From the Collection of Randi and Bob FisherSeptember 24, 2010
With twenty-eight thousand square feet of pristine gallery space, Pier 24 is in the ideal position to throw the late summer barn-burner that is From the Collection of Randi and Bob Fisher. Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Hilla and Bernd Becher, Robert Adams, Diane Arbus, William Eggleston—they're all here, and in quantity. If the collectors’ names sound familiar, too, then the reader might anticipate the depth and scope of this exhibition. Mr. Fisher is the son of Gap Inc. founder Don Fisher, whose sprawling collection of nearly every bright light in twentieth-century contemporary art was bequeathed to SFMOMA, where it remained on view throughout the summer. While the younger Fisher and his partner Randi have focused on collecting photography exclusively, they evince the family's same impervious gusto for all the biggest names.
The tone at Pier 24 is a bit less revelatory than it was at SFMOMA's summer blockbuster, and that's a good thing. For one, the space is not in the business of selling tickets; so while you must make an appointment to come visit, admission is free. Only about twenty people are admitted for the roughly two-hour appointment times as well, so both viewer and photographs are allowed room to breathe. Another difference, nearly unimaginable in a museum setting, is the absence of printed information to accompany the photographs on view at Pier 24. There is no wall text for this exhibition, and the gallery guide, should a viewer ask for one, is a Xeroxed sheet of paper with only the photographers' names and the location of their work within the gallery. There is no mention of individual titles, no artist biographies, and the only curatorial statement one can piece together is the abstract affirmation suggested by the all-star artist list itself. At Pier 24, both the exhibition's curators and the Fishers rightfully assume that these images stand strongly enough on their own, and that the ideal presentation of the collection should invite viewers to make their own connections about and between each photograph. It's not an elitist proposition in the least. If learning lies in unencumbered discovery, what better way is there to encounter iconic work than by simply looking at it?
Walker Evans, unsurprisingly, serves as a sort of spiritual epicenter for much of the photographs in the show. In the three small galleries devoted to his own early, middle, and later years, respectively, viewers can trace what is clearly a foundational ethos of journalistic, voyeuristic, and pure aesthetic ambitions, and then tease them out in adjacent galleries through the work of William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Robert Adams, and Lee Friedlander.
One of Frank's photos, in particular, seems to sum up the entire impulse. Originally from his landmark study, The Americans, the shot shows a black couple sitting on a hillside in San Francisco, presumably interrupted in a private moment. They coldly stare back at the photographer—a white man with a strange accent who's unwittingly been discovered. It's a beautifully emotive and unusually composed shot, indicative of a specific time and place.
Eggleston, who also managed to be in the right place at particularly singular moments (or was always able to shoot photos so they seemed that way), occupies one of the largest rooms in the show. And from a curatorial perspective, it's easy to see why. Amidst a largely black-and-white exhibition, Eggleston's lush dye transfer prints are a subtle explosion, exuberant in their control of light and color. His subjects, deceivingly ordinary if slightly tweaked, haunt you; his mastery of emotional tone is practically inexplicable.
Dispassion, of course, has its role too, and Pier 24's other huge gallery is devoted to the stunning industrial bodies of Hilla and Bernd Becher. It is a rare and remarkable thing to view multiple series of their work in such a space. Some of them contain upward of thirty images, and it's possible to take them in on a grand scale, which is how they should be shown, allowing the viewer to see the photos in relation to, amongst, and across from one another. One can trace the fluid geometries of the photographers' signature subjects—abandoned grain elevators, rundown mills, and vacant silos—from one series to the next. And like the trajectories in Walker Evans’ work, it's possible to move both backward from the Bechers into an adjacent room of Edward Weston and forward to adjoining rooms of the Düsseldorf School photographers Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth.
From the Collection of Randi and Bob Fisher is practically an embarrassment of riches, and it's a subjective question as to whether the exhibition might be too much of a good thing. I haven't even mentioned Richard Misrach, Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Garry Winogrand. They're here too. But because there are no verbal cues about who is who or what is supposed to be what, you can allow your mind to drift. A free sense of play is engaged. Check out all the artists, or only a few. You will chance upon some of the most powerful images in the history of photography, and it's wonderful to discover a venue that allows both the viewer and the works to stretch out and get to know each other.