San Francisco

San Francisco

The 1970 Sculpture Annual of the Richmond Art Center provided the San Francisco Bay Area with a mild esthetic scandal. The sole juror, Southern California sculptor Larry Bell, selected a show in which no object was exhibited in the gallery. All of the 152 entrants, except the three whose works were selected for nonexhibition, were awarded first prize, and the prize money, divided equally, amounted to the return of the five-dollar entry fee.

The three works selected for non-exhibition were represented by documents. James McCready submitted the San Francisco Fire Department fighting the fire that threatened to burn down Old St. Mary’s Church, in Chinatown. Since the fire had long since been put out, McCready submitted his entry in the form of a photograph. Paul Kos, another artist whose work was selected for non-exhibition, submitted a proposal for a conceptual piece. His proposal included a blank check payable to Paul Kos, to be filled out by any reader and sent to Kos. Everyone who sent a check would be an artist participating in the Sculpture Annual; his piece would be the canceled check. So that no money need actually change hands—the work is entitled Quid Pro Quo—Kos proposed to send a check for an equal amount of money to each of the participating artists. The third work nonexhibited at the Art Center was by Terry Fox. Relatively speaking, it was conservative: a sheet of plastic, nine by twenty-four feet, blown by an electric fan. The piece was to be viewed in the artist’s studio at specified times. It was represented in the Art Center by a mimeographed sheet of paper giving directions for driving to the artist’s studio in San Francisco and the times when the work might be viewed.

There were 149 prizewinners, and by felicitous chance one of the non-winners proposed that a check be sent to Paul Kos. He was added to the pool of winners, the sum available for prize money ($750) was divided among 150 persons, and everyone got five dollars. (Except McCready and Fox; high art is less neat than algebra, but you get the idea.) Since the entry fee had been five dollars, the impression was generally received that the entrants had all been declared first-prize winners and had gotten their entries and their money back. Another point, not proposed by the entrants, is that none of the original material submitted by the nonwinners is exhibited in the Art Center. The original materials—a photograph, a written proposal for a conceptual work, and driving directions to Terry Fox’s studio—were reproduced and mailed, as the catalog, to everyone on the Art Center’s mailing list. One set of the reproduced material was shown in the Art Center’s gallery.

Seizing upon a possibility inherent in this idea, three gallery directors installed the Richmond Sculpture Annual—i.e. the catalog—in their own establishments, and the Annual has become an almost instantaneously traveling, or simultaneous, exhibition. The Annual is known to have been installed at the Arizona State University Museum, in Tempe, Ariz., at the Toledo (Ohio) Art Museum, and at the San Jose (Cal.) State College Gallery.

It has been widely assumed in the Bay Area art community that Larry Bell set out in cold blood, more or less in collusion with Tom Marioni, curator of the Art Center, to create a bizarre event, and in doing so caused many sculptors needless trouble, expense, and embarrassment. The following account, which may alter this assumption according to whether or not one believes it to be true, has been given to me by Tom Marioni:

When he arrived in Richmond, Larry Bell did not know that his function as juror was to select the prizewinners. He believed vaguely that he would be called upon to preside over the awards ceremony and otherwise play the visiting celebrity, and that the actual selection was done by someone else, presumably the Art Center’s staff. He had never before juried a show and had entered a juried show only once, while he was in art school. After his duties were made clear to him, Bell found himself depressed by the quality of the entries he saw. But there were still other pieces to be viewed: sculptors who found it inconvenient or impossible to transport their work to the Art Center could invite the juror to view it in their studios, and Bell got into his car and wished himself good luck. At this point Bell thought he was going to select a roomful of objects. On the whole, the work he saw in the studios was disappointing, but he did like Terry Fox’s piece. Since the piece had been designed for the shape of Fox’s studio and the transparent plastic was intended to be seen against the painted floor of the studio, Fox suggested that the public might be invited to see it where it was, although it could if necessary be shown at the Art Center.

Bell was disheartened about the quality of the object sculpture entered in the competition, and it now occurred to him that he could jury a show in which nothing recognizable as a work of sculpture would be in the gallery. There had been several conceptual pieces submitted, from which he selected two, and from there it was only a hop, skip, and jump to the controversial outcome. Some of the prizewinners were amused by the Annual; others were offended in greater or lesser degree. One member of the Richmond City Council said he considered the show a waste of time and talent, a view expressed privately by many whose credentials make them less easy to dismiss. Larry Bell has said he will never again jury a show. And Tom Marioni, the Art Center’s curator, has opened the Museum of Conceptual Art in a San Francisco office building; the burghers of Richmond and their City Council may now be a little safer from oddball ideas realized on their premises rather than his own by some weirdo on the public payroll.

In a strikingly beautiful show at the Hansen-Fuller Gallery, sculptor Peter Gutkin presented rather more tangible works executed over the past three years. He is obviously a brilliant craftsman in wood, plastics, and other materials, and he has a romantic vision that enables him to create a bit of landscape in an art gallery. He can suggest a jungle with a single plastic object, as in Fetal Fern.

All this is pleasant and easily accessible to the viewer, but Gutkin is doing other things as well. Most noticeably, he is experimenting with borders and continuity. Any freestanding work of sculpture is in a sense not continuous with the space in which it is displayed, but Gutkin has created successive layers of discontinuity. The largest component of Nice Ice is a leaning structure reminiscent of the metallic slab that recurs continually in the motion picture 2001. Gutkin’s slab appears on its own earth, which consists of lumps of coal of varied size. Near the edge of the piece they are gravel-sized, small enough to walk on comfortably. Toward the leaning slab they become larger and discourage the viewer from stepping on them. The coal, whose surface is visually consonant with the finish of the slab, suggests the land out of which the slab has grown and at the same time establishes degrees of approachability.

