San Francisco

San Francisco

The San Francisco Museum of Art devoted the mid-summer to a feature schedule entitled The Arts of San Francisco which was on the whole to be commended as the most rationally endeavored and thoughtfully organized exhibition program yet undertaken by it in the cause of affording comprehensive and informative exposure to Bay Area art. Throughout the eleven week program the major portion of the Museum’s exhibition space was allotted, in various partitionings, to a succession of simultaneous one-man shows of Bay Area artists, of from three to four weeks duration, and with various galleries changing shows on mutually noncongruent schedules. A responsibly selective survey of Bay Area art, in depth, and concentrated in one museum, such as this program afforded, came as a welcome contrast to the plethora of one-work-per-artist group shows, award shows, annuals, corridor shows and the like, perennially ubiquitous in Bay Area museums and art centers.

Refreshingly, a fair number of mature local artists of proven abilities, not hitherto accorded a deserved share of museum exposure, were represented in The Arts of San Francisco program. One, for example, was Jack Carrigg who, for a number of years and in various exhibitions at the Triangle Gallery, has been pursuing unexplored possibilities of hard-edge, vertical-stripe colorism. Carrigg eschews the easy gimmickry and well-known Op color-juxtaposition formulas for afflicting the viewer with retinally induced vertigo, in favor of subtler and more tenuous resources. His work, while technically ultra-sophisticated and disciplined, never deteriorates into merely pedantic dissertations on a formula, for it abounds in imagination and insights which, met halfway by reflective contemplation on the part of the viewer, may yield quietly exhilarating surprises. Indeed, Carrigg would appear to be exploiting the variational potentialities of his formula with the integrity, dedication and ingenuity of a Larry Poons.

Visiting the museum at roughly midpoint in this program one came upon an interesting and contrasting constellation of extensive one-man shows including presentations of work by painters Clayton Pinkerton, Daniel Shapiro and Robert Bechtle and sculptor Tio Giambruni.

Of the three painters, Pinkerton presented by far the most commanding exhibits in style as well as in subject matter. His large, boldly executed cartoon-like acrylic paintings explore various amalgamations of devices and gestures derived from Pop, Op and painterly expressionism in highly individual syntheses with which he conjures a wide range of telling moods and humors to lend unavoidable and dramatically arresting impact to the politically conscious messages of his paintings. There is a kind of ribald irony with gusto to his gigantic Hello To All Our Friends Around the World depicting in massive cartoon-like strokes an atomic mushroom cloud looming high in the sky over a low horizon, and in Lyndon Bird (1966) in which, again, the boldest cartoon strokes reduce to ultimate simplicity of telegraphic statement a swooping plane, a falling bomb. By contrast, Working Things Out would be a typically painterly abstraction in delicately modulated greens, yellows and umbers were it not for a red cross on a white oblong searing through the tranquil verdure to shout that this is an aerial reconnaissance view of a scene of mechanized jungle warfare. Friends (1966) is stark, grimly ominous and menacing: swastika-decorated black jackets topped with white helmets trace shadowy forms, slouched, as though idling astride motorcycles; again, the maximum of message and supporting mood is achieved with minimal means. For all its appearance of careless slapdash and easy bravura this is highly sophisticated technique.

Robert Bechtle continues his muted realistic paintings of finned and streamlined white-wall-tired modern automobiles parked on palm-lined suburban streets against a background of the neo-Spanish-Colonial cottages that characterized California’s suburban development in the mid-1920s. The paintings are presumably social commentary, in their way conveying the external mood of tidy and tranquil (if somewhat spiritually impoverished) complacency exuded by middle-class suburban environments. Except for the change in automobile designs, the style paraphrases closely the “idyllic materialism” of the slick magazine advertising art of four decades ago, which proclaimed, in primly sweet pastel pictures, rosy, cosy vistas of just such sunny balm and comfort, ostensibly made possible by the post-World War I, pre-Depression burgeoning of the automotive industry and the California real estate boom.

Daniel Shapiro essays mostly flat and somewhat involved calligraphic abstract designs on small panels, grouped within frames into larger paintings, conveying a suggestion that the individual squares, like children’s blocks, could be individually reoriented and collectively reordered within the frames with equally interesting results.

