Anthony Hernandez

at SFMOMA

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“Los Angeles #7,” 1971, Anthony Hernandez
Gelatin silver print, 7 7/8″ x 11 3/4″
Photo: ©Anthony Hernandez, collection of the artist, Courtesy SFMOMA

The work of Los Angeles native Anthony Hernandez, beautifully deployed in his retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, demonstrates photography’s artistic advantage over other media: cutting social content and formal elegance converge in his pictures with an economy and force seldom found, though frequently striven for, in other modes of contemporary art.

A veteran of the war in Vietnam, Hernandez brought a survivor’s sharpened vision and reflexes to the street photographs he began taking in Los Angeles late in the 1960s. His early black-and-white sidewalk snaps merge easily with the mainstream of street-level trawling defined by older practitioners such as Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and William Klein.

Hernandez’ shots of sunbathers in Long Beach and on Coney Island pay offhand homage to Edward Weston’s famous sand-framed nudes, but their mood, far from erotic, verges on existential despair. Viewers find themselves wondering whether some of Hernandez’ dozing, nearly naked leisure-seekers are alive or dead, many of them, even supine, wear such a defeated mien. Unchartable emotional gulfs seem to separate even those nearest to one another: often we cannot guess whether the people Hernandez recorded are intimates, chance acquaintances or mute strangers. Long Beach #1 (1969) has a solitary foreground figure reposing amid a drift of sand footprints, as if a stampede had just passed, with the grim, sawtooth profile of a refinery in the distance. The image evokes the dour sensibility of Michelangelo Antonioni more readily than those of nimble homegrown visionaries such as Garry Winogrand or Diane Arbus.

In 1978, Hernandez set aside his 35mm Nikon for a much more cumbersome and conspicuous 5-by-7-inch Deardorff. It rendered him newly visible to his subjects, prompting them to more overt expressions of resistance, complicity or reciprocal curiosity. The change also seems to have shifted the key of ambiguity in his pictures, nearly precluding lucky strikes such as we see in Los Angeles #7(1971), in which a young black man covering his face as he walks toward the camera might have been trying to avoid recognition, or been caught in a spontaneous expression of despair or merely shading his face from the low-angled sunlight.

With the transition to a camera requiring a tripod, such intimate uncertainties gave way in Hernandez’ purview to aspects of their social background: the landscapes, equipment and detritus of a city evolved by and for boundless private transportation. His Automotive Landscapes and Public Transit Areas from the turn of the 1980s study such places as the bus stops where, like the expectant passengers, we viewers seem to feel time congeal, and small businesses devoted to car care: locales in which neither journey nor arrival can be felt to matter.

The 1984 series Rodeo Drive initiated Hernandez’ consistent use of color, and records scrutiny of a rare zone of Los Angeles that figures as a destination in local and in wider popular imagination. Here people on the street seem to come dressed as if to make personal appearances, and Hernandez’ camera meets them halfway or better. The people in these street photographs have left their cars with valets or in overpriced garages, with even tourists primped to perform as walk-ons in a utopian charade of affluent, glamorous village life. The Rodeo Drive series interrupts the retrospective’s chronology to heighten the class-consciousness of Hernandez’ social vision, and to prepare exhibition visitors for the tension between aesthetics and subject matter marking much of what follows.

Hernandez’ late-’80s series Landscapes for the Homeless looks prophetic today, especially in San Francisco, where economic refugees and a petty criminal element to which they give cover, seem to have been accepted as permanent features of urban life. (News of the cascading numbers of unhoused refugees abroad adds heartbreak and moral frustration to the experience of Hernandez’ pictures.) Hernandez began documenting the remains of Los Angeles homeless encampments, abandoned for good or for a few hours, we can never be sure. Several look almost staged, such as Landscapes for the Homeless #29 (1989), in which an uneaten apple sits beside a coiled, reptile-skin belt, sparking thoughts of the formal economy’s comforts as a lost Eden. Others, such as Landscapes for the Homeless #24 (1990), have the feel of war photography: a terrain covered in cigarette butts as if by light snowfall, evocative of social paralysis, of marking time and of titrating self-destruction. This picture finds a chilling echo in the series Angeles National Forest #3 (1988), where what look at first like cigarette butts turn out to be spent shotgun shells.

Los Angeles remains the lodestar of Hernandez’ art, but he has worked for periods elsewhere. A series he made during a year at the American Academy in Rome surprisingly takes an almost formalistic turn. A new, almost abstract emphasis on color and compositional asperity in the Pictures for Rome and later pieces centered on the Los Angeles River and its subterranean architecture refer as vividly as ever to sites and traces of social erosion and the repressive power of public neglect.

Hernandez’ mature work quietly signals his awareness of artists as diverse as Cy Twombly and arte povera luminaries such as Giovanni Anselmo and Jannis Kounellis.

Recent Hernandez pictures documenting the Southern California aftermath of the 2008 financial calamityÑtract house abandoned to foreclosure or stunted by arrested constructionÑcomplete a circuit back to the theme of homelessness, as the heartlessness of the American profit system is laid bare. As an artist, Hernandez long ago set himself against denial: denial of injustice, of the complexity of social reality and of art’s irrelevance to our struggle to accept the reality of the life that envelops us. For this reason alone, once seen, his retrospective cannot be forgotten.

-Kenneth Baker