PRINT January 1971

Was There a San Francisco School?

IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THE SECOND World War a considerable number of veterans enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, using their GI Bill to further their art education. Most of these men and women were older than the average art student, more experienced, more sophisticated and some were better educated. Quite a few of them had been college students, some in the sciences, before they entered the services. As the student body of an art school, they were an exceptionally serious and vital group of people. They were concerned with the search for values on a level of maturity quite different from that of the usual student, perhaps because of their war experiences.

During this same period, in one of those peculiar conjunctions of history, a group of instructors was gathered together at the art school, under the direction of Douglas MacAgy, who were in the forefront of the development of a new abstract style of painting in America including artists such as Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt and others. The combination of these two factors, mature students and exceptional instructors, resulted in a solar flare in San Francisco’s art history. Cooperative galleries, run by the artists, sprang up around town and there was a passionate involvement of the painters in the new movement. Accurately or not, the French critics eventually named the development the “École du Pacific.” Many of the painters in San Francisco at that time are now nationally and internationally known.

Yet the question still remains: Did a unique type of painting develop on the West Coast of America in those years? Was the painting really different from the painting on the East Coast at the same time or was what happened part of the general scene, the general post-war change?

To the question of whether a type of painting developed in San Francisco that was different from East Coast painting of the same period, Douglas MacAgy said, “At that time, yes, it was a little different but it was about the same in three or four years. In the early ’50s you couldn’t tell the difference so easily but I think in the late ’40s, yes, there was indeed a difference. I think some of our people were much further ahead of the people there in what became known as ‘action painting.’ People like John Grillo, for example. Grillo was remarkably ahead of his time in that respect and I think you found some of the others like that as well. Diebenkorn, not as an abstract painter but as a student abstract painter, was doing things that weren’t being done in New York at all. In New York they don’t know that of course. It’s one of those curious things. They have no idea what happened there by date.

“This was diametrically opposed to Still’s ideas but there were students who were emotional. There is a ‘relationship of style between action painting and what we began to call Abstract Expressionism, although all these terms were later than the school. You had the kind of action painting that, say, Kline did who was somewhere between action painting and a very carefully worked out composition but with the action painting idea still very strong and you had a man like Grillo who had no sense of structure at all but a tremendous sense of putting down a big gesture.

“This is the thing that these kids are still doing in art school. It’s just horrible, appalling. Did you ever read that piece by Harold Rosenberg in Art News in the early ’50s, about ’52, where the name action painting first appeared? Well, he speaks of a painter as if he’s a boxer. He’s got a canvas there and he’s got rags here and maybe a brush and a can of paint there and he comes up at it and feints, you know, gives it a right, a left. Well, this is the way Johnny Grillo used to paint and he had a marvelous sensuous feeling for pigment and for smearing it and putting it on. He astounded everybody. He seemed to be a small man in those days. Actually he’s not so small but now he stands up. In those days he was always crouching. He was one of the first to use a great big canvas, just smearing it all over. He could never bring it together but, boy, what beautiful passages. Just terrific. He impressed everybody so much. Well, he had all of this just coming out of his fingertips. Nobody bothered him. He was just on his own. It did affect some of the students though, particularly emotional types, emotional, sensuous types of students and they followed along on this general action painting tangent. But you can’t imagine Johnny Grillo being influenced by Still. Not at all. He hasn’t got that kind of mind and Still, I think, had a certain amount of respect for him but not respect in terms of order, you know, that kind of discipline Still likes.”

Grillo himself said, “I don’t remember the painting that was done in New York at the time. I have a general idea of what they were doing now, since I’ve come back. But in the overall, I think that in San Francisco you had perhaps a more experimental stage in that very short period. You had Budd Dixon. I remember his work. And I think the so-called action school most likely developed out there among several of the students and a few of the artists before it happened in New York. Now I’m not certain. You know, it’s hard to say.”

James Budd Dixon is more positive and said, “I do. I definitely do. I definitely think it was different from New York painting. Yes, I do. I think, or know, that the New York painters don’t agree with that but I feel that something was happening here. There was this explosion kind of thing coming with these people. Well, they are all showing and successful in New York today. It was just a thing that happened and again, it was a case of feeling good when something came off. Each one in his own way feeling as though he had pulled off a successful painting. We saw a lot of each other then. I would say we were very close. We still see each other but we’ve all gone different ways. We’re still friends, good friends, still interested in each other’s type of work but at that time we were younger, we liked to drink together and play around together and talk to each other.”