It is easy, commonplace metaphor to “animize” or even “personify” mechanical vehicles or giant industrial dynamos that throb, chug and whir with piston, cog and wheel, since, after all, they move. But, likewise, to the fancy of many people, even the relatively silent and visibly static gadgets of technology—from the primitive “pot-bellied” Franklin stove to the gargantuan tanks, pipes and funnels studded with valves and gauges of gleaming brass such as one might find in some Leviathan boiler-room—have appeared at times to have a kind of organic animus or “personality,” often humorous, occasionally menacing. It is amalgamations of such metaphors with the purely geometric-esthetic properties of the “static engine,” as well as, of course, its social environmental implications, that preoccupy Tio Giambruni in the two large structures he exhibited. The best and most impressive piece was a long rectangularly convoluted segment of ringed aluminum piping (of large diameter) supported on metal shoulders and “ornamented” with brass (or bronze) fittings. In generality of texture and overall structural appearance this object seems typical of any metal conduit one might expect to see as a subterranean installation accessory to some giant public building’s heating plant or air-conditioning system. In this respect, therefore, it can be said to invoke an environment of a sort which nearly everyone has experienced, at least momentarily, at some time, and which many experience intensively during the greater part of their workaday lives. Perhaps the words “BUM BUM YOU HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE” die-molded on a supportive metal shoulder (in a style and place most probable for a foundry mark and code number) is a comment on this.

Hansen Galleries, having moved from its former location on Tillman Place to far more spacious quarters on Grant Avenue, closed its 1966–67 season with an excellent showing of lithographs by Dennis Beall and sculpture by John Battenberg. Beall’s graphics explore a varied range of subject matter: emblems, cryptic signs (with Pop art references), comically improbable objects, improbably juxtaposed familiar objects, and repetitive pattern sequences rendered asymmetrical by one (non-central) variant element. Wry humor and dry wit subtly pervade most of Beall’s work, and one often suspects a pun or a charade is intended, to which, however, only the artist holds the key. Beall nonetheless is a skillful graphic technician with an extremely fine awareness of textures. Usually a technical problem is posed and cleverly solved in the rendering of his whimsicalities. There are a few serious studies in pure abstract design, while a dreamlike and poetically moodfull figurative fantasy entitled Requiem provides a contrast, in vein and style, to the other works he exhibits.

Battenberg continues his studies on the World War I flying ace theme. As before, ghostly tenantless metal casts of 1914 aviation uniforms are jauntily posed like eerily ironic frozen scarecrows. More recently added features are mockups of the foresection cockpits and central wing segments of World War I German fighter planes, to life scale, executed in polyester resin and aluminum.

An exhibition entitled The Joint Show held at the Moore Gallery spotlighted the now so-called “psychedelic” idiom indigenous to the Hippie community of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district, primarily as exemplified in posters, original drawings for posters, other graphic media, and collages. The show featured work by five artists, Alton Kelly, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin and Wes Wilson, all of whom have been intimately associated with the recent and local resurgence of poster art as a serious decorative form in connection with the production and design of posters and handbills for various events and “happenings” at the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom.

The preponderance of early Hippie poster art concerned itself with stylistic mannerisms borrowed from various phases and periods of Art Nouveau. A poster executed collaboratively by Mouse and Kelly for a Jan. 27–28 (1967) appearance of the Grateful Dead at the Avalon Ballroom paraphrases closely the idiosyncrasies and subject matter of the early, “idyllic” era of Art Nouveau dominated by the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and characterized by the limpidly swirling line as distinguished from the tense, “whiplash” line evolved later in German Jugendstil. This poster centers around the inevitable Pre-Raphaelite “demoiselle” in sleeveless Grecian tunic (almost a trademark of early Art Nouveau) whose long flowing tresses, stylistically treated, are carried into marginal and lettered areas of the poster in scroll-like spiraling whorls of decorative embellishment. All of these features of design were standard operating procedures with such artists as Mucha, von Hoffman and Wennerberg. But this superficial cribbing of the schematic formulas of early Art Nouveau by the Hippie artists invites comparison, and comparison betrays the weakness and untutoredness of Hippie art. Mucha, von Hoffman and Wennerberg, like most of the exponents of Art Nouveau, were highly trained, disciplined and sophisticated craftsmen-artists whose linear simplifications of figure drawing were masterpieces of elegant draftsmanship and correct anatomy, while the execution and finishing of the Grateful Dead poster by Kelly and Mouse (neither of whom have had formal training) is slipshod, and the thin, sticklike, cartoon-arm that projects from under the drapery of the heavy-shouldered, full-hipped woman, to rest jointless spike-fingers on a vase, and to contradict the “flowing rhythms” of the drapery and hair, is an embarrassing botch of inept draftsmanship and inconsistent syntax.

