San Francisco

San Francisco

various locations

The most interesting art event of the spring season was the show of new sculpture by Robert Hudson at the Michael Walls Gallery. Hudson has abandoned the jolly multicolored structures of earlier shows; the predominant if not the only color on display here was battleship grey. In a more fundamental sense, however, this work is consistent with, and builds logically upon, the gaily colored Surrealism for which Hudson is known. The outstanding formal enterprise here is a thoroughgoing discontinuity, a relentless twisting and disappointment of the viewer’s expectations.

It is possible to examine some of these pieces and find astonishing formal jumps foot by foot, if not inch by inch. True Blue is, to begin with, an industrial looking wheeled object. The wheels are industrial and the dull blue and grey paint is industrial. But discontinuities keep jumping in. Above the smaller pair of wheels is a piece of metal cut as if it were wood and the artist were a cabinetmaker using a jigsaw. The material is metal, the color is grey, and the form reminds you of 18th-century furniture.

Above this is the looped structure whose blue color presumably gives the piece its name. Its head is supported by a great horizontal pipe, but its waist is propped up by a silly looking half log mysteriously attached to the whole. If we leap to the other base, with the large wheels, we see little lengths of chain, four links each. What is the purpose of those bits of chain? They burst from a smooth, painted metal surface as if they were hairs, or acne, or measles.

In Protractor X any attempt to find symmetry or continuity or a reasonable structure is ruthlessly frustrated. Hudson must have a marvelous sense of good form to be able to carry his viewers on these journeys of playful destruction. Although I was initially put off by this show and still feel more baffled than entertained by some of the pieces in it, this was obviously the most impressive sculpture show in the Bay Area this spring. Hudson is a joker of enormous wit and accomplishment, and he honors San Francisco by exhibiting here.

Joel Barletta (also at Walls) exhibited more yellow paintings of the kind he has been showing for the past several years. These are geometric abstractions with variations in hue and value so slight as to remind the viewer of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings.

In the absence of color reproductions of good quality it is almost pointless to discuss these works at any length, but it is still possible to praise them. Barletta’s paintings have grown more complex, and more suggestive of extremely simplified other worlds, with the passing years. There is no obvious reason why they should be as vibrant as they are. Barletta has developed a considerable ability to produce powerful resonances with apparently very modest visual resources. These are profound and beautiful paintings.

Felix Ruvolo and Marvin Jones have had a two-man show at the Jason Aver Gallery. They seem a remarkably ill-matched pair, although it may be part of the strategy of two-man shows to associate artists whose work is strikingly dissimilar. Ruvolo, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, showed mainly large paintings in acrylic, with forms that wake echoes of The Machine At Work as it would have been done by the Futurists if they had gone in for hard-edge abstraction.

To the extent that these paintings are lively, their liveliness arises from the brightness of their colors and the suggestion of motion that is inherent in Ruvolo’s forms. But aside from this formal vivacity, I cannot feel that the artist was personally excited by these paintings. They are agreeable and competent, and they look like the very thing an architect would want to liven up an office building or the lobby of a high-rise apartment building.

Marvin Jones, who is in his twenties and teaches at Sacramento State College, is something else. This was his first show in a commercial gallery; he had previously shown only in university galleries. His drawings, done with ball-point pens of various colors, create a strongly realized world of their own. Jones uses dinosaurs and cows, Nazis (in the form of persons or things displaying the swastika, except that for some reason it is the American Indian rather than the Nazi swastika), tanks, World War II airplanes shooting machine-gun bullets in those stylized broken lines familiar from comic books and boyhood sketches of 25 years ago, and other symbols of physical aggression.

But somehow the airplane is drawn in such an abstracted way that it loses its menace and is far less frightening than a Pop fighter plane by Rosenquist. The dinosaurs, in spite of their great jagged teeth, look as if they will turn out to be vegetarians. And the airplanes are shooting their tracer bullets into targets that will feel no pain. In both line and color these drawings are in some way reminiscent of early American primitive paintings. The ball-point pen inks give effects of pallor that recalls primitive paintings done in vegetable colors. Jones has created a world of domesticated but nevertheless real menace. This was a fine show.

