPS: I am inclined to say it didn’t.
NORMA STEVENS: He tried it and it didn’t really impress him. He might have gone around and said no further prints can be made. He was very strict about that.
Geneva Anderson: What was it like over the years? How did you make it?
NORMA STEVENS: I am still here. It wasn’t always fun. It was an awful lot of work. Look at the energy in those portraits around us…he was just like that…he was so full of energy. We had an understanding. I am taller than I look.
James Martin, Executive Director of the Richard Avedon Foundation worked as a dark room technician for Richard Avedon during his final years.
Geneva Anderson: Take me through a typical printing experience with Avedon.
JAMES MARTIN: I did a lot of his printing. If you look at the way he has printed, it hasn’t changed that much. Earl Steinbicker, who worked with him from the 1950’s onward, is writing a book about the experience and his blog describers the printing technique. The process for a single print involves making ten different prints with slightly different contrast ratios—darker or lighter and picking the four that they—the team–think Dick would want. Those were printed 16 x 20 and put on his kitchen table in morning and, of course, they would all be wrong. He would say things like “the ear is perfect–you should focus on the ear.” And so you would go back down to the dark room and spend 4 or 5 hours and make another range of say 6 images based on his comment. You would bring these up to him and you would get closer but he would say these are garbage. And so it went.
Geneva Anderson: He had the capacity to use very technical terms to describe precisely what he wanted but it sounded like he chose to communicate in a non-technical way.
JAMES MARTIN: Yes. He would communicate with us using phrases like “this “needs to have more passion” which, in a sense, is not technical but you know exactly what you need to do as a darkroom technician. “More passion” is a nuanced way to work with the printing process. Everything was done downstairs in the basement and you would work all day long on a single print, sometimes at 3 in the morning and he would talk in a very non-technical way–“More drama here, less drama there.” It was a very intuitive way of going about it—it’s also talking with the other technicians you are working with and trying to determine what that means, what does that translate to. It was a lot of teamwork and a lot of team building.
Geneva Anderson: Is there a photograph here that you were responsible for printing?
JAMES MARTIN: There is only one in this show—the portrait of the singer Lorraine Hunt Leiberman. It’s really fairly close towards the end of his life. He was 82 when he did this project and was aware that it was his last major effort and he knows it and he knows he needs to come up a last important series of photographs. And this was for The New Yorker but it was also for himself. He working on this book Woman in the Mirror , photographs of hope, woman that bring that sense of coda to his story, to the work of Avedon.
These are different portraits. This is a very tender tender image. You do not see that forgiving quality in his earlier work. That meant lowering the contrast in her face with one filter, yet pumping the contrast up in the hair. But once you did that, you ran into the problem of what does that hair convey? She had red hair and as I took the photo back to him, he would say that it doesn’t look like a photograph of a redhead. I had to translate that into technical printing—how do you make that hair look red and preserve the contrast with the softness in the face? It was certainly a challenge and you make choice and it probably took me 20 hours just working on the contrast ratios in the hair alone to really pull it up. Now that I am looking at it here, I am seeing that in certain light, it looks a little more brown than red. It’s very hard to look at this without seeing the other photos, the history.
Contrast that with the 1955 portrait of Marian Anderson the contralto singer who is captured in a moment of intense inner concentration on song. By waiting for the moment when her eyes were closed, all the attention is drawn to her mouth, to her total embodiment of voice. There is strength in this portrait rather than the tenderness and vulnerability in his last portraits of women.
When Avedon died unexpectedly in San Antonio, Texas, in October 2004 on assignment for The New Yorker magazine, he left iron-clad instructions about how his $60 million fortune was to be used and how his artistic legacy should be preserved.
Geneva Anderson: Norma, you have worked for the past five years to establish and make The Richard Avedon Foundation financially secure. We are living in very tumultuous times–how secure are you?
