Back to Issue Forty-Six

Portrait of the Artist Behind Broken Glass



I. Woman by the Ocean 

Richard Diebenkorn, photographs, published in Art News, 1957 

It begins with a series of six photographs of Richard Diebenkorn at work on a painting. The painting begins with a figure at the beach, a man, wind in the trees behind him, then the layered horizon of shoreline, then ocean, then an enormous, open sky. In the photograph of the painter painting, everything is in focus except his hand, brush moving against canvas. The gesture, though blurred, becomes the focal point. 

He steps back from the easel and folds his arms. He must step back to really look, and it’s the looking that matters. Of the six photographs in the series, selected from over 50 negatives worth of film shot over a two-week period, only two depict him actually painting. Mostly, he looks, from different angles and distances, at various stages. There is no photograph of the finished painting. This is about process. 

He knows it’s far from finished and turns the painting upside down in order to see it, to better focus on the compositional elements and not be tricked by his own rendering. He will break the composition into an asymmetrical grid, intentionally unbalanced and flat. The figure will come forward, and the landscape will become a field, then a vaguely outdoor space, nearly abstract. 

At the far end of his studio, as far away as he can possibly get from the painting, he sits, looking, his hands folded in his lap. His expression is thoughtful, engaged, his head tilted slightly, as though listening. Yes, the outdoor space will be enclosed and become the view from a porch. The porch will be a frame through which we see the layers of shore, water, then a slab of sky subdivided by posts. The figure becomes a woman. She will be moved to the side. 

The painter is tall, and bends at the waist over a low table by the window to mix paint, perhaps, or choose a brush. The composition of the photograph—the angled perspective and asymmetry of window frame, table and floor, and the rectangular canvas, itself another sort of window—suggests the final composition of the painting, though when it was taken, the painting was unfinished. 

Richard Diebenkorn, Woman by the Ocean, oil on canvas, 1956. It is finished. Now the figure sits on a porch with her back to the landscape. Her body is angled, nearly in profile, and she looks away from the viewer, her hands folded in her lap. What does she see? It’s impossible to say. The composition cuts her off at the knees, just at the hem of her skirt, and there is a tension in the intersection of her arm and the chair, the torque of her torso. Despite the vanishing line, there is a flatness. The painting, at once both figurative and abstract, marks a pivotal shift in the already-famous painter’s career. The photographs of him that accompany the feature, taken by his close friend, Rose Mandel, are uncredited.

II. Errand of the Eye 

Rose Mandel, The Errand of the Eye, photographs, 1951–1953 

It begins in a museum in San Francisco. I go to see the Diebenkorn exhibit, but it’s the smaller one of Rose Mandel’s photographs, off to the side, that stays with me. At first, it’s impossible to say why. Maybe it’s something about her way of looking: the way she looks at Diebenkorn looking at his painting, the way she looks at everything else. 

Rose took the title of her series, “The Errand of the Eye,” from a poem by Emily Dickinson: 

Whether my bark went down at sea,
Whether she met with gales,
Whether to isles enchanted
She bent her docile sails; 

By what mystic mooring
She is held to-day,—
This is the errand of the eye
Out upon the bay. 

Whether, whether, whether—this insistent repetition pushes each line forward even as the poem circles and reels downward in dark speculation. What has befallen the lost one? The poem never answers this. It is one long, winding sentence that ends by finally pointing to its subject: this—errand of the eye. 

Errand, a humble task: to look. To remain in an ever-watchful state, scanning the ocean horizon for evidence of loss. To exist in a state of grief for which the only consolation may be the very task of looking. This, this— her searching gaze, and nowhere to rest the eye. 

In a series of forty-nine contact prints of thistles and branches, tendrils and twigs, the intense close-ups and tiny size of the prints invite closer looking: blurry, but for a narrow focus on a single leaf’s striations. 

Her technique, of rendering within the same photograph some elements in sharp focus and others soft, was uncommon at the time, and technically very difficult. The effect is at once precise and obscure, and entreats an active, searching gaze: crosshatch of slender branches budding. 

I lean in, my nose nearly touching the glass. My eyes lose track of what exactly I’m looking at, the forms becoming nearly abstract. Starburst of spiny thistle, or burr. There is nowhere to rest the eye. Bleary thorns spread like ice particles across a window. By what mystic mooring is she held? Struck by her way of looking, I go looking for her. 

