PRINT January 1965

Man: Glory, Jest & Riddle, Part III

TO THE SAN FRANCISCO MUSEUM, proclaimed keeper of the traditions of contemporary art for northern California fell the task of surveying “the use of the human form” in 20th-century art. Mr. George Culler, in another display of the kind of thinking that has made his entire tenure as Director of the Museum a downhill toboggan ride from the reasonable heights to which Dr. Grace Morley, his predecessor, had raised it, evidently decided that his job was simple enough: all he had to do was keep out the abstrac­tions and collect as many paintings with people in them as he could.

The San Francisco Museum exhibition displays no evidence that anyone connected with the show had sat down to give serious thought to the ques­tion: is there, indeed, a history of contemporary use of the figure which is meaningful within the tradition of the major concerns of modern art? And if there is, what works of art, arranged in what way, could best illustrate it? It would undoubtedly be difficult, at best, to produce a figure-based exhibition which would not distort the basic truths of the develop­ment of modern art; such an exhibition necessarily forces an artificial division. But there are ways in which the best could be made of a bad idea. One could, for example, posit the proposition that each of the many 20th-century art movements had a distinctive way of dealing with the figure, and on this basis select representative examples of Cubist treatment, Fauve treatment, Expressionist treatment, Surrealist treatment, Dada treatment, Abstract Ex­pressionist, Pop, etc. One could, for example, de­cide that the best attack would be to isolate a group of, say, a dozen central figures whose oeuvre spans the crucial decades of the century, and demonstrate each one’s changing approach to the figure. (Picasso, Kokoschka, Matisse, de Kooning, Bacon, Dubuffet, for example.) One could even structure his exhibition along certain preconceived thematic lines: the treatment of the figure in contemporary art as a reflection of traditional sensuousness, as a reflection of the absurd and the influence of Existen­tialist thought, as a series of masks of the artist himself in his society. Any one of these approaches (and there are others) would be seen to dictate the choice of works to be shown: consistency would direct the show’s organizer to particular works of art. Any approach, of course, would be attacked, its choices questioned, or praised, its choices approved. What boggles the mind in the San Francisco ex­hibition is that there is no approach of any kind evident in the conception, selection or installation of the exhibition except the vague realization that 20th-century art extends from the end of the 19th century to—to Tom Wesselman!

One searches in vain for some explanation of what is going on. One suspects, at first, a plan so subtle that only repeated looking will make it clear. Since no Picassos appear later than 1912, can we take it to mean that the show suggests that Picasso made no contribution to the figure after that time? What can the show be driving at in an American selection which includes Weber, Marsh, George Cohen, Bischoff and Oliveira, but not Edward Hopper or Arshile Gorky or Andrew Wyeth? Is it suggesting, by showing secondary works by secondary artists, that the entire notion of isolating the treatment of the figure is a secondary idea? But this cannot be: the exhibition contains a number of notable master­pieces. A small Cézanne Bathers, three Fauve paintings of Matisse (including the astonishing 1905 Woman with a Hat), and a later painting of 1939, La Musique. There is Duchamp’s 1911 Nude Descending a Staircase, a fine Rose period Picasso, and the Whitney’s splendid de Koening, Woman and Bicycle, 1953. Nor can one account at all, even playing the game of attributing the most subtle of motives to the choices, for a Schiele-less show with several examples available in Berkeley.1 Equally dumbfounding is the whimper with which the exhibi­tion ends, for if, with a single Tom Wesselman, the museum wishes to open the Pandora’s box of Pop, on what basis could it have denied to the viewer the explosive use of the figure in the major Pop artists?

What is tragic is that this ludicrous performance, this exhibition gathered and mounted without the slightest degree of professional touch is in every way symbolic of the history of the San Francisco Museum under George Culler.

It is hard to recall that by 1958, the year in which Mr. Culler became Director, the San Francisco Mu­seum had achieved a formidable reputation, certainly as the leading museum of modern art in the western United States, if not the single most important mu­seum dealing with modern art outside of New York. This reputation derived from the quality of the num­erous full-scale exhibitions organized by Dr. Grace Morley. Using every inch of available space (some of which has not been used since her day) the museum mounted as many as 100 exhibitions in a single year. Many of these exhibitions, often accompanied by well-produced catalogs, were traveled. Their range, and their frequency, deserve considera­tion: in 1936, a Gauguin retrospective; 1937, Cézanne retrospective; 1938, a review of Impressionism; 1941, a Klee retrospective; 1944, an exhibition of Abstract and Surrealist Art in America. After the war the pro­gram was resumed with full-scale showings of Rothko, Motherwell and Hofmann. 1948 saw an extensive exhibition of the three Spanish masters, Picasso, Gris and Miro.

