San Francisco

San Francisco

The San Francisco Museum has had two large group shows this summer. The western regional exhibition of the Mead Corporation’s “Art Across America,” and the Art Institute’s 84th Annual were both juried by professional taste-makers from various museums, several of whom have identified themselves with the newest idioms. Since this was widely known in the art world, many established or well-known artists did not submit work this year. The shows were bright, colorful, youthful and full of invention. The Mead show included fourteen artists who were also in the Annual; that the count was actually that small only became apparent on a tally of the names; the shows looked very similar. The Annual was much larger and contained sculpture whereas the Mead show was limited to wall hung pieces. Some of the sculpture was quite large. Since the difference between sculpture and painting grows less important each season it is necessary to erase the old limitations of space and medium to achieve a really definitive show of new generation work. The Annual was by far the most exciting of the two exhibitions, but however interesting and delightful an Annual which shows only the work of the new generation may be, such a show is only defensible if the Museum follows it with an invitational show of the older artists whose mature work has little to do with the new period style.

The new idiom is concerned with cultural and social phenomena. The introspection and romanticism of postwar Expressionism is presumably what is being rebelled against. The nostalgia implicit in paintings of old snapshots may seem romantic, but on closer analysis the nostalgia is of an ironic nature; romanticism is always serious, often humorless, almost never ironic. Robert Harvey’s blown up photographs are strangely compelling essays on the transience of taste. Both Harvey and Robert Hartman’s photo-paintings were hung in both shows. Hartman transforms photos of early flying machines to silk screen, which makes them look like grainy newsreel shots, and glues them into paintings of gasoline flames. The result satirizes the romanticism about the perils of early flight.

Deborah Remington (also in both shows) does appear to be a romanticist, perhaps the exception. Her colors are vibrant, her image is centralized; thus she is identified with the new idiom. But the image is an ambiguous transformation from a ruined machine to part-man organism. The irony is much deeper; she has had more practice with expression than most of these artists. She is an individualist in a period when artists are schooling in close systems and freely imitating one another. Geoffrey Bowman is also an independent spirit. In the face of the tendency toward simplicity his painting is more and more kaleidoscopic. He uses rhythmic repetitions, and the colors are of the chemical and synthetic character favored by the new generation, but the form is a parody on gestural expressionism with something resembling caviar, encrusted in the impasto. Arlo Acton has forsaken the rough wood construction for which he is well known, and has invented a sort of grinder, husker, shucking mill, part wood and part aluminum, which also has certain humanoid aspects. This object was purchased, so people will have further opportunities to pull its chain and flex its wooden leg (or is it an arm?).

The organic-part sculpture was much in evidence. This sort of thing grew up in William Wiley’s paintings and found sculptural dimension in Robert Hudson’s work. But works by these influential gentlemen were not in the show, though the fact was only apparent to those who studied the labels. Eben Stromquist’s Specter of the Earthworm, though more modest in size than most of the pieces of this genre, was one of the more inventive mechano-organic combines. Dan Shapiro put a different construction on organic parts with his “Nine-up” variations on sexual positions. The bad postured, naked “Self Portraits” (one in each show) of Jack Stuck make a more asexual point.

The machine without human aspiration was exemplified by the work of Fletcher Benton whose 144 Squares changes positions as slowly as clockwork and makes such small changes that one may forget where one began to look at it and allow it to make several revolutions before realizing that it is repeating itself. Hat Box by Don Shaeffer has a solemn mechanical pulse which one may think is a sound rather than a movement at first. Phillip Makanna’s machine is immobile. Its mechanical function might be magnetic; it suggests a device which would have no need to move. Aires II is a tall bronzed and patinaed drill-press-like machine by Victor Royer. It is not a machine-made imitation man, but it seems to stand like a man, indeed seems to be a machine imitating a man.

The architecture which interrupts space, and asserts itself as a block, plinth or symmetrical continuum is curiously absent from the San Francisco variation on the new idiom. It is a sculptural symbol representing the new architectural phenomena which several of our new buildings exemplify, but perhaps only in such a place as New York where architecture overwhelms all horizons, has that image captured the sculptor’s imagination. Suffice to say that Bob Morris (not in these shows, but a one time San Franciscan), is one of the primary exponents elsewhere. The new Suprematist painting is the two-dimensional counterpart of that architectural development, and there were many of those in both shows. Jack Carrigg (represented in both shows) is the strongest advocate of the form among those hung here. Dhynam, Carrigg’s painting in the Mead show is a true vibrator, but contrary to the usual product of this school, its action is a solemn whisper of dissonance rather than the easy clang which is the common practice. James Monte’s Vibe picture in the Annual is an oblique rectangle with reverse symmetry which throws its after-images upon a wide open field.

Prior to the two large group shows, the Museum mounted a large, handsome show of the monumental figurative paintings of Jim Weeks. (Some may wonder if the museum wanted to bow out of the fifties generation graciously, before turning the focus of attention to the new. If so, the choice was well advised.) Weeks was one of the first of the San Francisco Figurative Expressionists, and his paintings resisted the tendency to opacity and heaviness which were the worst aspects of that style. These paintings are sufficiently large to have pictured grand pianos life-size, but the monumentality was never a matter of mere bulk. Even small photographs of Weeks’ work show the grand proportions of his vision. Like the others who worked that vein, his pictures are always of commonplace scenes: family life, the studio, views of the city. His color is always fresh.

Another Expressionist event was the one man show of Paul Alexander at the Buzz Gallery. Alexander was one of the artists who started Buzz as a place for artists to show their work in progress, originally for the special viewing of a small group of artists and poets, but the circle has grown, and the group exhibitions of works in progress have given way to one man shows. His painting Patroclus has been seen in several of the group shows in earlier phases. Patroclus was Achilles’ second, and he commanded the Mermidons while Achilles sulked in his tent. The painting shows Patroclus at the moment that Apollo deprived him of his armour rendering him vulnerable to the spears of the Trojans. The painting is a complex of masks delineating the character of the protagonists of that Homeric episode. There is also a painting present which is more typical of the post-war Expressionist non-objective mode. The artist explains that prior to the work in this exhibition he consciously obliterated anything that began to suggest representation, and without at any specific time consciously changing his mind, he began to cooperate with such images, until he has actually become a figurative painter. Several of these paintings have been the vehicles for a sort of a studio odyssey and have become records of their own mythological progress. One of the pictures in the show was in its sketchy first phase and will surely become several more pictures before we can trust the finality of the work.

The Arleigh Gallery hung a one man show of James Monte’s paintings earlier in the summer. These paintings were without frames; in most cases framing lines were incorporated into the paintings. In one case the painting has a wide field of paint surrounded by a stylized frame of lines in vibrant colors so that the whole frame design-complex would jump in after-images on the field. These paintings are very elegant. An open fan is a frequent motif. Monte’s fields are not absolutely flat but have a slight reference to the gestural brush stroke which is not immediately apparent, but, even when unseen, influences the eye to move rather than look fixedly as one normally tends to do with field painting.

Knute Stiles