San Francisco

San Francisco

Various Venues, San Francisco

Robert Hudson, this year’s recipient of the Nealie Sullivan Award for sculpture continues to work in the direction that has brought him national recognition in the last two years. His ability to positively confound the viewer by making heavy three-dimensional volumes appear virtually flat, and, conversely, flat planes appear three dimensional is strongly apparent in the eight works displayed at the San Francisco Art Institute Gallery.

Of the eight works in the show, four are major examples, standing between four and one-half and six and one-half feet high. In addition to these there are two smaller free-standing pieces each of which is approximately thirty inches high. Two hexagonal paintings leave little doubt of their sculptural origins and do in fact carry out, on a flat surface, the problems and solutions to be found in the large sculptures. It is always interesting to see an artist who generally sculpts, paint, especially an artist with as active an imagination as Hudson possesses. The paintings express themselves in a manner dependent on the sculpture and are akin to working cartoons. The boxy forms are presented as something to be cut into, x-rayed, decorated, exploded, tilted and anthropomorphized. The impression is conveyed that the paintings not only begin from the sculpture, but also feed back ideas to eventually be used on the metal surfaces of the sculpture.

The visual characteristics becoming more predominant on Hudson’s new pieces are there; the real isometric projection, i.e., a projection done in metal that has palpable volume, and what might be called the “illusory isometric projection” which depends solely on paint for its reality. These two characteristics in conjunction with fool-the-eye geometric decoration and organic decoration, all included on an armature of forged and welded iron, and painted with the brightest possible hues, give one some idea of the complexity of the work.

The esthetic “why” of Hudson’s work is difficult to probe. But because it is so baffling the compulsion to do so is also very strong. As a student at the San Francisco Art Institute Hudson’s work was held in very high esteem by virtually every professional metal sculptor who ever saw it. The older artists were amazed at his virtuosity in manipulating large sections of heavy metal plate and bar stock into complex forms. Hudson was, as a student, and remains, a very ambitious and prolific artist. In a very brief span of years he mastered the prevailing problems of metal sculpture with such breadth, daring and consummate skill that one wondered what he could possibly do next.

What he did do next horrified many of his admirers. Looking back on the period when the change took place one can see why. The older work, if not tasteful, was close to it; design and form were there as in David Smith or Roszak or Zogbaum. The criterion for excellence was established in the style Hudson mastered as a student before he came to the style. Perhaps few recognized it at the time (in fact few indeed did) but Hudson obviously saw exactly what he was doing. Such clarity of thought is rare enough in an artist twenty-three or four years old and rarer still is the ability to grasp the situation and act upon it in so forthright a manner. The why of his present work becomes clearer when one realizes that his ambition is not just to make excellent pieces in a manner at least partially resolved by others, but to make great pieces in an area no one dreamed existed.

The news of fifteen years of George Cohen’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Art came woefully late, since before this exhibition not one decent painting by the same artist had been in said museum for years in spite of numerous opportunities. Four or five terrible paintings in three years can make up one’s mind. Happily the exhibition changed the former attitude hastily. In 1950 Cohen appeared as a visual archaist. The tendency was in the air. It crept into the neo-Cubist work of the period; the oil paint made to look flaky and beaten, scratchy, irregular marks elevated to a position of regular usage in the vocabulary of forms. Cohen took part in the experiments and used them fruitfully in such works as The Sanctified and Avenger, painted in 1949 and 1950 respectively. Archaic artifacts, Roman and Etruscan wall paintings, primitive signs and symbols are all precedents for Cohen’s early period. From the early fifties onward Cohen becomes an artist who goes beyond the material appearance of the archaic and grasps the very concepts lurking beneath the forms. The ritual female votive repeated time after time either wholly or in segments is a cornerstone in his art. Emblem for an Unknown Nation, painted in 1954, is a rich example: the leg and arm in the lower left reaches dramatically toward a hand in the upper left of the masonite panel, legs and arms and lips float around the periphery of the panel encircling the abbreviated female form in the center. The ritualized forms, primitively depicted, act on the viewer as magic. The best paintings in the show possess this magic quality, the worst possess none at all. Gratefully there are many fine works.

