San Francisco

85th Annual of the San Francisco Art Institute

San Francisco Museum of Art

There were 180 pieces of painting, sculpture and assorted media in The 85th Annual of the San Francisco Art Institute at the San Francisco Museum. Michel Tapies, the French collector and critic, was invited to jury this year’s show. Tapies is perhaps best known as the man who organized the Parisian exhibition of the American Abstract Expressionist painters which is said to have been the first time that Europeans had really given American art their respectful attention. Though the Annual is open to entrants from the whole United States it is generally expected to be an index of Bay Area tendencies, but if the Art Institute had any notion that Tapies would be encouraged to work some magic and throw the work of Bay Area artists into some dramatic perspective they must have been quite disappointed. Of the 180 works selected, 125 were from northern California, and regular gallery goers and art enthusiasts could be expected to recognize less than 50 names. The bulk of the artists represented were presumably young graduates of the various schools of the area, most of whom have not exhibited widely, if at all.

The craft and execution of the works in the show was very finished and professional, so finished that they looked much like products of industrial fabrication. The materials were of the sort that would be used to make commodities: plastics, spray painted surfaces, and gleaming metal. The international style was well represented. The show looked as though it could have been imported from New York or Tokyo. The specific styles of a large number of wellknown artists were well represented, but usually not by the work of the actual innovators. For example there was work too similar for comfort to that of Flavin, Morris, Anuszkiewicz, Rivers, Remington, Tobey and Sam Francis, to mention only a few. A venerable foreigner could not be expected to be able to discern the imitators from the innovators; whether the innovators submitted at all or were rejected is unknown, but the show was loaded with frankly imitative work. Almost no examples of the abstract organic-erotic work which has become a regional period style in the Bay Area was included. Neither was there any evidence of the figurative work, either the sturdy broad brush variety or the more recent flatter and more finished sort which is gradually replacing it. Tapies made it clear that he felt the show should be consistent and unified. In any show but an index show that would surely be a legitimate view; however, from a group of works submitted from every camp and school, it seems as arbitrary to select pictures to go with one another as it would be to select art to go with the drapes.

Brian Edman’s rusty metal sculpture of a graceful vinelike growth upward to a mushroom umbrella was one of the few pieces which knowledgeable viewers would identify as an example of work with a particularly San Francisco flavor. Billy Budd by Gary Oberbillig is a piece of sculpture largely of wood which combines a nautical tiller and other boat motifs with a candidly erotic motif; it had to represent, almost alone, the Bay Area artists’ continuing preoccupation with sex. Gilbert Fulton’s painting in the form of a box was one of the more interesting paintings in the over-represented international cosmopolitan style. The isometric projection of a rectangular cube suggested by the contours of the picture is denied by the division of the painting into three canvases, the middle of which is the traditional flat rectangle. The continuous grids which make up the composition (or anti-composition) are founded on the contour edges, but go across the canvas divisions, and suggest an action which continues beyond the boundaries of the painting. The two oblique grids overlap and form a sort of plaid pattern. The colors are very light and suggest a faded calico, but they are effectively vibrant despite this faded quality––so vibrant that the grid which seems like a floor will reverse itself and become a ceiling the moment one tries to look at the other grid, and the upright grid changes from front to back with the same inevitability. It is now time for the experiments with vibrancy in color to be extended to the more subtle variations on the theme; we must now have seen most of the harsh and primary combinations that are possible, but color is a mother lode and the possibility of even discovering new colors or at least color relationships is almost inexhaustible. In a show much of which has to do with the color experiments, Fulton is one of the few who is extending our knowledge, or who is, in other words, really experimental. Sidney Gordin and Robert Hartman are important innovators who were represented by their own work.

In the last decade several experimental methods of jurying the Annuals have been tried and discarded. There probably is no method which would give us a true index. Well edited shows of work by newcomers are certainly desirable, but they should be advertised as such. Shows which demonstrate the taste of important observers are also quite legitimate, but only if that is the purpose. Since there is such a vast array of noble and fascinating objectives around which to organize shows, it would seem like a good time to discard this hoary institution which defies rationalizing. The Annual is a false source of controversy, a political turnip which is unappetizing even with the best French condiments. As a method of selecting a meaningful collection it is foolish: if purchase is a true objective a survey in depth of an artist’s work should definitely replace the cursory view of single works of hundreds of artists by any sort of jury. And the large number of highly respected artists who have elected not to submit any longer further militates against the continuation of a show which from that point can only gravitate further toward the second rate. They should either discard it or make it as important a show as Venice or Sao Paulo.

––Knute Stiles