San Francisco

“Looking Back: Bay Area 1945–1962”

Historical moods also prevailed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in (yet another) provincial retrospective-introspective show devoted to 25 artists who were prominent in the San Francisco art community between 1945 and 1962. While the show was entitled “Looking Back: Bay Area 1945–1962,” it was, on the admission of its organizer, curator John Humphrey, primarily devoted to San Francisco. The East Bay and influences centering around the University of California, and deriving from Hans Hofmann’s incumbency there some time back, were neglected in favor of the oft-retold legend of the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and the Clyfford Still-Mark Rothko-Frank Lobdell triumvirate and its enormous influence on two generations of San Francisco artists.

The show’s intended thesis, (in the absence of a catalog, and in view of the purely chronological, and hence thematically incoherent installation) had to be deduced from such peripheral sources as news releases, interviews with museum staff and a clue afforded by the exhibition’s initially projected title (“The Romantic Spirit of the Bay Area”). It would seem to have been that a romantic and murky, symbol-ridden Abstract Expressionism transmitted back in the mid-’40s by prophet-pedagogue Clyfford Still ignited an indigenous San Francisco mystical romanticism. This, after formulating itself for a while in the murkily symbolic Abstract Expressionism, extended on the one hand into an equally romantic new-image figurative expressionism and on the other hand into “Bay Area” Funk-Dada.

Bruce Connor effectively forestalled the intended inclusion of his work of the specified period by issuing a letter-quasi-ultimatum-quasi-manifesto to the museum claiming for himself the “right” to alter his works during the exhibition’s progress and also defending the “right” of others to handle and even alter it, insisting that all works by him must be subject to constant revision and growth in an ongoing process embracing social participation. Arlo Acton, whose work of the period would surely seem to place him within the exhibition’s milieu, was also omitted.

Palmer D. French