III. Portrait of the Artist 

Richard Muffley, Rose Mandel at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, photograph, 1954 

On the occasion of her second solo museum exhibition in 1954, Rose stands inside the museum colonnade, her back against a marble pillar. There is something familiar in the composition: the viewpoint and steep vanishing lines, the placement of the female figure forward, and to the side. 

Her jaw and shoulders are tense. Her hands are folded modestly in front of her body. Her pose is stiff and the hem of her tea-length skirt cuts off the line of her leg. She wears flat, dark shoes. Nearly in profile, she looks away from the camera and slightly up, though at what, it’s impossible to tell. 

Some facts can be traced back to her point of origin. Rose was born in Poland in 1910, the only child of the only Jewish family in her village. She married Arthur. They moved to Paris, where she studied art history and he worked as a journalist. They moved to Switzerland where Rose studied child psychology and education with Jean Piaget, one of the most influential thinkers in developmental psychology. She was back in Poland visiting her mother when Hitler’s troops approached. The day before the war broke out, Rose boarded the last train out of Poland. She didn’t want to leave her mother. She begged her to come. 

I read somewhere that Piaget theorizes figurative thought and memory by differentiating them from logic, which he describes as being reversible. Once reached, a logical conclusion can be traced back exactly, its steps reversed, until the mind arrives back at the premise. But figurative thought and memory cannot be reversed, cannot exactly be traced back to a point of origin. To say they are irreversible may also be true: memory cannot be unremembered, a figurative comparison cannot be traced logically. 

Rose and Arthur boarded a steamer bound for America that carried hundreds of other refugees, including Marcel Duchamp and Simone Weill. After twenty-one days in steerage, they arrived in New York, then made their way to California, furthest edge of the western continent. Arthur took a position as a professor of economics at Stanford. With degrees in child psychology and education, Rose went to work as a lathe operator in a munitions factory. “I didn’t try to work with children here,” she said in an interview, many years later. “It was too tragic a time for me. I left that all behind.” 

Untitled, photograph, 1952: a white bassinet shrouded in stark muslin. Untitled, photograph, 1952: a baby carriage left in a courtyard, the flagstones shiny with rain. Rose said she never wanted children, but those who knew her insist it was Arthur who didn’t want a child. 

Impossible to know, but some facts about a life can be traced. Arthur left Rose for another woman. Rose enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts. It was there she would meet the painter Richard Diebenkorn, a classmate. She was in the first class of a new photography department, established by Ansel Adams, at a time when teaching photography as a fine art was still radical. She studied Alfred Stieglitz’s theory of equivalents: a photograph is a metaphor. The picture always stands for something else. 

Like a picture, metaphor cannot be separated from itself, nor traced back logically, because contours cannot be separated from the forms they outline, the effects of color cannot be separated or reversed. Memory cannot be separated and traced back exactly. We can’t necessarily recall all the intervening events between two points. 

Untitled, photograph, 1946: A shriveled aloe plant, its stalks bent and collapsed, tangled in a heap on the ground. On rare occasions, Ansel Adams chose student photographs to print in his home darkroom to show as examples of printing technique, and this one, of the dying aloe, was one of them. Rose said it was about the Holocaust. It is one of her earliest photographs. 

In a rare interview, Rose said, “I made hundreds of prints and destroyed them. I was printing and printing, trying to get this value we were supposed to have.” 

A cracked window patched with tape and covered in peeling paper. She was not afraid to reveal her thoughts in a photograph, and she allowed things to be in and out of focus, despite her teachers’ advice. 

Doorways within doorways, arches, openings, shadows and light. Later she would say that learning to view the world through the camera’s lens had saved her life.

IV. On Walls and Behind Glass 

Rose Mandel, On Walls and Behind Glass, photographs, 1946–1948 

Untitled: Shadow squiggles across bare walls and the barber’s diagonal stripes spin atop a pedestal stenciled with stars. The sag of a lace curtain says: there is nothing here to see. The woman in an ad for hair cream drapes herself over a man. She smiles, baring her perfect teeth. Though she looks in his general direction, her gaze is fixed on something in the distance (on what, it’s impossible to say). 