NORMA STEVENS: “We are financially secure for the foreseeable future, at least the next five years. Dick knew what he wanted done to protect his legacy. The copyrights of his work alone, which he bequeathed to the Avedon Foundation totaled nearly $300,000. The estate’s biggest asset is his printed pictures. His biggest worry was what would happen to the prints after his death and he left directives indicating that no prints or reproductions were to be made posthumously, except for contact sheets, which could be used for educational purposes.
review-Masters of the Southwest Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams Natural Affinities, SFMOMA May 30- September 7, 2009
Few American artists have attained the tremendous popularity of photographer Ansel Adams and painter Georgia O’Keeffe, the subject of a fascinating show at SFMOMA which explores how these two monumental artists converge. “Natural Affinities” consists of roughly 100 works by O’Keeffe and Adams and focuses on their approach to landscape and their mutual use of natural forms such as trees, mountains, and water as well as their vital contributions to American Modernism. The exhibition was organized by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe in 2008, toured nationally and is in its final leg at SFMOMA, where it was curated by Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA, Senior Curator of Photography. The show closes on Monday, September 7, 2009 and there is a $5.00 surcharge for admission.
Adams (1902-1984) and O’Keeffe (1887-1906) knew each other for 56 years, from 1929 until Adam’s death in 1985. They met in Taos, New Mexico, in 1929 at the home of mutual friend, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and immediately became friends. They met again the following year in New Mexico when Adams was there making photos
for his first book, Taos Pueblo, published in 1930, and when O’Keeffe was spending her first of many full summers painting there. They traveled together though the Southwest in 1937 and 1938 and visited the Yosemite High Sierra, which Adam immortalized in splendid images. Their most obvious affinity is their mutual emotional attraction to the American Southwest which led each to produce important bodies of work based on their responses to the landscape, enticing desert vistas, mountains, architecture and history. Their iconic images have become so pervasive, so much a part of our mindset, that artists working with this subject matter today, still find themselves compared to, and falling short of, what these two achieved decades ago.
Forces of Modernism
Both artists became leading forces in American Modernism, a period of American artistic innovation roughly dated from the 1890’s to 1960 when artists began to depict contemporary life through experimental forms and new mediums. Modern artists shared a desire to break away from the conventions of representational art and abandoned the old rules of perspective, color, and composition in order to work out their own visions. These new attitudes were reinforced by scientific discoveries of the time that seemed to question the solidity of the known world and the reliability of perception.
Adams’ legacy is as the preeminent American photographer and as a leading environmentalist. In the realm of the grand landscape, Adams is in a class by himself—his vision, perfectionism, unprecedented combination of technical virtuosity and inspired eye are unmatched. His landscapes stand out as moody, exhilarating, near operatic experiences.
Perhaps his most significant contribution to modernism though is through his lesser known but equally impressive images that depict nature’s intimate details—his close-up camera work, his interaction with nature on a human scale, that led him into abstraction. Adams’ close-ups captured aspects of form and texture in the natural world—the lathery foaming of water in motion, the purity of a new delicate blossom, the fuzzy perfection of moss in symbiotic harmony with a tree trunk. These works, many are included in the exhibition, were very personal interpretations in terms of angle, framing and light, and moved photography in a very contemporary direction.
O’Keefe is regarded as one of the leading American female artists of the first half of the twentieth century. She too was inspired by close-up examinations of natural forms and her gift was her ability to distill these into their pure essence leading to abstract, energetic, spiraling, undulating, vibrantly colorful artworks. The critics frequently identified her form of abstraction as the definitive feminine pole and attached Freudian analogies. This pigeonholing annoyed her but also secured her fame in the art world, an arena from which women had traditionally been excluded. In 1970, when the Whitney Museum of American Art opened a retrospective exhibition of O’Keeffe’s work, she became the heroine of the feminist movement, thus positioning her in the limelight, which she had first enjoyed in the 1920s.
Stieglitz shared mentor, promoter
Both O’Keefe and Adams enjoyed a special relationship with the famous photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz. O’Keefe’s interaction was complex to say the least—they met when she was 28 and he was 52 and he became her friend, mentor, agent, lover, and husband and he played a tremendous role in launching her career, which she was loathe to fully acknowledge, going so far as to barely mention him in her best-selling autobiography. Stieglitz was her agent from 1916 until 1950 and organized her first solo show in 1917 and another in 1923 at the Anderson Gallery that was tremendously successful and annual shows thereafter. Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, has written excellent chapter on this in Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams Natural Affinities, the book accompanying the exhibition.