Dorr Bothwell is just as emphatic. “Well, yes, it was obvious,” she said. “There was a school of painting developed on the Coast in those years, in those four years, from 1946 to 1950. It was a unified thing. It was a real thing. It was interesting, too, how that thing grew. It never would have happened that way if it hadn’t been for Douglas MacAgy because these things have to be explained and when you look back in history, you see that Clive Bell did certain work for art, for modern art, and MacAgy did the same thing for this school of painting. It had repercussions all over because they used to call it the School of San Francisco in Paris when I was there in 1951.

“Before that there certainly was a deadness. There was a deadness in the overall picture, yes. Underneath that it was sort of like winter when everything is growing but it’s underneath the snow and everybody was searching for their own particular way of doing things. I think there was a lot of underground searching going on. There were many people who were satisfied with what they were doing and were just letting it go on. But I know for myself and some of my friends, we were right in there. We knew we couldn’t go any further this way but we didn’t know what we wanted and we were trying all sorts of things. Yes, it was in the air, definitely in the air. It was in the air to throw everything over, to make a new start and, of course, this was the thing, the war was over and everybody wanted to make a new start.”

“Certainly one of the things that I think was important was that there was a West Coast or San Francisco School of art that developed then under the influence particularly of Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko,” Jorge Goya said. “I feel it developed quite independently from the New York School, although both of them were somehow involved in the idea of non-objective art. In general, I would say that the San Francisco painting had a more earthy organic quality about it than the New York School which was more intellectual in the kind of things it was making and talking about. The difference is like if you happened to run into a girl at the Cedar Bar and took her home or if you run into a girl in a hay field and have a romp. It amounts to the same thing in a way but, you know, there is a different kind of thing involved. I feel that there was a great deal of difference. I think it’s rather blurred now. There has been what you might call an acculturation that has taken place but at the same time, I think there was a good deal of difference. The San Francisco School generally did not have as much of a historical reference as the New York School. The New York School was, I think, very involved historically with French painting and grew out of French painting. On the one hand trying to extend it in some way and on the other hand, battling it. On the West Coast out came Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko who were dead set against French painting. They were utterly opposed to the French traditions in painting. So they yakked, yakked, yakked against it and the students picked up this opposition to something but none of us were sophisticated enough to know what French painting was so we formed an opposition to something but it wasn’t French painting. See what I’m driving at? The New York School formed an opposition to French painting-but the San Francisco School didn’t because they didn’t know that much about it. So there certainly was a difference, I think. All kinds of strange childhood haunts and fantasies got into the painting out there. Spooks. It doesn’t make it bad painting but that was it, you know. I think it had a very fresh, important quality. I look back on it, not with nostalgia, but as a very interesting period in American painting. In much the same sense as the Hudson River School, some kind of a little pocket of something going on. I think there is a possibility of our looking back at that period in San Francisco as that kind of little pocket and seeing all kinds of things that might be pulled out of that.”

Edward Dugmore said, “I don’t know what would have happened if I’d stayed in New York. I’ve often thought of that. I would have been an East Coast painter instead of being considered a West Coast painter and I say to that, ‘Yeah.’ Because I think there is a definite difference in the schools. If there is such a thing you want to call a school, there is a difference. In the ideas that came out of New York and what came out of there. The forms are different. It’s hard to explain. It’s personal because everyone had their personal way. That was the idea but still the environment did something plus the kinds of people you encountered. And Still opened it. Not his painting. The painting again was a personal thing but he opened the idea. You had more freedom to explore, to explore some other dimensions that you took a wild shot at maybe. And you had the chance to refine it or not, you know. Because it was rough. A lot of that stuff done out there was rough. The paintings were rough. There wasn’t much refinement to them, that was for sure. It was a rugged thing. It wasn’t action painting either. That came later in a way, as far as a movement. But I do know that as far as what was happening out there and what was happening here, there was a damned big difference. There was a difference in attitude, a difference in the projection of ideas.”

