San Francisco

San Francisco

The Ray Parker paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Art look like history. They are “then” not “now.” Marcel Duchamp was right when he said the life span of a painting is twenty-five years; after that it becomes something else, an item for history. Duchamp was right but the span is shortening. For many this is a painful remark, too painful for most to consider and many to digest.

Parker’s position is particularly relevant in this case. As little as seven years ago Parker’s work appeared like a shot in the dark. His personal commitment to a single idea, i.e., the brushy rendering of large loaves of color next to one another was a radical gesture in terms of second generation Abstract Expressionism. But the qualifying phrase is, “in terms of second generation Abstract Expressionism.” What has happened since the American art world be came conscious of a second generation is not a history of the latter, but a history of Pop and various tendencies in abstraction completely outside Expressionism. So what one sees in Parker now is not an extreme position but a position which relates to Expressionism in both time and character to a much greater degree than was evident in the late fifties or early sixties. One can hear dim. murmurs of such questions as “Parker’s pictures haven’t changed that much, why does he look more expressionist now than he did in 1960?” But what a person sees that is new, if he honestly looks, is bound to change what he has seen and is familiar with. To state it another way, Parker’s 1960 solutions to the problem in abstract art were radical at that time, but what has happened in the intervening seven years is a whole body of work by a host of abstract artists whose paintings have taken Parker’s early premises one or two or three steps beyond what he offered then.

Parker’s work remains in an indeterminate middle ground in that it is not “expressive” in the sense of de Kooning or his followers, nor is it “hard” like the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly. This indeterminate position has little if anything to do with the quality of Parker’s work itself, but rather with the reception it has Received from the critical press, museums and artists. The case to be made for Parker, however, rests on that he was one of the first younger artists to thoroughly understand and take advantage of the implications of older painters like Gottlieb, Newman and Rothko. The fact is that in the fifties few painters were willing or able to see the working possibilities of these artists.

Three pieces of marble sculpture by Philip Pavia are on view at the San Francisco Museum in the same galleries as the Parker exhibit. Their post-and-lintel construction relate to Parker’s painting method in a curious way. Pavia combines rectilinear groups of pink, white and near-white quarried chunks together by dowelling and glueing them back to back and placing some on top, horizontally in relation to the upright lower grouping. He then cuts away or chisels the surfaces leaving the tool marks evident throughout. They are thoughtfully done pieces with a fine sensitivity to the inherent color of the marble. In some instances Pavia could have let the initial grouping carry the message with less vociferous carving on the marble surface.

Three exhibitions of local abstract painters including Keith Boyle at Hollis Gallery, Frank Hamilton at Quay Gallery and Patrick Humble at Gordon Woodside Gallery make an interesting point in terms of Bay Area art. Each of the three is an ambitious artist who has concentrated on a post-Expressionist abstract style for some years. With the exception of one painting by Frank Hamilton each artist avoids the very large picture support. All three have avoided the shaped canvas. If one were a poll taker some conclusions might be reached. Bay Area artists in the roughly thirty to forty age bracket have shrugged off the implications of much current American abstract painting altogether.

Hamilton’s latest paintings show an increasing concern for the dispersal of small biomorphic islands of color throughout the picture plane. These, coupled with lateral stripes, hold the surface of the picture plane in a tightly-knit unity. In two or three paintings the unity is marred by a dark vertical bar interrupting the scan of the surface. Presumably, Hamilton has placed the bar as a division, or to deliberately break the right to left motion the eye takes when “reading” these paintings. His color is better than in his last show simply because he has chosen to use it in a more complex manner. The areas of color are delimited in a number of ways, the first being the allowance of a third color under the two adjacent areas to pop up in a thick and thin line. The second and very effective procedure is a faint black tracery over the third color making, from a distance of a few feet, a kind of no-man’s land between the shapes. The third and least effective is the use of line as a Cubist demarcation of plane as well as shape. Hamilton is a consistent painter who tests, in a very thorough manner, each painterly device before accepting or rejecting it. He has a real need to work through each possibility before verifying its applicability in his own art.

Keith Boyle, like Hamilton, constantly tests modern abstract painting on its own terms with each body of work he produces. Boyle favors large dynamic forms thrusting in from the edges of the picture support. His color has become much better since his last show, with a definite bent toward lyricism.

Of the three artists Patrick Humble is the most lyrical and disposes his forms across the canvas in the freest manner. He controls the surface plane of each painting by the use of analogous color or by keeping the overall value of each painting at roughly the same degree of light or dark. The exceptions to the rule are his black pictures, where the black background acts as a void across which the intensely colored ellipses and biomorphic forms dance.

At Mills College this month the entire middle section of the gallery, measuring roughly twenty-five by forty feet, is given to an environment created by Harold Paris. The black vinyl material designating the enclosure looks from the outside like a Bedouin chief’s plastic dream. Once inside, one’s initial response is effectively allayed by an enormous range of black, white and grey forms displaced like furniture, shrines, instruments and whatnot throughout the dimly lighted space. Paris has always been a very effective sculptural conjuror, and without a doubt this piece will be remembered as a tour de force in that realm. He has used sheets of rubber, bent, folded and fastened onto more solid material, or used the rubber as a self-contained unit to provoke fascinating tactile responses. Plaster casts taken from rubber force the viewer to react to the surface differences between the plaster-rubber axis. Aluminum stock is used as a base material as well as painted wood.

The lack of color within each “room group setting” vaguely reminds the onlooker of the “White Telephone Style” or the “Moderne Style” of thirties decor. The first sensation wears off rather quickly and is replaced by the feeling that one is in a mildly hostile setting not recommended for children under twelve. The basic problem with the entire space is one of eventfulness. It seems set up to include other events such as dance, lights, or just people milling about. When one sets about completely controlling cubic space, the more totalitarian the control, the more need for audio and kinetic as well as visual and tactile stimulation.

The post-Barbizon realism of Robert Bechtle at Berkeley Gallery is used by the artist to portray the East Bay urban landscape. This differs from the usual realism primarily because he chooses unpaintable subjects. For example, the candid angle of a teenager looking backwards while sitting in his 1946 Chevrolet convertible is truly absurd. Pop subject matter replete with billboard rendering is one thing, but Bechtle paints it like he really loves it! There is the irony: Bechtle paints what his 1967 neighbor is and does with all the delectation of a Barbizon master painting a French Hedgerow.

James Monte