One of the most diverting art events of recent months was “Sound Sculpture As,” a musique concrète collaboration by nine artists, at the Museum of Conceptual Art. (The Museum is located on the fourth floor of an office building in San Francisco. The space is Terry Fox’s studio when it is not functioning as the Museum.)

The first piece to be apprehended by the audience was literally underfoot as one got off the elevator. Attached to the floor, by Peter Macan, was a sheet of plastic wrapping material painted with aluminum paint. As it was stepped on, the material made a great popping noise. In a generally successful evening this was one of the better pieces.

Mel Henderson’s contribution to the festivities was firing a .30-caliber rifle into sheets of paper stacked against a sawhorse. In keeping with the musical flavor of the event, this performance was deliberately arranged in time. Before the rifle was fired, a home movie of sorts was projected on the paper, and Henderson made several suspenseful false starts, aiming the rifle without firing it. According to the official account of the event, a tiger was being projected on the paper when Henderson finally fired the rifle. Much of the audience missed this, but a good time was had by all, especially after the echoes of the shot stopped reverb erat ing. It is amazing how much noise a .30-caliber rifle can make in a fairly small enclosed space.

On a musical loudness scale, these two events must rank as forte and fortissimo. The next event, conceived by Jim Melchert and executed by Jim Pomeroy, consisted of Pomeroy’s dialing the Museum’s telephone number from a pay phone across the street, in Breen’s celebrated bar. The phone was allowed to ring 15 times. Then Pomeroy hung up and dialed again, and waited for another 15 rings. Piano in loudness and in merit.

The program had been announced in advance, and undoubtedly one of the most looked-forward-to events was Allan Fish standing on an eight-foot ladder and urinating a full bladder’s worth (after a day of drinking beer) into a galvanized washtub. It would appear that Fish got cold feet, for the piece was finally performed by Tom Marioni, director of the Museum, with his back to the audience. After this, Terry Fox did some nondescript things that included pushing a shovel across the floor.

Paul Kos and Richard Beggs collaborated on a piece in which the sound was to be produced by two 25-pound cakes of ice melting on the floor. The sound of the melting was to be recorded by eleven microphones hooked up to a battery of recording and amplifying equipment. It was first announced that the amplified sound would be played back, then that a mechanical failure had occurred and the elusive sound had therefore been lost.

Herb Yarmo contributed to the joyous occasion a girl in a white bathing suit standing on a pedestal. She performed a collaborative piece by Terry Fox and Paul Kos, holding a 15-foot drainpipe up to her belly button and dropping BB shot into the pipe so that one could hear them rolling interminably down the pipe toward the floor.

After that came a pianissimo piece by Jim McCready, who had four girls walk back and forth, the quiet sound in question being produced by the friction of their nylon stockings, thigh on thigh.

In the final event of the evening, Arlo Acton worked his way through the crowd, beginning at the back of the room, giving out metal noisemakers. The room was soon filled with the sound of artificial crickets, and we were all suddenly at a nine-year-old kid’s birthday party, except that we were all adults and could really appreciate it. Piano for loudness, fortissimo for merit: I liked Acton’s piece. And to all nine artists, brave!

A recent show at the William Sawyer Gallery featured paintings by Michael John Burns, a young instructor at the University of California, Berkeley. His works fall into two categories: portraits of his friends and abstracted figures in abstracted landscapes. The portraits, in acrylic, pencil, and conté crayon on canvas, arrange the artist’s friends in strictly controlled and static compositions. They are like other more or less realistic paintings done by such Bay Area artists as Robert Bechtle and by thousands of commercial art students. They say to me that Burns can make hip people look just as dull as straight people.

The abstract figure-in-landscape paintings were considerably more exciting to me. They run heavily to target, naked ladies, often with the crotch concealed behind a triangle, and wiggly things that may be snakes or sex symbols or just wiggly things. These serpentine forms look somehow innocuous, as if they couldn’t really be snakes but might be something that comes by the yard, like tape. Burns uses earth colors with interesting effect, and his juxtaposition of geometric and biological forms creates mi Idly disturbing vibrations.

