It is not unusual for an exhibition to appear differently when shown at multiple venues. More than changes in the checklist, caused by lender stipulations, curatorial decisions can produce unfortunate, often conflicting responses to the art and artist. This was the case with the Jay De Feo retrospective.


When first shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the presentation began with introductory objects. These were followed by a rich display of De Feo’s early paintings, which revealed her distinctive approach to Abstract Expressionism and her independent spirit. The rich impasto and large scale of the work was daunting, especially in The Rose (1958-66)—De Feo’s magnum opus. This extraordinary sculptural painting has become her signature artwork, finally taking its place as an outstanding example of mid-century creativity. At SFMOMA, The Rose was installed as a magnetic presence at the end of a long gallery. It deservedly served as the focal point of the exhibition.


A pass-through gallery and another situated behind the main gallery included a modest number of small drawings and photo-collages. Their placement tended to minimize their significance, making them appear more like preparatory work, rather than objects in their own right.

The retrospective culminated in a extensive array of late paintings. Although competent, these works lack the compelling character and compositional flair of De Feo’s early paintings and photo-collages. Regrettably, they were a weak finale to the SFMOMA exhibition.

De Feo, an important but overlooked artist, warranted a more judicious selection and skillful presentation of her work. She got this when the retrospective was shown at its second venue, the Whitney Museum in New York. Here, the entire installation conveyed the vibrancy of De Feo’s art.  Beyond the impressive early paintings, which again held their own as precursors of the iconic stature of The Rose, the selection concentrated on an impressive assembly of photo-collages. Installed together, this body of work was highlighted as a preeminent facet of De Feo’s career—equal to her oil paintings of the 1950s and ‘60s. At the Whitney the scope of the photo-collages was decidedly more substantial, more varied, more inclusive, and more visually engaging than at SFMOMA. They, not the late paintings, took their rightful place as the finale to the exhibition.

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Abstraction played an undeniable role in shaping Jay DeFeo’s art. The influence, largely derived from early 20th-century masters, is evident in the formalist and expressive dynamics of her work. But DeFeo was not a purist. Especially in her formative years she used imagery and objects as points of departure. Even when  figuration is retained, it is never descriptive. In some cases, titles are suggestive but but more often than not, they obscure or confound explicit identities.

Among the most compelling works are those that use both abstract and referential perspectives as an expression of life and a defiance of death or earthly existence.

the eyes, 1958For example, DeFeo used a photograph of her own eyes as the source for The Eyes, a pencil drawing from 1958. Despite the self-derivation she does not treat the imagery as a self-portrait or photographic replica. Instead she portrays a generic pair of eyes in anatomical exactitude—except that their large scale, pupiless, colorless irises, implicit blindness, and disembodied isolation in the center of a vacant field exaggerate the spectral aura. Theses eyes are no longer organs of sight. Further denaturalizing the imagery are the streaks of electrifying tension, the vertical lines that counter the corporeal horizontality of the eyes.

These eyes, a mere semblance of life, inhabit space as a haunting presence. There is no escape from their relentless, impenetrable stare. All residues of life are nullified and yet, the imagery resists absolute annihilation.

DeFeo inscribed a contemporaneous poem by Philip Lamantia on the back of the drawing. Like The Eyes, it alludes to themes of resistance, survival, transition, and mortality. “Ah Blessed Virgin Mary / pray for me I live in you  / to sleep in God / to die in God / to praise His Holy Name.    O Blessed Virgin Mary / ask Jesus to embed in me / a sword of sorrow / to kill my sin / my sin that wounds His Wounds.    Tell him I have eyes only for Heaven / as I look to you / Queen  mirror / of the heavenly court.”

The oval form bearing abstract allusions to an eye image reappears in Apparition, 1956 (charcoal and chalk), and After Image, 1970 (mixed media on torn paper).

Apparition 1956

Apparition shows the oval covered with wisps of hair. Other than its shape and the eerie evocation of a tightly closed eye shrouded with overgrown eyelashes, identity is illusory. Suggestions of an eye fighting to survive at a final stage of existence, or as an emergent form newly energized but not yet defined, are both possible.

After Image, 1970

The elliptical shape recurs in After Image in which inklings of an eye, or pair of eyes, merge with the image of a conch shell. Although quite different from Apparition, the two works are enigmatic, centrifugal forms that obscure and shield the actuality of an underlying organism. In this case, the hypothetical eye has its lids shut such that it cannot see or be seen. Likeness to a conch is equally uncertain. Distinguishing ridges, a whorled surface, and pearlescent tonality of a shell are recognizable but the characterizing channel to the interior is missing. Once again DeFeo’s imagery possesses an unyielding stamina at the same time as its identity challenges specificity.