By the end of the 1920’s, O’Keeffe was regarded as one of the country’s leading modernist painters and a millionaire (in today’s dollars) in her own right. The languid nude photographs that Stieglitz took and exhibited of her from the early years of their relationship are among the most talked about in twentieth century art history—they immortalized O’Keefe and drew thousands to his gallery. The couple never stopped exciting and challenging each other and stayed married even while living separately—he in New York and she in New Mexico– and each benefited tremendously from the other. By the time she met Ansel Adams in 1929, O’Keeffe was already famous and had the means to do whatever she wanted, which was to devote herself entirely to her art and to spend her time in the American Southwest.
In 1933, Adams traveled across country to meet Alfred Stieglitz, who he called “the greatest photographic leader in the world.” Stieglitz welcomed Adams, eventually giving him the attention and affection he had bestowed upon Paul Strand (Natural Affinities, p. 16). In 1936, Stieglitz gave Adams a solo show at his influential gallery, An American Place, which established Adams as one of America’s leading photographers. Stieglitz and Adams remained lifelong friends and carried on a remarkable and vital dialogue about photography.
Adams and O’Keeffe: Not Always Chummy
There is not much existing written correspondence between Adams and O’Keeffe about their art, so their impact on each other, what they found compelling in each other’s work, and how that might have influenced them must be inferred. I have the impression that even if they had never met, each would have become pretty much the artist that he/she became. There is evidence of enjoyable and creative time spent together as well as some unexplained rifts in their friendship. In 1937, O’Keefe introduced Adams to David McAlpin, Rockefeller heir and arts patron, and the three traveled together later that year photographing and painting throughout the Southwest. It was on this trip, at Canyon de Chelly, that Adams snapped his famous unposed portrait of O’Keeffe beaming at him. In 1940, Adams and McAlpin would play a key role in establishing a photography department in the Museum of Modern Art, the first museum department for photography of consequence. (Adams’ archived correspondence with MOMA.) About that same time, O’Keeffe abruptly broke off her relationship with Adams and chilled towards him for years, with each embarking on extremely productive separate artistic paths, only to pick up their relationship a decade later with genuine warmth. In 1955, at O’Keefe’s request, Adams printed Stieglitz’s negatives for his posthumous show at The National Gallery.
Connections–Shared motifs, subject matter, different sensitivities
The 100 works on display in several galleries across SFMOMA’s 4th floor reveal both interesting commonalities and differences. The curators tried to present the works in a sequence that best allows us to see natural connections but, for the most part, the works remain separated by artist. I came expecting to see more pairings of works. In actuality, most of that work is left for the viewer to do and it’s hit or miss based on your ability to take time with the works as they communicate. I found myself walking through a gallery and needing to turn around and check a work across the way that bore resemblance to one I was standing in front of. Fortunately, I have the catalog so I was able later to flesh out convergences. Even then, I found myself wishing the book was a portfolio so that I could lay works out side by side and conduct my own examination.
The most obvious pairing in the show is a New Mexico motif that both artists tackled in 1929–the small adobe Saint Francis Church in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico. O’Keeffe’s depiction is softer, more organic in feel that Adams’ but both churches seem to grow out of the ground. Adams wrote in The Making of 40 Photographs that he was taken by the church’s “magnificent form” and its “rigorous and simple design and structure.” He shot intentionally from the rear of the church, the angle that he thought made it “one of the great architectural monuments of America.” He did not use a filter either and this allowed the blue sky to appear quite light in his photo, and the shadows were softened.
Several works that share a similarity in subject matter, composition and temperament— O’Keefe’s “Church Steeple” (1930) and Adams’ “The New Church, Taos (1929-30) illustrate each artist’s fascination with the interplay of light and shadow on a starkly geometric architectural form. Adams made several famous shots of this church from different angles, including a full side view. Other comparisons can be made too—a number of Adams’ photos from his Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail (1938) —“Lake Near Muir Pass, Kings Canyon National Park” (1934), “Dead Oak Tree, Sierra Foothills, Above Snelling,” (1938), resemble O’Keeffe’s landscapes.
Both artists also emphasized the abstract component of the Southwestern landscape as can be seen in O’Keefe’s “Black Hills with Cedar” (1942) or her “Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie’s II (1930) and Adams “Ghost Ranch Hills, Chama Valley Northern New Mexico” (1937) or “Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, CA” (1944).
