Still Life with Fish and Robert Frank

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While there is quite a bit of well-deserved attention for Leap Before You Look, an exhibition examining the history and legacy of Black Mountain College, there is another show, also at the Hammer Museum, of similar import: Still Life with Fish.

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Jo Ann Callis, "Still Life with Fish," 1982
Gelatin silver print. 19 15/16 × 23 7/8 in. (50.6 × 60.7 cm)
Gift of the artist
UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum

The title comes from a 1982 black and white photograph by Jo Ann Callis with the components of a traditional still life divided into a grid of sliced bread, a draped table, a bowl of water, radishes and a platter of silvery fish. That image and others in the show, organized by Hammer curator Connie Butler with Emily Gonzalez-Jarrett, deftly present a case for the relationship between photography and Conceptual art as it evolved in Southern California from the 1970's onward.

All the photographs are from the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at UCLA and were acquired largely due to the influence of Robert Heinecken, who established the first photography department there in 1963. The boundary-breaking Heinecken was not educated as a photographer and was an early proponent of using the medium in non-traditional ways. His own work is not in the show but the photographs of his students, including Callis, and many others demonstrate the ways that alternative uses of photography were widespread and widely accepted in Southern California.

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Eileen Cowin, "Untitled" (formerly titled "Family Docudrama Series"), 1983
Chromogenic color print, Ektachrome. 20 × 24 in. (50.8 × 61 cm)
UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum

Heinecken's theatricality, in art and life, had an impact on artists maturing in the 1970's, the first generation of artists to be raised with television. That may seem like ancient history today but the show includes photographs often reveal a hyper-awareness of the increasingly mediated culture: William Leavitt's photograph of jewelry, Robert Cumming's stage set, Ilene Segalove's self-portrait comparing herself to Barbie, Eileen Cowin's staged family docudrama. These were a departure from a dogmatic version of photo-history that prevailed at the time.

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Ilene Segalove, "Close but No Cigar/ Barbie and Ilene," 1975
Two vintage silver prints, each signed and dated. 27 × 32 ¾ in. (63.6 × 83.2 cm) (framed) each
Gift of Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Another inescapable influence is that proverbial master of droll mundanity Ed Ruscha with his self-published books of photographs including with his accordion pleated 1966 publication of every building on the Sunset Strip.

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Lewis Baltz, “Industrial Structure During Painting, Irvine from New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California,” 1974
Gelatin silver print on Agfa paper. 8 × 10 in. (20.3 × 25.4 cm)
Gift of Dr. Michael R. Kaplan
UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum

In the context of this show, it stands as a precursor of what came to be known as New Topographics, black and white works of the 1970's such as the industrial parks of Irvine by Lewis Baltz, a stucco dingbat by Judy Fiskin, fragments of deteriorating construction by John Divola and others. These pictures departed from notions of optimal subject matter, composition or lighting that were still the goals of many photographers.

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John Divola, "Untitled," 1974
Gelatin silver print on Agfa paper. 13 15/16 × 10 7/8 in. (35.4 × 27.6 cm)
UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum
Purchased with funds provided by the National Endowment
for the Arts and the Kress Foundation, Washington, DC
Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

That Catherine Opie, James Welling, Allen Ruppersberg, Christopher Williams and others now enjoy great international recognition as artists sweetens the sense that this exhibition offers insights into their earliest thinking and processes. For instance, Opie's recent Old Master-inspired portraits are on view at the Hammer while this show includes her own self-portrait taken at age 11 as she flexes her muscles in a display of false strength.

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Catherine Opie, "Self Portrait 1970," 2008
Epson print on Ilford Galerie paper. 11¾ × 13 in. (29.8 ×33 cm)
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Courtesy of the artist

Still Life with Fish is a great companion to the Black Mountain College show as both underscore the impact of artists as teachers and vice versa, a dynamic of mutual challenge and acceptance. The show continues through May 15.

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Robert Frank: Books and Films, 1947-2016

And talking about photography, tonight is the opening of an exciting new pop-up show: Robert Frank: Books and Films, 1947-2016 at what used to be the Santa Monica Museum at Bergamot Station. Organized with his friend, publisher Gerhard Steidl, Frank's unframed prints have been reproduced on long newsprint banners while his experimental films are being shown regularly. The emphasis is on the seriality that informs his books and films but the show also confronts the fact that Frank's original photographs have become so valuable, exhibitions are limited. This informal presentation, which has appeared throughout Europe, is only up for two weeks. On April 15, what Frank calls the day of destruction, UCLA students are invited to tear it down. The newsprint images have no intrinsic value and the exhibition is not intended to make money. The catalog, made intentionally affordable, was produced by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and is available for only $5. For more information, go to