The Rose, 1958-66

In The Rose—the legendary painting that preoccupied DeFeo for seven years (1958-66)—exuberant life and cataclysmic ruin coalesce in a dramatic climax. Despite the title, the imagery does not portray a flower, nor is it rose-toned. In fact, the work was initially called Deathrose—a label signifying the end of life for one of the most sensuous species in the natural world. Subsequently it was known as White Rose—an appellation deriving from Bruce Conner’s 1967 film documenting the removal of the massive, 2,300-pound painting from DeFeo’s second-floor studio. The titular change signified a crucial reorientation. As the artist stated: “I wanted the sense that the rose was as much an aspect of life as death.” Naming it simply The Rose was ultimately preferable. This designation served as a non-particularizing reference to the painting’s opposing components.

The Rose is an imposing, captivating artwork with a thickly layered, excessively modeled and carved surface. An explosive light radiates from a central focal point. Its white and yellow-toned rays splay outward, plunging into a barren surround of rock-strewn debris. An extreme contrast between the blinding sunburst and ashen piles of rubble dominates the composition. The sunburst conveys dynamic energy—the vitality of life—while the rubble exemplifies a ravaged, death-ridden environment—the extinction of life.

DeFeo’s exploration of the life/death theme attains consummate expression in The Rose. As much this work is distinguished by a very subjective mode of creativity, when viewed in the context of the post-World War II and Cold War era, its historical significance is duly enhanced.

In the visual arts, life/death evocations, whether implicit or explicit, are relevant underpinings in paintings by abstract expressionist artists, such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Robert Motherwell. Although DeFeo rejected a place within the New York art scene, she was well aware of the pioneering work of artists who were at the forefront of the movement’s triumphant rise to worldwide attention.

In the realm of literature, life/death evocations reinforced portrayals of the human condition in the work of Beat generation poets. DeFeo’s passive participation in San Francisco’s Beat culture included her role as the multitask attendant at the Six Gallery—renowned as the place where Allen Ginsburg first gave a public reading of his controversial poem Howl on October 7, 1955.

Although DeFeo never cultivated overt relationships with abstract expressionist artists on the east coast or the radical poets of the Beat generation, her art, like theirs, is rooted in and enriched by allusions to life/death themes.

This commentary was motivated by the exhibition DeFeo: A Retrospective presented at SFMOMA, November 3, 2012-February 3, 2013.

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When asked which artists influenced her, Cindy Sherman responded, “Definitely Warhol, early on. . . . Definitely he was a big influence.”

Among Sherman’s earliest works Untitled #479 (1975) gives evidence of the creative mode that would become her signature. It also reveals a telling affinity with Warhol’s Photobooth Self-Portraits (c.1963). Sherman has identified this composite of 23 wallet-size pictures—made for a class assignment when she was still a student at Buffalo State College—as her “first serious work.”

Untitled, 1975 (#479)

Warhol photobooth

Using herself as model and subject, she transforms her appearance by exaggerating her makeup, changing her hairstyle, and diversifying her dress. The addition of such accoutrements as eyeglasses, jewelry, and a cigarette further effect her metamorphosis from a drab girl to a seductive vamp. Burlesque sensations emanate from the mutations. These are coupled with an unsettling aura produced by the figure’s stolid face and unrelenting stare outward. The aura is amplified by the monotonous repetition of her frontal positioning in the exact center of each frame.

Sherman took the photographs in this work with a photo booth—the same device used by Warhol in his earliest experiments with photography. Both artists adopted the medium to create a succession of portrayals conveying the simultaneity of sameness and difference. Both took advantage of the photo booth to explore modes of self-representation and role-playing. Despite their shared affectation of vacant facial expressions, the pre-formulated control of Sherman’s images are distinctive from Warhol’s instantaneous mugging-for-the-camera gesticulations and happenstance body language.

Untitled, 1975

lucille ball

Sherman has spoken of her use of the photo booth with specific reference to her creation of Lucy (1975). “Sometimes I’d go to parties dressed in character. Then, a friend rented a photo booth and I dressed as Lucille Ball. I had a wig that reminded me of her hairstyle.”

