When Rose Mandel (1910–2002), a close friend of Richard Diebenkorn and a rising star in the West Coast photography world, took pictures for a May 1957 feature in ARTnews titled “Richard Diebenkorn Paints a Picture,” the article marked something of a game changer for the artist. It both brought him to the attention of a wider public at a time when Abstract Expressionism still held sway in the eyes of the New York art world, and it documented, step-by-step, his transition from abstraction to figuration. It was “an era that was highly polarized between those two opposing camps,” says Timothy Burgard, a co-curator of “Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953–66” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (on view through September 29).
Burgard explains that when the ARTnews story, written by Herschel B. Chipp, came out, one collector was so angry that he called the artist and furiously demanded, “What have you done to the value of my paintings?” Wholly lost in the controversy was the photographer, who took pictures for the story over a two-week period. Mandel’s photos captured the paint-spattered artist in his new Berkeley Hills studio.
Chipp described what Mandel recorded as a “prolonged struggle with the various images [Diebenkorn] produced” in the course of completing one painting. In one of her final photographs, Mandel seems to have borrowed a compositional strategy from Diebenkorn himself, framing his shadowy head and shoulders in the foreground next to a sunny window with a plant. The canvas, in the near distance, offers another kind of window, of the sort that figured in several of Diebenkorn’s Berkeley paintings.
Mandel, who received no credit for the photos, had three years earlier, in 1954, enjoyed a solo show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor that earned high praise from local critics. Titled “Errand of the Eye,” after an Emily Dickinson poem, it featured close-up studies that move in and out of focus, lyrically describing branches, twigs, tendrils, and weeds. Images from that exhibition became part of a larger celebration six months later of Bay Area photographers at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Mandel showed infrequently over the next 20 years, but she left an impressive body of images before she stopped working in 1972. A show of some 80 of her works, also called “Errand of the Eye,” will run concurrent with Diebenkorn’s Berkeley paintings exhibition at the de Young.
An émigré from war-torn Poland, Mandel made her way with her husband, Arthur, to the Bay Area in the mid-1940s. Although trained in child psychology, she was not sufficiently fluent in English to qualify for a teaching job at the time and worked briefly as a lathe operator. In 1946, after her husband left her for a younger woman, she enrolled in art courses at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where she quickly impressed such luminaries as Edward Weston, Minor White, and Ansel Adams. “She would tell me, ‘Ansel Adams saved my life by showing me how to view the world through the lens of a camera,’” says Susan Ehrens, a longtime friend and author of a catalogue essay on Mandel. The photos in the de Young show include playful and hallucinatory visions of San Francisco shop windows, moody portraits of such artists as Jay DeFeo and William Theophilus Brown, and evocative studies of the shoreline and raging waters of the California coast.
Julian Cox, co-curator of the exhibition, believes Mandel did not become better known because “she was a very private person, very modest by nature, and she really created her greatest work before there was such a thing as an art market for photography. She had an income as a teacher and never sought a larger reputation.” After receiving a Guggenheim fellowship in 1967, which was about 10 years after she and Arthur remarried, she stopped taking photographs. As Ehrens explains, “He’s been described to me as a control freak and a bully.” She adds, “I think at some point she quit because it was easier for her not to photograph and to totally devote herself to him. She died a mystery to me because she would never talk about the past.”
Mandel’s last group of landscapes, made in the ’60s, verge on pure abstraction and depend on complicated spatial arrangements; many feature roiling waves and turbulent waters. For Ehrens, they “reflect the turmoil not only of what was going on in our country, but the turmoil she was feeling in her homelife. It took a lot of inner strength for her to create the bodies of work that she did during the decades that she worked.”