“Well, I don’t know,” Ernest Briggs said. “Jack Jefferson and Dugmore and myself were probably the only people who were really heavily influenced by Still in both plastic and ideological ways. Other people who studied with him, certainly someone like John Hultberg, were influenced in an intellectual, ideological way but not a plastic way. That held true for most of the people who came out of the class. Most people couldn’t accept that kind of narrow, rigorous plastic idea. But some of the painting had a definitely peculiar plastic quality that nobody in New York was involved with. I remember when I first got here in 1953 there was a Whitney Annual which in those days was a good representation of what was going on in New York and it seemed to me that everybody in New York was involved in painting problems, making a good looking painting and incorporating all the surface effects of the past, whereas most of us in California weren’t very knowledgeable and certainly weren’t involved in art as history. Therefore the effects that we got and strove for, in fact, we’re pretty brutalized. Therefore the work did have a kind of definite character. I know when I had my first show at the Stable Gallery here Rothko used the word ‘brutal’ about the large paintings I showed and he didn’t mean it in a nasty way. He meant that they lacked graciousness and refinement. It was a kind of wildness and delight, rather than harmonic effects.

“In terms of the painting we hadn’t any idea, of course, about what was going on and New Yorkers likewise didn’t have any real idea of what had gone on at the school. The big thing that I came up against here was the fact that guys like Bill de Kooning and Arshile Gorky really did exist and had a tremendous impact. I felt that they were really the New York painters. Even Pollock was still a kind of stranger in terms of painting in New York. His was really the kind of painting that nothing can come out of. I mean, he did it and that’s that, whereas Gorky comes out of Miró and Picasso and is a tradition-minded painter painting pictures. Bill de Kooning is still painting paintings, even though he can’t finish them. That’s his crisis thing; I felt that’s what they were doing in New York, painting paintings and they didn’t want to stop. They wanted to go on. They liked French painting and they wanted to like it. They didn’t see anything wrong with it. I felt that there hadn’t really been any kind of enthusiasm for, nor understanding of the idea, the possibility of a new kind of painting, one that steered clear of the geometrics and the Bauhaus and the deterministic kinds of ideas and which evaded most of the surface qualities and decorative qualities or illustrational qualities of the past. This idea wasn’t really a very big idea at all. When you got to know someone like Pollock and his attitudes, you realized that he didn’t really give a damn about any new kind of painting. He was just doing what he was doing as best he could. He liked French painting too. This orientation towards a radical idea which has other implications such as making painting over,making society over, making life over, that kind of orientation is for nuts in New York. New York is too big, too organized,. too much. You harbor such notions at your own peril. Great for entertainment. Nobody cared and as long as you don’t get paranoid, they figure that’s OK but it didn’t have any real central importance to most of the people here. It still doesn’t because it’s a threat to anyone’s future as a human being to consistently endorse such notions and carry them to any logical conclusions. They get steamrollered. That was somewhat of a disappointment but my first involvements with galleries and showing made me feel that I could hold a position consistently and demonstrate an attitude through the work and sort of propagandize for those notions of a kind of radical departure in terms of painting where it wouldn’t be easily assimilated into the ultimate art-cultural scene. That is, to make them rough enough so they wouldn’t become handsome little additions to the mantelpiece. Make them personal enough so they didn’t proclaim the tradition of the Renaissance and European painting. I felt that those notions had validity since I grew up on the West Coast and didn’t really know anything or care much about European painting.

“But in a very circuitous manner Still did influence painting in New York. I suppose the first people to feel the threat of his work were guys like Matta and that generation. After all, it was Pollock and Rothko and Still who killed off the Surrealists in this town, upstaged them and wiped them out, sent them right back to Paris. It took me years to understand that that’s what the fight is about. That’s what the war is about in the art world. How you unseat the reigning king. I always thought that New York was big enough so that you could have a real big scene but there’s only one spotlight so the whole thing really is how do you kill the bunch that are up there now. And, of course, once you read art history in terms of the gossip and the public relations instead of in terms of the painting and sculpture achievements, you see that it has always been this way. It’s because there is so damned little in the way of reward. It’s standard procedure but, as I say, it took me a long time to figure it out. That’s really what it’s all about. Of course, now it’s what somebody called galloping pragmatism. De Kooning lost the throne. Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns sent him right to heaven.”

