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Francesca Woodman, Polka Dots, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976; gelatin silver print; courtesy George and Betty Woodman; © George and Betty Woodman

A few highlights from a day spent at the San Francisco Museum of Art, a visit that followed the feast that was Pacific Standard Time in Los Angeles over Thanksgiving…

Francesca Woodman‘s life was a short one. The daughter of two visual artists, her precocious gifts were apparent early on. She attended RISD, did a residency at the McDowell Colony in Peterborough New Hampshire. She committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22.

Thirty years later, Woodman’s work is still timelessly haunting, deeply personal, darkly envisioned but not without moments of light and a redemptive glimmer. Most of the images are self portraits of some kind. Her body is her highly plastic terrain, creating landscapes of skin and flesh that are exploratory, not exploitative, direct and yet hidden.

The show is enormous and yet I felt drawn to spend time with every image. Her work has that kind of mystery and intrigue. I’m generally not a photohound but this was work so painterly and distinct it was hard to not give it your full attention.

Her parents, George and Betty Woodman, have been careful stewards of Woodman’s body of work all these years. They waited for just the right venue and opportunity for Francesca’s first retrospective.

Further reading: Ted Loos has written an excellent article in the New York Times that provides a good overview on Francesca and the show.


Francesca Woodman, Self-portrait talking to Vince, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975–78; gelatin silver print; courtesy George and Betty Woodman; © George and Betty Woodman


Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, ca. 1976; gelatin silver print; collection of Susan Turner and Scott Purdin; © George and Betty Woodman

A few other viewing highlights:


Richard Serra

The Richard Serra drawing show that was at the Met this summer is now at SFMOMA. They look different in every venue. Some of these are exquisite and are reminiscent of those gorgeous overworked drawings by Brice Marden in his MOMA retrospective from a few years ago. Others feel less enchanting but the statement being made is a big one. This is, after all, Richard Fucking Serra.

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A quote from Dieter Rams.

SFMOMA does a lot of design shows, and the latest features the iconic head of design at Braun for many years, Dieter Rams. Rams is associated with a variety of iconic pieces and is known for his memorable edicts, most famously his advocacy for “less but better” design.


Richard Aldrich, Untitled, 2008; oil and wax on panel; 11 1/2 x 9 in.; private collection, New York; © Richard Aldrich.

Richard Aldrich, a young artist from Brooklyn, has a room of new paintings. The work is open, fresh, painterly and smart. He’s someone I will be keeping track of from here on.


The ever playful Eric Hundley


Close up view of the Hundley


Rosana Castrillo Diaz’s exquisite hallway mural


Diaz close up. This piece is dazzling in the sunshine.

Rosana Castrillo Diaz is a fabulous artist who moved to the Bay Area from Spain. She’s another I’ll be tracking. Her work is subtle, lush, minimalist and yet expressive.

Ray Saunders

Ray Saunders was a prominent influence on me during my formative years in the Bay Area. In the small circling way of art thermals, my son studied with him at CCA a few years ago.

Two Boston museum recommendations:

At the ICA


Charles LeDray, Mens Suits (Photo: ICA, Boston)

I have looked at examples of Charles LeDray’s work online for several years, but seeing his work in person is a whole different kettle of fish. As an idea his approach seemed almost too precious—his curious obsession (and I mean that literally) with the fabrication of thousands of miniatures, done with a decidedly fine art flair. But that originating concept disappears when you are actually in conversation, face to face, with these artifacts. His Art Angel sponsored exhibit, Mens Suits, is best experienced in silence. The absence of the living forms for whom these items were fashioned is so palpable I found myself tearing up. This is work that must be seen in person, whether you catch it here or at the Whitney Museum in October.

The description from the ICA website:

For over 20 years, New York-based artist Charles LeDray has created handmade sculptures in stitched fabric, carved bone, and wheel-thrown clay. LeDray painstakingly fashions smaller-than-life formal suits, embroidered patches, ties, and hats, as well as scaled-down chests of drawers, doors, thousands of unique, thimble-sized vessels, and even complex models of the solar system.

The exhibition gathers approximately 50 sculptures and installations, from seminal early works to the first U.S. presentation of MENS SUITS (2006-2009), his highly acclaimed project presenting three complex, small-scale vignettes of second-hand clothing shops. The ICA will also premiere Throwing Shadows (2008-2010), an extraordinary new ceramic work including more than 3,000 vessels made of black porcelain, each less than two inches tall.