Lucy replicates depictions of the legendary actress as she appears in publicity photos: perfectly coiffed and stylishly dressed as a beautiful screen star with the wide-eyed, quizzical gaze of a scatterbrained comedian. But Sherman subtly transforms Lucy into a sad-eyed, withdrawn, apprehensive woman. Dressed in black with her mouth accentuated by a crass smear of dark lipstick, Sherman’s Lucy projects the image of a tawdry, want-to-be movie star posed incongruously as a contemplative thinker.

In her impersonation of Lucille Ball, Sherman asserts a mode of self-portraiture derived from the stereotype roles and fictive personas cultivated in the film industry. She continues this direction in her groundbreaking series, Untitled Film Stills (1977-82). Unlike her Lucy portrait, where she focuses on a specific actress, here she assumes a range of roles inspired by B movies.

Untitled (Marilyn)

Marilyn-Monroe, publicity stillAlthough subsequent photos did not directly correspondence with movie themes and actresses, an exception occurs in Untitled (as Marilyn) (1982). In this work, Sherman again uses a publicity photo as a point of departure, but to a different end. Her depiction exaggerates the contrived artificiality of Monroe’s temptress pose and defies her personification as a sex goddess. The sultry smile and revealing dress is gone, replaced by a forlorn expression and casual clothes—blue jeans, a loose shirt with rolled-up sleeves, and sporty ankle boots.

Sherman’s photos of Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe do not directly reference B movies, as do the scenarios in her Untitled Film Stills. Nevertheless, there is an underlying kinship: both Lucy and Marilyn began their careers as B movie stars.

Warhol, MArilyn, 1967

Warhol’s appropriation of publicity photos for his celebrity portraits, especially his iconic Marilyn (1967)—was surely an important aspect of his influence on Sherman. He produced ostentatious images in which lurid colors amplify, camouflage, and distort likenesses, and Sherman fabricated ersatz self-portraits in which she masquerades in unseemly stereotypes of women. The two approaches are strikingly comparable.

One particular work Untitled #108 (1982) virtually replicates Warhol’s preeminent Self-Portrait (1967–one of 11 versions in this historic series). The resemblance is so close that Sherman’s depiction might well be considered an homage to the artist who was “a big influence” on her.

self-portrait  1982

SFMOMA, group of 6Both portraits are full face, overtly frontal, and compressed within the pictorial field. Except for a vertical bar on the left side, the surrounding space is monochromatic, totally devoid of detail. Both faces are large-scale, utterly emotionless, and disquieting in the fixity of their piercing gaze at the viewer. The use of glaring, unnatural colors adds an extreme intensity to both portraits. In Sherman’s case the entire image is bathed in fuchsia, whereas Warhol creates flat expanses with a few garish colors. Warhol raises his hand to his mouth in a pseudo-pensive pose in contrast to Sherman who raises her hand atop her shirt, which has been lifted up to reveal the upper part of a bulbous, de-eroticized breast-like form.

Specific correspondences between Sherman and Warhol bear witness to his influence on her early development. But it was his pioneering inventiveness in the portrait genre and unconventional use of photography that played a general, long-lasting role in shaping her unique mode of creativity.

This commentary was inspired by the Cindy Sherman exhibition, seen at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in 2012.

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About Face Rm 4-3 and 4-6 Combined-Edit-Edit-Scaled

THE GOOD NEWS.       In the spring of 2010 a preeminent exhibition space opened in San Francisco. Exclusively devoted to photography, it displays selections from the world-class Pilara Family Collection, a repository of over 2000 prints. Considering that the collection is one of the largest and most comprehensive in private hands, it is astonishing to  learn that Andy Pilara, an investment banker, only began to amass his holdings  in 2003.

T he collection spans a wide range: vintage and contemporary, documentary and fine art, digital and film based, intimate and grandiose work, little-known and renowned photographers. The breadth and depth are impressive. Many photographers are represented and there is extensive focus on select individuals. Further distinction derives from the number of iconic works as well as entire series, such as Lee Friedlander’s Little Screams, Richard Misrach’s Telegraph 3 am, and Garry Winogrand’s Animals.

Highlights include photographs by Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruth Bernhard, Harry Callahan, Larry Clark, Imogen Cunningham, Rineke Dijkstra, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Kota Ezawa, Robert Frank, Jim Goldberg, Nan Goldin, Katy Grannan, Lewis Hine, Peter Hugar, Dorothea Lange, Zwelethu Mithethwa,  Bill Owens, Irving Penn, Sebastian Salgado, August Sander, Cindy Sherman, Alec Soth, Thomas Struth, Larry Sultan, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jeff Wall, and Gillian Wearing.