Jack Jefferson said, “I think there was a quality about West Coast painting that was different. Maybe there wasn’t right at the first but as these people developed more and more, it came into the painting. I’ve always felt that in a lot of it there was a richer, to me, more sensual thing. Whether this comes from the environment, I don’t know.”

Asked if there had been anything around that he would consider action painting then, Jefferson said, “Not then. I think this came later. And I think that’s pretty well gone now. It seems to me that the gesture really came to a standstill. At least for me, visually it’s not enough. After that initial gesture, what? I don’t think there’s too much of it around now. I think the painting of the ’40s was characterized by a more fumbling, cruder kind of effort. It didn’t seem to have any relation to action painting. This was an offshoot at the time when people got more adept at handling that space. I never felt that the kind of consideration went into it that was in the earlier work. This is still a personal reaction. For me, this came too close to calligraphy. I know this is what some of them wanted. But I don’t know. I felt that it was empty.”

“I think the painting had a stamp,” Madeline Martin said. “I think it looked pretty much alike, except for somebody like McChesney who always looked different from everybody else. But the rest of it had a definite stamp, I think. It had a relation. I don’t think I’ve gotten away from it yet. I don’t think my painting is too individual. It’s from a background, I’m afraid. It’s enough to make you want to give it up for a while, which I do, because I get sort of discouraged. Anyway, I had this painting that I was crazy about. I sold it too, later. But it was in the living room and I forgot who it was, nobody I knew. But somebody who had been in California and knew all about the school came to the house to see us for some other reason. He was looking at the painting and somebody said, ‘Well, Madeline went for a few years to CSFA,’ and he said, ‘Obviously.’ It sounds rude but it wasn’t. I didn’t mind.”

Ed Corbett returned to San Francisco in 1947 after being in the army, the merchant marine and New York and about his reaction, he said, “I thought the painting in San Francisco was good. I was happy to get back and I saw McChesney’s work and I saw Hassel Smith and made contact with Byron Randall and our friends. I thought things were really moving and as it turned out, they were. It seemed tentative at first but I found the whole thing stimulating. My work changed. I was very subservient to Mondrian, imitative, which was something I had to work out. I began to try a different direction. I found the Mondrian thing too rigorous. In other words, I couldn’t approach Mondrian. That sort of thing is hopeless. I was interested in offbeat colors, strange. Frankenstein, when he came into the Artist Guild Gallery and looked at one of my paintings, said, ‘Is he trying to make us sick?’ But today with Op and Pop and all of that it would look tame as hell.

“The impact of the painters working in San Francisco, the faculty of the school and the students, was quite pronounced and it was a kind of reassurance that I could tackle something that perhaps could be my own way of painting after having absorbed a lot of influences. I think the thing that impressed me most was that many painters in San Francisco were in a sense admitting that idiosyncrasy could have some value, assuming that it wasn’t ignorant idiosyncrasy. Hassel, for instance, when he stopped his landscape painting and did those fantastic drip paintings, sort of busting loose, which I thought was a very good thing. It was fun. The idea of going on being a petty Cézanne or a petty Mondrian or a pastiche Picasso and that sort of thing was clearly over and it was a time for risk regardless of the outcome and I think the best things that have come out of that period are precisely from that attitude. Risk. Take a chance. Fall on your face but at least, be. I think that’s what impressed me. It’s hard to live up to that kind of idea but I think it was there and I think some of the best American painting ever done was the result of it.”

Asked if he thought West Coast painting of that time was different from that in New York, Corbett said, “Yes, for fairly simple reasons. I don’t think we were directly exposed to European influences. After all, Gorky and de Kooning are European painters in my book. I mean, they show more strongly the influence of French painting, of Braque, Juan Gris, Picasso, Matisse. There is more direct influence. So by sheer geographical removal I think we developed differently. I say ‘we.’ I don’t know if I belong in this group. But this was in the ’40s and ’50s. After about 1950 or so I would say that the New York School became prominent and many Western painters went to the East. I think the cultural difference or the esthetic difference or whatever you want to call it was gradually lost. It was very short-lived but I do think there was something to it. I think the French were right with their “École du Pacific” but it was only brief. It was so brief that it is hardly worth historical mention but it did happen, in my opinion.”