Joe Romano, in his latest exhibit at Bolles Gallery, continues to use and improve upon a very personal collage sensibility. His newest work betrays some key changes, such as the integration of relatively unmodulated pure color into the heretofore black, grey and white surfaces. In the last five years Romano has slowly tightened and formalized the basic structures of his pictures. The first step of introducing bits of color perhaps led him to question the all-over composition formerly employed. Color calls attention to itself and secondarily to the nature of the surface supporting it. The layers of paper and glue in addition to chalky granular greys and blacks built up and projecting off the canvas sometimes as much as four and five inches is hard to compete with coloristically, but Romano manages to do so and ironically enough achieves a new lyric quality at the same time. Romano’s work is and has been for a number of years of the very highest quality. That his personal achievement hasn’t been more widely known and recognized as such is a truly unfortunate circumstance.

The sumptuous surroundings of the new Dilexi Gallery, moved from its old Union Street address to a downtown location, serves splendidly to show Deborah Remington’s new paintings. The recent pictures define and develop the direction pursued in her latest two exhibitions. The path she has chosen is difficult to make out for she pursues apparently antagonistic goals. The smoothly painted and accurately defined abstract forms are handled partially in the tradition of the Suprematist, Constructivist and Purist masters of those styles, but with one heretical difference. The forms are precisely modeled from dark to light and rest on deeply modeled space. This light-to-dark contrast gives the totally abstract shapes an uncanny quality of thingness. It is as if Miss Remington had begun with the work of the American Purist Charles Sheeler and had taken his industrial subject matter, cloaked it with Northern winter darkness and completely transformed the external appearances of the giant graneries and oil refineries to leave only the hard, constant light source as a recollection of what was there before. The forms, because they are modeled perhaps, call a great deal of attention to themselves, sometimes more than is deserved. But again is it because of their internal uniqueness or because one is dramatically made aware of the visual heresy involved? Another interesting aspect of the work is the fact that color is used to heighten dark and light contrasts, not to carry, in most cases, its own unique esthetic message. The result is a certain lurid quality to some paintings that one seldom sees in totally abstract art of a Precisionist bent. The reason for this could and should be developed at some point, but suffice to say at this time that most pure forms comment first upon themselves and their relationship to surroundings and to the history of pure form in general and secondarily to the vast melodrama of events, emotional states, war and peace and so on. Miss Remington’s pictures are quite unique in that they ask to be considered on the secondary level above any other. It is interesting to note a further development and a new direction in Miss Remington’s career made possible by Mr. Joe Zirker, owner of the new Original Press of San Francisco. The Press has commissioned a full color lithograph to be run off in a series of one hundred pulls. Miss Remington was the first recipient of this honor and other well known artists such as Frank Lobdell, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn are to follow.

Victor Royer, a recent University of California graduate, studied the art of making sculpture at a most fortuitous moment in the history of the university. The aggregate sculpture faculty was the best in the country. It included, as a nucleus. Wilfrid Zogbaum, Sidney Gordin, Harold Paris and Peter Voulkos. The excitement of a spanking new foundry permeated the whole department. Students were given the opportunity to cast in bronze as well as other metals; Voulkos’ personal example gave students the opportunity to see monumental works in clay formed and fired in front of their eyes. Zogbaum’s forged and welded pieces opened areas of exacting form combined with color and new surface treatments. (The baked enamel surfaces of household appliances, applied to sculpture, comes to mind as one example.) Royer was influenced by the industrial techniques of Zogbaum and the example set by Sidney Gordin. But instead of beginning with the fertile examples of these two artists and pushing forward to new conclusions, Royer chose to limit himself to a poverty-stricken piecing together of found parts at right angles with an arc in each piece to play off the rigidity of the arrangement. In all fairness it must be added that what he does do is extremely well crafted. The surfaces are treated with a jeweler’s precision and exactitude. But nevertheless the predictability of the completed forms in piece after piece is merely begging the sculptural question. Of the twenty works on view at the Hollis Gallery almost all are entirely frontal. Frontality in itself is not wrong but without the rigorous tension necessary to make the approach valid the work merely suffers from the impoverishment. Royer is so highly skilled a craftsman that one hopes for a shifting and juxtaposing of materials in his next exhibition that really taxes his natural skill.

James Monte