Rose Mandel’s experiments show roots of modernist pioneer 

click to enlarge Rose Mandel
  • “Jerold Davis, 1955” is among the experimental photographs by Rose Mandel on view at the de Young Museum.
“Errand of the Eye: Photographs of Rose Mandel,” an exhibition of some 90 works on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, offers the first full assessment of Mandel’s work, whose care and daring cannot be overemphasized.

Born in Poland and educated in France and Switzerland, Mandel escaped Europe with her husband in 1942. She came to the Bay Area, where she studied at the newly founded photography department of the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Ansel Adams and Minor White were her teachers and mentors.

As a senior photographer for UC Berkeley’s art department, she worked in various genres: surrealism, abstract expressionism and American landscape traditions.

Never-ending experimentation, some pieces more subtle than others, characterizes the photographs in this exhibit.

In her particularly interesting nature studies, some sticks and branches stand out and are in sharp focus, while others in background are out-of-focus to varying degrees. It’s an effective technique that gives some of the photos the feeling of paintings.

Darkness and spatial ambiguity prevail in many photos, as exemplified by compositions of dense, bare tree branches and tangled vegetation.

One untitled photo of a woman’s head lying still recalls a Brancusi sculpture. One review characterized it as “an amazing portrait lying detached like a surrealist egg against a dark background.”

Mandel continues her unique combination of out-of-focus and sharply focused elements with “Jerold Davis, 1955.”

Davis, almost totally out of focus, stares meditatively while branches are sharply superimposed on the face. The quietness of the photo stands out and affects the viewer powerfully.


Errand of the Eye: Photographs of Rose Mandel

Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Oct. 13

Admission: $6 to $10

Contact: (415) 750-3600,

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Murray Paskin

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