About his reaction to New York painting when he went there in 1952 for his show at the Museum of Modern Art, Corbett said, “The trouble is I don’t really know because I didn’t meet many painters. I saw Reinhardt again and then I ran into the California crowd. I met Pollock and Tomlin but I didn’t know them well enough to get much of an impression of personality. I had a suspicion that perhaps New York painters who had come into prominence were a little stuffy and a little cocksure of themselves, of their reputations and so on. The better known ones. Of course, over the years I’ve noticed that there is a tendency in New York on the part of painters to think that painting could only happen in New York. You know, you’ve got to be there on the scene or you couldn’t possibly do anything really interesting. And we might have been guilty of a touch of that in the Bay Area at one time. I had some impressions of the toughness of the business world. I know that it is highly competitive and probably ruthless, the usual impressions of that sort. But I really haven’t had too much experience. I’ve only been with the one gallery, Borgenicht, and that has been a good gallery for the 14 years I’ve been there.”

Regarding the reception of his work in New York, Corbett said, “I don’t think it was ever any great shucks. I think it was received well in some quarters and with complete indifference or dislike in others. I don’t think it was especially interesting to painters but then again, I don’t know.”

Speaking of the difference between post-war European and American painting, Corbett said, “In Europe it was mostly a stagnation. Or to me, it was. That was the most noticeable effect of the war. Possibly it was because of the influence of Picasso. I don’t like to blame everything on Picasso but the so-called giants of European painting might have had an inhibiting effect on the young painters or painters who might otherwise have cut loose in different directions. But they lived with those examples of guile and cleverness and graceful design and for the most part phony innovation. My God, that could be crushing. But I’m only guessing. What the hell? I’ve never been to Europe and I’ve talked to very few European painters. But they’re like institutions. Picasso is an institution. He’s not a man.

“I think the situation is lousy here but although it may be unpleasant and it may be pure hell for some people in this country, I’d still rather have it the way we have it. I don’t like to see anybody knocked down or humiliated by critics or that sort of thing. I don’t really like it but on the other hand, I detest these eminences of modern art who go on year after year with complete, utter acceptance when they are not earning it.”

Quite a few of the artists feel that the West Coast painting was different because of the difference in the country.

“All sorts of things enter into these differences,” Robert McChesney said. “Environment has a great deal to do with it. Living in the heart of New York, in that great mass of mess back there, turmoil, poverty, all sorts of action, muggings, buggings and everything else, this would influence an artist to go in a particular direction. Whereas out here, you have this tremendous climate, tremendous landscape, open spaces. Very few artists who lived around San Francisco didn’t get out into the countryside once in a while and San Francisco is entirely different from New York. Very clean, hilly. These things make impressions and influence the artist.”

John Hultberg saw a similar influence at work. “One thing you’ve got to say about this whole school of painting is that it is very subjective. Completely. Abstract Expressionism in New York was subjective and this was too. There is a certain way of painting which people don’t use now but I think they’ll go back to and whether it started in New York or San Francisco, I don’t know. To me it’s something that has to do with nature. At all times. It’s very close to nature. Not nature copied but nature felt. Mark Tobey did it. Morris Graves did it. Edward Weston in his photography did it. Using shapes and forms of nature, vegetable forms, tree forms, the bole of a tree. The bark of a tree, that could be a whole painting. You put tremendous weight on that. You give that all the emphasis. I don’t say it’s figurative. It’s in terms of feeling. It would be part of nature, like a rock, wind, rain. You could feel the rain, feel the wind in it. Morris Graves, I think, does that. Mark Tobey. Carl Morris a little bit in the Northwest. The opposite, say, of someone like Rico Lebrun. Even though some of those artists were influenced by Picasso.

“In New York, painting is more artificial, symbolistic. Someone like Motherwell or Gottlieb, you look at a picture and it’s very startling and it’s very European. He’s very influenced by Miró for instance. Gottlieb is. All those people. Stamos and Baziotes were a little closer to nature. In the West I would say there is much more influence of nature just in itself. You know, nature as a comforting thing. The earth. You feel that in the poetry out there too, in Jeffers, Rexroth. As I say, people in New York didn’t understand that too much. They never did. For them painting is some kind of artifice. Composing reality abstractly rather than painting nature non-objectively. There’s a big difference there between boiling nature down into forms and building nature up into non-form. I feel that in Still’s work.