Dan Shapiro has been living and working in California for ten years now, and this period was the subject of a recent retrospective at the Arleigh Gallery. The show included drawings, assemblages, graphics, and paintings in a variety of styles; in Shapiro’s recent history one can see something of the history of American art in the sixties. There were several hard-edge pieces, but most of the show ran to fuzzier and more lyrical abstraction, and figure studies. Shapiro’s figure paintings are not great definitive celebrations of beauty or sexuality. They have an air of being sketches or studies.

The overall impression given by these works is that Shapiro loves to make art. Because of the great profusion of images to be found here, it is easy to suggest that Shapiro has been an artist in search of a style, but I suspect that he is much less interested in “Aha!” reactions than are most conventionally ambitious artists. Instead of look ing for something and know ing when he has found it, Shapiro seems primarily interested in keeping his hands moving. Will and intelligence are welcome in our galleries, but so is love.

An odd history underlies a recent show at the Quay Gallery, entitled “X-Ray Series: Gunshot Wounds and Clinical Enigmas,” by John Saccaro. The works consisted of X-ray films with paint or collage material added. As Saccaro tells the story, he was negotiating the sale of a pistol to a druggist friend of his when it went off and shot the druggist’s clerk in the groin. The bullet was promptly removed and the clerk recovered, but he threatened to bring a lawsuit against Saccaro. During the ensuing year Saccaro’s wife was seriously ill and had an operation. Between his prospective lawsuit and his wife’s illness, Saccaro spent a great deal of time looking at X-rays and worrying. Some years earlier he had been interested in using X-ray films as a medium, and that interest now returned.

All’s well that ends well. Saccaro’s wife has been restored to health, the druggist’s clerk never did sue, and Saccaro has turned out a show. These works are not obviously related to the large canvases that made his reputation as a colorist. They use their medium in a purely formal way. They are small, cool, executed with a good eye for design, and modestly appealing.

The Berkeley Art Center has had a large and rather unfocused show of drawings, prints, and paintings by Russel T. Gordon, a black artist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. To the extent that this show can be said to have a unifying vision, it is a vision of woman portrayed almost invariably in a depersonalized way, as an empty creature. Two exceptions that I can remember are a small portrait of a black woman and another of a white woman, the latter entitled Earth Mother. But there are many ways of being empty without necessarily dressing the part, so to speak, and it may be that these two were intended by the artist to be as harsh as the rest.

Gordon mobilizes a full battery of techniques drawn from Art Nouveau, psychedelic art, and other sources. His use of acrylic colors to suggest vacuity is often stunning. The massive scale of some of these depersonalized portraits points to an ambitious and impressive line of development, and I am keenly interested in seeing another show by this artist in a year or two. Whoever assembled this somewhat jumbled show, apparently on the principle that nothing was to be excluded, did a disservice to a genuinely talented artist.

Literally the biggest art news of the spring season was the dedication of a massive Lucite sculpture by Bruce Beasley. Entitled Apolymon, the piece stands between State Office Buildings 8 and 9 in Sacramento. It is 16 feet wide, 8 1/2 feet high, and 4 feet deep, and is said to be the largest transparent single-cast object in the world. It weighs 13,000 pounds.

Beasley had been experimenting with transparent materials for some time before he developed his own process for casting sculpture of monumental size in Lucite, the trade name for acrylic polymer manufactured by E. I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co. Until Beasley developed his technique, which is still a secret, it had been impossible to make massive castings in acrylic polymer, since the plastic generates so much heat during the hardening process that it tends to destroy itself. Beasley’s discovery was of keen interest to Du Pont, whose own engineers had never been able to cast Lucite objects of much greater than sheet thickness. The fabrication of Apolymon was supported by a $50,000 commission awarded by the State of California in April, 1967.

Another tasteless show by Robert Arneson! In porcelain, with a celadon glaze, than which no ceramic medium could be more noble. At the Hansen-Fuller Gallery. For the benefit of those whose friends do not tell them all the funny things that happen, Arneson is the artist who gave us two gold-colored ceramic turds in a toilet bowl several years ago at the Cellini Gallery. Perhaps overwhelmed by the august associations of celadon ware, Arneson has done nothing so blunt, although Dickie Bird, a penis with wings and fowl-like feet, is far from being a Sung Dynasty vase. Certainly not the most important show of the season, but easily the funniest.