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Heady days -- years ahead

Forward thinking led to the Norton Simon trove, which holds many photos as gifts from the artists.

October 08, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

WITH its extraordinary collections of European and Asian painting and sculpture, the Norton Simon Museum is known as a repository of many kinds of art. Photography isn't one of them, but that may change.

An exhibition, "The Collectible Moment: Photographs in the Norton Simon Museum," opening Friday, displays about 150 photographs from an all-but-forgotten component of the museum's art holdings. The hefty catalog documents the entire 523-piece trove.

As museum photography collections go, that may not sound like much. What's 523 photographs, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York has 25,000, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has 12,000 and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has 8,000, not to mention the J. Paul Getty Museum's ever-growing collection?

But the point isn't numbers; it's history. And the Simon's collection is loaded with memories.

Mostly amassed from 1969 to 1974, when the building was home to the Pasadena Art Museum, a contemporary art showcase, and Fred R. Parker was curator of photographs, the stash of camera work reflects a brief period when the museum was riding high on creative energy but low on money. PAM was in financial trouble when it opened its new building in 1969. Five years later, when the museum was clearly doomed, Simon took charge of the building and the art, paid off debts and installed works from his collection along with smaller contemporary displays.

There was lots of fallout, including staff and some supporters who later helped to found L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, but the defunct museum is fondly remembered as a place where ideas quickly came to fruition and contemporary art lovers could see works by their heroes -- Richard Serra, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg, John Mason.

"In that period PAM was big casino," photographer Lewis Baltz writes in a catalog essay, one of several "reflections" by artists, curators and critics in the new publication. "It had the best, the most interesting, and the most prestigious program outside New York.... Furthermore, Los Angeles was on a hyper-adrenaline trip about becoming the new New York, art center of the planet. I'm not joking. PAM was a very, very important venue for local and not only local artists. Biggest thing west of the Hudson."

Photography was part of the excitement, at a time when photographers were struggling to be recognized as artists and in a place where the curator had no acquisitions budget. Parker made up his job as he went along, organizing shows on a moment's notice and building the collection, but his legacy is astonishing. His activity in Pasadena took place a full decade before the Getty and LACMA established photography departments.

"The Pasadena Art Museum is the main place hereabouts seriously responding to a big change in our attitude to photography," former Times art critic William Wilson wrote in 1971.

Parker, who now lives in Northern California and makes his living as an artist, was stunned when he got a call from Simon curator Gloria Williams Sander requesting his help with the museum's enormous photography project. Now that he has written an essay for the catalog and renewed friendships with some of the artists, he says the experience was a bit like getting a gold watch 30 years after his job ended.

"It was easy," he says, recalling a freewheeling time when photographers who had yet to gain fame and fortune cheerfully responded to his requests for donations of their work. "I just picked up opportunities as they came along. I was working in an atmosphere where I could do that. The artists were eager to be asked. I don't think anybody said no, including Ansel Adams and Diane Arbus."

The result is a holding with a few depths and a lot of breadth: 66 works by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, 60 by Edward Weston, 33 by Minor White, 31 by Frederick Sommer and one or more works each by about 120 other artists. There are classic images by Andre Kertesz and Imogen Cunningham, experimental pieces by Betty Hahn and Todd Walker and wacky baseball cards featuring photography luminaries by Mike Mandel, augmented by a few more recent donations.

Piece after piece in the catalog is described as "gift of the artist." Most of the others, including the Alvarez Bravos, were funded by Shirley C. Burden, a filmmaker, photographer and photo essayist who used much of his inheritance to support photography. For what Parker regards as his "most memorable and rewarding project for the Pasadena Art Museum," in 1971, the curator went to Mexico, met with the artist and organized a major exhibition of his work that traveled to MoMA in New York and the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. Burden paid for the catalog and purchased all the exhibited prints for the Pasadena museum's collection.

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