“In California I felt that what we were doing was organic, nature painting in a way. It represented part of nature. You can imagine some of the stuff we were painting, not myself, but Still, as painting of parts of nature. Sort of that Edward Weston thing. Photograph a rock so it looks like an abstraction which was just the opposite of the organized canvas that was popular in Europe, nature abstracted. I think it was unconscious.

“Someday someone will ‘discover’ it the way they ‘discovered’ Dadaism. They’ll probably go back to this when it gets old-fashioned enough so that it can be fashionable again. Maybe the next class from Yale. But anything that’s publicized in the press immediately is destroyed. I think about the people who never switched, who always stayed in one way of painting. You know, we never switched. We always had the same idea. We didn’t have to jump around from style to style. I never did. McChesney never did. But in New York that’s what people do. Students are more interested in success than they are in poetry or subjective ideas. Maybe they were lucky out there not to have a marketplace, in San Francisco. It’s a hard life but maybe you stick closer to your ideals. Of course, when he’s young an artist can do it but later on, he must have rewards for his work.

“By the time he reaches 40 or 50 he must have some kind of remuneration for what he has done, for the struggle. A person can be taken up when they’re very young, idolized, then thrown on the ash heap. That’s what happens sometimes. That can be very bad. So I think there’s a reason most of these artists out there don’t want to come to New York. That’s my feeling. They don’t feel the marketplace isa consideration. They get much more out of the land, where they come from, California. Even though they don’t have much money and have to struggle, it’s easier to struggle there. To me the West will always have something special the East doesn’t have, sort of a serenity in the land. You feel it. In the East I don’t feel it at all. Even if I go to the land here, I don’t feel it. I feel pretty bad. It’s not my country.”

Comparing the Art Students League with the California School of Fine Arts in those days, Hultberg said, “It was a freer style of painting in San Francisco because at the League you were taught to paint very tightly. You made a sketch. There was a model there. That’s what they did. Either that or they did something completely different like some guy who did magic realist painting. Danny Malone. He took six months to paint a picture this big. Leprechauns. Whatever. Then Rauschenberg would be in the corner doing something else with his flour sack. Then some guy named Martin who painted 90 foot pictures and everybody had to clear out when he painted. The place was really a madhouse, everybody doing their own style. There was much more variety than in San Francisco. Things they had never heard of out there. But then, if I brought anything back, it was a style of painting from San Francisco. I got that from Grillo. He’d stand back about three feet and throw paint at the canvas, let it drip, turn it over. They’d never heard of it in New York.”

Asked if the students there started to do it too, Hultberg said, “No. There was no room. There were too many students in the class. It was really hell. Eighty people. It was a terrible place to paint but we had to do it. We were like prisoners. We were.

“Grillo was sort of a child wonder at CSFA. ‘That’s the boy who was going to go places.’ His pictures were different. They were very yellow, red, orange, very decorative and very explosive, beautiful. Mostly watercolors. Then the moment he got to New York, he changed his style completely. Just the opposite. To a Mondrian neoconstructivism. I just saw his pictures the other day and he has sort of gone back to his early style. I like his work very much. It’s frankly decorative and it’s beautiful. It makes me feel good. I enjoy his work. He doesn’t try to be profound. In San Francisco most of us always painted dark. You know that joke that Varda used to tell? First there was Still painting dark, then there was Stillman, painting a little darker, then there was Stillmanovsky who painted even darker. It was almost all black. Finally, Stillmanopolis who painted completely black. I was always trying to get a very dark black. I love black. I like to paint around black, out from black but Varda was dead opposed to all our painting. ‘You are journalists,’ he would say. ‘You just paint what you see, the ugliness of the world. You should paint paradise.’ I always liked his painting very much. It wasn’t my kind of painting, too Mediterranean but some of it I liked. I had to do odd jobs and finally I found myself working for Varda. He was always giving me fatherly advice. He used to say, ‘I’m suffering from a terrible disease. Good health.’ He was delightful. We had more fun with him on his boat. But, gee, life was so carefree in those days in California.