At the MFA


From Nicholas Nixon, Family Album (Photo: MFA, Boston)

Nicholas Nixon’s new exhibit, Family Album, is a loving family portrait by a consummate photographer. Seeing the Brown Sisters hanging together on a wall is always a show stopper. But I loved the chance to view new images of Nick’s children Sam and Clemmie (who grew up with my own in Brookline.) One photograph is of a note scrawled by a very young Clemmie apologizing for her bad behavior. In another, Sam’s hands are grubbily holding a stack of bills. These fit right in alongside the flesh of these babies next to Bebe’s breast or an array arms and legs indecipherably intertwined.

Certainly other families have been portrayed in an artistic setting. The most notorious is probably still Sally Mann’s photographs of her children 20 years ago. But without being showy or self-aggrandizing, Nixon has captured a wholeness and healthiness in his family that is hard to fake. And the photos are, as always, masterfully toned and exquisitely composed.

From the MFA website:

Among the most compelling of Nicholas Nixon’s series of photographs are the portraits that he has made of his close-knit family. These photographs, taken over time, explore the nature of long-committed relationships. The exhibition features the entire sequence of the celebrated portraits of the artist’s wife, Bebe, and her three sisters. Taken annually, the Brown Sisters pictures reveal gradual changes in their physiques and shifts in their relationships. The exhibition also includes photographs of the artist’s daily life with Bebe and their children Samuel and Clementine (born in the early 1980s), which enable viewers to share in the daily interactions and joys of parenthood. Also included in the show are recent portraits of Bebe and self-portraits that stand for the steadiness of long marriage. Nicholas Nixon, who teaches at Massachusetts College of Art, is one of the most celebrated American photographers of our generation. The Brown Sisters photographs are a promised gift of James and Margie Krebs. Many of the other works in the exhibition are loans from the photographer.


Case Study house #22 by Pierre Koenig, photographed by Julius Shulman

This is a late notice, but anyone in the Boston/Cambridge area with an interest in architecture, modernism, Los Angeles, photography, creativity and elegant filmmaking, you have until Thursday night to view the documentary Visual Acoustics at the Kendall Theater.

In the way of background, here is the description of the film from the Visual Acoustics site:

Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, VISUAL ACOUSTICS celebrates the life and career of Julius Shulman, the world’s greatest architectural photographer, whose images brought modern architecture to the American mainstream. Shulman, who passed away this year, captured the work of nearly every modern and progressive architect since the 1930s including Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Frank Gehry. His images epitomized the singular beauty of Southern California’s modernist movement and brought its iconic structures to the attention of the general public. This unique film is both a testament to the evolution of modern architecture and a joyful portrait of the magnetic, whip-smart gentleman who chronicled it with his unforgettable images.

Shulman’s eye is unerring. In that sense he reminds me of Herb Vogel (my paen to Herb can be read here). Both of them developed a unique and penetrating way of seeing that set them apart from everyone else looking at the same thing, be it a building or a piece of art. Both of them were essentially self taught, creating their expertise over time using their own experiences to fine tune their gift.

But there is one big difference between Herb Vogel and Julius Shulman: Herb never talks, and Shulman never stops. With opinions about everything that are freely shared, Shulman is a survellience camera with a running soundtrack. At one point in the film Shulman’s only daughter Judy tactfully describes her father as a “self-absorbed man.” He was not alone. Julius spent most of his professional life working with other self-absorbed geniuses like Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Rudolph Schindler.

But the footage of Shulman creating his photographs (later in life he worked with an assistant) is so fascinating. I could watch those segments over and over again, the detailed understanding of how light plays on the inside and outside of a structure, how the angle and depth of field is so critical, how he finds the perfect vantage point to make these legendary mid-century structures look even better than they ever did in real life. His daughter says he hauled his furniture around with him to every shoot, always eager to make a home look lived in rather than captured in its supremacist, stripped, minimalist form.

Thanks to my film buff friend Teresa for the heads up on this. A one week run just isn’t enough.


Julius Shulman photographing Case Study house #22 by Pierre Koenig

Jeffrey Inaba’s installation warms the cold cement interior of the Whitney Museum lower level

It is a ritual I have witnessed for over twenty years (and one I have participated in with variations in intensity): The Whitney Biennial Grouse. The cacophony of anger, outrage and “how could they?” that erupts around this show every two years has become as much a part of its tradition and import as the work on display. And as if to codify (and perhaps co-opt?) that external form of the Whitney ritual, this year’s catalog includes news clippings from previous shows. The headlines read as vituperously as the American press’ reception to the 1913 Amory Show.

I have referenced this phenomena before (see Gimme Shelter) and have to smile when I think about how many years I have been approaching this event as the “ever contentious, rhetoric-infested, ‘I can’t wait to hate it’ Whitney Biennial.” So in the spirit of the times, when old forms are imploding and new ones emerging, I have embraced a new methodology with which to approach the show.