Wes Wilson, another self-taught graphicist, fares better in his Jefferson Airplane poster (Fillmore Auditorium, Feb. 3, 4 and 5). Avoiding the challenges of conventional figurative draftsmanship that were a pitfall to Kelly and Mouse in attempting to paraphrase early Art Nouveau, Wilson turns to the “whiplash” line and expressionistic tortions and distortions of later Jugendstil in a central design of grotesque masklike faces emerging from a tree trunk-like “biomorphic” mass of vaguely figurative and anatomical shapes. The treatment of the bizarre masklike features, in bold, simplified masses of black and spectral green, has strong stylistic resemblances to the woodcut technique of Nolde and Kirchner as well as to certain paintings and lithographs of Edvard Munch. This is Wilson’s best poster to date, his other poster work being confined to the elaboration of design-motifs and decorative lettering, derived also from Art Nouveau in its Austrian, Secessionstil phase. The lettering used by Wilson for all of his posters is to be found in a poster by Alfred Roller for the 16th exhibition of the Vienna Secession in 1903, while an eye-and-lid repetitive weave pattern Wilson employs was patently cribbed from Roller’s poster for the 14th Vienna Secession exhibition. It is here to be noted that contrary to common assumption no techniques exclusively ascribable to contemporary Op art are to be found in these posters. Brilliant and “esthetically violent” colors and contrasts are employed, such, however, as can be found in their Jugendstil prototypes, and without the intensively active and often retinally painful “cross-flickerings” and quasi-hallucinatory after-image flashes germane to Op.

The best and most original of the Hippie primitives is Rick Griffin. Griffin’s drawings for the Oracle (a periodical devoted to the art, poetry, social views and quasi-theosophical mystique of the Hippie subculture) reveal him as a painstaking draftsman. His posters turn to indigenous historical sources for their material and style. His lettering faithfully copies the best of the 19th-century circus poster typefaces, and his design-motifs derive from the American commercial art of posters, handbills, patent medicine advertising, matchboxes and cigarette boxes of the turn of the century—sources which were in themselves amusingly primitive and eclectic. However, he combines the elements from these sources in various original and improbable ways to create a poster idiom, which, unlike that of Mouse, Kelly and Wilson, is unpretentious and abounding in a sort of wry “camp” humor. He occasionally turns to the romantic illustrators of 19th-century popularity: a drawing entitled Lucifer Rising skillfully and with extraordinary technical facility paraphrases the winged Lucifer illustrations among Dore’s plates for Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The only artist who does not seem really to belong here is Victor Moscoso. Moscoso is highly trained, having studied at Yale with Albers and Lebrun and with Diebenkorn, Bischoff and Oliveira at the San Francisco Art Institute. His drawing, Cycle Trip, a photo-montage Self Portrait, and his collages, reveal both his training and his highly unusual endowments, original insight and imagination. Two Avalon Ballroom posters by him are unique among Hippie posters not only in being totally thought through in overall design and execution, but likewise in complete originality of idea as well as in drawing from contemporary mainstream Op techniques. In an interesting experiment in one of these posters, two colors in continuous and mutually interlocking bands, alternate as figure and ground in three inter-involved sequences of lettering-mosaic. The color contrasts are optically active, producing flashes, afterimages and the like.

There are also drawings, collages and montages in the show by Kelly, Mouse and Wilson, which derive as lamely from such historic mainstream sources as German Expressionism, Dada, and Dali-esque Surrealism, as their posters do from Art Nouveau.

Palmer D. French