PRINT June 1962


GC: I am George Culler, Director of the San Francisco Museum of Art and with me here today is Mr. James Johnson Sweeney, who is Director of the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston and former Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Mr. Sweeney is in San Francisco, having just completed a job as juror for the 81st Annual of the Art Institute. It was the San Francisco Art Institute that invited you here to do the final jurying after you had done the preliminary screening on the basis of slides?

JJS: Yes.

GC: About how many paintings did you look at?

JJS: About 1,600 originally, in the screening, and in the final viewing for the awards.

GC: It has been a great privilege to have you here for a few days in San Francisco. The exhibition that you have just selected will be on view at the San Francisco Museum of Art from April 20 to May 20. I think what everyone is most interested in is your reactions to what you have just seen, and perhaps this in relation to the things that you have seen elsewhere.

JJS: What I find and what interests me most in jury work, is not looking at 1600 pictures; I find myself somewhat blinded by the experience, usually, but it gives me an opportunity to find out what’s happening in different parts of the country. For that reason I’ve always welcomed invitations and was particularly glad to have an invitation from the San Francisco area, because I knew that this was a part of the country in which something had happened ten years ago which surprised me on a visit at that time, and I was sure that something quite different was occurring now. I was sure of this, because I had heard from various quarters that the young men who had appeared ten years ago had matured and were now stimulating other new artists to new developments.

GC: It might be interesting to get your view of San Francisco, both of ten years ago and of the present time. I suspect that many of us look to you as the man who is probably more aware than almost anyone else of what is going on in the various art centers of the world.

JJS: That’s exaggerated—

GC: Well, let me just ask you about a few of the juries that you have served on nationally and internationally in the last few years. You were at São Paolo, for example.

JJS: I was, and I was in Paris months following that for the Bienal de Juin, for which we had about 3,600 items to go through, all the work of artists under 35. The jury there was made up of painters and sculptors and critics—a jury of eleven people. Of course, all the artists who submitted to the exhibition did not come from Paris; they were from all countries—I think 39 countries. So that this exhibition in itself plus the others have given me more of an opportunity than most people to see what’s going on. I hope I’ve taken advantage of that.

GC: This morning, in talking with another group you mentioned your experiences in Poland, Spain and the Biennale in Venice.

JJS: I’ve had those good fortunes. I went to Poland as President of the International Art Critics Association. We had our meeting in Warsaw and in Cracow two years ago. There I had the opportunity of meeting the young Polish artists and I was very pleasantly surprised to see that they were influenced not only by the work of West Coast American painters, but also and most forcefully were influenced by the younger Spanish painters—men like Tapias and Viscali. What is particularly interesting to me in getting around to these centers, such as Warsaw, Barelona, to São Paolo, Venice, Paris, or San Francisco, is to see what influences have been attractive to the younger men of the day in those areas, how they have assimilated those influences and given them national and individual color. That’s what I think is important. The young man is not to be blamed for emulating his senior; that is the way he learns.

GC: I think you can also say very legitimately that it’s tremendously exciting to see what, in the production of other painters, has stimulated these younger artists, what has seemed most important and meaningful to them, and what, if they are real artists, has set them thinking. I often think that this is a kind of bounce shot, so to speak, that the influence is not necessarily reflected by the imitation of the artist; it sets the younger artist thinking sometimes, you might say, in a diagonal direction. Did you find this in Poland, for example?

JJS: I found in Poland a very strange situation—similar to that of Barcelona, and in quite a different political framework. I found the younger artists in both countries were revolting from the official order of the country. Oddly enough, one was the Francist, rather religious domination of Spain, the other, the anti-religious and Soviet domination—Marxist domination from Moscow. Yet the pressure, the tyranny of both official parties provoked a reaction which was oddly related, in one country, to that of the other. The work in Warsaw did certainly resemble the Spanish. But what I felt underlying both of these was the influence of an Italian like Buri. Buri had opened the way and the eyes of the artists in both of these countries. Strangely enough in Warsaw—I’m getting a long way from the West Coast of the United States, but I’m coming back to that; I have it in mind—I saw a curious mixture of admiration for the strict structure of a Mondrian combined with the surface textures of a Tapias—In Spain, however, it was a more traditional revolt—a revolt to textures and rather understated color organization, which were a protest against something that we find dominating parts of Europe, particularly in official art.

GC: You mentioned almost in passing that you found in the work of the Polish painters some influence, or at least evidence of stimulus from things that happened here on the West Coast. It would be interesting to develop this.

