San Francisco

San Francisco

The exhibition “Painters Behind Painters” at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor consisted of works by 66 artists representing the faculties of 15 major college-level art instruction facilities throughout northern and central California, with a natural preponderance of those in San Francisco and the Bay Area. The show encompassed not only the older, locally entrenched (if not native) group of nationally recognized faculty-artists whose influence, spanning a decade or more, on an already established succeeding generation of Bay Area artists is patently demonstrable, but also a fair crop of young novices to the art teaching professions. Some are onetime pupils of various members of the older group, and others—a surprising number in fact—newcomers to the West, with laurels of post-graduate honor from renowned Eastern or mid-Western schools still unwithered upon their brows, the character and extent of whose influence on a now matriculating generation of local painters the future alone will reveal. Assuredly, the carefully prepared and prodigally illustrated catalog of this exhibition will be of historical value to researchers a decade hence concerned with tracing specific individual interactions effecting the evolution of then-prevalent regional styles, mannerisms and preoccupations.

Indeed, the admirably documented and ambitious (even if sometimes qualitatively indiscriminate) comprehensiveness of this exhibition within a defined and significant scope raised it to the level of a regionally major museum event, bringing the Legion momentarily to the forefront this summer in an area of exhibition subject matter with respect to which this museum had hardly been in the running at all since its abandonment, after 1964, of an annual invitational predominantly for established local painters.

Among the best of the more traditionally oriented “true academicians” represented in the show was Ralph Borge (California College of Arts and Crafts) whose work like that of Edward Kitson (Artforum Vol. 2, No. 11) is in a now well-established idiom which might aptly be identified as “Victorian Gothic Surrealism” deriving, as it does, from an amalgamation of Surrealist devices (such as physically impossible perspectives and dream-associative juxtapositions of objects and vistas, in trompe l’oeil realism of detail) with an Andrew Wyeth-like predilection for the mansard roofs, cupolas, prolific ornament, cobwebbed interiors and dilapidated exteriors of Civil War American architecture. It is here worth remembering that this style of architecture has become in our popular literary-pictorial tradition all of the things that “Medieval Baronial” has so long been for the English. In short, the Civil War “mansard house” has gripped the American imagination for half a century now as epitomizing, simultaneously, an affectionate nostalgia for an indigenous past, on the one hand, and a strangely cloying, yet preternaturally sinister and necrophilic atmosphere of desolate and sepulchered antiquity on the other (this curiously in spite of the style’s opulently fenestrated spaciousness and elfin capriciousness of frivolous eclectic ornament). “Victorian Gothic Surrealism,” like much of Wyeth’s work, relies heavily on these historic-literary cultural responses as an esthetic base for mood and effectiveness.

Likewise distinguished among the older and more established group is Nathan Oliveira (Stanford University) whose painting, Stage #2 With Bed, (1966) evokes the bleakly pedestrian and oppressive one-room world of currently fashionable Existentialist and quasi-Existentialist small-cast plays. Oliveira’s depiction of a dark, desolate set onto the floor of which a shaft of light from the wings falls through a partially opened door, creates a theatrical mood-vortex and a sense of the impending entrance or perhaps recent exit of the actors. Here are none of the ghostlike diaphanous figures so long familiar in Oliveira’s work, but his persistent preoccupation with not-quite-tangible presences is nonetheless clearly vehicularized by more abstract means.

Among the younger group, Mary Snowden, now teaching at the California College of Arts and Crafts, merits mention for the crisp combination of trompe l’oeil realism and abstract patterning in her PG & E, 1966 (a segment in long tangential perspective of convoluted overhead pipelines of glaring sunlit brass against a deep purple sky). Also, William T. Wylie, currently teaching at U.C., Davis, and the San Francisco Art Institute, for the playful cartoon-Surrealism of his All That Grass, (1966) an “in-joke” for psychoanalysts.

William Morehouse’s gucky (urethane and acrylic on canvas) No. 19, (1966) seems for this artist an unconvincing detour into the visceral biomorph ism of Bay Area “funk” and an unfortunate abandonment of the compelling idiom evolved in his epic Mediterranean landscapes of three years ago.

The main bulk of the exhibition revealed the recent work of such established Bay Area figures as Frank Lobdell, Erle Loran, Roy de Forest, Masatoyo Kishi, Jacques Fabert and Ralph DuCasse to be a continuing development of their respective familiar and readily identifiable styles.

The San Francisco Museum of Art initiated its summer season by functioning as a conduit in the relatively local tour circuits of traveling exhibitions originating in museums or university art departments elsewhere in the Pacific Coast region. The most ambitious of these exhibitions, Cubism: Its Impact in the USA, 1910–1930, was jointly organized by the Junior League of Albuquerque and the University of New Mexico as a sequel to Impressionism in America, assembled by the same coalition and shown two years ago in San Francisco at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum.

