Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Los Angeles, CA



John Gutmann: Culture Shock


"John Gutmann: Culture Shock" examines the achievement of this unique and influential photographer through more than 50 years of work and features 100 photographs selected by the artist shortly before his death in 1998. The exhibition opens August 6, 2000, at The Museum of Contemporary Art and remains on view through November 5, 2000. (right: The Artist Lives Dangerously: San Francisco, 1938)

Organized by the Iris & B. Gerald Canter Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, the exhibition explores Gutmann's personal adaptation of surrealism as he turned from documenting the odd and the marvelous and began experimenting with the construction of images. The photographs trace Gutmann's career from his native Germany to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he settled in 1933 and would live most his life. These images not only record the culture shock Gutmann experienced after moving to the United States but also reflect a culture shocked by its own restless social change. A connoisseur of American popular culture, Gutmann photographed the odd, the amusing, and the freakish with the detachment of an anthropologist.

Gutmann's documentary work in Asia, Europe, and the United States from the 1930s to the 1950s includes classic images such as Death Stalks Fillmore (1934). He saw the turbulence in American society at this time expressed in its cars, signs, clothing, and street life, as well as in the numerous surprising individuals he portrayed with both irony and respect." was seeing America with an outsider's eyes--the automobiles, the speed, the freedom, the graffiti," he explained in a 1989 interview, and his powerful images, which record "the almost bizarre, exotic qualities of the country," established his reputation.


Background on the Artist

John Gutmann (1905-98) was born in Germany and initially trained as a painter, studying with German expressionist painter Otto Mueller; his photographs show a sensibility nurtured in the avant-garde circles of Berlin. As a Jew in Germany in the 1930s, Gutmann was forbidden by the Nazis to exhibit or teach. Photojournalism struck him as a useful means of supporting himself as a refugee, and he took up photography in 1933, before immigrating to the United States. He became fascinated by the popular culture of the United States: "all this bad taste here which, of course, I learned to love." (left: The Lesson, Central Park, New York, 1936)

Although he had no training as a photographer and no interest in the medium as a pure art form, he was fascinated by the popular culture of photography in magazines. He settled and taught in San Francisco and helped link the West Coast to European modernism, inspiring later generations of photographers through his unique capacity for disclosing ambiguities and oddities within the commonplace. The last part of his life was spent teaching modern art and art history at San Francisco State University. (left: The Fleet Is In, San Francisco, 1934)


The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated, 144-page catalogue, "The Photography of John Gutmann: Culture Shock," published by the Iris & B. Gerald Canter Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University in association with Merrell Publishers. The catalogue features an essay by Sandra S. Phillips, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (right: The Oracle, 1949)


Funding and Credits

"John Gutmann: Culture Shock" was organized by the Iris & B. Gerald Canter Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University and has been made possible in part by a generous grant from The Capital Group Companies, Inc., and The Capital Group Foundation. The Los Angeles presentation is sponsored in part by Audrey M. Irmas. John Gutmann is coordinated at MOCA by associate curator Connie Butler.

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