PRINT December 1962/January 1963

Fifty California Artists

CHOSEN BY GEORGE D. CULLER, Director of the San Francisco Museum of Art, James Elliott, Chief Curator and Curator of Modern Art of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Lloyd Goodrich, Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Fifty California Artists” may very well be one of the “youngest” in looks the Whitney Museum has presented.* It has some of the spirit of the “new talent” exhibitions and as in those exhibitions, several works of each artist are placed as a unit, permitting a conviction through repetition that large group shows often don’t allow the viewer. Many of the California artists in this show are regularly seen in New York by gallery-goers, and the catalog’s biographical notes reveal a good deal of education, travel and teaching experience for these 35 painters and 15 sculptors.

The two ends of one esthetic line, representing the dichotomy of logic and emotion in terms of people, and discipline and spontaneity in terms of art, ap­parently have their expressive protagonists on the West Coast, as well as elsewhere. In fact, a major esthetic division exists between these two today, with geometric or “hard edge” painting surviving along with the sunburst of action painting. The art of the future will probably witness some further reso­lution of the conflict between the subjective and objective, freedom and discipline in art. The stasis of motion in To and In Is Out by Frederick Ham­mersley, the direct purity of John McLaughlin’s paintings, and the flattened-out, slotted-together shapes of Karl Benjamin stand stern guardians of Mondrian’s pure plastic, although yielding to larger and simpler geometric forms. Helen Lundeberg’s cold hard high­ways and simplified industrial structures emphasize the loneliness and vastness of space, in no way warm­ing the yearning heart, as they are not supposed to; and the Magical Space Forms of Lorser Feitelson are stern sleight of hand.

The way subjective feeling can be expressed with an extreme limitation of means is explored by Robert Irwin, Art Holman, Leslie Kerr, and David Simpson, who show the life present in metaphysical painting on the West Coast. The possibilities for highly original expression in painting non-pictures which negate for­mat and compositional paraphernalia (the do-nots, with deference to Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, et al.) is one of the current exciting developments here, as well as in central Europe. In a world of Nothing, the burgeoning of a single shape, a stain of color, a shimmer of light into Something can have tremendous meaning. One of the hardest things in painting is to be simple and maintain intensity of feeling. It is just as hard to have a lot of raw emotion ultimately rescued from chaos by the resourceful eye and hand of a good artist.

The free and intensely charged surfaces of Frank Lobdell pour lava over waiting forms below, fixing them in motion; but Robert Loberg is not at all reluc­tant to explode his brilliant form and color patterns in collage and paint, barely contained by the rectangu­lar limits of the painting edge. Richards Ruben con­fronts the viewer with a steely wall in Claremont #56, and dares you to scale it.

Jack Hooper is in the quiet field; nevertheless, he deals with the emotive world of primitive erotic sym­bols––pretty strong stuff no matter how dark you paint it!

The erotic imagery of John Altoon makes for the funniest and best painting of aggressive goo-goo eyed lust and self-gratification; and Edward Kienholz’s fer­tile and sequined Daddy Fish construction releases babies galore from a slot machine. (Is this the way Anderson wood piece Ad Bellum Purificandum whose botanical references extend in sculptured fertile eagerness. Even William Wiley’s large dark abstract paintings suggest sensual activities in crepuscular chambers. This is quite a contrast to the sensuality of Willem de Kooning’s women, who always appeared bathed in brilliant and high-keyed color. The battle of fifteen years ago for freedom of style and technique has been won. The battle to say anything one chooses to say about the world, or oneself, or one’s dreams has apparently also been won.

One might, in looking at these fifty artists, add to Nello Ponente’s statement that Mondrian and Matisse had shaped the taste of our century, the name of Mar­cel Duchamp, because of the brilliant development of constructions, assemblages, and collage-sculptures that are poetic, morbid, or sardonically witty. Bruce Conner’s constructions are three-dimensional black magic. Made of net, glass beads, jet, feather, Conner evokes nostalgia and memories of the past, such as an old love that is foolish, but remembered just be­cause it is foolish, love like Homage to Minnie Mouse. And Cannabis (scientific name for mari­juana, according to Webster) will turn you, laughing, upside down just like the girl on the bottom right, if you make the right connection. While Conner is poign­ant, George Herms packs the pistol under the prayer book and captures Gerhard Puff. The jeweled stick­pin corroborates the jauntiness of the lean and at­tractive man in the faded photograph. Even in White Glove Cross, with its motif of LOVE (the E turned backwards as if this emotion turns back on itself), Herms maintains a feeling of the tough Wild West in his constructions.

