San Francisco

“Some New Art in the Bay Area”

San Francisco Art Institute

The excellent simplicity of the title of this exhibi­tion is unfortunately belied in a catalog essay by the Institute’s Executive Secre­tary, Fred Martin, which makes a con­siderable to-do of a “post-abstract ex­pressionist art” in the Bay Area, and which, unfortunately, received much more publicity in the local press and the local art world than did the exhibi­tion itself. As a backdrop for Martin’s essay, the exhibition is both arrogant and defensive at the same time. As simply “some new art in the Bay Area,” it is full of exciting developments, ex­cellent examples of the work of many individual artists, and one of the most enjoyable shows to be seen in the area in some time.

The “post-abstract expressionist art” business seems to derive from the fact that pop art elements have begun to appear in some of the work being done by some of the artists in the Bay Area. On the other hand, the pop art “gestalt” has bred a new appreciation of much work which seemed only eccentric and confusing before the pop art movement. This is particularly true of Manuel Neri, for example, whose panel of nine draw­ings, Majic Act, is one of the best works in the exhibition, but which is not significantly different from his work in the past; the new awareness brought by the pop art movement, however, sud­denly makes it much easier to see what he has been getting at. (His painted plaster figures also become less eccen­tric and easier to comprehend in the light of the strange compatibility of the somber and absurd upon which so much of pop art depends.)

Almost nothing in the exhibition, how­ever, falls directly into the category of pop art, or at least into that wing of it which proclaims “I love everything that is most disgusting about America.” (The exception is Mel Ramos, who lavishes considerable care on portraits of comic-strip characters. Having taken his imagery from his reading matter, he takes his technique from Wayne Thie­baud and produces, without difficulty, the worst paintings imaginable.) The simplified image, flat colors and im­personal execution which characterize much of pop art may be observed in the work of Paul Pernish and Hugh Curtis but one suspects that emphasis on these qualities obscures a more con­siderable debt to Leger and, perhaps Stuart Davis. Similarly, the pop art frame of reference distorts the quality of wit contained in Gerd Stern’s Swing­ing Superman. The wit, what there is of it, in pop art, is usually heavy-handed and slapstick: Stern’s highly comical joining of insanely disparate elements draws on a much richer tradition of wit, that of Dada. Another kind of wit is exhibited by Jack Ogden in his paint­ing, “Art,” taken from a group photo­graph of the leaders of the New York school published some years ago in Time Magazine. So faithful is he to the composition of the original photograph, that it is some time before the viewer notes that Ogden has innocently taken liberties: inserted in their midst is a portrait of Picasso (with a rose behind his ear), and a figure, neatly tucked into the lower right hand corner, from Velasquez’ Las Meninas.

Robert Hudson draws on pop art ele­ments to convert one of his sculptures into a zany hot-rod (complete with rear­view mirror). A large eel-shape, which often turns up in his work, (as well as in Neri’s and Geis’s) is here painted a murderous red to make as explicit as possible the comical sexual iconography which is never too far in the background of any exhibition of Bay Area art.

There is no artist in the area working harder than Charles Gill to develop, for himself at least, a significant “post-abstract expressionist” art. In this ex­hibition we find him exploring the pos­sibilities of a serial technique, some­thing like the setting side by side of a series of frames from a reel of film, in a style deriving from Francis Bacon, or Nathan Oliveira. They do not, perhaps, quite come off, but Gill is a painter who will yet find himself.

The implication that the crisis of the times has, if not been overcome, at least staved off, by pop art is not, in sum, borne out by this exhibition. What is borne out is that many Bay Area artists are looking with considerable interest at what pop art has to offer, rejecting most of it with a laugh, accept­ing some of it in a spirit of dubious possibility, and exploiting the sensibil­ity it has bred to bring to the fore those elements in their art which were received with difficulty in the past.

––Philip Leider