PRINT April 1971

A Centennial in San Francisco

THE FIRST PAINTING TO CATCH my attention in the painting section of the San Francisco Art Institute’s Centennial Exhibition was a great rosy canvas by George Miyasaki. I saw it glowing and I went closer to study it. All of the tonal variations were rosy, coral rose in association with fuchsia rose, subtle colors tuned for optimum vibration. A literary journalist came by and wondered why I was looking at the Miyasaki, and immediately began telling me about a more literary painting that he had just seen. I insisted that he confirm or deny that Miyasaki’s painting was a successful visual illusion of a scent; this hint gave him pause and he looked with curiosity again. I could see that I had a man at my sleeve who would give me insight into the more literary work and at the same time be open-minded enough to look with attention at purely visual work. To puzzle out such a vast show sprawling over the city (with this section at the San Francisco Museum of Art, shows in both other art museums, and the exhibition hall of the Art Institute’s college filled as well) I needed someone to test my reactions against and to assert a counter opinion. Criticism by jury is perhaps appropriate for a juried show such as this. I determined that I would try to find the widest popular opinion. I don’t actually believe in democratic criticism, but I don’t believe in juried exhibitions either, and probably one deserves the other.

The journalist had the daughter of a friend along, about nine, thin, blonde and independent. She wandered away as we discussed Willard Dixon’s photo-like painting of mature youth. It projected well from across the room, but drew one toward it to check the suspicion that the veins in the forehead had really been painted in (Gainsborough did that at times). The particulars of hair and complexion were photographically defined. The eyes were very gray and mysterious, particularly on close inspection. My friend noticed the curious part in the hair, and wondered if it was a man in a wig. I insisted that there seemed to be some evidence that the model had breasts. He supplied me with the word “amphigenous” which he said needed its day in print, and was a splendid word which had to do with sexual indeterminacy. The Dixon piece is probably photo-projection, or, if not, is surely an imitation of photography.

Paul Sarkisian’s Untitled (Santa Barbara) is certainly photo-projection, but he has found a compositional unity which gives the piece a very planned look, too. The animal skull is at center top, the porch rails slant down at the reverse of the skull’s angles, the fork of the bicycle echoes the railings’ angles, the bike’s frame echoes the angle of the watering can; the attention to detail is unrelieved: the moire pattern in the screen is preserved. The parts of the painting are exactly life sized. It is black and yellow, which makes it look chartreuse, which is very similar to another Sarkisian (reproduced in Artforum earlier in the year) which preserved the details of another shack, but used another yellow. My journalist friend wondered about the reflections in the window—was that the bank burning off in the distance? I demurred, and suggested that the reflections in the window were pastoral, and observed that the crack in the opposite window shifted the reflection of the sky. The child thought that Sarkisian’s immense painting was very nice. Two ladies who were viewing the picture at a distance, but within earshot, gave me this judgment, “I think I have been there.” And the reply, “It seems right here.”

Photo-projection as a method to replace drawing seems to be winning the day, if we can trust the evidence of this show. (Photo-projection is a specific process only inasmuch as it involves the use by the artist of a photo or collage of photos projected on a painting surface. How it is handled beyond that point is up to the individual artist, and this show contained as many innovations on how to paint the projected image as there were artists working with the technique.) The viewers were often discussing, as a controversial issue, whether the artist should be forced to draw. An artist with a distinguished salt-and-pepper beard and eyes a twinkle behind his spectacles told me it would suit him fine if everyone but him gave up drawing. Then he would be a star. “Besides,” said he, “we have accepted photography as an art; let them do it if that’s where they think it’s at.” I had thought the issue had been resolved way back when a multitude of artists first held the conviction that one could drop subject matter, work abstractly. And then there was abstract drawing. Drawing is making a plan, a chart or a diagram; all art must have a more simplified aspect at the beginning of its process, which can be called drawing. Drawing is dead. Long live drawing.

Susan Leach’s Uncle Robert and the Ice Cream Dog is like a blow-up of some old snapshot from a drawer. Several people joined the dialogue about Uncle Robert. “That’s not the Victor Talking Machine dog, it’s too fat.” “It’s just older.” “Robert and the dog must be looking at TV.” “No, they didn’t have TV then.” The picture had the looser-fitting clothes of the—forties? The couch is dark crimson plastic, the composition classical, Uncle Robert is looking back .at you. The man in his forties said in a serious voice, “It’s funny now but would you laugh in a week?” His wife knew that she would.

There were quite a few animal and animistic paintings in this show. Joan Brown’s The Bride holds a mirror lip to a reality where a pussy is gowned for her wedding with an extra-textured rat in attendance, and a veritable aquarium of fish swim in the bright blue sky. The wedding takes place in a field of poppies.

The critical jurors all paid attention to Mark Greenwold’s Spanish Mediterranean Bedroom but the remarks seemed to be about how much they hated the painting. I thought it was a pretty nice picture. The journalist explained that the people were all wax dummies or why else would they look so interiorized? “Not wax, perhaps plastic,” someone corrected him.