JJS: I find that the West Coast has been very exciting to me because I have been wondering about what has happened in contemporary painting in the United States and Europe since the last World War. It struck me that something had happened in Europe which sounded a new note in expression and that this new note resembled very closely something that had come out of the United States, out of the New York school and out of the San Francisco school of 1952–1954, as I mentioned before. And I wondered what it was. I saw certain types of younger French painters who were adopting the older tradition, the cubist, the rectilinear, the architectural tradition of Cézanne, Modrien, Braque, Picasso, men such as Soulage. They were keeping to this rectilinear, structural organization of their canvas. At the same time, I saw men who obviously had seen another type, which we attribute to America. This is the first time I’ve ever seen the European artist responding to American influence. I began to wonder what this influence was and how it was different from what had been going on in Europe, or at least southern Europe, France, Italy and Spain, for the past 200 years. And I noticed this: that whereas one was rectilinear and structural, emphasizing three dimensions on a flat surface, the other, the American influence that attracted the younger Europeans, was calligraphic. It was running composition, something that emphasized the two-dimensional character and the rhythmic gesture of the artist. This struck me as oddly related to something I had seen on the West Coast. I had seen this relationship to the orient on the West Coast, the calligraphic expression, but I had also seen it in northern Europe. I began to wonder: how about northern Europe? How did this almost Oriental character develop in its expressionist painting? It was the northern influx of nomad peoples from the Orient. They had carried this running, zoomorphic, animal pattern of design across northern Europe, to Ireland where it had influenced the Irish illuminated manuscripts up to the Carolingian time.

I noticed in my former visit to the West Coast that there was a great freedom here. The younger men had responded to a few teachers who were related, oddly enough, to the Germanic influence and Hoffman. Hoffman had great influence, directly or indirectly, on a great many teachers and younger men here. As I said in the beginning, what’s important is to find out how these influences were assimilated, given an individuality by the area in which you find them, and then no longer have too much of the character of their sources. I came back this time after hearing that possibly the San Francisco Bay area was turning toward a new interest in the figure and the naturalists. I was very suspicious of this because I find that people who are afraid of venturesome art, (and all art has to be venturesome, otherwise its just retreading the same paths), want to see a return to the figure so they won’t have to find new fields all the time. It’s the lazy attitude that wants to recover something that was achieved in the past, without an interpretation of it. But when I came I found that what was described as naturalism, the return to the figure, was grossly exaggerated, and fortunately so. There was an interpretation of certain figurative and naturalistic motifs in California painting, but it was given a fresh touch, as in their assimilation of Bierly, of all the Spaniards, of Tapias. You’ve had an exhibition of Spanish painters around here.

GC: Yes, we have. Young ones. As a matter of fact, I think even this is not the whole story. We hear a good bit, particularly when we go to New York, about San Francisco and the figurative school. Frankly, in my opinion, it’s what you might call the easy generalization. This is happening, and not in a retrogressive way but in the way you describe. But in my opinion it’s certainly not the whole story about the West Coast.

JJS: Nor in mine.

GC: Now, what did you see that gives you the feeling that we do have other things?

JJS: What struck me most was the breadth of curiosity, the inquisitiveness of the younger men. They are eager to find different inspirations which are not necessarily figurative. I have nothing against the figure or the inspiration that you find in what I have chosen for this exhibition. But I was interested to find the inspiration was not limited, because that would be a serious limitation, as if they imitated only movie art.

But I still want to return to this business of the Orient and Occident and northern Europe and southern Europe, because I did mention that nomads brought these influences in. It struck me that perhaps our culture, in the United States, has become a sort of nomad culture and it’s not strange that we should respond more to a running line and to a composition of that character than to the static compositions of the Mediterranean basin, which has an urban rather than a nomad civilization. Our own country, particularly the west, is a pioneer outpost. This is where the nomads went, until they came to the Pacific Ocean. Someone said that in Texas the state flower should not be the Bluebonnet, it should be the Highway Cloverleaf. That indicates the emphasis on mobility we find. You find that Calder was the only exportable American sculptor. He was a mobile sculptor. We find these motor camps, automobile courts, flowering over the whole country. This has not yet happened in Europe. They still hold to the past, but they’re interested in this development toward the future—and that’s what I think is happening in the west. Here they are inquisitive and looking at the young Italians, looking at the young Spaniards when they have a chance, and trying to learn what they can from them. They are no longer satisfied to look only toward the English traditional painting, the anecdotal style. Their figurative painting is no longer a picture of a figure. It is a picture that has grown out of a figure and they’ve colored it with these other elements.