“There was a school of painting out there then and it probably all came from Clyfford Still. That’s my guess. I tried to resist it as much as possible but I felt it. It came through other artists. I studied with Clyfford Still for a little while, I guess a semester, and I liked him very much but I couldn’t understand what he was saying or what he was getting at. I felt stupid, like he was in some kind of ninth circle or something and I was way down there. Later on he talked to me several times. When I had a certain amount of success in Europe, he gave me some advice. ‘Stay away from cranks. Stay away from art galleries.’ Sort of like Robinson Jeffers or Ezra Pound. ‘As this America sinks into the mold of its vulgarity.’ That’s how the Jeffers poem goes.”

Some of the artists did not think there was any West Coast School of painting. Clay Spohn said, “The West Coast painting was not too different. You see, Rothko and Still and these other people came out there and made them aware of the East Coast so they started looking these things up and were influenced by them, by the East Coast. Everybody tried to make out that the school was distinctive but I don’t think anything started out there that was much different. No.”

“Formally, in the form, in the ideas generated, I don’t think the painting differed very much. No,” Jim Kelly said. “But it had the stamp of its locality, for instance, in the colors or the values of the colors, things like that. It seems corny but I think the light had a lot to do with it and when I was out there working in the San Francisco Museum, the stuff that came in from New York for traveling shows always had brighter colors, more intense color. It was not necessarily stuff you would like but the color saturation was greater. The stuff on the West Coast was a little bit foggy. That’s not detrimental. Softer. It was softer. Not as contrasty. It had an all-over, more homogenous look than the stuff that came from New York.”

“I keep hearing the remark that because we’re closer to Asia, that is to China and Japan, that there is a difference but I think that is just curatorial baloney,” John Saccaro said. “I think that it nobody signed the paintings and you took a mixed group of New York and San Francisco painters and put them in the Midwest someplace and sent people in there to pick out the different parts of the country the artists came from, nobody would be able to do it. We were all after the same thing, I think. And what I mean by after the same thing is that we were all after what is occult energy to me. But a lot of painters got mixed up in action painting, the actual going up to the canvas and making a mark on it. That was the big thing with a lot of painters. You never made a move, according to Freudian principles, you couldn’t do anything without some subconscious or unconscious idea in mind. If you made a drip, you made a drip because you wanted it for subconscious or unconscious reasons. Well, I never went along with that. I thought you had to be damned conscious and to struggle like hell to get a moving feeling to come off that canvas.”

Peter Shoemaker also did not think the paintings were very different but he did mention the possibility of an influence from the Orient. He said, “I think different people painted different kinds of paintings and I don’t think there was any style that was overriding and applied to everybody. People I knew at the school were all fairly autonomous in terms of their work. I mean, they weren’t interchangeable paintings really. Some of the students naturally became enmeshed in certain instructors’ styles and copied them rather slavishly but among the people I knew and respected, they were pretty individualistic. I don’t think there were any people who were too close to Jackson Pollock who was certainly very well established at that time. I mean, stylistically. Still and Rothko were more the big guns.

“I think they, or rather we, were inside the painting as such without having any vanishing point or perspective. We started working from within it or over it, out from it, and the surface wasn’t something that was bounded as such while you were in the painting itself. Any area of a painting is equally valid irrespective of whether it, you know, goes in or out or whatever, in terms of the space. It was more of an Oriental idea actually, as such. Things sort of happen in a flux. I think they wanted to sort of break the historical chain of what art styles had led up to and just get right into it. Not be concerned with the formalism which was the heritage of Europe in terms of art. In other words, the formal considerations of space, the vanishing point and all that stuff.”

“Some kind of interpenetration of personalities and ideas took place then, some of which didn’t germinate for a while,” William Morehouse said. “But I don’t think there is any kind of catholic school of West Coast painting. You can’t just geographically categorize. Most of them, in one fashion or another, passed through the school during that period of years. As students or faculty or just took a class, you know, in and out of it.

“I don’t believe there was as much awareness of New York as there is now. You know, of what the New York scene is. New York was still the magic center at that time. At least, that was the feeling that I got. There was a sense that this was a province and that New York was the big center but I don’t think there was as much orientation towards New York as there is now in the Bay Area.”