Pier 24 is located on San Francisco’s Embarcadero in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. It is a vast space (28,000 sq. Ft), formerly an abandoned, dilapidated storage warehouse. In its transformed state, the building retains an industrial, barebones character.

The setting is loosely divided into galleries arranged in irregular sequences. The presentational mode varies from room to room, at times featuring work by a single photographer, and in other instances groupings organized by subject matter, style, theme, or historical period. Considering that each exhibition includes about 300 works it is not surprising to find a mix of captivating displays, enlightening juxtapositions, confounding combinations, and disconcerting arrangements.

The Inaugural Exhibition (March 16—July 16, 2010) was an eye-opening introduction to Pier 24 and the Pilara collection. It set the stage for a schedule of long-term showings, primarily comprising selections from the Pilara permanent collection. The second exhibition, From the Collection of Randi and Bob Fisher (September 16, 2010—February 28, 2011) was an exception. It showcased photographs from another San Francisco collection, which is more than equal in its diversity, quality, and quantity to Pilara’s.

Thematic exhibitions followed the first two. Here (May 23—December 17, 2011) featured Bay Area photographers and images of San Francisco. It encompassed an expanse from the dramatic landscapes of Carleton E. Watkins to the panoramas of Eadweard Muybridge, the seductive images of Edward Weston, and the street scenes of Stephan Shore.  The current exhibition, About Face (May 15, 2012—February 28, 2013) centers on the tradition of portrait-based photography and diverse approaches to portraiture. Complementing the work of individual artists are the Retratos Pintados, hand-painted family portraits from Brazil, and 300 mugshots from early 20th century America.

Zwelethu Mthethwa, Sugar Cane Series, 2003.

Zwelethu Mthethwa, Sugar Cane Series, 2003.

THE BAD NEWS.      The stated intention of Pier 24 is to provide “an environment in which to experience and quietly contemplate photography . . . to advance the creation, scholarship and understanding of the photographic medium.”  Though this mission is admirable, its implementation effectively negates the mission. There are no object labels with names, dates, titles and no text panels with significant contextual details or enlightenment about innovative processes. As a result, the lack of substantive information that might enrich the viewing experience only diminishes it. Visitors have no choice but to view the Pilara’s incredible collection in a vacuum.

The only guide for visitors is a slick brochure containing a few illustrations, a brief overview, and a gallery map. Unfortunately, the map is less helpful than exceedingly problematic. Gallery numbers are linked to the names of photographers, but rooms with multiple names do not indicate which works are by which photographers. Moreover, the space is labyrinthian. Its layout has interconnecting or detached rooms and open areas with erratic paths of entry and egress. Consequently, the map and layout only intensify the frustration deriving from the lack of nformation.

Mikhael Subotsky & Patrick Waterhouse.  Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008;  Portraits 16, 24, 13.

Mikhael Subotsky & Patrick Waterhouse. Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008, Portraits 16, 24, 13.

It’s not unusual to see visitors walking around in frustration. An excessive amount of time is spent deciphering the map. Rather than a contemplative experience, many viewers are preoccupied with trying to recall or speculate about the identity of the photographers. Without even a modicum of information, conversations are limited to “I like” “I don’t like” responses.

A few interns rove through the galleries as aides meant to answer questions and offer assistance. Although their presence might be an asset, their knowledge is skin deep. It relies on cursory data contained in the binders they carry, which have been prepared by the staff, not themselves.

The alternative to no information is not didactic texts or excessive signage. Inconspicuous lists with minimal data might easily be affixed to the entrance wall of each gallery. Or a portable data page could be available for visitors to use within each gallery. Either of these options would greatly enhance a visitor’s experience.

Having been tutored by Jeffrey Fraenkel, a well-versed photography dealer (Fraenkel Gallery), Pilara has had the benefit of biographical, historical, and stylistic learning  of the type that would be a welcome addition to exhibitions at Pier 24. Some photography specialists—museum curators, scholars and gallerists—also have extensive knowledge, yet even they would profit from nominal labels.

Without question, in a private venue the proprietor has the right to do as he pleases. However, Pilara’s own mission statement of advancing the experience of photography and the understanding of the medium does not cohere with existing modes of exhibition display.