GC: This would tend to indicate, even with all the talk about movements and styles running around the world like quicksilver, the international character of art today, and so on, that there are still very definite and perceptible differences which may not be big differences in their superficial characteristics . . .

JJS: It brings the spice.

GC: Yes. I had the feeling, for example, in Paris, that while you see painting that followed, let’s say, an abstract expressionist line, the vigor or lack of vigor of the line, the character of the line, was different than in the work I was familiar with here. At the same time it struck me often that the European work was in a sense more finished, more refined, where ours tends to stay looser and less complete. Do you have that reaction?

JJS: Well, I think the European work is calmer in its expression, while we in this country are eager and impatient in approaching our expression, which again is natural to our character.

GC: Yes.

JJS: I think that an older culture, an older tradition, tends to keep one calmer in his approach to esthetic expression. We . . ., just as I feel a little excited, even in this conversation with you, . . . we tend to boil over in our paintings; whereas the French influence is always moderation. That is the character of the country. It may not be in politics, but it is in its art.

GC: Yes. This, of course, would logically lead to this question: Whether or not there are perceptive differences even in the United States, aside from such obvious things as San Francisco being the home of the figurative school. Do you sense any quality of spice, so to speak, in the works you’ve seen in the bay area that distinguish it in your mind from, let’s say, the New York school?

JJS: I wouldn’t say that it’s a stylistic difference that I notice. I would say that the eagerness to look and learn and assimilate influences is what I find interesting in this bay area. I think we move around in our country today with such great ease that the barriers are broken down to some extent. But I do think that underneath there is this regional quality, this regional color. Now, in some of the prize winners you will find something quite different from any thing you find in New York or anything you will find in Seattle, in my opinion. You will feel there’s something quite different there—and it will be recognizable as different. Perhaps not as San Francisco painting, although later it may be called San Francisco painting. We ask: will there be an American art? There will be an American art before we recognize it as American art. We’ll only see it when we look back at it.

GC: Yes, I’m afraid these attempts to create American art, so to speak, by calling it American . . . this is a kind of wishful imposition upon what is actually going on. You made the point earlier that we’re in a time when ideas travel with great rapidity. And obviously in art, as in politics and in economic affairs, we can’t create barriers. We can’t keep American artists from their involvement with exciting ideas wherever they may happen.

JJS: I would say something, if I may say it quickly . . .

GC: Yes.

JJS: . . . that I was writing something recently about Venice, or about a painter who I thought might owe a great deal to the humid climate of Venice, and I began to think about colorists in other parts of the world. I thought of the Ile de France. I thought about England. These are the places that the great colorists have come from. When you think of Florence, it’s not the colorists. It’s the sculptors there. Now we’re making very dangerous generalities, but nevertheless . . . The quality of the light in Greece, the quality of the light in Tuscany is not the light which has the prismatic, damped effects of sunlight which you have in England, that you have in France or in Italy. These effects do not make a painter, but a painter responds to them. You remember when Renoir spent two years in Italy in 1883 or 1885 he wrote back and said, “I have been so long in the sunlight, I can no longer paint, I can only draw.”

And the paintings show it . . . in richness, yes. And that’s what I thought as I was coming in yesterday morning to San Francisco, and I looked at the humidity of the bay fog, and realized that this had its influence on the color of certain people. I also remember vividly an explanation that Sam Francis gave to me of how he began to paint. I said, “Francis, what do these pictures represent?” I asked him the old, corny question. And he said, “Well, I don’t know, Sweeney, but for two years I lay on a hospital cot with tuberculosis of the spine, and looked out over the Pacific at the sky.” And he said, “I saw the sun set out at the horizon and I saw those fleecy clouds for two years. It’s not impossible that that’s what these abstract pictures of mine grew out of.” If you look at a Sam Francis painting of the first two years after his departure for Paris you find these fleecy clouds building up into a composition, an overall composition. That was before he went to Japan and developed his interest in the calligraphic effect.

GC: I think it’s safe to say that regions can influence, but in this very deep seated way: they influence the artist as a sensitive being.

But the other thing is that he lives in a world that is communicating very strongly. Perhaps in the amalgam somewhere we’ll find a style that someday we’ll give a name to.

Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with me today. It’s been a great pleasure to have you here, Mr. Sweeney.

JJS: Thank you.