Here’s my new game plan:

1. Treat it as you would a gallery exhibit, nothing more.
2. Go with another artist friend who is not bitter, narrow-minded or prone to grousing . (My partner for this and all future Biennials will be the inimitable Paula Overbay.)
3. Find the work that moves you. There have been years when there was only one. But one is more than zero. And this year there were several!
4. Wear earplugs.*

And this is the year to approach the show without all the vitriol because it is different. For the first time, more women than men. And fewer artists are included so the experience is more manageable. I enjoyed the day. Truly.

*The only negative comment I will make about the 2010 Whitney Biennial is the unfortunate spillover of installation soundtracks into every gallery. There is work in this show that deserves quiet and self-reflection. This was impossible given the curatorial decision to blend media and formats. So Suzan Frecon’s masterful pieces can only be seen in concert with a completely incongruous soundtrack emanating from the Bruce High Quality Foundation‘s installation next door. I like both of these works, but they should not be sharing the same wall. It’s like trying to roll out a delicate confection on a garlic cutting board.

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Here is a sampling of my favorites. Each artist’s name is linked to the Whitney Museum site so you can read more about the artist and the works included in the show. BTW, these are in order if you start on the top floor and work down.

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Leslie Vance

Vance reminds me of a more lyrical version of Tomma Abts. Her work has a very specific technique and approach, but the results are quite lyrical and evocative. Beautifully painted.

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Curtis Mann

Mann is able to bring together photography, retinality (a “painterly” sense) and politics in a cogent and innovative fashion. Very memorable.

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Tauba Auerbach

A young artist who already has a number of bodies of work is exhibiting extraordinary large scale trompe-l’œil paintings. Fresh, fun and intriguing.

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Suzan Frecon

One of the older artists in the show (go girl!), Frecon is exhibiting two paintings that are absolutely exquisite. Subtle and yet strong, powerful and yet intimate. I could have stood with them for a long time were it not for extenuating curatorial circumstances. (OK, enough. I’ve already made my case. No grousing!)

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Pae White

White’s piece is a massive tapestry that is based on an image of light reflecting off of metallic surfaces. This work is so massive and yet lyrical, beautifully attentive to both the craft and the aura. Wow.


Aurel Schmidt

If there is a breakout darling from the show it is probably newcomer Schmidt who is 27 yeas old and untrained . Who needs art school when you can draw like this one can? A must see.

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Jeffrey Inaba

The images at the top of the post are a better view of architect Inaba’s massive upside down flowers hanging over the lower level. They slowly change color and are such a perfect counterpoint to the hard edge qualities of that open space in the museum. I wish they could stay as a permanent installation.

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My favorite review of the show is (of course) by Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine. It is so worthy of a full read, as is this biennial.

The work of Hiroshi Sugimoto cannot be comprehended without having been experienced in the flesh. Every artist believes this about their work, but in some circumstances it goes beyond optimal and moves into the imperative. So it is with Sugimoto’s photographs. (I have included this reproduction as an indicator but not the thing itself.)

The first time I saw one of Sugimoto’s photographs, I couldn’t move. I just stood there in front of that large scale seascape and basked. After 30 minutes of Sugimoto, there was nothing else in the museum that could penetrate my perceptions. He had filled up every receptive cell in my body with that one image, so I just had to sit down and be with a presence that was quiet and yet very powerful.

As described by David Ian Miller:

Sugimoto works on vast projects, each concerned with photographing the essence of time. He coined the phrase “Time Exposed” to describe his work. In his most famous project he photographs film theatres over the course of a movie, the screens turn brilliant white and illuminate the theatre. With his Seascape series he photographs the eternal sea, each frame bisected by the horizon. Sugimoto works on vast projects, each concerned with photographing the essence of time. He coined the phrase “Time Exposed” to describe his work. In his most famous project he photographs film theatres over the course of a movie, the screens turn brilliant white and illuminate the theatre. With his Seascape series he photographs the eternal sea, each frame bisected by the horizon.

His technique is also worthy of consideration, given the powerful results he is able to create:

These pictures have been taken with a technical view camera that shoots huge 8-by-10-inch negatives. It’s the kind of camera that consists of a long bellows, with a tea-saucer lens attached at one end and a ground-glass viewing screen at the other — in use, it looks like an accordion perched on a tripod — and that asks the photographer to stoop under a black cloth to look through it. It produces an ultra-precise, highly resolved image of whatever has been set before the lens, as though the photographer’s dedication to truth-telling won’t tolerate the missing of a single hair or speck of lint. It’s the kind of camera that produces a stunning “reality effect” — an overwhelming sense, even in black and white, that the world must be just the way the picture makes it look. Blake Gopnik

The spiritual dimension to his work is elemental to its presence. In an interview with Miller, Sugimoto had a few modest comments:

Miller: You wrote that artistic endeavors are “mere approximations, efforts to render visible unseen realms.” What did you mean by that?

