Entertainment » Fine Arts

Edge Of The Art World

by Sura Wood
Monday Jul 15, 2013

A Polish Jew, Rose Mandel fled Nazi persecution in 1942, and like countless other immigrants landed in New York bereft, having lost friends and family to the Holocaust. She soon made her way to San Francisco, the perfect place for a woman who had lost nearly everything to reinvent herself. She became a poet with a camera; the Bay Area and photography gave her a new way to look at the world.

Trained in art in 1930s Paris, where she encountered the Surrealists, and having studied child psychology under Jean Piaget in Switzerland, Mandel incorporated both fields in her chosen medium. Despite the admiration of colleagues and well-received exhibitions including SFMOMA (1948) and the Legion of Honor (1954), as well as the publication of her work in prestigious journals, she's relatively unknown today, a state of affairs the de Young Museum hopes to remedy with "The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel."

A reassessment of her body of work and an attempt to elucidate her role in the history of modernist photography, the show features portraits, tonal explorations of the merging of sea, shore and sky, landscapes, street scenes and surrealist-inflected imagery melding psychology and abstract expressionism. The exhibition's title, taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson, refers to a 1950s sequence of plant studies that she shot close-up in alternately sharp and soft focus. Mandel is credited with being one of the first photographers to utilize the sequence format, as opposed to relying solely on the wallop of a single image to deliver a narrative.

At the California School of Fine Arts (SFAI) in the late 1940s, her strikingly original photographs impressed her mentors, Ansel Adams and Minor White. She befriended them along with fellow artists Imogen Cunningham, Lisette Model, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn, whose approach in some respects mirrored her own. It was Diebenkorn who invited her to shoot the half-dozen insightful, uncredited photos that accompanied a pivotal 1956 article in "Art News" magazine showing the notoriously private artist toiling in his Berkeley studio. At her death in 2002, Mandel left behind 50 negatives taken during that two-to-three-week period. Several of the photographs are in the show and on the walls lining the entry to the museum's current Diebenkorn exhibition, which occasioned this deserved reexamination of Mandel's largely forgotten work.

Why Mandel faded from memory and fell off the edge of the art-world while contemporaries like David Park, who called her "a painter with a camera," and White, who freely acknowledged her influence, established significant, lasting careers, could be the subject of a feminist manifesto. Yes, it's true that she didn't actively engage in promoting her work, and for 20 years had a "day job" as senior photographer for the UC Berkeley art department, where she shot aspiring artists seen here, such as the expressive dynamo Jay DeFeo, and the late painter William Theophilus Brown, standing amidst a tangle of bushes. But to understand the complex reasons Mandel languished in comparative obscurity for 60 years, one has to look at the broader context of an art establishment that tends to favor men and elevate them to the pantheon at an accelerated rate and in greater numbers.

If not exactly heart-stopping, Mandel's imagery, primarily of natural phenomena - swirling waves, branches, twigs, buds, a nocturnal, moonlit Berkeley Marina - is delicate, sensitively observed, and as finely crafted as an Italian cameo. She once said she made hundreds of prints and destroyed them in a quest for perfection.

A stranger in a strange land, her feeling of dislocation is manifest in "On Walls and Behind Glass," a series for which she decamped to Chinatown and North Beach, carting around her 4" x 5'' view camera and tripod to translate the disjunctive visual melange of her adopted homeland. There's a disembodied, all-seeing eye (a favorite Surrealist motif) hovering in a no-man's land; a reflection of a clock suspended in an industrial landscape; graffiti, street signage and shop windows like one showcasing an Easter display with life-size Bugs Bunny toys in white gloves standing in formation as a cheesy sculpture of Jesus presides from on high. But it's the disconcerting psychological photographs, where Mandel combines the rumblings of an unsettled psyche with the vicissitudes of nature, that compel attention. In "Jerrold Davis" (1955), for instance, the subject is blurred and recedes behind a bare, gnarled branch that's in razor-sharp focus; it's as if we're looking at him through a pane of shattered glass. The distortion, produced through a double exposure on a single sheet of film, evokes a disoriented mental state.

A disturbing picture of a white baby basinet swathed in gauzy white fabric, sitting unattended in a dark room ("Untitled," 1952), summons Mandel's grave personal losses - she mourned the child she never had - and the lingering horror of a war that abruptly changed the trajectory of her life. Adams once made an oversize print of Mandel's image of dying aloe branches entwined in a dance of decay, her metaphor for the slaughter of the Holocaust. These and other photographs express the traumatic history she couldn't escape and her alertness to the tiny details of existence most of us overlook. In the face of annihilation, she was one of the fortunate few granted a second chance. Although she sometimes veered from that painful legacy, it may have been her most potent source. (Through Oct. 13.)

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