San Francisco

“Directions—American Painting”

San Francisco Museum of Art

It is perhaps best to forget the stated purpose of this group exhibit consisting of more than six painters in each of four classified groups (Abstract Expressionists, New Realists, Figure Painters and Imagists) which is “to demonstrate the dramatic changes in direction the visual arts have undergone in the past five years.” With the exception of five New Realists (and Robert Rauschenberg who has been erroneously labeled a New Realist), there are no artists included in this show who in the last five years have pioneered or changed the direction of American painting. In the exhibition’s press release (there is no catalog for the exhibit) a few scattershot intellectual premises are tossed off which gradually float skyward from their collective lack of gravity. Robert Indiana has been categorized as being related to the group including Morris Louis, Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland and Raymond Parker. This is truly ludicrous, since the latter group eschews any reference to recognizable phenomena and Indiana’s total concern is with an emblematic depiction, replete with sign-writer’s stenciled lettering, of the American scene. If it is necessary to historically pigeonhole Indiana at this time, he would be closer to an up-dated, citified, sophisticated Grant Wood than to a cerebral abstractionist like Kenneth Noland.

With some of these minor concerns out of the way, one is free to enjoy a large group exhibit that should have had no title or theme attached. The show is, and has been, necessary for at least three years since it contains a large percentage of worthwhile artists unseen to date in San Francisco, and has, after all, originated in our own San Francisco Museum. A catalog might have been nice—perhaps next time.

Hard edge and lmagist paintings are to be seen in abundance upon entering the exhibit from the corridor. A large, radiant purple area in Jules Olitski’s painting surrounds an embryonic shape which in turn encloses a smaller, darker shape. The painting works like a grand tropical flower, extending beyond its true scale and diaphanously swaying on the wall. The transparent or diaphanous paint skin is a quality common to most lmagist painters. Sidney Noland’s painting adjoining Olitski’s, incorporates U-shaped stripes of different hues unified by a saturated matte finish of what is probably plastic paint dryly applied to unsized cotton canvas. The resultant surface lacks the sensuousness found in the work of the late Morris Louis, Ellsworth Kelly, or Ad Reinhardt (all of whom are included in the exhibition).

Reinhardt’s nearly black on black painting of a cross with equal limbs can be likened to a visual aid to the painter’s negative written metaphysics. Few persons have accused Reinhardt of overdosing his work with literature, and yet he has been in print the last few years with such regularity that one tends to see the paintings through written filters (a possible reason for the increasingly dark tones found in the paintings?).

An interesting example of a painter little-known on the West Coast is Agnes Martin who can be lumped roughly within the lmagist category, although it is an uncomfortably awkward fit. Miss Martin’s work is composed of a series of thinly (the size of a matchstick) drawn or painted parallel lines that vary slightly in thickness and density as they travel across the five foot width of beige, slightly coarse linen canvas. Around the series of parallel lines a thin, regularly painted white border encloses the composition with delicate understatement.

Moving further in the exhibit, one is faced by a constructed painting by James Dine made in such a manner as to give the feeling that one is in or facing a bathroom wall resplendent with all the porcelain and plastic fixtures. The supporting idea behind the construction has little validity. When dealing in such specific terms, given a worthless or inept premise, the finished object must fail, like an unpleasant joke recounted vapidly.

Andy Warhol’s silk-screened and multiplied face of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra quickens in the eye as the image is repeated with increasing irregularity towards the bottom. The face, with its inky density, becomes gruesome, as do the photos of the dead reproduced on the tombstones seen in Italian cemeteries. Roy Lichtenstein’s blown-up comic strip frame, complete with Ben Day dots, has one redeeming feature it is less noxious than Dine’s construction across the room.

The individual examples of the five abstract expressionists—Briggs, Grillo, Dugmore, McNeil and Resnick, who have either taught or attended school in the Bay Area, are unfortunately disappointing. (John Humphries, curator of the San Francisco Museum and the exhibit’s organizer has mentioned the unavailability of, for example, a stronger painting by Resnick.) Happily enough, Joan Mitchell, Philip Guston, Helen Frankenthaler and Hassel Smith have paintings representing each on the highest possible level. Llyn Foulkes, a young Los Angeles artist, is represented by a powerful black, white and grey abstraction fusing amorphous shapes with rectilinear, hard lines. Foulkes is undoubtedly one of the most completely realized young artists in the west and without question one of the most talented.

The figurative artists, including Richard Diebenkorn, who shows an indifferent work completed in 1959 (for some reason Diebenkorn generally shows up poorly in group exhibits), hold their own in the middle of somewhat hostile surroundings. A name new to San Francisco, Robert Barnes, is included with a gigantic portrait of James Joyce in which whole sections of the interior depicted seemingly slip in lateral directions à la Francis Bacon. In spite of the obvious debt, ultimately unnecessary, the painting is quite good.

In sum, the exhibit brought to the Bay Area examples of artists whose contribution to American painting was important and in some cases essential from two to fifteen years ago. Artists of greater historical interest could have replaced a large number of those shown. On the credit side it must be stated that the exhibit is a boon to Bay Area painters, fulfilling, in part, the need, as did the Heller collection shown at the Legion of Honor recently, of exhibiting artists of national repute rarely seen in the Bay region.

James Monte