A PRIVATE COLLECTION, EUROPE
Ansel Adams produced only twelve to fifteen decorative screens from the 1930s to the early 1970s. The majority were created either for exhibitions, or as commissions and gifts for close friends. Most are now in the collections of museums and other institutions (such as the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona), or remain with the artist's family. Several screens are missing and may have been destroyed over the years or, as in the case of lot 190, altered to curtail further deterioration and fit into a new environment.
Although he claimed otherwise, Adams' screenwork seems to owe a debt to earlier Chinese and Japanese design. During his youth, there was an immense appetite for Asian decorative arts and most affluent households would have included a proliferation of examples. Adams' friendships with Asian art collectors such as Albert Bender, an early champion of his work and to whom he dedicated Portfolio Two (see lot 193), would also have informed his own screen designs.
In 1940, Adams wrote an article for US Camera, in which he outlined various strategies for making photomurals, including technical and compositional recommendations. Emphasizing the decorative potential of mural prints and screens, Adams advised using only strongly graphic and abstract subject-matter, explaining that the challenge presented by folding screens was that they were 'not seen as a flat surface, but as a combination of surfaces, each set at a different angle to the others'. This created 'effects not only of altered perspective and scale, but on account of the reflective properties of the panels, of light intensity as well.'
Adams' earliest screens tended to be composed of three or four-panels, single-sided, mounted on plywood and varnished for open-faced display. More ambitious, however, was the version he created in 1951 for Jack and Audrey Skirball for installation in their ranch in Sonoma County. Made up of five panels and on thin metal legs that raised it about a foot off the ground, it was intended to be seen from both sides, acting as a room divider. Adams' used two contemporary, highly decorative, photographs to decorate the screen's front and back panels, respectively Oak Tree, Rain, Sonoma County and Clearing Storm, Sonoma County Hills, the present lot.
These front and back panels were probably separated from one another within a year or two of the Skirballs' relocation to San Francisco in 1979. In a letter to Adams, dated May 1, 1981, Jack Skirball wrote: 'When you are in town next, be sure to give us at least an hour in our new townhouse, not only because we would enjoy seeing you, but because we are most anxious to have your opinion on what Audrey has done with the panels of the screen. I don't want to tell you more until you see them.'
In their present form, the Skirball panels retain their extraordinary visual impact. This is a highly important and extraordinarily rare work of art, with significant provenance. Fittingly, the screens are accompanied by other Adams photographs, also originally from the Skirball collection (lots 191-194), including a smaller, complete version of Clearing Storm, Sonoma County Hills (lot 191).