The artist juror (his own work is representational) told me to definitely include a reproduction of the Jerry Ballaine entitled Sand System #2; he thought it should be reproduced in color, “. . . because in this piece color is light, the part that is pink is also blue if you move your head an inch and the plexiglass was heated and stood on its edge to cool.” He made a firm gesture of putting it down on its edge. I had a paranoid twinge for a moment and thought he was parodying my sort of writing, but no, I believe he was quite ingenuous Ballaine’s image is very strong. This is the truth, he seems to be saying, projecting believable things that need no proving. It is anti-illusional, though illusion and reality are mixed up here, and a photo really won’t help, because the lacquer on the textured surface reads blue on one side and pink on the other, actual opposites both seeable through the plastic, but caused by the crystalline structure of the melted plastic which refracts the one to its vibrant complement in the reflection. It has an observable density. It is nothing but itself.

The largest piece in the show was Point View by Jack Barth. It commanded one end of the show with an image that was dramatic from 100 feet away. It is a paper collage with several thicknesses of heavy paper in various colors, plus black carbon paper, each of which had been printed by cable marks in various colors, each in a pattern similar to the other before they were assembled on top of one another and ripped into counter slashing forms; it looked like running and its dust. “The collage equivalent to action painting,” said a chance juror with his hands deep in his pockets. I paused and examined Jack Chipman’s Adharma 10. It was ten ribbons of canvas of different widths and with different widths between the ribbons. The colors were very creamy, each ribbon all one color except the edges, which revealed a flaxen brown. The ribbons were just the right length for the museum wall—or could it be unrolled even longer? It looked like a piece to be rolled and unrolled, which makes a good curtain for the jury of their peers who examined the painting show, so I went to the sculpture section at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.

The Art Institute’s sculpture section had been installed in the lobby, a room which is more usually used for the De Young’s social affairs. The tapestries had been removed, but of course the choir stalls from some European church are permanently installed there. A plastic woman taking a plastic shower bath was stood on the step of the choir paying no heed to the grimacing faces in the venerable carving. The room was piled as full as a warehouse. The numbers of people who saw the show were much larger than it would have been because the Van Gogh show was also there. They were not always attentive. Several had pushed the sculpture aside and were sitting on the pedestals to rest. That is the cruelest kind of a jury; they were paying modern art the same inattention that Van Gogh’s contemporaries had tendered him. I intended to look very carefully at everything, but on the third go around I was still finding things I hadn’t noticed before. I asked the folk jury to get up so I could examine the evidence they were shielding. As I describe the work I may have to omit some of the names, because the labels were often too scuffed to read, or even absent altogether. Someone wondered out loud if this show had been originally planned for the space occupied by the Van Gogh show. It would have been easier to see if there had been room; it might have been more interesting if it had been possible to isolate the pieces so one was not always looking at least at two works at once. In other words, I suspect that it was a more interesting show than it seemed.

Arlo Acton’s great titanium ball was not swinging as a pendulum, as I have seen them do in the past, but was sitting above the choir loft in an architectural niche, like a mirrored eye surveying the sculptural maze. Even higher was William Soghor’s ham-shaped balloon hanging down from the ceiling. A string from Acton’s ball ended in a plastic disc encasing his post card from Italy informing the exhibition jurors, “Have ball, will swing.”

The throng was very interested in opening the door of Robert Casamajor’s Hot Box, which was a refrigerator whose door turned on a veritable box of neon signs when opened. Various other neon or light works didn’t seem to be working, and seemed to be stored in a seal-ed off hallway. A young couple were tenderly kissing in this relatively unoccupied part of the exhibition. Obviously some viewers had lifted Wayne E. Campbell’s Burden Equalling the Artist’s Weight; the materials were listed as “rock and gravity” with no mention of the oily gunk the stone had been soaked in; no one lifted it while I was watching, but there were many greasy finger marks around it testifying to the appeal of the piece. Bruce Beasley’s Suzanne’s Window was up against the wall so that very few seemed to realize that it was a distortion lens; many people would have loved to look through this rectangle of plastic with multiple concavities. There was no room left to sign one’s name on William Wiley’s Manhood Test; names were already on top of names. There was a tin barbell on a leash above the place to sign, and some had signed the barbell; the instructions were, “If you have the strength sign your name.” The viewers were beating the hell out of Henry Adams’ nicely turned bell (Sound Prism) with the hammer handily provided. The bell had apparently been made from a gas canister of the sort one normally associates with an acetylene torch, the bottom removed and the rest turned down to varying thicknesses to modulate the tone. I made calculations as an effort to replace my jury with a statistical plebiscite, since this was not a very conversational crowd. I noticed that approximately 20% had been willing to participate in participation sculpture (out of 100 observed). Many stopped to look rather than observing as they continued to walk. Almost 50% seemed happy, laughed, grinned or gave other signs of pleasure as a reaction to the participation works, and I could find no one who was genuinely shocked or made angry, though several who looked puzzled retreated after a very brief survey. It did make a confusing scene. I stumbled over John Saccaro’s Soma which was two plastic hoses containing a substance which was pinkish as seen through the plastic. Saccaro makes this his debut as a sculptor, having been a painter and collagist up till now. (A painter putting paint back into the tube?)