Jim Weeks saw the period more as a part of the general social situation and said, “I think this coincided with the seriousness of American painting. I mean, it coincided with the seriousness of people painting after the war. Though I’m not sure what got what started. I think the war just cut everything down that had occurred before, just stopped everything and people were not happy with social realism or the American scene painting, that sort of provincial thing that American painting had been. I was thoroughly traditional as a painter in those days so that I didn’t react as violently to the past as some other people did but I did react in the sense that I felt I could no longer accept it as I had before the war.”

Ray Parker was one of the few artists around then who had been on both coasts and he said, “I think the guys in New York knew what was happening and knew one another. They were aware of the events. In both areas there was a pretty interesting awareness, you know, of the issues and of the values. Mostly people get on a kick and they’re having experiences that are fulfilling and it’s great to do. I’m sure that everybody has a certain historical awareness and they may be involved with rebelling too. I remember Corbett’s complaint about what he called the ‘piss pot and pepper mill’ school of painting. Which meant, if I understood him correctly, that he was, at least, not at all interested in still life. Mainly the paintings I remember of his were black and whites in which he had been involved at just about the same time that some people in New York were involved with black and white. You know, as a new form of reduction, as a kind of tremendous lopping off of possibilities or things that had been possible in painting previously.

“A lot of people at that time had an attitude that was characterized by a kind of independence, I call it. It had to do with intention so the idea was to do work which was not similar to others. On the contrary, you were supposed to do things which were singular and special, determined, right? It was an act of will. Painting something that arose out of your attitude. The idea of influences or traditions in painting as related to the form of painting was regarded, I think, as European if not something else worse. The lineage, the families of painters. All those kinds of connections among the look of paintings were far less important to all those people, I feel, than was the idea that a painter was supposed to make up his mind and be forceful and strong in his own right. I guess it’s paradoxically true, however, and surely it is always that way in painting, that regardless of your awareness or of what your eyes are telling you at a given time, as the years pass and you look back, you find that paintings look, nevertheless, more like one another, between one artist and another, than could have been thought at the time. There were quite a number of painters working in San Francisco whose work gradually began to look a little bit more like a school kind of painting than could ever have been conceived at the time. This is certainly not saying that the painting was any the weaker for it because I think all of that painting was very forceful, very strong, very clear.

“My position is a little peculiar, of course, because I guess I wasn’t connected. What I had been doing was based on a different kind of philosophy entirely. What I did subsequently may have been set off in some way by it but probably they looked more New Yorkish than West Coast in the end. Although people out on the Coast were as hip as anybody as far as music was concerned, it was a different kind of intelligence at work, I think, than in the idea of total improvisation. There was a lot of paint slinging, a lot of energy, a tremendous amount of directness in that way but it pertained to surfaces primarily rather than to any kind of intervals and distributions of rhythms or accumulations or dispersals or the flow of activity.

“Painting was supposed to be revelation as well as an inspired piece of work. I think painters were dedicated to the idea that they could surprise themselves and were against the older idea that paintings were, in a sense, academic, that painting was done by method or done by rule or done according to certain principles. In other words, they would be kind of dead as opposed to paintings which were done on the pulse, which were an outpouring, which were lyrical, which were expressionistic, which were, as a matter of fact, ugly or bizarre. You know, surprising in any number of senses. That was kind of a goal it seemed to me. Often painters talked about disliking canvases that looked too correct or too finished or too beautiful so the rawness or horror of the painting was more important, more highly praised than any kind of painting that looked like it had a history or like it belonged somewhere or looked calculated in any way at all.”

Perhaps John Saccaro’s suggestion is a good one. We might choose Wichita, Kansas, collect samples of all these paintings from the late ’40s, line them up on the courthouse lawn, signatures hidden, stare at them one by one, stare at them collectively, eat a hot dog and a frosty freeze at the corner drugstore, stare at the paintings again and make a decision. But who is the one to look at the paintings and make the decisions? And would it really be worth all that trouble?

The excerpt above is part of a manuscript entitled “A Period of Exploration or Did a San Francisco School of Painting Develop When Douglas MacAgy Was the Director of the California School of Fine Arts From 1945 to 1950?”. The book is composed of excerpts from 32 tape-recorded interviews Mary Fuller McChesney made in San Francisco and in New York in 1965 and 1966 while working on a Ford Foundation grant.