In Too Much Street Noise, which looks as if a lot of colorful microorganisms had stepped out of the volumeless space of a Miró painting and had become sculpture, there is a crushed mineral substance underfoot, out of which the elements of the sculpture seem to grow. At the same time, although they are plainly three-dimensional and can be seen entering the patch of ground the sculptor has created for them, these elements seem to hang in an unreal space quite different from the space of the gallery.

A small but impressive one-man show at the San Francisco Museum of Art presented box constructions and paintings by William Allan. The show was held in connection with an award of $2000 made by the Museum’s Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art. The award is intended for artists whose work has not been widely exhibited.

The strongest piece in the show was Self-Improvement, a seascape in acrylic on canvas. A sailing vessel approaches a rock on which a huge microphone has been built. The microphone is labeled “SPEAK TO THE SEA.” On the ship there are labels attached to the masts, reminding the viewer of such goals as “LOOK TO THE STARS,” “NATURAL FOODS,” “THE BODY FREE,” and “SPEAK FRENCH.” This painting depends for much of its impact on the viewer’s understanding the words and the situation they refer to. But the painting does not say or mean something in the way that an editorial cartoon does. It does not hold self-improvement up to examination, much less to ridicule. One can hardly say it is even about self-improvement more than it is about any of the other human enterprises that must be half-done, not quite dignified, because life is a brief journey between one void and another. Allan is not trying obtrusively to work his way into the history of art. Without creating new forms, he is making comments on the human. condition that cannot readily be translated into words, or understood, or dismissed. The best of these pieces are extremely effective devices for producing feelings of recognition and uneasiness.

There have been several outstanding drawing shows this season. Weyman Lew, at the de Young Museum, presented a delightful and witty collection of his recent work in a style reminiscent of Art Nouveau. Lew’s fondness for drawing fat women brings Aubrey Beardsley to mind immediately, but there are real differences to be seen. The fat women do not seem related to any private hell within the artist, as one imagines Beardsley’s women to be. Mr. Lew seems rather to be commenting on the way we live with one another and the things we expect of one another. A close look tells us not to expect too much.

Where one feels that even the fattest of Beardsley’s people were capable of a four-minute mile in the service of the devil, Lew’s people may actually be petrified. The force of gravity is evident throughout. In some kinds of Oriental thought it is considered possible to become morally obese by- committing impure acts; Weyman Lew’s people seem to have attained their physical obesity by not acting at all. These are sober thoughts about very funny pictures. A marvelous show.

James Strombotne has a collection of brash and vigorous drawings on view at the Capper Gallery. There are a lot of naked persons in these drawings, a lot of sexual organs, and a lot of copulation. But Strombotne’s view of sex is almost wholly devoid of simple high spirits, although the drawings themselves may have been executed with zest. In few instances is the copulating pair clearly happy or mutually glassy-eyed about the proceedings. Some of the creatures with penises are monsters with long canine heads and wickedly pointed teeth. The penises themselves are often far too large for the women whose genitals they are apposed to. One has no way of knowing Strombotne’s own feelings about sexuality and the sexual organs. He uses the penis almost invariably as a symbol of brutal aggression. The sociopolitical aspect of this use of symbolism is bluntly expressed in one drawing in which there is the figure of a man drawn entirely in outline except for two areas colored solid red: the head of the penis and the ribbon of a medal on the man’s chest.

In one drawing that depicts a couple apparently in sexual congress—“making love” would be a ridiculous locution here—the male is a vulpine-headed monster with a human body, at least twice the size of the woman. She is a long-haired innocent sitting with her back to the monster, whose penis is disappearing between her legs. Her face is turned away from us, and we cannot judge whether she is having joyful sex, some kind of masochistic ecstasy, or a pure hell to which she is resigned. The monster’s face is impassive. The announcement tells us Strombotne’s drawings are “dirty filthy awful vulgar rude funny and clever pictures,” and they certainly are. They are intelligent, exuberant, and not uniformly serious. Offhand in execution, some of them, but not sloppily thought. This is a boisterous and at the same time disquieting show.

At the Michael Walls Gallery there has been a show of drawings in mixed media, including found objects and a photograph of the artist’s boyhood home, by the Los Angeles songwriter and aspirant to universal genius—Terry Allen. His drawings include many of the standard pictorial symbols of cowboy art. There are God’s own plenty of horses, revolvers, cowboy boots, broad-brimmed Stetsons, neckerchiefs, and longhorn steer skulls. There are also phallic cactus plants and what one imagines to be penises in the form of frankfurter-shaped objects. Allen expresses a scarifying view of Western nostalgia. Evisceration occurs often in these drawings; it is clear that the livestock on Terry Allen’s mythical ranch are not noble creatures and objects of sentimentality; they are meant to be slaughtered, and they are gutted before our eyes.

Another recurring image is the musical staff, which Allen uses to organize the space of some of the drawings. Theatrical curtains are also used to suggest that what may be termed the central action is taking place on a stage. Allen, who grew up in Texas, lives in Southern California, and turns an occasional penny as a writer of Western songs, is understandably concerned with the nature of reality. His drawings, which are at once ingratiating and frightening, like much that comes from Los Angeles, tell us in various ways that they are about art and artifice and the world of entertainment. They are also about lying and Texas lying. Texas must be a very great state. One should add that although his style suggests the Hairy Who and the underground comic book in some respects, Terry Allen is a meticulous draftsman and has a vision of his world that makes Robert Crumb look like Shirley Temple. A very talented and workmanlike and variously ambitious freak, this man.

Jerome Tarshis