Bread was one of the items which came in for a conceptual overhaul, but remained less touchable. Tony Costanzo’s bread was gold plated, as were the plate and knife that were fastened to it by the plating process, and was entitled For People With Expensive Taste; it shared space with Joan Dyett’s Clothed Loaves, which was a bread basket with a close-fitted and knitted top, with holes, which snugly kept the bread from getting cold. If art must by definition be useless, perhaps this piece stretches the definition, though now that the commodity makers are inventing new “necessities” in such proliferation the artist is sometimes hard pressed to know the boundary line. Knapsack by Marilyn Levine was apparently cast from the live leather model into stoneware clay; even the leathery glaze conspires to persuade one that it is indeed the leather knapsack Warren Garrick’s Nemesis Of Diana Oughton looked very much like what one might suspect was a homemade bomb, crimped together with tin cans and wires. The fact that it did not tick made me feel that the artist had missed an obvious opportunity to project his image with greater reality.* Railroad Tie With Eight Spikes and Carrying Case had a full-length zipper and handles to lug it at each end. This dandy gandy-dancers’ afternoon kit was provided by Ruth Tamura.

One of the sealed-off hallways was sealed off by a screen to receive the projected succession of still shots which implied the action between, and carried the story line in jumps, of James Melchert’s concept sculpture: a young man and woman face a white barrier, it is paper, it gets cut into horizontal parallels with a scissors, then each strip of paper between the cut lines gets cut vertically, but irregularly, and when the barrier is down, the two walk through and down the hall, disappearing in opposite directions at the next juncture of hall. The barrier was still there for us. No one said a word.

Still Works didn’t look like any other Robert Hudson I had ever seen. It had a clamp and plunger on a functional looking box which was strapped fast to three thicknesses of plastic/glass, the top one of which had been shattered into a random but regular pattern. The shatter pattern revealed some information about the material that would have been ambiguous in the clear sheet. It was mounted on wheels. No one said a word. Instead of, “A thing is what it does” (William James), the message might read “A thing is what you do to it.”

I went to the Palace of the Legion of Honor to see what I could do about the Graphics Section of the Centennial. There was no other critical jury but me. I exchanged pleasantries with a curator who had helped install the show, who informed me that he thought the examples were excellent, but that the show contained no surprises. I listened to the wise counsel of the guard who assured me that many people had been through the show and cautioned me not to touch the work. The photo-projectionists had stormed this sanctuary, too. The most well known of the Bay Area photo-projectionists, Gerald Gooch, was represented by eight lithos on a single page (only one entry per entrant) of the photographer Gerald Burchard pouring a pitcher of water over his own head. Photo, drawing and lithography were each just aspects of the resulting work. Tom Vail’s use of photography in a graphic work was quite different from that of Gooch. A face had been caught moving in a snapshot, the face seen directly and moving into a profile silhouette, printed as a screen of dots, the part cropped and magnified—presumably a cropped blow-up from a larger reproduction with another intention and aspect entirely from the head-moving excerpt. Charles Gill had cut up and blown up the well-known Eadweard Muybridge serial photos of action, juxtaposing the man in jockstrap doing the manual of arms with the ladies having tea in the nude. Another brand new antique was Patricia Benson’s American Indian #2, with crisply raised intaglio for the frame as well as the white parts of the chief’s regal attire; blacks and grays were printed flat for the face and parts of the costume. This strong image of a pre-treaty red man is probably more firmly printed into the visual memory of people who saw this show than any other single work. And, as another curtain for this act, Ahde K. Lahti has printed a drawing of a window on a real yellow window shade.

The photography section of the show was held in the exhibition hall of the Art Institute. Many of the photographs were out of focus to achieve a more impressionistic effect, curiously opposite from the painters’ attempts at sharp focus realism and the sculptors’ casts of accurately textured real objects. The photography jury had interpreted the single entry clause to mean that the group of photos had to be a closely related series. Thus, the ghostly dog, Honey, in Bill Arnold’s photo was seen with legs sticking up in a freshly dug, but as yet uncovered, grave in another photo; focus sharp; no mention was made of which photo was made first. Jerry Burchard’s photo of Carlos Villa shooting pool would probably be more useful to Tom Vail than to Gerald Gooch.

If the photo question puts the other media into a limbo of uncertainty, it probably firms up the by now well-established case for photography as art. The artists have come back to subject matter and literary concept with a vengeance. Abstraction is in at least partial eclipse. The experimental use of color which the abstractionists have fostered is present in the new work, but probably in a more known and less experimental way. This show, like most juried shows, includes many new names; many known artists will not submit to a jury.

Knute Stiles