San Francisco

Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn and Frank Lobdell

California Palace of the Le­gion of Honor

The Bay Area is a com­paratively isolated community, tending toward artistic incest. The particular figurative painting it produces must, when compared, as it should be, with other contemporary exponents, with charity be called second rate beside the work of Bacon, Dubuffet, Balthus, Hopper or Morandi. Yet a “Name Brand” image of San Francisco painting has been created and Bay Area-style neo­-figurative painting crops up like a half­wit relative in regional exhibitions up and down the state. What is the source of the style, and why its persistence? The current exhibition provides a key, of sorts.

The ostensible raison d’etre for this exhibition is an attempt by the Achen­bach Foundation to bring to wider pub­lic attention the drawings of three art­ists of great influence, known primarily for their oil paintings. What it has done in addition is to expose the nerve of an emotional and esthetic agreement among the three which amounts to a cultural triple entente and which has been passed on to a whole younger gen­eration of artists, via their teaching, as an approach, a systematic method, of both drawing and painting. For the very keystone of their collective method is and has been the art of drawing, and if this agreement is less conspicuous in their paintings, which are widely separate in look, this exhibition of draw­ings shows how misleading this sep­arate look can be. The drawings bare the essentials of that similarity of ap­proach which, properly followed through, produces the effect known as “Bay Area Figurative.”

Each artist exhibits, in drawings, his individual concern for space, light, form and, in Bischoff’s case, color. On Bischoff’s wash drawing of a standing fe­male nude is a pronounced quality of color implied by the dark and light grey tones playing across the model’s flesh. His work is the most competent in the academic sense of the word and not uncuriously, the least interesting. Diebenkorn attempts and demands more from his drawings than do either Bischoff or Lobdell; he takes the spectator on little trips into shallow space point­ing out the technical errors, covering unwanted limbs with pencil strokes, asking the viewer, “How do you like the transition from her loins to the bedspread?” Lobdell, on the other hand, tends toward schematic figuration. He renders a woman with a leg caught to her belly and then uses a black wash in the negative space redefining the model’s outline. This device is irritatingly repeated as an easy solution which covers but doesn’t solve.

The most interesting aspect of Lob­dell’s figure drawings is the abstract pattern which disparate body parts form as they are highlighted against dark grounds. This stratagem has been used successfully by Lobdell in the series of paintings exhibited at the De Young Museum some months ago.

The three artists are all involved and serious people with talent. That they are engaged with their respective work at acutely felt levels makes it patently clear that each of the three is capable of far superior results than those displayed.

––James Monte