San Francisco

Norman Stiegelmeyer

San Francisco Art Institute

The numerous large canvases by Norman Stiegelmeyer recently exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute, while unquestionably impressive by reason of the ambitious muralesque scale of their refined elaboration of extravagantly colorful and ornate fantasmagoric designs, failed lamentably to fulfill the promise of the simple, powerful drawing which the artist executed for the exhibition’s announcement poster, and in general, disappointed expectations engendered by his small-format graphic work seen in previous years at the Institute’s annual drawing shows. This earlier graphic work by Stiegelmeyer was usually interestingly innovative within a coherently homogeneous style, bearing the stamp of a strongly individual approach to exploring those new techniques of graphic art which are not a matter of novel media, but of the extended frontiers of visual perception-stimulation made available through the recent popularization of certain optical investigations and experiments of Gestalt Psychology.

The exhibition was composed for the most part of large designs, mural in scale and conception, often bisymmetrically composed, and patently symbolic-decorative in overall disposition. However, there was a marked vacillation of style, principally as between an academicization—i.e., a translation into historically informed, technically sophisticated disciplines—of the “psychedelic revival” of Art Nouveau (originally regional to the Bay Area as an urban quasi-folk art indigenous to the Hippie community and initially popularized in posters for rock bands) on the one hand, and imitations of ethnic primitivism, full of shapes from Miró (as transmitted through Roy De Forest) on the other. A few paintings in this latter group came much too close to an untransformed assimilation of the De Forest hieroglyphy with all its fatuously trivial busy-ness of gift-shop-ceramic mock primitivism.

The only paintings in the show even minimally rewarding of contemplation—and those most approaching some degree of organic continuity with the artist’s earlier directions—were the works essaying his transformed assimilation into the new techniques of color organization and “Gestalt Optics” of the exotic Art Nouveau of Ballet Diaghilev Oriental stage decor, complete with its eclectic iconography of jeweled serpents, peacocks, phoenixes, lotuses and lotus pads, quasi-Tibetan mandala forms and butterfly-wing cardioids. These paintings were composed in terms of a basically graphic, two-dimensional syntax in which symmetrically organized, geometrically contoured areas of flat color (including unpainted surface areas of the fine, carefully stretched, eggshell-hued linen frequently used as a ground medium) formed a matrix for smaller shapes generated within a framework of broad, arabesque linear patterning often subordinately elaborated with an interstitial filigree of minute emblematic and calligraphic motifs. Elegant fastidiousness of craftsmanship and carefully achieved velvety smoothnesses and soft, thinly-spread, powdery granularities of texture, characterized the realization of these designs.

Palmer D. French