Sugimoto:Well, this is one of the purposes of art itself. Science tries to understand nature in a logical sense, but there are many, many natural phenomena that cannot be explained by logic and science.

Historically, religion served this purpose. But now, we are getting into the 21st century and the power of religion is fading. People still need another way to understand the world besides logic — and we’re turning to art and spirituality to help us understand our environment and the world.

M: Is there a spiritual dimension to your photography?

S: If so, it is whatever the viewer feels looking at my work. I’m not purposely trying to make it spiritually strong. I’m just practicing my art. If people see it as a spiritual, I’m glad to accept it. But I’m not particularly promoting a spirituality of any kind.

Spirituality is a particular characteristic of the human being that no other animals have. I’m just trying to investigate where this comes from. In that process I sometimes stir up ancient memories and spirits, and maybe people who see my art respond to that.

Yesterday I received an email from a new poet friend, Martin Dickinson. He has written a remarkable ekphrasic poem, “Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Sea of Japan,” which was published in California Quarterly in 2007. He sent it with me along with some insightful words about Sugimoto’s work. I share both with you here.

I find it so amazing that he takes these time lapse photos of films–and all that we see is an incredible burst of white light coming at us. It looks unreal—but of course, on another level that IS reality, we just don’t usually look that way or see that way. Similarly with Sugimoto’s ocean series: superficially every single one of those photos is the same—shot at the same exact angle to the surface of the water and same exact distance above the surface. We see no earth at all, but just the surface of the water. As you look more deeply into these photos you begin to see remarkable and engrossing detail. Every single photo is unique and very unusual.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Sea of Japan

Hiroshi, wave after wave after wave
of endless blue, or rather, endless
black—or is it endless gray?

This is your language.
Dusty parts of the planet are worthless
except as places to plant your tripod—
pedestal for the all-seeing eye,
vantage toward this world
that pulses like a beating heart,
image of the thing becoming the thing,
then ebbing back to its image again,
heard like the slap of water against a pier,
tongued like the taste of salt,
felt like a slosh in the gut.

This instant that’s entered your lens,
ray relating from your retina to mine,
our thoughts electrons, chemicals really.
Is all the world ocean
or silver dots on gelatin, or both?

Truth is beams of light,
and you’ve seen it, alright.
Everything that is is motionless
everything that is is flow
wave after wave after wave, Hiroshi.

–Martin Dickinson

An unforgettable exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Photos of Silicon Valley by Milan-based architect and photographer Gabriele Basilico.

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I remember well when the Valley was mostly apricot orchards and vegetable farms. But Basilico’s images do not sentimentalize the past or assault the viewer with a harsh, urban, edgy vision. These photographs are quiet–almost apocalyptically silent–and most of them capture a people-free version of a region that has become notoriously overpopulated, overtraffiked and drenched in a smug layer of “we’re just a little smarter (and richer) than everyone else” self satisfaction.

That isn’t what captures Basilico’s eye however. Instead he discovers what urban theorist Manuel Castells calls the “space of flows.” As described by Jeff Byles in Modern Painters magazine:

That’s what you see beyond the galvanized steel guardrails. That is the informational city, a land of virtual networks ever more severed from their social context…Check out Basilico’s view of US Highway 101 gashing through the flat valley in ominous shades of black and white, a vast parking lot to the left, an empty field to the right. Transmission wires arc low across the sky and trail into the distance. This is the space of flows. On the horizon sit carceral towers, the seeming prison houses of software engineers and product managers. Latent in the image are layers of spatial data: vestigial scraps of nature; the low, defining hills; cars streaking along the highway, their own vectors in the landscape.

Byles goes on to draw specifically from the writings of Castells:

This is where the social meaning of place evaporates… “There is no tangible oppression,” Castells wrote of the informational city, “no identifiable enemy, no center of power that can be held responsible for specific social issues.” There are just flows. Input, output: service stations and taco stands.

Basilico’s photographs capture a centerless, ambient foreboding that something here isn’t right. How he does this is beguiling and mysterious. And he achieves it without resorting to manipulative gestures or a need to patronize the viewer. These images feel fresh. Raw, yes, but starkly fresh.

Perhaps it is his method of work: “To slow down vision,” Basilico wrote, “was for me a small revolution in the way of seeing.” In Byles’ view, the emptiest photographs are the most powerful. “Basilico is the de Chrico of sprawl.” Well put.

To view the Basilico images in the SFMOMA show, click here.