San Francisco

San Francisco

Various Venues, San Francisco

Without keeping an accurate account of the exact number of months since George Culler left the directorship of The San Francisco Museum of Art (it is in fact an act of charity to forget how long the Museum has been without a director) it would seem the functions of the institution continue without perceivable break. Traveling exhibits scheduled many months in advance arrive, are installed, and in turn are taken down to be replaced by others of the same nature. The Woman’s Board handles the various vernissage activities with a good deal of grace and vivacity, and timely lectures are scheduled to coincide with current exhibits (a praiseworthy example was the Keith Boyle lecture dealing with the “Colorists” exhibition currently at the Museum).

The problems incurred by not having a director are of course manifold, not least of which is the decline in Museum prestige itself. Once the good name of the museum is lost, calamities ensue, one atop the other, for loss of prestige to a museum is as calamitous as loss of face is to an Asian. A glaring symptom of this syndrome is the fact that the Board of Trustees of the San Francisco Museum has been unable to attract any top curator or director from any major institution in this country. In point of fact it is not the salary offered that is lacking, but the position itself. The highest caliber museum professionals will not touch the job because they feel, and rightly so at this point, that the position would damage their careers. An ambitious museum official is, quite naturally, hesitant to accept a post where (it is commonly known in the trade) there is far too little support for a truly active program of originating major exhibitions.

Under these conditions it is unusual that John Humphrey, the exhibition curator of the San Francisco Museum, was able to assemble the “Colorists 1950–1965” exhibition at all. The exhibit was hampered by some unforeseen events such as the closing of one of New York’s best vanguard galleries, resulting in some of the paintings arriving late or not at all. Some artists’ works were virtually impossible to obtain either from their dealers or from collectors who had purchased them. (One suspects that the fragility of many of the works chosen for the show may have been a real deterrent to the loan of them.)

The weakest part of the exhibit is, strangely enough, in an area where one would have thought it would be particularly strong. Since 1950 was the beginning of the fifteen-year span covered one doesn’t have to dig too deeply to uncover at least three absent artists whose presence would have been particularly desired—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Barnett Newman. The absence of their pictures is felt particularly because the whole range of problems currently being explored by younger artists, not only in terms of color, but form, paint handling, and scale as well, are a direct dialogue with these men’s works. The magnificent Rothko lent by a collector in Mill Valley, California may well be a more beautiful painting than anything Jackson Pollock ever painted, but the fact is that the historical importance of Pollock is such that one Pollock should have substituted for at least one of the three Rothkos on view. A de Kooning, any de Kooning, could and should have replaced both Appels on view. Art history is constantly distorted by both commission and omission, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to make mention, especially where a catalogue is, as here, available, the obvious omissions. The sins of commission take care of themselves.

Some of the artists on view seem only peripherally interested in the problem of color—Jan Muller for example. His paintings, before his last and most mature works, were abstract and dealt directly with color in very sensitive and formally structured schemes. The works up to his untimely death are Expressionist in character and deal with color, as such, in a secondary way. Only Philip Guston, Rothko and Alan Davie of the Abstract Expressionist painters on view seem really concerned about the strictly coloristic responses their use of pigment elicits from the viewer.

Of the non-expressionist abstract painters in the exhibit Frank Stella seems to fall outside the term Colorist. All his work seems to fall into an area where color is shown to be virtually meaningless. His paintings, so far at least, depend almost entirely on the relational aspects of his painted forms to their physical supports. He has not been seriously involved in color relationships in the way that Friedel Dzubas has been, for example, in point of fact Stella’s art can be seen as positively anti-colorist. Whereas Stella is coolly indifferent to color, the paintings of Josef Albers, David Simpson, Kenneth Noland, Friedel Dzubas, Morris Louis, Julian Stanczak, Lorser Feitelson, Gene Davis and Thomas Downing celebrate the sensuous properties of color relationships with varying degrees of success. Since many of these artists have not been seen extensively in the Bay Region, it is really unfair to judge their work from, as in Larry Poons’ case, one work, or, as in most cases, just two or three works.

Both Charles Hinman and Neil Williams are represented by shaped canvases of generous scale. Hinman’s work is less interesting conceptually than the piece representing Williams, although it is more expertly executed.

The work entitled Peacock Number Two by David Simpson is the best single painting shown by this Bay Area artist in recent years, and holds up extremely well in excellent company.

A large proportion of the galleries this month devoted their wall space to artists concerned with the time-honored themes of still-life, landscapes, and figure painting. Of the figure painters, Joan Savo at Hollis Gallery and Mary Kay Brown at the Vorpal Gallery both offer worthwhile solutions to the difficult problem of what to do with the representation of people, and, in Brown’s case, of still-life also. Both artists cope with representation with sensitivity and an awareness of the myriad solutions available to figurative painters without falling into the trap of trying to utilize too many of them in their respective work. Joan Savo’s single figures are brushed in swiftly with paint thinned to a consistency allowing for maximum, fluidity without dripping or sagging. The resultant surface has a fluffy, open spaciousness making a visually exhilarating setting for the figures. Mary Kay Brown aims for the same surface unity via controlled paint consistency but is willing to break the tightly woven surface with collage elements as evidenced by the extremely witty figure grouping of old ladies displayed at the Vorpal Gallery. Miss Brown is an exceptionally gifted colorist, a rare quality in figure painting at this time.