In 1948, Rose had her first solo exhibition, “On the Walls and Behind Glass,” at the San Francisco Museum of Art, became a naturalized American citizen, and separated from her husband. The following year, she filed for divorce and it made the news. The headline in the Oakland Tribune read: “Stanford Professor Sued for Divorce.” 

Untitled: One corner of a paneled lobby, empty except for a potted snake plant. On the surface of the window is a large decal of a detailed illustration of an eye. In the window’s reflection, two men standing in sunlight cast long shadows. Though their heads aren’t in the picture, the shadows cast by their hats are visible. At the center of the composition and barely visible is the reflected shadow of a camera and tripod. 

There are layers to this looking, and the looking matters. “We were taught to get rid of the reflections,” said Rose, “but I read something that allowed me to accept the reflections, and so, I made them work for me.” 

In the reflections, we see through the glass in both directions, the images layered and juxtaposed like a Surrealist collage, or like multiple exposures on a single photographic print. We see both what’s in front of her and behind her. 

Untitled: A terracotta Jesus on a plaque gazes at something just outside the frame, his hand raised in distracted benevolence. Toy rabbits with menacing smiles gather to face the window. Pussy willow branches look like fissures in the glass, behind which is more bric-a-brac, and a doll, her bonneted head bent in unblinking attention. In the window’s reflection, the gleaming grill of a car seems to extend from a rabbit’s toothy grin like a fat cigar trailing smoke. 

There are layers, yet the effect is flattening. In looking, we lose perspective. What is surface, and what is depth, foreground and background nearing collapse. Though sometimes there is a glimpse of the camera flash, some hint of her presence, we don’t see her. Instead, we look through her, like looking through glass. A hand-painted sign of a pointing finger says: this way to repairing. 

Untitled: Behind a window streaked with dirt is a toy cradle painted with flowers and tendrils. The composition is all grids and angles. There is no doll. A newspaper clipping floats in the bottom corner, the headline barely legible: “Daughter of Consul Weds Here Today.” In the newspaper photograph, a young woman with pin curls looks away from the camera and slightly up. At what, it’s impossible to say. 

Untitled: The glowing disc of the clock face looms, a giant moon in a reflected sky crisscrossed by telephone and electric lines. The clock’s electric cord droops like a downed wire: a warning. “I was pleading, time is short,” said Rose. In the foreground, in a pile of junk, a collapsed box printed with the logo for Rheinlander beer. “The world is not safe.” A deep black shape hovers above the box, dominating the bottom third of the composition. The shape is Rose herself, hunched under a dark cover, hiding in plain sight. 

Untitled: Ambiguous machinery, pipes and ducts—what is behind glass, and what is reflected? A banjo propped in the window, and a men’s shoe without laces. And here, at the very center of the photograph, partially obscured by shadow and by the face of a man on the album cover, is Rose’s reflection. Rose and the man on the album look in opposite directions, Janus-faced, though which is looking back and which is looking forward? Rose holds her hand up in front of her heart—is she holding something, a shutter button, perhaps, or is she pointing? This is her only known self-portrait. 

“I never say that I am an artist, but I am. This is my signature, the end of the sequence.” Yes, she is pointing. She is pointing at herself.

V. Portrait of the Artist Behind Broken Glass 

Rose Mandel, portraits, 1947–1956 

Portrait of the artist lost in thought, her head cocked as though listening to a shell, a portal, an opening. Rose took a job as a photographer in UC Berkeley’s art department making slides and photographs documenting other artists’ work and became well known for her portraits of other artists. Portrait of the artist as the remnants of a seated figure, his face fractured by a twist of bare branches and in soft focus, like the memory of a face, or a reflection. 

In 1961, Rose and Arthur traveled together back to Europe, stopping in New York on the way, following the path of their migration in reverse. Her close friends described him as very demanding. One called him “a control freak and a bully.” They remarried. Why, it’s impossible to say. 

Portrait of Arthur by Rose, 1961. His pointy white collar is buttoned up all the way under dark plaid. Behind him and far below, a sweeping rocky vista of buttes, a deep, wide river canyon, the landscape of the mythic American West. With his receding hairline, round wire glasses, and deeply furrowed brow, he looks directly at the camera—at Rose—with great concentration and an expression that might be described as scrutiny. His gaze is not open. There is a slight hint of contempt around his mouth, the set of his jaw. 

