The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art currently has a exhibit of early Diane Arbus photos—from 1956 to 1962. According to the wall labels, this was an exploratory period for her. The variety of work shown make it clear how wide she spread her net at first, before zeroing in on her own singular vision. 

“Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn 1961”

A lot of this early work is unremarkable. “Jack Dracula” catches the eye because the subject is odd, not because Arbus adds insight. Other pieces depict one or another of life’s common oddities. For one reason or another, perhaps half the show falls into the category of views you’d hardly notice if there weren’t a Name attached.

But the other half demonstrates what makes a fine Arbus fine: the wonderful sense of community between her subject and her presence on the street. She wasn’t just snapping random views—she was after what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment.”

Sometimes her point is intimacy, as in “Woman on the street with her eyes closed, 1956,” 

“Woman in the street with her eyes closed, NYC 1956”



“Child teasing another, NYC, 1960”









or “Child teasing another, NYC, 1960.” Both are moments we’ve seen a thousand times on the street, but not with such focus.

Sometimes, as in “Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, N.Y. 1960,” the point is grotesquerie. Arbus had a real affinity for this sort of thing. But painful as the image is, it’s oddly sympathetic. Being grotesque isn’t the same as being ridiculous. The man is simply is as he is.

“Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, NY, 1960”



“Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, NYC 1956”

Often the point is the presence of the observer in the street, as in “Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, NYC 1956.”

Without that eye contact with the driver and passenger it would be just a passing taxi. But with it we have a fascinating sense of completeness: taxi, driver, passengers, the street beyond, and the viewer– the noticer and appreciator of the complex, delicious whole (the rhyming hands!).

The long captions sound like inventory descriptions rather than titles, but their effect is to emphasize the particularity of the moment.



All photos copyright the Estate of Diane Arbus

A Wonderful Bosch

Searching Google Images for something else, I came across this wonderful Hieronymus Bosch, “Witches’ Sabbath.” The economy  of the modeling is astonishing: the figures and fish look fully 3-D, but the shapes are almost flat, with deftly chosen descriptive bits like the eye of the fish, or the shadow shape of her dress.





A Favorite Merian

Iguana and Coral Snake – c. 1700 (

The requirements of factual description tend to override artiness and the transient fashions of expression. Soldiers’ narratives of the American Civil War, for example, are often hard to distinguish, in point of style, from the prose of the present day. Still life painting, which appeals through the appreciative observation of interesting objects, doesn’t usually cry out its century.

Similarly, this wonderful piece by Maria Sibylla Merian. It’s vivid and full of personality, but there’s nothing about its concept or execution that interferes with its reportorial function, or advertises its date. Merian lived from 1647 to 1717. Who would think it, studying this?



Happy Discoveries

“Woman V” [National Gallery of Australia]

Two delightful surprises in the current show at the Berggruen gallery in San Francisco:

The first is “Arthur’s Woman,” below, by Willem de Kooning. I think of de Kooning’s women as rather formulaic and busy busy busy, as in “Woman V,” right. But “Arthur’s Woman” is quite different—wonderfully relaxed and sprawling. I have no idea who the lady was, but clearly she put out all the right vibes.

“Arthur’s Woman”




It’s a good-sized piece: 60 x 48”. In the domestically scaled spaces at Berggruen it’s a major presence in all the right ways.  










Also at Berggruen, off in a quiet corner, is “Orange Sunshine” by Peter Doig.


I seldom feel the need to look twice at a Doig, but this one is lively and compelling. It’s small, about 7 x 10”. It hangs at that exciting border between narrative and abstraction where there is a “picture,” but at the same time you never lose the flavor of the shapes and brushstrokes.

Two real paintings, two happy discoveries.