A welcome change is evident at the Gallerie de Tours where recent work by William Aiken was displayed last month. Aiken’s figures were very close to the feathery broken planes in Balcolm Greene’s people placed in urban environs. In this exhibition Aiken has gone past the point of direct emulation and painted, with considerable skill, a group of pictures with tightly woven surfaces, close to Impressionism, in look if not philosophy.

Richard Graf’s prints at the Achenbach exhibit at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor aren’t direct social comments on strikes, poverty or war as such, but evoke sympathetic responses to situations richly rendered and visually complex. In a sense one vulgarizes the work when attempts are made to unravel the symbolism involved in Graf’s excellent prints, and yet the print titled Voyagers over Black Waters in Quest of a Sanctuary really needs no interpretation as it is less ambiguous than most others. A bird’s-eye view of voyagers in a boat with the prow pointing to the top of the paper succeeds in evoking the terror of voyagers in an all-consuming night sea.

The Maxwell Galleries utilized all their many galleries in an extensive exhibit called “Paris International 1865–1945.” The exhibit had an enormous number of indifferent paintings by artists best forgotten by history, who were fortuitously at the right place at the right time and yet without the necessary equipment to make good paintings. Jean Metzinger, Louis Marcoussis, Ruel C. Tuttle, Marie Laurencin, J. L. Gerome, Frank Duveneck fit this category. It is interesting to speculate on their respective failures as much as it is to contemplate the successes of artists such as Bonnard, Vuillard, Manet, Corot, Lautrec, or Boudin also included in the exhibition. Some failed, like Gerome, because the academic romanticism he pursued collapsed as a result of the pressure of Naturalism and Impressionism on the French Beaux-Art style. Before the end of his life Gerome saw academicians using color juxtapositions developed by the Impressionists exhibited at the Salon. Others, such as the American Frank Duveneck, were, only half committed to an advanced style and as in his case, tried to maintain a position straddling the nineteenth-century romantic style while acknowledging the Impressionist .breakthrough by carefully grafting Impressionist strokes on otherwise romantic pictures. The radical reactionary or the radical vanguardist survives in the art world much longer than the fence-sitting moderate.

Three other artists, including two recent arrivals, are engaged in figuration. Gloria Brown at the Arleigh Gallery and Igor Medvedev at the Quay Gallery, have both recently returned to quasi-realist styles. Joe Clark, exhibiting sculpture with Medvedev, continues to work in a loose classic manner utilizing thin sheets of welded metal to fabricate fragmentary female torsos. Medvedev’s neo-art nouveau figurative style is a welcome replacement for his earlier experimentation with crusty painted reliefs. The new paintings exploit the possibilities of nude female figures placed in highly schematized and contrasted environments. The figures are painted flatly with a wide variety of color solutions. The determination to work in a highly structured area has worked wonders for the quality and clarity of Medvedev’s art. Gloria Brown’s new pictures represent a certain amount of hardening and enclosement of her earlier close-to-nature abstract forms. The new pictures in spite of their very specific references to still-life and landscape themes remain remarkably similar to Mrs. Brown’s older work where the subjects were implied rather than stated directly.

Luis Feito, well-known Spanish abstractionist and Alden Mason, an artist whose work has been seen in S.F. Museum of Art Annual exhibitions, are showing concurrently at the newly established Gordon Woodside Gallery. Feito remains faithful to a thickly encrusted centralized image placed on smoothly painted fields of color, in this exhibit, yellow fields. The only difference between these paintings and early works seen in museums and galleries for the past few years is the fact that Feito has chosen to place his pate-like formations on fight grounds. Mason’s work is interesting and contains some excellent color relationships incorporated into forms resembling those of Arshile Gorky and John Altoon. The new Clay Street headquarters of the Dilexi Gallery prove to be admirably suited for exhibits of monumental sculpture, proven by the Roger Jacobsen exhibition installed in November. Jacobsen is one of a group of sculptors in their mid-to-late twenties who, while attending the San Francisco Art Institute, came under the influence of the painter Frank Lobdell. An artist remarked recently, during a dialogue that touched on these young sculptors, “These new sculptors in the Bay Area make paintings in metal that happen to have volume.” The validity of the remark lies in an area difficult to perceive from the finished objects, but is evident from the conceptual basis (the paintings of Frank Lobdell), of the works. Unlike his colleagues William Geis and Robert Hudson, whom he closely resembles sculpturally, Jacobsen remains faithful to a visual orthodoxy epitomizing the abstractionist painting as well as sculpture at the S.F.A.I. A certain circumspection of vision allows Jacobsen to build enormous visceral shapes of nicely welded metal into sprawling agglomerations literally gobbling up the space in the commodious gallery in which they are installed. Jacobsen is an ambitious and talented young artist whose capabilities are admirably displayed in this his second, one-man exhibition.

––James Monte