A sociologist recently reported that as the mortality rate declines, the morbidity rate rises. The morbid in California, the sense of death as the final joke of all, something you can depend on, is present in these con­structions, and especially in The Widow of Edward Kienholz. Edward Moses satirizes sentiment in Ameri­can Beauty, with a plastic rose to make the point. So California reveals itself as a place of emotional light and shade.

While most creative imagination consists of related memories in new combinations Roy de Forest, as the painter Wols did before him, seems to want to forget, or repress memories of forms when painting. Work­ing seemingly without a plan, and with a succession of unknowns, as the Surrealists did with automatic writ­ing, there is in Voltaire, Possum Pelt and Aborigines a world of fantasy and dream that is confusingly way out.

Gordon Onslow-Ford’s big white and black works also seem to use the automatic writing devices of the Surrealists, raising the function of signs and symbols from forms and interruptions to the total substance of the painting. His is a knowing hand working in a civilized territory, and an interesting contrast to the Mark Tobey works now hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, next door to the Whitney.

When a sculptor like John Baxter or Arlo Acton or Alvin Light works with a piece of wood or pieces of wood and found objects, he is working with very defi­nite concrete knowns. The possibilities of these ob­jects to be shaped and related in size, mass and direction makes for a subtle art.

The New York art critics used the presence of the fifty California Artists at the Whitney to deny differ­ences, as if Balboa took a look at the Pacific and said, “Humph, looks like the Atlantic to me.” Just like, that is, except for the “new figure painting.” The presence of Diebenkorn and Bischoff, et al., has been hailed as the renaissance of good sense in painting, a resurg­ence of the humanities, and a feeling for the whole­ness of man. Elaine de Kooning, herself an excellent figure painter, in an interview recently compared the West and East Coast figure painters: “East Coast fig­ure painters work from the inside out. West Coast painters work from the outside in. . . . Like Franz Hals, they’re extroverts painting straight from the shoulder. They’ve got a point there. They’re brand new, and their image has dignity.” Although in this showing, Diebenkorn makes Bischoff look flabby, they both maintain a remarkably fine wedding of French har­mony and German intensity, and there is, of course, the local Berkeley blue––these painters’ key to color values. Nathan Oliveira’s recent Nude in Environ­ment uses a thin paint technique over drawing. If all the California figure painters include the omnipresent environment, this work must be a satire on other push-pull patio paintings, since the whole thing has been turned over on its side, and dumped in the swimming pool.

John Paul Jones’s Stripper does not entice or glitter, but shrieks dimly from her darksome cave. James Strombotne, gruesomely frank and brutal, in Political Execution and The Dancer and the Seated Man, makes social comment a very real sacrifice. Another figure painter, James McGarrell, uses the sur­face appearance of Portland 1960, a seated figure on a balcony with a large framed rectangle above, for a surrealist distortion. He pulls down the metallic grey of the sky through the shadows of the head, face and shoulder of the figure to deform the image to a new Melancholia.

It is interesting to note that in a contemporary show, especially where the figure is present, Picasso’s influence is felt only in Easter Goat, a bronze sculp­ture by the internationally known artist Jack Zajac; but not so much in his Ascending Man, a small bronze whose fluid lines gracefully conquer gravity

Regina Bogat



*After closing at the Whitney on December 2, the exhibition will tour to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (Feb. 17–March 17), the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. (April 10–May 8), and the Des Moines Art Center (May 24–June 23) included in the exhibition: Arlo Acton, John Altoon, Jeremy Anderson, Oliver Andrews, John Baxter, Billy Al Beng­ston, Karl Benjamin, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Bowman, William Brice, Bruce Conner, Robert Cremean, Roy de Forest, Richard Diebenkorn, D. Faralla, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammers­ley, Robert Hansen, George Herms, Art Holman, Jack Hooper, Robert Irwin, John Paul Jones, Leslie Kerr, Edward Kienholz, Alvin Light, Frank Lobdell, Robert Loberg, Helen Lundeberg, James McGarrell, John McLaughlin, John Mason, Edward Moses, Lee Mullican, Richard O’Hanlon, Nathan Oliveira, Gordon Onslow-Ford, Kenneth Price, Fred Reichman, Richard Ruben, David Simpson, Hassel Smith, Walter Snelgrove, James Strombotne, Joyce Treiman, Peter Voulkos, Julius Wasserstein, William Wiley, Emerson Woelffer, Jack Zajac.