San Francisco

San Francisco

During September the San Francisco Museum of Art featured a one man show of graphics by Sam Francis together with the final round of its program of rotating multiple solo shows devoted mainly to young Bay Area artists and entitled Arts of San Francisco.

While the Sam Francis was indeed extensive and comprehensively retrospective of the past 17 years of the artist’s graphic output (120 works in various media: acrylic on paper, egg tempera on paper, watercolor, gouache, drawing) and had been advantageously exploited in the museum’s advance publicity as a signal event, it was accorded curiously offhand treatment in the actual mounting, having been presented without catalog and relegated to a small foyer and the three rectangularly connected, unevenly illuminated corridors usually given over to small secondary exhibitions. In any case, the use of these narrow thoroughfares as exhibition areas has always seemed at best a necessary evil and an embarrassing reminder that a city of San Francisco’s size, financial importance and tourist popularity has yet not been able to accommodate its only museum for contemporary art with more than one floor of what is essentially, and despite its deceptively monumental facade, a civic office building.

Francis’s work over the past 17 years has maintained an overall consistency of high quality within an already matured and distinctively personal style which obviously received its impetus during the 1950s in the high summer of Abstract Expressionism. Here and there a shape or turn of line echoes faint accents of Kandinsky or Miró as from some remote heritage, while more immediate antecedent affinities are to Gorky, Matta and the “over-all” drip and splatter canvases of Pollock. Yet it is apparent that these influences from Europe and New York were condensed and directed in sympathetic proximity to those strains of esoteric,leaning-to-the-Orient, esthetic cultism which had already taken root on the West Coast in the previous decade. In Francis’s precious and fragile tenuosities of calligraphic lyricism there is certainly at least a remote spiritual kinship to the “white writing” of Tobey and even to the work of such minor local exponents of Zen oriented calligraphic mystique as Gordon Onslow-Ford. But Francis is more than a minor artist; his reputation is solid and deserved and this exhibition clearly establishes his pre-eminence among like-minded colleagues. For, while even Tobey’s work frequently degenerates into pedantic cultism, Francis’s is ever fresh, buoyant and inventive; exuberance is its key tone. Francis does not, perhaps, methodically limit his palette to the primary triad, still, black, white and high keyed clear values of the primary colors are preponderant throughout his work. Blue usually assumes the major burden of stating the heavier filled-in shapes, while splatter-clusters and linearities of red and yellow seem often to spread radially or to “shower down” from various points like fireworks bursting in the air. Black is occasional line or accent and white—the white, white ground of the paper—is importantly ever there: it is there interstitially in the densely meshed compositions and it assumes a dominant role in what are perhaps Francis’s most successful studies—a theme with variations appearing as an alternative method to his calligraphic meshes as early as 1957 in which the ground, or negative space of the paper is subtly defined as a matrix by elegantly simple and variously contoured marginal brushstrokes of color, and left either “portentously blank” (the mystical “pregnant void” concept) or is a resonating vortex for some carefully placed, off-center miniscule splatter of pale color to achieve maximum dramatic effect. Of course, this is all very cerebrally calculated and philosophical, but Francis carries it off so successfully that it never loses the impact and surprise of spontaneous invention. The carefully contrived cohesions, plotted contrasts and syntactical containments of Francis’s work never—as in less inspired hands they easily might—degenerate into mere clichés of decorative sensibility, but remain dynamically communicative of valid artistic sensations and experiences.

The final round of the Arts of San Francisco program included sculpture by Gerald Walburg, sculpture and plastic wall panels by Rodger Jacobsen, paint on fiberglass construction-paintings by Fred Spratt, oil on canvas paintings by Joseph Tannous and a memorial exhibition of found object sculpture and assemblages by the late John Baxter.

Gerald Walburg’s most impressive exhibit was a series of executions in various materials of a design entitled A Piece Constructed By Manipulating One Sheet of Metal. This is a clever essay in geometric formalism revealing Walburg’s concern with tricks derived from such mathematical disciplines as topology. While his larger pieces are less intriguing, Warburg’s work has emphatic Bauhaus accents in its sleek and economic geometricism and its obvious. references to technology and the esthetic properties of mathematically calculated symmetries.

Rodger Jacobsen’s two untitled constructions in steel were the most stimulating abstract sculpture yet to be exhibited by any of the younger group of Bay Area artists. Even while dramatically exploiting audacious shapes and asymmetries, it exists completely in the round, presenting from any angle an interesting wholeness and yet inevitably drawing one to explore those surfaces hidden from the immediate given view and thus leading one to walk around it again and again, pausing to comprehend surprises revealed by the slightest shifts of observational position. Jacobsen’s two-dimensional wall plaques—drawings in enamel on masonite, such as Four Squares (1966) or such essays in phosphorescent paint under transparent plexiglass as Prism (1967)—reveal an equally fertile imagination and understanding of space and optical illusion.

Fred Spratt experiments engagingly in applying paint to topologically modulated fiberglass surfaces, often on both sides. What are areas of convexity on one side of such a surface are of course areas of concavity on the other and vice versa: in fact, mirror or “vice versa” relationships reminiscent of the inverse, retrograde, and inverse-retrograde theme statements of Baroque musical counterpoint, are Mr. Spratt’s forte. He exhibits groups of these construction-paintings proliferating purely orientational variants on a single theme: one work merely reversing the right-left polarity of its companion piece, while another pair may alternate the obverse-reverse polarity, or, perhaps, the top-bottom polarity of the initial pair, and so forth. Scale and startling color contrasts give his range of exhibits some spectacularity and an aura of zestful playfulness.

In contrast to the overall atmosphere of experiment, high spirits and exuberant, forward-looking contemporaneousness which characterizes the exhibits of most of these young artists, Joseph Tanous presents some rather banal conventionally Surrealistic oil paintings laboriously paraphrasing Magritte in conception.

John Baxter (1912–1966) was a prominent figure in the artistic life of the Bay region; a former member of the curatorial staff of the San Francisco Art Museum he later taught art at the University of California (Davis) until his untimely death last year. The current memorial exhibition of a selection of his works consists principally of found object sculpture and assemblages. Once-waterlogged planks, heavy chunks of wood, and sea-eroded scraps of chain and other iron fragments—bits and pieces that are, or at least suggest, the washed-ashore wreckage of old wooden ships, long bleached in the sun—were his main materials. There is a briny and almost Homeric simplicity and eloquence to these exhibits, evoking, at times lyrically, at times epically, the moods of the sea and its many meanings to poet, mystic, naturalist, and hero-seafarer since time immemorial.

Palmer D. French