PRINT December 1985


Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–80: An Illustrated History.

By Thomas Albright, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985, 349 pp., 118 black and white and 115 color illustrations.

THOMAS ALBRIGHT CAME to his role of documenting the postwar history of Bay Area art with all the advantages and impediments of a man writing a biography of his own family: he was intimately informed as well as profoundly opinionated. This history evokes Albright’s personal relationship to local art from the period a few years prior to his graduation from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956 (with a Phi Beta Kappa in journalism and art history) through his 18-year tenure as critic for the San Francisco Chronicle (during which time he became the area’s most prominent—and eventually most vitriolic—art critic), to a few years before he died, in 1984, shortly after finishing the decade-long effort that produced this tome.

Albright held a deeply moral view of art’s function, and identified strongly with the ethical perspective of the painter who first galvanized the San Francisco art community after the war, Clyfford Still. In his chapter on the artist, Albright might as well be characterizing San Francisco’s cultural spirit when he discusses Still’s sinewy abstractions both as an iconoclast’s tense dialogue between freedom and control and as part of the restless ferment of postwar America, especially in “the highly charged atmosphere of romanticism and rebellion that hung in the dark cement corridors and claustrophobic studios of the California School of Fine Arts,” where Still taught from 1946 to 1950, and where “the mood swung between an almost religious devotion to the idea of Art, and a volatile, anything-goes abandon.” Albright’s analytical range also includes the “visionary” landscapes of Gage Taylor, Bill Martin, Norman Stiegelmeyer, and Sätty, along with euphoric Fillmore Auditorium posters, as two reverberations of San Francisco as the epicenter of the drug-induced “utopian” culture of the ’60s. Numerous documentary photographs—of a young Joan Brown modeling for a class, of a vulnerable Janis Joplin clad only in love beads, of North Beach’s Co-Existence Bagel Shop, of Harold Paris hacking at clay with a saber—as well as reproductions of artwork augment the text, as does the appendix of nearly 700 brief biographical descriptions. The book reveals the number and diversity of artists associated with the Bay Area for either their entire career or a short period. To list a few: Hans Hofmann, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Frank Lobdell, Manuel Neri, Jay De Feo, Bruce Conner, Wayne Thiebaud, Peter Voulkos, Peter Saul, Terry Fox, and William T. Wiley.

Fortunately, Albright’s immersion in the local milieu did not produce a blinding chauvinism: the art is viewed as both a manifestation of situations distinct to the Bay Area and in relation to conceptions of Modernism evident in other metropolitan art centers. His assessment of a fundamental shift in art’s relation to society—from a critique of to an embrace of popular culture, resulting in a homogenization of values—in the ’60s and ’70s is insightful, if characteristically pessimistic. Yet Albright’s final legacy, the affirmation of the power of art, is reiterated throughout the book. In a statement about “funk” attitudes by Conner and Wallace Berman he writes, “ . . . like Kierkegaard’s, [theirs] was not a form of cynicism, but a ‘concealed enthusiasm in a negative age’ . . . they expressed a fundamental reverence for the life of the spirit, and for the power of art to enshrine and communicate it.”

Suzaan Boettger