by Sura Wood
When FAMSF Board President Dede Wilsey introduced her son Trevor Traina and the exhibition of his photography collection at a press preview held at the de Young last week, she recalled that though she had offered him a house as a wedding present, he preferred money for a photograph instead. (I adore photography, too, but confess I would've taken the house in a minute.) Wilsey admitted she hasn't been a fan of the medium, and added that her son, who's collected in earnest for the last decade, has persuaded her photography is indeed an art. She has now given him four galleries at the institution she chairs for the first exhibition of his acquisitions. Ordinarily, cozy relationships within powerful families and the privileges conferred by them are irrelevant, but in this case, they're impossible to ignore. By taking center stage and presenting the show to the press, apparently oblivious to the implications and perception of nepotism, Wilsey forced the issue, leaving herself and FAMSF open to further criticism that she treats the museum like an extension of her private domain.
Traina and his collection, a work-in-progress he's clearly passionate about, would have been better served if he and his mother had stayed in the background and let the show speak for itself. That show, Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection, is a mix of 106 classic vintage black & white images and color prints, mostly, but not exclusively, by American artists, about 40 in all. (Traina reportedly maintains a collection more than twice the size at his Pacific Heights home.) For his part, he discussed chasing certain pictures, ones that were "painful" to pay for, and others he wanted but couldn't afford. Financial pain, of course, is relative, but the talk of money was a distraction and contributed to a surreal context in which to view the photographs. Would they be exhibited at another institution where he didn't have a familial connection? It's hard to say, but probably not. Does Traina's intimate affiliation with the head honcho here – he's also a trustee – mean the collection is without merit or isn't worth seeing? No, it doesn't.
The exhibition is enhanced by the involvement of the very fine Julian Cox, the museum's Founding Curator of Photography. Brought on board in the fall of 2010, his presence bodes well for greater emphasis on photography going forward. He has done an excellent job illuminating many works with interesting, readable text that amplifies the work of the famous and introduces visitors to younger or less familiar artists. For instance, this is the first I've learned of Subodh Gupta, best known for outsize sculptures, and evidently a sensation in his native India.
Divided into four discrete sections – Everyday, Excesses, Spectacular, Losses – the show aims to establish a narrative of the evolving nature of the medium, from the 1950s to the present, and a dialogue between pictures. Though it doesn't really achieve this goal, despite a valiant effort to corral works that are all over the place, some individual pieces are extraordinary. Hiroshi Sugimoto's "Elizabeth II" (1999), a stately portrait of the recently ballyhooed monarch, supplies two levels of artifice; it's a photograph of a wax model of the queen that looks more real than the woman does in the flesh. After it was destroyed during transit from London to the States, Sugimoto offered to make a new photograph as a replacement.
Traina appears partial to large-scale, saturated color images. Many don't stay with you; like advertising and confections, they're charged and eye-grabbing, but ultimately, shallow, empty calories. Andreas Gursky, a professed favorite of the collector, is represented by several color monumental works, which I found all surface noise and curiously vacuous. But "Absinthe Drinker, after Degas" (2011) by Vik Muniz, a Brazilian-born artist with an aptitude for appropriating famous paintings, is a standout. For this grand project, he assembled hundreds of torn magazine scraps on a table, photographed them with an 8x10 camera, then enlarged the assembly exponentially. Magically, a collaged visage of a woman seated in a bistro emerges.
But the comparatively small, black-and-white photographs by old stand-bys, documentary street-shooters like Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, blow the showier, newer, heavily manipulated photographs off the walls of the galleries they share. Frank's "N.Y. City" (1947-48) is a brilliant, exquisitely composed shot of a railway yard whose vertical tracks align with cobblestones and lead to the hazy city in the distance, while a car's side view mirror juts into the foreground. Arbus' "Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey" (1967), a print signed on the back by the artist, still haunts 50 years after it was taken, and "Mrs. T. Charlton Henry on a Couch in her Chestnut Hill Home, Philadelphia, Pa" (1965), a revealing portrait of a doyenne with a poufy hairdo and a starved-to-perfection body (think Nancy Reagan) dressed in a demure, beaded sheath and heavy pearls, illustrates Arbus' statement that for her, "the subject is always more important than the picture. And more complicated."
In Laurie Simmons' "Walking Cake II" (1989), a top-heavy birthday cake complete with candy pink icing, rosettes and lit candles covers the head and body of a dancer whose tiny legs protrude below. Simmons, who stages her tableaus with paper dolls, finger puppets and dancers in costume, produces an animated miniature dollhouse world, evoking nostalgia and, like fellow subversive Cindy Sherman, gender-role constructs that lurk beneath the surface. Sherman, whose major retrospective arrives at SFMOMA in July, is referenced in Louise Lawler's "It Could Be Anthony d'Offay" (1999), a ghostly image of a transparent balding man – perhaps the influential London art dealer of the title – standing in front of and fusing with a crib, maybe in a white-walled art gallery, though the dreamlike setting is ambiguous. Look closely to his left and you'll detect an image from Sherman's Untitled Film Stills series. Over the past 20 years, Lawler has been intrigued by the fate of artworks after they leave the womb of the artist's studio. This one made it all the way to San Francisco.
Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection, through Sept. 16 at the de Young Museum.