Visual Arts


During a recent visit to the newly expanded Phoenix Art Museum, I overheard a fellow patron say, "The art at this museum never ceases to disappoint me on a regular basis."

Funny, that's just how I felt about "Modern by Nature: Ansel Adams in the 1930s," a retrospective meant to honor one of America's most famous photographers.

In case you haven't wandered into PAM since its $41.2 million, 43,000-square-foot renovation, you're in for a surprise. There are more programs and events, a more spacious lobby and outdoor sculpture garden, and, of course, more art. The completion of the nearly two-year makeover was celebrated during GO! (Grand Opening) Weekend on November 11 and 12. The shindig attracted an astounding 16,000 folks with dance performances, concerts, and tours. In conjunction with the landmark event, the museum unveiled two new exhibitions in two new galleries, including "Modern by Nature."

The renovation can't mask the fact that, as the unnamed critic put it, PAM continues to disappoint. "Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art" painfully missed the mark. "Constructing New Berlin" should have been a lot more edgy considering the strife associated with the reunified German city. "Fierce Reality: Italian Masters From 17th Century Naples" explores the same ol' blasé topic of European religious virtue through still-life paintings.

The Adams exhibition came to light through a newly inked partnership with the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The deal will bring at least three fine art photography shows from the CCP's collection to the museum's brand-new photography wing. Adams, who died in 1984 at age 82, founded the Fort Knox of photo archives in 1975. Today, the space maintains the world's largest photography collection by 20th-century shutterbugs (80,000 works by more than 2,000 masters).

The show choice is a poor one because there's little novelty associated with the great landscape photographer — his stuff is just way too overdone. But if PAM and the CCP were dead set on honoring Adams, they could have enlightened audiences with some of the 3,000 color transparencies that he shot during his superstar career, very few of which have ever been exhibited or published.

"Modern by Nature" depicts a young Adams abandoning the popular soft-focus imagery movement of the day and moving toward what his mentor Paul Strand dubbed "straight photography" — the need for every photograph to contain extreme clarity, direct viewpoint, and predetermined lighting conditions. Because the work was shot during Adams' up-and-coming, pre-Zone System phase (a method of proper exposure compensation and negative development for optimal results — think Adobe Photoshop color management for digital photographers), the familiar deep shadows and bright highlights are replaced with consistent soft gray tonal ranges.

The body of work displayed here concentrates on more specialized, abstract documents of nature rather than nature's whole that we come to expect. The illuminated plant life in Grass and Pool, The Sierra Nevada, California gives a slight nod to the avant-garde, Alfred Stieglitz-inspired style of early 20th-century photography with its bare-bones subject matter. A dead tree in Sequoia National Park, captured in crystal-clear beauty, looks out toward a muted gray horizon. A vividly captured cloud hovering over Yosemite's Tioga Pass, shot using an unconventional camera angle, is another ode to Stieglitz and his "Equivalents" all-cloud photographs.

The most intriguing works of the 62-print series are the non-nature images. The best example, Detail, Madrone Bank, California, is refreshingly atypical for Adams. The small-format image of peeling tree bark, measuring less than 5 by 7 inches, sacrifices dramatic shadow detail for an aesthetically stunning, modernistic mirage quality. Other prints contain a snapshot vibe, such as a Provincetown, Massachusetts, tombstone, an old barn in Cape Cod, and a dilapidated San Francisco factory building. These photographs in particular made me feel the raw excitement the young photographer must have been experiencing as he began to carve out his artistic élan.

But by the end, I came to the conclusion that most everybody already knows: The dude enjoyed photographing the great outdoors. He had been doing it since 1916 when his family took him to Yosemite for the first time, and he would return to the California wilderness spot every year until his death.

I understand that Adams is the CCP's main man. His name alone will keep turnstiles spinning. But for the Southwest's allegedly premier art museum to play it safe with an oversaturated artist like Adams, the botched decision doesn't mirror the hype associated with the space's physical improvements. We can just as easily view reproductions of Adams' work in monolithic corporate towers or mall poster shops next to the cheesy "Hang In There" cat posters. Why not pick one of the lesser-known CCP-archived photographers such as Lola Alvarez Bravo, Harry Callahan, or Garry Winogrand as the introductory show to get 16,000 visitors hip to and excited about lesser-known work?

Though the architectural modifications at PAM are hot, the choice of curated shows is not, and it's an annoying albatross that continues to plague the 47-year-old modern and contemporary art museum in one of the nation's largest cities.