PRINT January 1969

The San Francisco Annual Becomes an Invitational

UNTITLED 68, THE SAN FRANCISCO Art Institute’s show at the San Francisco Museum of Art, provides that city with a viewing of several artists who are in the limelight elsewhere, but who haven’t been seen here recently, and in some cases not seen at all. It doesn’t, of course, manage to show us everyone we haven’t seen, and it leaves out entirely those whom we have seen in depth over the last year or so. The show is divided into several departments or categories which might be described as heaven, hell and the real world. Thus, you could say that Noland, Olitski, Parker, Held and Louis were in limbo, and limbo was not on display.

Actually, a small subgroup (super group) is at the entrance. These are the sages—like fathers here to give away the bride. Edwin Dickenson is represented by several rather small pictures; the largest of them, Stone Tower, is the sketchiest, but showed me the most. The tower facade slants up obliquely facing a diagrammatic indication of something cubic and volumetric: the passing order viewing the new thing in its formative idea stage. It was painted in 1941. It gives a preface to the show. Someone scoffed; the important Dickensons have gone to Venice. The other sage is that randy old saint Willem de Kooning, with three of his lusty Woman paintings. (One is called Man, but anyone can see an extra set of arms and legs of creamier complexion, though both sexes share the same trunk.)

The young man among the sages is Mark di Suvero whose structure of weather-beaten beams is a great beached wreck growing from the floor like a ruined shard around which the crowds flow as they enter the show. Di Suvero is now teaching for a semester in Berkeley, and is working upshore on an outdoor sculptural environment group, and in Berkeley on a playground, the latter containing tires and metal, and other large found objects which have replaced the broken beams in his recent work; the museum’s piece is a beam structure from 1960. We have seen small pieces, such as the nailed hand, in this place before, but since he is here for a while, we may hope to see some of his newer major work. He is another native son whom San Francisco has seen mostly in reproductions. There are many.

So, Dickenson is the elder statesman, de Kooning still has his crown, and di Suvero is nominated as heir. With this introduction safely navigated I decided I could not face the real world just yet, so I took a short cut to the other end of the show. This was sneaky, but I was rewarded with the hell part. I glanced into the far end of the fourth chamber, but noticed a Stella on an important end wall, so I was prepared to believe there was another room. The fifth room is literally a back cupboard, ceiling and all in black with everything behind glass: Lucas Samaras and Joseph Cornell. For those who had the pleasure of playing with Cornell’s boxes in their permanent closet exhibition at the old Stable Gallery in New York in the fifties, it was frustrating to see them again, this time locked in the cupboard like the crown jewels. It had been a great pleasure to sift the sand by tilting the box—a savant doing his abracadabra with the icons, and prayer wheels—and now we couldn’t even see the backs of them. Pink Chateau is an unusual box, wintry, with icy mirrors, leafless twig trees, and the chateau’s gables echoed by the mirrors. The more usual sand boxes were there too, and the clay pipes, broken wine glasses, marbles and other highly significant memorabilia from Cornell’s special inventory of heirlooms. Cornell is the sage at the exit. The Lucas Samaras thing is a structure of a cube alive with pins, most of them head out, but an occasional point sticking dangerously outward. (If the museum had trusted us and left it out in the open probably no one would have gotten stuck twice.) Samaras’s compartmented box, on the other hand, had to be behind glass: it was designed to tempt thieves, a precious thing, full of washers, brass filings and glitter.

Perhaps I was mistaken, and the section just past the introductory honorariat was hell. I had fled it the moment I had assumed it was the real world. Philip Pearlstein’s drawing is so academic that I will presume license to criticize it academically. The foreshortening of a thigh is faulty—no, let’s suppose it’s the meaning we should pay attention to. Those nudes aren’t looking at each other, indeed they aren’t interested in one another, probably aren’t even aware of each other’s presence. It would merit a “C” in life drawing, and an “F” in humanities, but the real world being what it is, his view probably has validity. Jack Beal’s nudes also occupy the front room. Each picture has only one nude woman and each one is having a sensual, though pensive relationship with nonhuman, but soft or pneumatic things such as quilts, and air mattresses. The technique has made it softer and more pneumatic than a photograph could have done. James McCarrell has painted both male and female nudes, and they slip in and out of their bodies as easily as their clothes. Some sit behind themselves in the nude. They are also afraid to notice each other, except in one case where a man stares frankly at his other reality. McCarrell reassures us that his mind is on the problem by hanging a knot in midair, paper, cloth and—is it a rope? These double double portraits are of three different women, but the male protagonist is always the same. The painting is painterly and experimental, though basically realistic. This “psychological alienation” portion of the real world surrounded Rosenquist and Lichtenstein, both of whom seemed odd there, but the single example of Rosenquist is so minor they might just as well not have bothered to ship it west; Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl has been seen in the museum in the past, the only repeat, I believe.

