As I drove toward Malibu the other day, Santa Monica Bay was anything but uniform, a shifting collage of textures and hues of blue. As the sun glinted off the water, I wondered: How does one describe the special quality of Santa Monica light? How do you explain it? How do you quantify it?
To find the answer, I went to the new Robert Weingarten photo exhibit, "6:30 am," which runs through July 17 at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University in Malibu.
Over a year, beginning in January 2003, Weingarten shot the same view from his Malibu home over Santa Monica Bay, at the same time of day, capturing the light and the vista in an incredible variety of colors and impressions. The result challenges the very assumption of how and what we see.
That "6:30 am" is both set in Malibu and exhibited there is serendipity. Yet the connection between Weingarten, Weisman, the museum and Malibu itself, all of which meet at the intersection of art and commerce, Jewish ambition and desire, between what we do and how we live, what we look at and what we see, seems strangely congruent.
The Weisman Museum was founded in 1992 by Frederick Weisman (1912-1994), a Minneapolis-born businessman whose passion for collecting and exhibiting art, when paired with that of his family's, has been a driving force behind L.A.'s modern art institutions. Norton Simon, of Pasadena museum fame, was his brother-in-law. His first wife, Marcia, was instrumental in building the modern art collections at LACMA and founding MOCA. Weisman was active in LACMA and MOCA and also launched the art collection at Cedars-Sinai.
According to Michael Zakian its director, the Weisman Museum focuses on California art since 1960, exhibiting artists who play an important role in the contemporary scene. Recent shows of note include painter Wayne Thibaud and glass artist Dale Chihuly.
Once a year, the museum hosts a show of works curated from Weisman's art foundation. That Weisman's passion for art overtook his life of commerce makes showing the work of Weingarten at the Weisman Museum unusually appropriate.
Weingarten was born in Brooklyn in 1941 and graduated from Baruch College with a degree in finance. He had a passion for photography, but like many a "good Jewish boy," chose the business world over the art world. Working on Wall Street in insurance and international reinsurance he became wealthy. In 1983, he moved to Los Angeles.
"I got sick of New York," he says. In Los Angeles he continued his business activities and became culturally and philanthropically involved as president and chairman of the board of the L.A. Philharmonic.
Weingarten had not lost his passion for photography, but neither had he pursued it as seriously as he wanted. In his early 50s, Weingarten decided it had to become the dominant activity in his life. He took a series of master classes with photographers such as Charlie Waite, whom Weingarten calls "the Ansel Adams of England." When curators and collectors who had no idea who he was started buying and asking to exhibit Weingarten's work, he felt vindicated.
For the last seven years, Weingarten's photographs have appeared in over 50 exhibits, and are in the collection of several museums, including the Getty, the Santa Barbara Museum and the Whitney Museum in New York.
"6:30 am," came out of a challenge by Weston Naef, the Getty's photo curator, which follows Alfred Stieglitz's famous dictum that "no photographer should travel anywhere to find a picture if he cannot first find one close to home."
Although Weingarten mounted a 2 1/4-inch format camera on a tripod and shot the same view every morning at 6:30 a.m., creating certain constants, Weingarten found aesthetic decisions in his choices of lens, f-stops and how much sky and how much water to feature (70/30), as well as in the printing process.
As with Monet's paintings of haystacks, Weingarten sought, in his words, "to prove chromatic adaptation," that is, to show the gap between what colors exist and what our brain tells us is there. It's the difference, Weingarten said recently, "between looking and seeing."
The resulting images speak like paintings to a wide range of references, from Monet to Turner's sunsets to Rothko-like color fields. They are beautiful and scary, and as we are wont to say in L.A., "awesome." One would never have imagined such a wide range of colors and effects possible in Southern California, the place derided for having no seasons and for every day being the same. On a deeper level, that is exactly his point.
When Freud discussed "repetition compulsion" in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," he acknowledged that we repeat actions that are essentially painful, re-experiencing the trauma and anxieties produced in a Sisyphean cycle. Yet, viewing Weingarten's exhibit put me in mind of other fixed compulsions, or rather devotions. I thought of attending the morning prayers to say Kaddish during the year of mourning for my father.
I thought about the cycle of a daily run or the morning routine of my daughter before she goes to school. When I think of each, I recall a single experience and regard the whole as one day repeated over and over. Yet, if I really reflect on the pictures in my mind, radical differences emerge.
The beauty of Weingarten's "6:30 am" exists not only in the images he has captured. He reminds us that no two days are the same.
For more information, visit www.pepperdine.edu/arts/museum.