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In the Eye of the I at LACMA : The Irmas Collection Mixes Photo History With the Eccentricity of Self-Portraiture

August 15, 1994|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

The postcard-size 1967 "Self-Portrait" by Wallace Berman (1926-76) is among the smallest of the 140 works in "The Camera I: Photographic Self-Portraits From the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection," which opened last week at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is also among the most eccentric.

A tiny black-and-white picture of the artist, his head surmounted by a Hebrew glyph while rays of light emanate from his forehead, is affixed to the center of the card. Nine postage stamps and one State of California tax stamp (from a pint bottle of unidentified liquor) are affixed around his beatific, slightly upraised face.

The red, green, blue, brown and violet postage stamps themselves carry engraved pictures, most associated with travel: a Conestoga wagon, Charles Lindbergh's airplane, a lighter-than-air weather balloon and a bicycle. (One traveler is a winged angel in flight.) The stamps come from the United States, the Falkland Islands, Belgium and Barbados, and several of the pictures are graphically marked with rays of light, like those encircling Berman's mind in his self-portrait.

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The radiant beams give a dramatic, romantic punch to the scenes--as in the triumphant little picture of a 19th-Century family in a Conestoga wagon arriving in Utah. They survey a peaceful landscape that unfolds beneath the printed legend, "This is the place."

The stamped card also recalls the artist's well-known habit of sending collaged postcards through the mail to friends. Imaginative, exploratory travel through time, space and consciousness is conveyed in Berman's simply made, conceptually complex image, which marvelously evokes his visionary understanding of himself.

Berman's self-portrait is not a photograph per se, but a small collage that incorporates a photograph among its various elements. As such it speaks of the period in contemporary culture when photographic reproductions were being rapidly absorbed into art, rather than standing alone as a separate artistic category based on medium. If the Irmas collection doesn't include a work by Robert Rauschenberg, an artist pivotal to that shift, it does feature a four-part, 1964 self-portrait by Andy Warhol, taken in a commercial photo booth, as well as two of Cindy Sherman's 1977 "Untitled Film Stills," in which she masquerades as generic characters familiar from mass culture.

Warhol successfully placed camera images at the center of artistic discussion, in a way no earlier artist had been able to accomplish, while Sherman went on to endow photographs with a stature hitherto reserved for painting.

In the exhibition, it is revealing to come upon their work after seeing Edward Steichen's 1901 photogravure print, "Self-Portrait With Brush and Palette, Paris," which hangs near the show's entrance.

The 22-year-old Steichen, a painter as well as a photographer, shows himself as a dandified Romantic artist dipping his prominently illuminated brush into a pool of paint--in a Parisian atelier, no less--the softened, moody light of the portrait plainly meant to imitate painting. (Think of Rembrandt.) The aspiration for photography to approach the cultural regard held by painting was felt early on, but in fact was a long time in being realized.

The Irmas collection isn't comprehensive--there have been too many photographers in the past 150 years for a private collection to manage that--but it is remarkable for the full sweep of photographic history implied in its contents.

The earliest picture dates from about 1853 (chemist Alphonse-Louis Poitevin's stern, workmanlike image, in which he looks as if he has swallowed a mouthful of the salted paper with which the photograph was printed), the latest from 1988 (Robert Mapplethorpe's skull-like head, taken in the year before his death).

It is also studded with individual pictures of note. Some are well-known classics, such as Lee Friedlander's predatory self-portrait, which shows only his own shadow cast on the unsuspecting back of a woman on a city street. Others are surprises, whether by a major photographer such as Diane Arbus (a previously unpublished picture) or by an artist not thought of as a photographer (the Berman collage).

At LACMA, which two years ago was the happy recipient of the Irmas collection, a gift of the Los Angeles-based couple, the exhibition has not been installed chronologically. (For that, turn to the insightful catalogue published in conjunction with the show). Instead, arbitrary sub-categories have been loosely fabricated, such as self-portraits of the photographer with members of the family, or with a model, or in the studio, or reflected in a shiny surface (automobile fenders turn out to be oddly prominent mirrors), or as a fleeting shadow, or outlandishly costumed.

Perhaps the largest sub-category is photographers shown posing with their cameras, rather like saints brandishing their attributes. The show opens with a roomful, and the subject is encountered again and again throughout the presentation.

Weegee's pugilistic picture shows him as a quintessential news hound, ever on the lookout for an off-beat story.

Lotte Jacobi casts herself as an oracular Sibyl peering out of the darkness, accompanied by the Cyclopean eye of her big box camera, glinting in the light.

Ralph Steiner protectively clutches a camera to his chest as he shows himself beneath a towering billboard in which a picture of a man has been partially torn off, obscuring his identity.

As a sub-category of self-portraits, this one is the most intriguing. It makes a difference when photographers picture themselves not simply as men or women but, pointedly, as photographers.

* L.A. County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through Oct. 23. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

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