Arts + Culture

UCLA art history students to experience ephemeral nature of Robert Frank's work

Destroying reprints of his photos appeals to famous artist

Robert Frank exhibition
Jessica Wolf/UCLA

The pop-up show of photographs taken by influential American artist Robert Frank will close Thursday before UCLA art history students will come in to destroy the newsprint on which his photographs were exhibited. That act appeals to the artist as being antithetic to the conventional art world.

UCLA art history students and local fine arts photography lovers have a rare opportunity to view the life’s work of influential American photographer Robert Frank, known as the inventor of street photography. Many of his most iconic images were shot from the hip —  out of a moving car, sitting in a bar or hiding in a park — especially those found in his famous 1950s book titled “The Americans.”

“Robert Frank: Books and Films, 1947-2016,” a pop-up exhibition that creatively encompasses a career-spanning look at the famed artist, runs through Thursday at the former site of the Santa Monica Museum of Art at Bergamot Station. Then on Friday, a group of UCLA students will destroy the simple materials that were used in the exhibit to showcase Frank’s invaluable photographs.

For this unique presentation, the UCLA Department of Art History collaborated with book publisher Gerhard Steidl, Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station and Dr. Richard Erhlich, a UCLA urologist and noted fine art photographer in his own right. The physician has several pieces of his own work installed on campus. In addition, several of Ehrlich’s large-scale works will be on view in the Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center, opening this fall at UCLA.   

Jessica Wolf/UCLA
Original prints by Frank typically sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, making it extremely cost-prohibitive to mount a full-scale exhibit. The photos in this exhibit have been reprinted on newsprint.

“It is a very special show, “Ehrlich said. “And it is a rare thing for his photography to be presented alongside his film work. Many people don’t know Frank also is an incredible cinematographer.”

The experimental exhibition showcases Frank’s work in a spartan, eclectic way. His acclaimed photographs have been reprinted on simple newsprint and mounted on walls, accompanied by the artist’s quotes and ideas displayed in bold handwriting. Copies of his books dangle from the ceiling. An adjoining room hosts screenings of his films, which will be donated to the UCLA Library after the exhibition ends.

The idea that his images would be displayed cheaply, ephemerally and then destroyed completely appealed to the 91-year-old artist, Ehrlich said. Original prints by Frank typically sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, making it extremely cost-prohibitive to mount a full-scale exhibit.

Frank “has been a renegade all his life,” Ehrlich said. “The thing that he loves most about this is it’s not related to the established art world; it’s not for sale. The fact that art is destroyed at the end gives an incredibly unique character to it. It is the complete antithesis of the art world.”

Ehrlich said he was especially interested in finding ways to involve the art history department and to present an interesting perspective for students to ponder.

Ehrlich has become a de-facto traveling curator for the Frank exhibition. He’s ensured the project will be remounted at UC Berkeley and in Marfa, Texas. The focus is on presenting Frank’s work in modern art museums, art academies and schools, sidestepping commercial galleries, he said.

In February the exhibition appeared at NYU’s Tish School of the Arts, where art students there destroyed the exhibit at its close. The exhibition will also travel to Appenzell, Switzerland, and Tokyo, Japan, before continuing on to about 40 other cities around the globe in 2017. It’s made possible through the generous support of the Steve Tisch Foundation and Wayne Blank.

The exhibit is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free. Bergamot Station is located at 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90404.

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