Pier 24 is a welcome addition to San Francisco’s flourishing stature in the international art world. It would be unfortunate if visitors cannot take full advantage of the incomparable resource provided by the Pilara collection.

Pier 24 is open Monday through Thursday. Visits are scheduled by appointment only. Appointments are limited to 20 people at a time and last 2 hours (10:00-12:00, 1:00-3:00, 3:15-5:15). Register for an appointment at Admission is fee of charge.

Illustration captions.   Selections from Pilara Foundation Collection.     Zwelethu Mthethwa—Sugar Cane Series, 2003.    Mikhael Subotsky & Patrick Waterhouse—Portrait 16, Ponte City Johannesburg, 2008; Portrait 24, Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008; Portrait 13, Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008.                                                                  





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Exhibitions of fashion leaders are typically ignored by art world professionals and art museum aficionados. The disregard of couturier creativity is especially unfortunate in the case of The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, currently at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (March 24-August 19, 2012). Not only do the designs exemplify the highest level of visionary talent and cultural significance but the installation effectively conveys both content and concept in ways that warrant attention by curators in all fields.

Parisiennes collection_Les Particules eÃÅleÃÅmentaires dress

Viewer engagement occurs as soon as you walk into the exhibition. Unlike the introductory text panels that are ubiquitous in virtually all museum displays, here the first impression is the display itself. The room is darkened with soft lighting focused on mannequins aligned on a platform extending along the far walls of the gallery. Each ensemble is more alluring than the next and the entire presentation is utterly captivating. Gaultier’s artistry stops you in your tracks, draws you in and arouses curiosity for all that follows.

Approaching the exhibition as a creation in its own right, Gaultier shows couturier clothes in a distinctive way, not as a collection of staid objects on robotic models in a funeral procession. In contrast, he gives life to his collection, conceiving it as a projection of reality.

Of particular note are the individualized mannequins with animated faces that speak and sing. (Audiovisual projections endow the models with moving lips, blinking eyes and voices. The imagery recalls the sculptural aesthetic in Tony Oursler’s multimedia art.)  At the helm is the lifelike presence of Gaultier appearing in his own guise, talking in his own voice. The ventiloquized message has the air of a conversation in which the couturier gives an unscripted commentary on design. Devoid of anything didactic verging on artspeak, the proxy Gaultier chats casually with the attentive “real” crowd standing enraptured before him. Intermittently, he catches viewers off-guard by addressing them directly, playfully asking why an anonymous person seems not to like something he has said or why another anonymous person is leaving before he has finished his remarks.

The exhibition includes 140 ensembles from Gaultier’s haute couture and ready-to-wear collections spanning four decades, from the 1970s to 2010. There are also accessories, archival documents, sketches, photographs, runway clips, and video excerpts from film and music collaborations. The sheer scope of his output is mind-boggling.

To say Gaultier challenges traditions is to put it mildly. As exemplified in his use of a cat food can as a silver bracelet or his fusion of luxury and mundane fabrics, he blatantly subverts entrenched codes. Topping this is his unabashed defiance of stereotypes: men wearing skirts and women flaunting lingerie as outerwear. As iconoclastic as this bravura may be, it attests to Gaultier’s deep-seated desire to assert a masculine/feminine fluidity that breaks gender barriers.

male2006 gaultier








Among the many examples of unorthodox creativity are a 1977 ensemble combining a leather corset, motorcycle jacket, gauzy ballerina skirt, and sneakers. Or the audacious male model dressed in a tattered waistcoat, wraparound skirt, and tattoo-patterned bodysuit adorned with snake-like bracelets and a gaggle of necklaces. Corset worn by Madonna, Blond Ambition World TOUr, 1990.There is also the scandalous cone-bra corset worn by Madonna in her Blond Ambition Tour.

Gaultier has said he finds beauty everywhere. His inspiration derives from a wide range of radically divergent sources—ethnic cultures and old master paintings, rock stars and imperial rulers, street punks and aristocrats, religion and sexuality. His all-embracing approach commingles with a social message: fashion can be worn by everyone. He actualizes this idea by creating a couture collection of custom-made, one-of-a-kind designs for private patrons and a ready-to-wear collection of factory-made, standardized designs for a less exclusive clientele. Although Gaultier is not directly involved in mass production, spinoff copies have made his creations available to the general public at a low price point.