Simple nostalgia for the excitements of America’s era of emergence from a culturally isolated and puritanical provincialism to an awareness, fraught with tumult and controversy, of the European artistic revolutions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries would appear so far to be a motivating factor in this New Mexico group’s choice of exhibition subject matter. Indeed, their current offering seems to embrace a great variety of early 20th-century European influences other than Cubism, as reflected in the American art of the time, thus so far outranging the scope of its title thesis as to have embarrassed the catalog essayist with the necessity of indulging in considerable double-talk by way of creating accommodatingly elastic references for Cubism. (Definition had perforce to be avoided by the mere postulation of a matrix consisting of “Cubism and related movements.”) Ambiguous criteria for Cubist influences, and circumloquacious apologies for inclusions and omissions would have needed no comment had the exhibition’s assemblers either confined themselves to their ostensible theme or more simply, altered the exhibition’s caption to something more inclusively descriptive of its actual content. All of this notwithstanding, the exhibition itself was worthwhile in that it afforded a younger generation a good opportunity to see a fair sampling of canvases from an era recently past yet already submerged in obscurity and neglect by the ascendency after 1930 of internationally acclaimed indigenously American artistic movements, beginning with Abstract Expressionism. For many in an older group, however, this large assembly of works by such painters as Patrick Henry Bruce, Konrad Cramer, Arthur B. Davies, Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Morris Kantor, Charles Sheeler, Henry Fitch Taylor, William and Marguerite Zorach and many others of the period provided nostalgic confrontation with a familiar, yet almost forgotten, cultural environment.

A selection of drawings (spanning 1955–1966) by William Brice (organized by the Art Gallery, University of California, San Diego) offered San Franciscans an opportunity to acquaint themselves with work by a skillful Los Angeles graphicist. Brice’s drawings (mostly in charcoal) demonstrate his disciplined command of a wide range of techniques, viewpoints, styles, and moods. There are portraits and figure studies essayed in various modalities of draftsmanship from fastidious and academically refined modeling to the energetically erratic lines, heavy smudges and coarse impetuous scribble-hatching of a vigorous expressionism. There are erotically-toned, quasi-abstract, dreamlike “biomorphic landscapes” in which parts of figures, explicitly stated, dissolve into ambiguous configurations challenging in their multiform and tantalizing insinuations of some ever elusive readability. There are stark, shadowy interiors and strange forest nocturnes, but these are always environments for figures which provide the dominant theme of Brice’s work. There are no still lifes and no pure landscapes. The preponderance of Brice’s work relates so strongly in style, device and mood to 20th-century German Expressionism that Munch, Kirchner, Nolde and Kollwitz irrepressibly come to mind, alternatively and in varying degrees of fusion, as one surveys these drawings. The exhibition was supplemented with a handsome and luxurious catalog embracing a folio of fine reproductions of 40 of the exhibited works, prefaced with forewords by Gerald Nordland and Thomas W. Leavitt and an essay of somewhat rhapsodic critical evaluation by Frederick S. Wight.

The Berkeley Gallery closed its 1966–67 season with a joint exhibition; Mel Ramos (drawings) and Peter Layton (ceramic sculpture). In a manner deliberately invoking the airbrush mannequin-sleekness that characterized the Petty-Varga “Esquire Calendar Girls” of 30 years ago, Mr. Ramos has executed a series of 15 “emblematic” nude studiesof a youthful (approx. 40-22-36) model pertly enhancing such Pop-props as enlarged name-brand soft drink bottle caps, toothpaste tubes, trade shields and the like, occasionally spiced with a touch of Aristophanically bawdy satire contrived upon obvious phallic connotations of commercial motifs. (In a drawing entitled Doggie Dinah, the nude nymph, in a kneeling pose, suggestively straddles a gigantic hot dog bun.) However, Pop art props and devices do not conceal Ramos’s genuine and exuberant emotional enjoyment of the somewhat peaches-and-cream erotic-sensuous potentialities of his figurative idiom for their own sake: he can revel in lavishing patently accomplished academic draftsmanship in evoking voluptuous tactile insinuations (by such simple means, for example, as depicting smooth full bosoms that slightly yield firm contours to the pressure of their own weight as the subject, coquettishly leaning forward, rests them against her folded arms), or he can invest loving and fastidious portraiture on his model’s mole-and-dimple accented repertoire of saucily sexy smiles and pouts.

Peter Layton, a British subject born in Prague in 1937 and educated in England has already taught at the college level in Iowa and Illinois and is a newcomer to California, having recently occupied a teaching post at Sacramento State College from whence he is presently to assume teaching duties in the rapidly expanding fine arts program at the Davis Campus of the University of California. Mr. Layton’s ceramic sculpture runs a gamut of effects from “funky” polyester-visceral biomorphism to a simulation of lithoid surfaces and configurations, with a frequent suggestion in the latter vein of strange, ancient rocks which have been crudely petroglyphed and roughhewn into primitive phallic totems. Many of these ideas and effects are of course familiar, having already, in the brief history of synthetic ceramics, run the course from novelty to cliché. But Mr. Layton reveals himself as a sensitive artist and painstaking craftsman who can adapt familiar devices and conceptions to his personal viewpoint with imagination and subtlety of thought and execution.

Palmer D. French