The show also includes a number of interesting close-ups done by each artist, revealing a fascination with natural texturing, repetition and light. O’Keefe’s Petunia No 2. (1924) is somewhat comparable to Adams’ “Dogwood Blossoms (1945) and her “Birch Trees (1925) are similar to his shots of “Roots, Foster Gardens, Honolulu, Hawaii (1947). Both artists clearly appreciated the rich texturing of wood—O”Keeffe “Stump in red Hills” (1940) and Adams “Wood Detail, Eroded Stump with Knothole” (not dated). Adams, clearly mesmerized by nature, and highly sensitive to its processes, however, produced close-up works seem more chaste, delicate and poetic in form. O’Keefe seemed more interested in unleashing the power within the plant or object before her, depicting it as if it were about to transform from one form to another.
For all the vibrant energy her works convey though, I was disappointed with a close-up inspection of O’Keeffe’s brush work which was flat and expressionless. Adams’ work, on the other hand, with every imaginable shade of gray, entices you to get closer and closer–even the shadowed areas speak volumes—the work keeps giving until you run out of patience to look.
The show also attests to each artist’s ability to capture their subjects’ most essential qualities, creating brilliant abstractions. O’Keeffe’s gift was her ability to distill her subject down to its core and pump it up with rich pulsating color, imbuing it with a breathing proximate presence that starts to impact you even before you know exactly what you are looking at. “Red Canna,” an oil painting from 1925/28, bursts with heat, intensity, while “Abstraction White Rose” (1927) undulates in concentric swirling layers.
O’Keeffe battled interpreters eager to see every open flower and hollow form she drew as a symbol of womanhood. She said in her autobiography “Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.
If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like flower is small. So, I said to myself—I’ll paint what I see—what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it—I will make it even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers. (O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe, NY, Viking Press, 1976, text accompanying images 23-26.)
Adams works have not invited erotic readings like O’Keeffe’s have. Even in abstraction, he tended to produce photos that were truer-to-life representations of nature, more faithful to optical reality, an optical reality he alone had the patience to look for and to then capture in brilliant composition. “Ice on Ellergy Lake, Sierra Nevada, CA” (1959), starkly captures the meandering line of ice formation on the lake, while “Sand Dune, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico” (1942), captures elegantly rippled sand dunes. “Frozen Lake and Cliffs, Sierra Nevada, Sequoia National Park, CA” (1927) and “Wood Detail, Eroded Stump with Knothole” (not dated) seem to bow to a romantic vision of nature, one of poetry in form.
Adam’s “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941), is a stand-out in the show, one of the best known and most sought after photographs in the field of fine-art photography. The moon sits low but centered in a black sky, against a back-drop of white clouds, mountains. In the bottom lower right, a line of white sunlit gravestones sits against a backdrop of gray pueblos. “Moonrise” said Adams “combined serendipity and immediate technical recall.” Serendipity means lucky chance. He “felt at the time it was an exceptional image” and when he took it, he felt “an almost prophetic sense of satisfaction.” Ironically, Adams happened upon this shot by chance while driving along a roadside heading towards Santa Fe, NM, after an unproductive day of photographing. The conditions were perfect but he was basically unprepared because he didn’t have access to his light meter. He used his knowledge of the luminance of the moon and was able to get this precious shot. Adams said it “is a romantic/emotional moment in time.”
An excellent YouTube interview with Barbara Buhler Lynes, Curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe reviews several of the works in the show.
review-”Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” a capitvating study of how The Americans came to be, SFMOMA May 16, 2009 – August 23, 2009
“To Robert Frank, I now give this message: You got eyes.” Jack Kerouac.
Now in its final two weeks, SFMOMA’s fantastic exhibition “Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” celebrates the 50th anniversary of The Americans, one of photography’s most influential books. The Americans is an unforgettable suite of black and white photographs that Frank made on a cross country road trip as a Guggenheim Fellow in 1955-56 that changed photography with its somber depiction of America, calling to question its postwar optimism and very wholesomeness. Not only was Frank’s view of America bleak, his black and white prints were often fuzzy, grainy and off-kilter in composition, nothing like what was commonly seen in newspapers and leading magazines. But the pictures he took in two years of roaming the country resonated with deep unspoken truths, foreshadowing the social upheaval that would later come.