The grand finale of the exhibition caps the panache of the entire installation. It gives the semblance of a haute couture runway is conveyed by a parade of mannequins moving past viewers on a slowly rotating platform.

If ever there was an exhibition that captures the multifaceted imagination of an artist and engages viewers by the skillful potency of the presentation, this is it. And yes, Gaultier is an artist!

Virgins (or Madonnas) collection, %22Liumiere%22 gown, 2007









Captions. Parisian collection, Les Particules élémentaires, haute couture, fall/winter 2010-2011. First collection, ready-to-wear, spring/summer 1977. The Raw and the Refined collection, ready-to-wear, spring/summer 1994. Cone-bra corset worn by Madonna in Blond Ambition Tour, 1990. Virgins (or Madonnas) collection, “Lumière,” haute couture, spring/summer 2007. Calligraphy collection, “Labyrinth,” haute couture, spring/summer 2009.  Photos by Patrice Stable.

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Currently on display as part of Phantoms of Asia, the current exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, is Five Elements (2011), an extraordinary installation by Hiroshi Sugimoto. In itself it is worth a special trip to the museum. Isolated in its own  room, where it can be viewed in a quiet space, it is given its due as a serene, contemplative work.

Five Elements comprises an alignment of seven optical glass pagodas set atop eye-level pedestals spanning the length of the room. A luminous white wall serves as a backdrop. Due to their geometric structure, the components have the semblance of Minimalist sculptures. Despite this association, they derive their shape and symbolism from 13th century Buddhist pagodas. All seven pagodas are identical formations embodyingImage the five universal elements: a cube emphasizing the materiality of earth, a sphere of self-evident clarity symbolizing water, a pyramid in imitation of the pointed flames of fire, a hemisphere expressing its power to cut through whole matter, and a droplet-like shape crowning a globe to convey a sense of emptiness, the image of the cosmic void closing upon itself. In sum, the geometric configurations visualize the universal elements. They merge architectural, conceptual and philosophical approaches even as they embrace similar aspects of ancient and contemporary orientations.

The spare character of Sugimoto’s installation with its small-scale pagodas spread across the room, encourages viewers to walk along the alignment and look closely at each component.  The allure of the pristine, seductive surfaces is a further  enticement. Only when peering through openings in the pyramid element is it possible to see a black and white film squeezed inside. The film reveals the image of a seascape, an iteration of a photograph from Sugimoto’s esteemed Seascape series.

Whereas the pagodas convey unwavering sameness, the seascapes bear witness to  the essence of timelessness and transience, diversity within likeness. Each depicts a different sea. Some feature ripples in the water, some show variations in lightness and darkness, others capture the rising or setting sun. All are composed with the horizon line in the middle, portraying sky and sea as equal realms and expressing  primordial nature before human presence.

Not only has the Asian Art Museum respected the sensibility of the artist and artwork, but their display deepens the power of Sugimoto’s vision.

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The evocative photographs of Francesca Woodman (1958-81), on display in a retrospective exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until February 20, 2012, explore the potency of the body as a pictorial force in disconcerting environments. The body is often nude, eccentrically posed in abandoned, deteriorating interiors. Although architectural remains and shabby furnishings allude to a distant past, they do not elucidate time and place, nor do they provide a context for viewing the images. As inexplicable traces of a bygone era, such objects nevertheless intensify the haunting aura that prevails. 

At first glance the settings seem inert, but they are hardly tranquil. Views from above and below in tandem with oblique angles cause disorientation. These compositional complexities also intensify the lack of cohesion within the whole and between constituent parts. It is an instability that is simultaneously perplexing and compelling. Without question, the imprint of Surrealism is palpable, both in irrational juxtapositions of found objects and in enigmatic conglomerations.

Francesca Woodman, House #4, 1976

Francesca Woodman, House #4, 1976

In conjunction with exaggerated perspectives that pull the eye back in space, Woodman uses patterns and textures to emphasize surfaces. Among the most notable are walls flecked with peeling paint, skin and hair, textiles decorated with geometric and flowery designs, flowing and wrinkled fabric, tree trunks and entangled branches, eroded doors and moldings, woodgrains, cracked pavement, mirror reflections, blurs, shadows, and sharp contrasts between light and dark tonalities.