Rose and Arthur remarried. Why, it’s hard to say, but perhaps I understand. They had survived so much together, and traveled so far. Perhaps she still loved him. 

Portrait of the unknown artist with her arms crossed, or her hand under her chin, inquisitive, sharp-eyed, looking outward. Portrait of the artist’s face half-hidden by his long and beautiful fingers, his eyes in their shadow. Portrait of the famous artist painting a picture, his head tilted slightly, as though listening, the photographs uncredited. Portrait of the artist as a young woman opening, her gaze direct, her fingers pointing upward, drawing the eye to her own eyes, as if to say I am, I am. 

Self-portrait of the writer behind glass: I began this essay in the darkness of northern European winter, where I was living with my husband and our young daughter. My husband was a professor. We were there for his research. I had told him I didn’t want to go, but we went anyway. 

I began writing this because I kept coming back to her way of looking, but I couldn’t yet see why. I kept looking at the photographs she took so many years ago near what would become my home in San Francisco. I looked at them from far across the world, in the darkness. We were there for his research. I told him I did not want to go, but we went anyway. I felt I had no choice. Some would describe him as very demanding, a control freak and a bully. In the darkness, I saw my reflection in the window. 

There is a difference between knowing and saying, between looking and really seeing. They had survived so much together, and come so far. Perhaps she still loved him. Perhaps she felt she had no choice. 

Portrait of the artist behind glass, the pattern of breakage from a single point of impact splintering her face. Now I know what I saw there. And it is very hard to say.

VI. Dark Waves 

Rose Mandel, Untitled, photographs, 1957–1972 

It began with a woman, her face turned away, obscured by shadow. Now, nothing is in focus. The blurred gesture becomes the focal point, or there is no focal point, no figure. There is nowhere to rest the eye. Froth, caught midair. Sharp, dark waves. 

It began with reflection, shadow, the figure of a woman. Now all is roiling water, exquisite turbulence, disembodied. With the layers stripped away, her light is sharper, the blacks blacker. 

It began with a woman and her husband, far from home. The husband, a distant figure who often looked at her with contempt (when he would look at me at all). The light on those short winter days was pale, blue-tinted. She thought of leaving while he was at work, but she was afraid. 

It began with photographs and a way of looking. Learning how to view the world through the lens of a camera saved her life, but she couldn’t yet see what she was looking at. 

A wave just crashing or having just receded, bubbles glowing on the fractal shoreline. Faint lines and divots in wet sand, and a single rock dug in, nearly buried by the tide’s force, casts a shadow eastward. By the slant of the light, it must be late afternoon on the California coast, golden hour. The rock looks like an ombligo, belly’s indent, former point of connection. Sensual yet disconnected, it cannot be traced back to its origin. It is as irreversible as metaphor, illogical as memory. 

When we finally came home to San Francisco, it was late afternoon, golden hour. I wept to see that warm light, the sun sparkling on the waves. 

By the 1960’s, Rose’s photographs verge on pure abstraction. As it was then in the world, there is discord and near dissolution.

It took me two more years before I could finally leave him. I was afraid. There is more I won’t say. 

Rose stopped taking photographs. She told her friends she stopped so she could take care of Arthur, who was ailing. Her friend said, “I think at some point she quit because it was easier for her not to photograph and to totally devote herself to him.” 

Now there is no figure, no landscape, or the landscape becomes her body, the roil of waves in her mind. She is always looking and the looking matters, but there is nowhere to rest the eye in all these layers of blurs and burrs, thorns and fissures. What does she see? A bleary edge, a waveform caught in motion. Flux and spray dissolved, writing on water.


Reference note: My essay includes research and quotations from The Errand of the Eye: Photographs By Rose Mandel by Susan Ehrens and Julian Cox (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Delmonico Books, Prestel, 2013). The Emily Dickinson poem first appeared in Poems by Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Roberts Brothers,1890).

Heather June Gibbons is the author of the poetry collection Her Mouth as Souvenir, winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize (University of Utah Press) as well as two chapbooks. She’s been the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Academy of American Poets, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and Vermont Studio Center. She lives in San Francisco, where she is working on a new book.

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