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On the Modern trail

A Getty photo display is on track, but an array of sculptures gets lost on the campus.

October 25, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

THE Getty is going Modern -- for better and for worse.

On the ledger's "better" side -- by a longshot -- is Tuesday's opening of the Getty Museum's handsome new Center for Photographs. The 7,000-square-foot space on the West Pavilion's terrace level finally offers a showplace commensurate to the stature of the photographs collection, the nation's largest and arguably most important. No more hiding its light under a bushel.

The debut is celebrated with a large, compelling show drawn from a local collection, most of it a gift to the museum. And it coincides with a second effort -- a lovely, tightly focused painting exhibition -- housed in the modest former galleries for photographs.

The old photo galleries feature eight landscapes by the mystical Romantic genius Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), paintings lent from a museum in Dresden, Germany. Gerhard Richter, the celebrated contemporary painter who studied in Dresden when that city languished behind the Iron Curtain, chose a bold suite of recent abstractions to show alongside Friedrich's moody works. Friedrich died at the moment photography was invented; Richter grapples with painting in a world awash with photographs.

If the Getty Museum is getting its foray into Modern and contemporary art mostly right, its parent Getty Trust, alas, is making a hash of it. The dissonance is striking.

Before we get to the bad news, let's first look at the inviting Center for Photographs.

"Where We Live: Photographs of America From the Berman Collection" is a fine inaugural show, organized by curators Judith Keller and Anne Lacoste. The entry's title card is mocked up to resemble a movie marquee. Partly that alludes to collector Bruce Berman, a successful Hollywood movie producer, and his wife, Nancy. And partly it lends an appropriately elegiac aura of "The Last Picture Show" to the 166 works inside.

"Where We Live" is a chronicle of quotidian recent America as it slips into history. Small-town living rooms, trash-strewn urban lots, desert shacks just beyond the edge of L.A.'s massive sprawl, neon-lighted roadside restaurants, off-season Midwestern fairgrounds, forlorn suburban New Jersey -- the mood is always lyrical and often melancholy.

People are mostly incidental. Typical is Doug Dubois' "Laundromat, Avella, Pennsylvania." It shows a worn commercial washing machine, pointedly branded "American." Taped to the front, a hand-lettered note says "out of order." Dubois' image encapsulates the Rust Belt decline of industrial manufacturing. But he does it casually, without drama, going for the thoughtful opposite of quick-hit tabloid urgency.

Most of these photographers work in series, which makes their pictorial selections into something that approximates a photo essay. The collectors, sifting through the options, become a bit like picture editors.

When people do turn up, as in Sheron Rupp's picture of a primly dressed older woman walking through a garden of towering, fading sunflowers, passionate beauty merges with imminent, inevitable loss. Populated or not, the pictures by Rupp, Dubois and most of the two dozen other photographers turn on a similar recognition. Death makes beauty possible. Without it, what incentive would there be to notice?

Few of these photographers -- Robert Adams, William Christenberry, John Divola and a handful more -- are widely known. But all are clearly skilled. With the exception of 15 works by William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz and Stephen Shore, almost every picture was shot in the last 25 years. Color outnumbers black-and-white, 20 to 1.

The selections often evoke Walker Evans, updated via Robert Smithson ruminating on the industrial debris of Passaic, N.J. "Where We Live" plucks moments from the entropy of daily experience, both bleak and hopeful, where everything inevitably dissipates into chaotic homogeneity.

The show glistens, partly because of the high level of acuity the artists bring to bear on vernacular America. Yet the tone is also heightened by the demise of a certain aura around camera work.

Our universe is now digital, meaning photographic images can be made without a traditional camera. Lens-based pictures like these proliferate, but they are losing their singular, century-old authority. It is passing into history as surely as Jack D. Teemer Jr.'s industrial Cleveland is, or Camilo Jose Vergara's Chicago storefronts transformed into neighborhood churches.

Outside the museum's Center for Photographs, things go suddenly awry. Next to the entrance is a display of five Modern bronze sculptures by different artists, all depicting the female nude. Barbara Hepworth's billowy 1968 "Figure for Landscape," suggesting an upright, lacerated seed pod, is the best. As the only woman among the artists, she knew her subject from the inside.

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