“Looking In” is an art-historical feat that not only delves into every aspect of The American’s story; it shows us how far the photography retrospective has come in terms of comprehensive research. All 83 photos that were published in the original volume are present, including a full set of Frank’s contact sheets, a reconstruction of Frank’s image selection process, his early work leading up to the essay, his later reuse of these famous images, a new film by Frank and a segment on photographers who have been influenced by him. SFMOMA is the show’s only West Coast venue before it moves on to the Metropolitan Museum in September, 2009.
The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the premiere center for the study of his art, and spearheaded by its senior photography curator, Sarah Greenough, who has organized several important Frank shows over the years. Corey Keller, SFMOMA Associate Curator of Photography, organized the show’s San Francisco leg. In 1990, Frank donated a large portion of his archives from his 40 years of work to The National Gallery—making it the first time it collected the work of a living photographer—over 3,000 strips of negatives, 1,000 rare vintage and work prints, his rarest handmade book, and 2,296 contact sheets. Around that time, the National Gallery also increased its commitment to exhibiting photography by adding a wing that would permanently display the works of important photographers.
The American’s iconic status lies both in the work itself and what it has come to symbolize. Very much a product of his time, Frank, with his unique Swiss-émigré outsider’s vision–saw and gave expression to important undercurrents that were brewing across America—racism, poverty, a culture of consumerism, shady politics and growing disconnection, alienation. Frank photographed the same America that everyone lived in and knew, but with an outsider’s perspective, drawn to and identifying with outsiders. As the catalogue discusses, he dismissed the notion of making individual masterpieces early in his career and instead focused on the sequencing of a suite of photos whose collective message was greater than any individual picture could be.
Not that single images from the book haven’t risen to become icons but his emphasis was on sequencing and creating a collective that added up to more than any single image. This communicated his vision and gave anyone looking at these images an invitation to step into the work, into this collage of a nation, and to embark upon their own private act of sequencing.
The permanence of the book format was also essential—unlike an exhibition which had an end date and was geographically accessible to only a few, if you had access to the book, you could take this vision in again and again, letting it chew, nag and grow on you. Walking through the SFMOMA show, we can’t help but revisit our own individually-held notions of America, ideas born in our childhood and formative years, experiences that live inside us and bind us to each other as Americans. I found myself often overwhelmed with deep unexpected feelings of tenderness, sadness, and recollections of my childhood in the 1960’s in Petaluma, once a small rural chicken-farming community.
Early Work, 1941-1952
The show opens with Frank’s early essays of sequenced photos and does a very good job of showing how he honed his photographic eye. Frank, now 85, was born in Switzerland in 1924 and was a young admirer of Henry Cartier Bresson and André Kertész. By the time he arrived in New York in 1947, at age 22, he already had enough experience in photography to garner prominent commercial assignments from Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director at Harper’s Bazar. Frank quickly grew tired of the commercial work and set out to explore Paris, London, Wales, Spain, Italy and Peru. In each place, he produced works that focused on one or two topics that expressed his understanding of the people and their unique culture. He also made three books of hand-bound photographs, experimenting with vital sequencing techniques that would pay off in The Americans. This part of the exhibition demonstrates that, from early on, Frank challenged the viewer to look at the unorthodox in the ordinary, shedding light on things that were often overlooked.
Guggenheim Fellowship, 1955-1957
A highlight is the detailed look at Frank’s grant application to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation that supported his work. Frank was no wizard with words and initially he produced an awkward one-page written summary of the project. Photographer Walker Evans, who he met in 1950, was an accomplished writer who had penned over twenty book and film reviews. Evans contributed enormous editorial clarity and direction to Frank’s original application, turning one page into four and capturing the essence of Frank’s work and project. As a past Guggenheim fellow himself, Evans was a member of the foundation’s advisory committee and not only did he rewrite Frank’s application but he wrote his own independent letter of recommendation for Frank and, when it was time, voted to grant the fellowship. Frank’s draft application and a transcription of the final copy of the 1954 application are on exhibit.
Also included in this section are also two early manuscript versions of Jack Kerouac’s introduction to the book which was first published with little fanfare in November 1958 in France by Robert Delpire under the title Les Americains as part of their Encyclopédie essentielle series, which presented foreign countries to a French audience. Frank had fretted over the book’s introductory text, wanting it to set the correct tone for his work which he wanted designated as a serious art book. When his friend filmmaker Emile de Antonio suggested that he and Jack Kerouac, the fresh voice of the Beat generation, had a similar vision, Frank asked Kerouac to write his essay. Much to Kerouac’s and Frank’s surprise, the American editor, Barney Rosset of Grove Press, chose Kerouac’s second and longer essay, not the spontaneous, smoothly flowing one that accompanied had the French release. (Looking In, softcover edition, p.139.) It’s fascinating to pour over the two essays and contemplate their nuances.