This show replaces the San Francisco Art Institute’s Annual which died of senility two years ago after a sometimes vigorous and always controversial life of 85 years. The artist members who decide on the nature of the show saved their money for two years and compiled a list of artists whose work they wanted to see. Gerald Nordland, The San Francisco Museum’s director, did the traveling and searching for examples to make the show. Several of the artists selected were members of the Castelli Gallery’s stable. Since the Stellas were major pieces, one is led to suppose that they were unwilling to send really good examples of their other artists to San Francisco. Package deals are never very satisfactory. The Johnses and Rauschenbergs, were also good but minor work, mostly prints.

Los Angeles treated us better. The Edward Kienholz Portable War Memorial and Robert Irwin’s illuminated disc became the principal works in the real world and heaven categories. These almost antithetical works both state their case and project their image with remarkable strength and directness. Rosenthal’s wartime photo of the servicemen raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi has been translated into a life-sized assemblage made from stuffed uniforms. There are no faces beneath the helmets. The wristwatches are real. This version’s Suribachi is made of metal drive-in tables and chairs, and a coke machine. The latter works, and the museum goers participate by sitting aboard the sculpture and drinking coke. “I seek voyeuristic involvement,” says Kienholz. Behind the pageant is a tombstone with small counters so you can change the numbers of the World Wars and the “V-Days.” On a blackboard is chalked the names of the hundreds of nations, territories, colonies, etc., which have disappeared since World War II. Everything is painted aluminum, with a nice streaking of plastic sludge. The operative coke dispenser represents business as usual. The future is limned as a plastic Tarzan of the sort cooked up in toy kits by junior puddlers. This one is about three inches tall at the bottom of a very large metal monument. The hands were burned in the cooking process. This is the first recent Kienholz San Francisco has been privileged to see in any other way than in a photograph, and the participation factor is essential. This was also the first exhibition of the piece.

Robert Irwin’s work is not satisfactorily represented by a photograph either. The suggestion of levitation which it projects fascinates the viewer, perhaps because of the growth of mysticism in a world glutted with materialism, but also perhaps because science fiction has excited the imagination. Neither would have succeeded if there hadn’t been a fertile area in man’s fantasies. It is not only illuminated by four spotlights, but it has been subtly modeled, and has a haloized luminosity of its own. Its meaning is its thusness: it is white, pure, whole; whether it is flat or a sphere appeals to the viewer as an enigma which he could only resolve by stepping past the rope and into the stark shell, like a chapel, built specially to house it and to increase its ambiguity. This is hypnotic theater, heavenly.

Ron Davis makes realities of illusions. Forty-Five has a see-into portion, but all you will see there is the front of the back, and that rather obscurely. From a distance it is like a case that you might be able to see into. This draws you across the room. It is the shape as much as the translucency that led you to believe you could look inside. This is flat sculpture.

Richard Diebenkorn’s new work is coming out to the flat surface of the canvas’s second dimension, too. One of his Ocean Park paintings still aspires to the illusion of depth. The other two Ocean Parks have certain references to a spatial possibility, but they are abstract illusions which will work either way, forward or backward. The figures are gone, and Diebenkorn has the deck cleared for change. I think we are seeing the work in progress. We are watching the first evolutions of process.

Gur III by Frank Stella has wheels and gears of many colors which pull the eye around their courses. The colors are very sweet, and some of the vibrant reactions are stronger than others so the movement can stop and turn in the other direction. The wheelness and gearness are only diagrammatically indicated so that thickness or other specifics of form do not get in the way of the deliberate color action. After so many color magicians have been satisfied to idiotically twitch and wink with little purpose, I am impressed with the act of taking the viewer’s eye on a relatively specific trip.

Donald Judd’s plastic and stainless steel cubic tunnel structure is another “thusness” piece. It is very anonymous and was probably made in the same shop as kitchen or drive-in structures. It could easily be mistaken for something one might put to use; heating or refrigeration, perhaps. Its blueness is robbed of the coolness which we have traditionally associated with blue. Not that its blueness represents warmth either, just artificiality. (I asked a long-haired art student if he felt the “Do Not Touch” sign was almost a challenge to touch. He replied, “No, I wouldn’t touch it anyway. It’s too blue.”)

This show is more interesting than any annual I ever saw, despite its flaws, but I wonder why the artists who selected the show chose these people, but left out Oldenburg and Bladen. When I reviewed the last annual I added my voice to the clamor to throw it out, and suggested that it might be replaced by a show as important as the Venice and Sao Paulo Biennials, and I’m still of that conviction. As a vet, I vote to ask the veterans who occupy the main floors of the building which houses the museum in its garret to move over and give the museum the space to mount such a show.

Knute Stiles