Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Ansel Twice and More

Seeing two major Ansel Adams exhibitions 8,000 miles apart in the same fortnight can make your summer. The show at the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park had the larger challenge—because San Franciscans see an awful lot of their favorite photographic genius. Just two summers ago, the California Academy of Science fielded a luminous retrospective on the laureate of Yosemite.

The DeYoung was aided by Pacific Telesis, which lent its cache of 75 images chosen by Ansel as the best of his 40,000 negatives. (If you can’t get to San Francisco by September 13, console yourself with Ansel Adams: Classic Images, Little Brown.)

The audio guide pivots on a career choice Adams made at age 30: Continue plans to become a concert pianist (the family preferred this high-status option) or plunge single heartedly into the as yet unlegitimatized craft / hobby of photography. (His concert pianizing is the soundtrack.) How lucky we all are that Ansel, benign oddball that he was, took the road that was almost untraveled.

That his genius was 99% perspiration and 1% invention is clarified by a marvelous sequence of prints titled “Moonrise, Hernandez, N.M.,” which show how much aesthetic sweat went into the composing and printing each of the images.

The only other Bay Area show that moved me as much was the Frida Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera, at the Mexican Museum at Fort Mason. The Riveras had many San Francisco connections, but this show gave the best overview of her small but superb oeuvre I have ever seen. What a pity it is not traveling as widely as her husband’s larger but less interesting (to me) retrospective of last summer.

Fort Mason, by the way, is finally achieving its promise as the area’s premier alternative cultural center—where it now houses the Crafts and Folk Arts Museum, as well as the Museo Italo-Americano and the Afro-American Museum. Popping on the 29 bus (75 cents) will take you to Golden Gate Park via the Golden Gate Bridge ramp approaches, with a splendid view of the bridge and the Presidio.

The other Adams show, at London’s Barbican Art Centre, benefited from the main gallery’s well-designed spaces as well as by having the magic 75 prints. But much more instructive to me was a show called “Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-1955,” in which the mainly figurative painters eclipsed by the abstract tidal wave of the 1960s and 1970s are retrieved from oblivion.

It was my first visit to the Barbican, touted in a recent Economist as the “state of the art in city living.” An artist running a coop gallery in Greenwich, where I had traveled to see the Australian bicentennial expo at the Maritime Museum, said she thought I’d like it “if I ever found it,” which struck me as a strange remark until I found myself following a yellow tape footpath from the Underground past brutalist blocks of confusing sameness.

Lunching workers from the financial district surely looked like they were enjoying their late May loll in its flinty precincts, and I did unwind pleasantly at a wine bar in front of the Art Centre, but oh, I wondered out loud, how would this place be in the winter and fall to fellow imbibers of good wine and rare sun?

“Terrible,” was the candid reply. It’s not nearly as commodious as the Hayward Gallery, where the Thames softens, and where the Corbusier expo was absolutely first-class and its catalogue a classic.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, August 26, 1987

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