San Francisco

Joel Barletta


The manic activity in Bay Area galleries and museums increases as the flu-ridden populace rattles and hacks with rheumy eyes fixed on heretofore sacrosanct bastions of culture. The latest scandal, like the thirteenth chapter of The Perils of Pauline, broke over San Francisco’s oldest museum, the M. H. De Young, located in the center of Golden Gate Park. The controversy stems from the resignation of Charles and Miriam Lindstrom, ex-director and ex-co-director of the education department in the Museum. Their letter of resignation asserts that works of questionable authenticity are included in the museum collection, a charge which has been heard before over a number of years from outside sources. Their letter states further that there have been serious lapses in taste and scholarship involving the numerous period rooms at the Museum, and the most serious charge involves the alleged lack of care given to the Museum’s permanent collection. These and other grievances were sent to the board of trustees over a year ago by the Lindstroms and, as of this date, were never answered. One sympathizes with the two people, who have been with the Museum for twenty-five years, and yet whose employer, the board of trustees, seemingly will not honor their existence with even an acknowledgement of their grievances.

The director of the De Young Museum, Jack McGregor, in reply to the often-asked question of why there aren’t any more exhibits of high-caliber modern painting and sculpture, has replied that the modern shows take too much manpower and money away from the study and care of the permanent collection. This obviously includes the Brundage Wing, as yet unfinished, as well as the older galleries. If extensive study and time are necessary for reappraisal as Mr. McGregor intimates and numerous art historians have emphatically stated, then by all means close the Museum to the public, take the time necessary for the job, and do it! While the De Young is closed the top twenty per cent of the collection could be easily displayed in the California Palace of the Legion of Honor at Lincoln Park, while the remaining eighty per cent, which is not of museum quality anyway, could be disposed of in order to refurbish and restore the works of genuine quality and historical necessity.

During a period of re-examination the City of San Francisco would do well to look into the ultimate value of two separate museums whose functions overlap in most areas. Perhaps a board of inquiry could be formed including historians and museum personnel from outside the area to suggest a solution to the problems involved.

In the private galleries this month Joel Barletta’s exhibit at Dilexi proved to be of outstandingly high quality. The new works spring from the same source as the didactic abstractions shown last year in the same gallery but with a new chromatic vigor added. The older paintings, precisely rendered variations on a single compositional theme, depended on the dark-light properties of the color areas to carry the pictorial idea to the viewer. As far as they went the paintings were fine, and in two instances one could reflect and be rewarded by the prolonged period in front of the works. The problem with the bulk of the works was that the working idea of the painting overshadowed the completed painting. In the new paintings one is confronted primarily by the subtle sensuousness of the color surface of each, and only later does one become aware of the pragmatic arrangement of the individual forms. The change is largely due to the way Barletta has used yellow and orange plus very subtle secondary yellow-greens, yellow-oranges and whited out variants of these colors. There are no scrubbed, stained, soaked or impasto surfaces on these works. The surfaces are obtained with carefully built up layers of oil paint on canvas using the paint in a medium to thin manner judging from the appearance of the surfaces. One recognizes Barletta’s habit of using a large form, almost one-quarter of the support, and playing off smaller horizontal and vertical rectangles against the large form. The division produces a certain uneasy balance that the eye finds hard to rectify. In Barletta’s older paintings, the work predating that completed for his shows in 1965 as well as 1966, this device,.coupled with thin, almost grudgingly applied paint, made his work difficult to understand as well as to appreciate. The new paintings collapse any past doubts in a rich and rewarding way.

James Monte