Woodman routinely photographed herself in the nude. Although she used herself as a model, her portrayals are neither likenesses nor idealizations. Rather than adhering to traditions of the nude in western art, she explores divergent ways of representing the body as an assertive or ambiguous form. Bodies assume exaggerated, unnatural postures, often appearing with head and limbs cut off by the frame. Isolated, but impacted by their surroundings and mundane objects, they convey both strength and weakness. Some bodies are concealed; others are exposed, either conveying self-conscious timidness or audacious sexuality. Some stand at a distance in the corner, back or periphery of a room; others are positioned as close-ups in the foreground.

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, ca.1976
Francesca Woodman, Untitled, ca.1976

As an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design (1975-78), Woodman was introduced to the technical and iconographic heritage of photography, as well as the achievements of photographers who played a critical role in elevating photography to the status of art in the early and mid-twentieth century. After graduating with a BFA, she moved to New York, where she continued to experiment, developing an accomplished body of work. Her photographs were included in several group shows, but her life and career were cut short by her suicide at age 22.

While Woodman’s photographs are typically viewed with reference to her biography and feminist theory, it is also illuminating to set her work in the context of interpretive studies of the nude in art history and contemporary photography.

A seminal discourse on the nude was the subject of six lectures given by Kenneth Clark for the prestigious A.W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery, Washington, DC in 1953. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form was subsequently published as a clothbound book in 1956, and as a paperback in 1959. It soon became a classic, often used as a textbook in art schools and universities. Written in a narrative style, the topic itself and Clark’s interpretation were well-received, both among scholars and the general public. Although Clark’s formalist approach was not adopted by Woodman, the influence of his ideas on a multitude of artists and teachers cannot be underestimated.

Examining the nude as an art image in all periods of European history from ancient Greece to the present, Clark analyzes its emotional and pictorial tenor in the work of various artists. He also assesses how the nude is viewed, paying particular attention to distinctions between the “Naked” and the “Nude.” The former appears defenseless, embarrassed, and deprived of clothes. The latter is depicted as a timeless, idealized, and confident being. Although Clark’s construction of binary opposites, which are rooted in male/female stereotypes, was vehemently criticized by feminists in the 1970s, his controversial theories reawakened discussion of the nude in art at a time when Woodman was emerging as a photographer.

Clark did not include photography in his treatise on the nude, but pioneering curators more than picked up the slack. Of particular note were the numerous exhibitions, catalogues, books, and essays produced by John Szarkowski, during his tenure (1962-93) as Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Under his leadership, the museum amassed an unrivaled collection of photographs. It also inaugurated a photography gallery in which rotating selections from the collection were on permanent display.

In 1978 MoMA published Szarkowski’s Windows and Mirrors: American Photography since 1960, a groundbreaking catalogue that accompanied a traveling exhibition that toured throughout the U.S. for two years. In his text, Szarkowski articulates a “fundamental dichotomy in contemporary photography between those who think of photography as a means of self-expression and those who think of it as a method of exploration.” The “Window” category, which derives from direct observation with an emphasis on content, was epitomized by Robert Frank (especially in his revolutionary book, The Americans, 1959) and his predecessor Eugène Atget. In contrast, the “Mirror” category, which is grounded in introspection, using the expressive potential of form to convey feelings, was exemplified by the work of Minor White and his forbearer Alfred Stieglitz.

Be-ing without Clothes, an exhibition curated by Minor White in 1970 for the MIT art gallery (then called the Hayden Gallery), specifically addressed the topic of nudity in photography. White was not only an impressive photographer, but also an esteemed teacher whose influence extended well beyond the students in his classes. His reputation was further based on his having edited (1952-75) and co-founded Aperture, a magazine described as “the most serious and most valuable periodical in the photographic world.” He also was curator of the George Eastman House (International Museum of Photography and Film) while also serving as editor of their celebrated journal, Image.

White was known as a visionary with a deep belief in the spiritual quality of photography. Szarkowski described White as an artist who believed that a photograph “should function as an experience, as opposed to a ‘thing.’ The photograph should act as a springboard for the viewer to explore feelings.”  In Be-ing without Clothes, White conceptualized the “Nude” as a form of art, and the “Naked” as a form of life. The exhibition included photographs in which “Nude” bodies appear as ideal forms. But there were also “Naked” depictions of the body in banal, ordinary, and iconoclastic compositions.

The degree to which Woodman was conversant with the theories of Clark, Szarkowski, and White is speculative. Nevertheless, she undoubtedly was aware of photographs shaped by their ideas. Her own photographs tend to merge and shift between “Naked” and “Nude,” “Mirror” and “Window” typologies.

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