During the period of Mr. Culler’s tenure the San Francisco Museum of Art has initiated, cataloged and traveled a single exhibition. It was entitled: “American Business and the Arts.”

Under Dr. Morley a serious nucleus of School of Paris art was collected, including good works by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Derain and excellent Ma­tisse bronzes. There has been little effort to seri­ously collect with an eye to rounding out this beginning, deepening and strengthening it to a collec­tion of genuine importance. Mr. Culler was also handed over the basic nucleus of what might have been a major Abstract Expressionist collection, be­ginning with unique early works of Still, Pollock, Rothko and Gorky. He has missed the possibility of using this as the basis for a consistently growing, important collection of Abstract Expressionist art. Instead, collecting has been haphazard, random, and meaningless.2

If the new administration was to be incapable of initiating and properly documenting major exhibi­tions of contemporary art, and was to be incapable of analyzing its holdings and seeking to strengthen them in key areas, one might have expected it to take some serious interest in the art of its own area. The interested viewer who wishes, for example, to know something of the history of Richard Diebenkorn will look, not to the San Francisco Museum but to the thoroughly cataloged and documented retro­spective organized for him this year at the Gallery of Modern Art—in Washington, D.C. Nothing com­parable has been done for him or any other Cali­fornia artist or group of artists by the San Francisco Museum of Art.

Consistently since Mr. Culler’s arrival, other institutions in the Bay Area have found it necessary to extend themselves beyond their scope to provide the San Francisco region with necessary views of developments in the field of contemporary art. The California Palace of the Legion of Honor exhibited the Heller Collection in 1962—the region’s first showing of Abstract Expressionist art in any depth at all. The tiny, hopelessly inadequate Richmond Art Center presented the region’s first exhibition of Jasper Johns, in 1963. In the same year, the Oak­land Museum mounted the area’s first examination of the Pop Art movement.

So weak is the position of the San Francisco Museum today, so universal the lack of confidence in its Director that the two major educational in­stitutions of the area have found it necessary to establish contemporary art centers on their cam­puses. At the University of California at Berkeley, a University Art Museum will be completed within a few years. Beginning with a vast nucleus of works by Hans Hofmann, the University is already negotiat­ing for the acquisition of one of the most important collections of modern art in private hands. Further negotiations to bring to the Bay Area one of the most competent curators in the East—Mr. Peter Selz—have reportedly already commenced. Stanford University, likewise, has decided to intensify its activities at the Stanford Art Galleries, and similarly has opened negotiations for the importation of one of the more vigorous younger curators from an Eastern museum.

It is inconceivable that any of these activities would have been either necessary or even desirable had the San Francisco Museum not been stopped in its tracks from the time of Mr. Culler’s arrival. Now, six momentous years have passed, and there is every indication that it is simply too late to repair the damage. With the completion of the new Oak­land Museum complex next year, with part of its avowed purpose being to provide space for visiting exhibitions, the last major function of the San Fran­cisco Museum disappears, for if the Culler admin­istration learned one task well, it was the unpack­ing of crates containing exhibitions prepared else­where. Now, the Oakland Museum will do it better. The Oakland Museum has also made no secret of its intention to specialize in collecting and exhibiting the art of California.

All this being so, there appears to be no longer any legitimate reason for the continued existence of the San Francisco Museum of Art. The organiza­tion of original exhibitions of important contempor­ary art can pass into the hands of curators of proven ability at the University of California and at Stan­ford; the Oakland Museum will attempt to build its reputation on the quality of its continuous presen­tations of the art of California while at the same time providing a site for the accommodation of significant exhibitions organized elsewhere. The only sensible proposal would seem to be that the San Francisco Museum divide the collections which it has failed to develop during the past six years among the Oakland, U.C. and Stanford Museums, re-direct that part of the community whose energies it is pointlessly absorbing to these other institutions, and simply go out of business on the grounds of being unable to meet the competition.

John Coplans and Philip Leider



1. A partial listing of the artists one would think essen­tial to any exhibition of this kind follows. Without excep­tion, good to excellent examples of each exist in collections in northern or southern California, perfectly available to the Museum: Braque, Vuillard, Ensor, Schiele, Jawlensky, Magritte, de Chirico, Dali, Leger, Grosz, Gorky, Hopper, Balthus, Lichtenstein, Warhol. To voice the suspicion that the Museum did not know of these local resources is to challenge the competence of its administration. But to wonder why the Museum troubled to haul in a second Max Weber from a New York commercial gallery is to do the same.

2. The circumstances under which the San Francisco Museum gave up its very early Rothko, Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, remain mysterious. It is possible that no museum collection now owns a Rothko of that period. It is hard to imagine any other museum man in the country letting the painting out of his community under those circumstances, for whatever reason.