Several of Kerouac’s oft-quoted lines from the American edition capture the essence of the Frank’s work—
The faces don’t editorialize or criticize or saya anything but “this is the way we are in real life and if you don’t like it I don’t know anything about it cause I am living my own life my way and may God bless us all.”
“anybody doesn’t like potry go home see Televisin shots of big hated cowboys being tolerated by kind horses.”
The American publisher, Grove Press, did an initial run of 2,600 copies on January 15, 1960, though the book was dated 1959. This was 4.5 years after Frank had received his first Guggenheim grant. Frank received a $200 advance for the book while Kerouac got $30 for his introduction. (Looking In, softcover edition, p.139.) The book’s bold cover design bearing similarity to the American flag was done by painter Alfred Leslie who at the time was working with Frank, Kerouac and Ginsberg on the film “Pull my Daisy.”
During Frank’s nine-month road trip across America, he took 767 rolls of film (more than 27,000 images) and made over 1,000 work prints. The curators give us experimental prints, contact sheets and a very good discussion surrounding the book’s layout, including a fabulous book wall showing the development of the sequencing of photos presented in work print collages. Frank actually took a year editing, selecting and sequencing these photographs and the mock-up process ultimately yielded additional fluidity. Frank gracefully knitted together urban and rural, black and white, military and civilian and poor, rich and middle classes in ways they had not been seen before.
All 83 prints are presented in their original sequence with several large rare vintage prints. With their grainy, gritty, shadowy and tilted frames, composed at odd angles, these photos rewrote the rules of photography. The standard emphasis in the 1950’s of photojournalism or street photography on single summary images, mainly wholesome images, shot straight on.
Frank used a quiet hand-held Leica and his compositions were greatly influenced by the fact that he was often shooting from his car. What emerged was an immensely poetic portrait of mainly ordinary people going about their business, waiting in lines, moving from one place to another, gathering, resting. A lot of the faces are heartbreaking, lonely, even empty, but the shots are not about sadness per se they are about getting through what unfolds on any ordinary day in America. A black woman in Charleston, South Carolina, leans against a wall as she holds a white infant in her arms, staring out into space, the child looks in another direction. Four adults stand at a distance looking at a dead victim of a car accident wrapped in a blanket on US Route 66 at Flagstaff, AZ. The lower, middle and upper classes are all captured in moments of emptiness, moving monotonously back and forth, and towards death, in the land of plenty.
After “The Americans”
The final section of the exhibition address the impact The Americans had on Frank’s subsequent work. The book was initially critcized as anti-American but during the 1960′s, as many of the issues that Frank had alluded to literally exploded, The American’s came to be regarded as ahead of its time and attracted a cultlike following from many within the art world. Fame did not sit well with Frank and he became increasingly reclusive. Soon after the book was published, he put away still photography and switched to a film for a good decade; since the 1970’s, he has moved back and forth between the two, carrying insights from one medium into the other. His first film “Pull My Daisy” (1959), co-directed with Alfred Leslie with narration by Jack Kerouac, showcased the Beats and also managed to capture the contemporary pulse. The film proved significant and liberating for independent filmmakers in its unpolished rambling form.
A catalogue to keep you louping
The catalog is exceptional and is offered in two different editions, both authored by Sarah Greenough who has been working on this project since Frank’s Moving Out show in 1994. The softcover edition ($45, 396 pages, 6 4-color, 168 tritone and 210 duotone images) includes reproductions of all the works in the exhibition, along with essays from Sarah Greenough, Stuart Alexander, Philip Brookman, Michel Frizot, Martin Gasser, Jeff Rosenheim, Luc Sante, and Ann Wilkes Tucker exploring most facets of the work. The hardcover edition ($75, 528 pages, 108 4-color, 168 tritone and 210 duotone images) is a breathtaking expanded edition that includes all the material in the softcover, plus additional essays, a map, a comparative chart of the various published editions including notations on the various croppings from each edition, and—get your loupes– it reproduces 83 actual size contact sheets, each of which features a frame from the final edit.