San Francisco

San Francisco

During the past few years many sculptors have executed pieces that may be described as using the artist’s body as sculptural material. I am not sure whether a rigid distinction can be drawn between Barry Le Va’s running into a wall as often as he could at the La Jolla Museum last May, and the kind of happening in which Robert Whitman leapt into the air and fell to the floor at the Reuben Gallery in New York a decade ago. But artists now use film and videotape to an extent undreamed of in 1960, and one logical development of these tendencies is a traveling videotape show assembled by Willoughby Sharp and entitled “Body Works.” After a world premiere in South America, it had its first North American performance at Breen’s Bar in San Francisco on October 18, 1970.

Breen’s has some very fancy woodwork and some very plain customers, and this combination attracts a number of educated folk. The bar happens to be across the street from the Museum of Conceptual Art, one of the few art institutions in the Bay Area that clearly exist in the same world as New York and London and Düsseldorf. With its convenient location, its chic, and its television set over the bar, Breen’s seemed an ideal place for Sharp’s videotape event. The owner is a friend of MoCA, and so one Sunday night, when it would normally be closed, it was reopened and drew a capacity crowd of conceptual artists, assorted hairy freaks, and expensively dressed art-lovers.

First the screen was occupied by the lower half of Terry Fox’s face. He stuck his tongue out and put it back in his mouth, moved it to left and right, made it turn up at the sides, and generally ran through the full range of movements possible with a long and well-controlled tongue. The piece went on for a long time, in silence broken by occasional sound effects.

After Fox’s sensuality trip Vito Acconci took us on a vicarious pain trip. The screen showed the back of his head and his naked upper back. He lit matches and repeatedly set fire to the hair on his back. (He also beat the little fires out with his hand; it wasn’t an immolation piece.) By the time he finished—the piece was not short—he had burned off a substantial area of hair. As sound effects there were fire-alarm gongs and fire-engine sirens. Acconci seems to be specializing in ordeals; several times last spring he performed his Hand and Mouth Piece, in which he puts his hand down his throat until he gags, and repeats the action over and over again.

Keith Sonnier executed a relatively complex work, and one I enjoyed. We saw a leg—perhaps it was two legs—kicking what I took to be a box, since the accompanying sound could have been a primitive drum roll produced by a sculptor’s foot striking a hollow object rhythmically. (My vagueness and perhaps inaccuracy about some works is unavoidable. I can’t catch everything on a bar’s TV set, Willoughby Sharp and most of the sculptors were not present to answer questions, and Tom Marioni, director of the Museum of Conceptual Art, who was responsible for the event, had never seen the works; my guess was as good as his.)

Sonnier then put his hand into a can of what looked like white paint. He applied the paint at great length to his toes, feet, ankles, and shins. Then he put socks on over the paint. Next we saw his hand apparently belting away at a large drum head, with suitable sounds accompanying the visual. Still later Sonnier clapped his hands. There was much play with flashing light effects and multiple images. I look forward to seeing 100 pairs of Keith Sonnier’s hands; perhaps he is trying to become the Busby Berkeley of body sculpture.

Bruce Nauman gave us an exercise in challenging and possibly torturing the audience. First, he walked away, swiveling his hips, down a corridor at most three feet wide. Then he turned around and walked toward us, his T-shirt filling the screen as he came close to the camera. And away from us, and toward us, on and on and on and on. The videotape crew said this was done from a loop, so Nauman had to take his walk only once. I am sure it was less tedious for Naumanto conceive and execute the work than for us to watch it. Many of the audience walked out, and the tape was stopped ten minutes before the end of the piece to avoid driving everybody out. There was some speculation that Nauman’s piece would ideally be presented for an indefinite time, and each spectator would end it for himself by walking out when he had seen it long enough.

Dennis Oppenheim filled the screen with the top of his head and parted his hair repeatedly with his hands, as if he were looking for lice. In the next segment he slid down a gravel-covered incline, over and over again. Oppenheim said he did this with a loop, and so avoided wear and tear on his skin by sliding on the gravel only once.

The final piece, by William Wegman, was not shown, because Wegman’s tape was incompatible with the videotape equipment at hand.

At the end of “Body Works,” Oppenheim’s wife got out of her seat as if shot from a cannon and said, “Thank God it’s over! I couldn’t stand any more of this!” That was my reaction, too; this work can be fun to read and talk about, but hell to sit through. In explaining Nauman’s piece to the laity, Oppenheim said, “In the future time will be accepted as an extender, just as turpentine is now.” A terrible threat.

Tom Marioni is also curator of the Richmond Art Center, and the witch’s caldron he presides over out there is still bubbling. His latest run-in with the city government of Richmond had to do with Levitation Piece, a work by Terry Fox that occupied an entire gallery at the Art Center. To produce what Fox described as a “supernatural-like atmosphere” he covered the walls and floor of the gallery with white paper. In the center of the gallery he put a square of earth said to have been dug from the site of a new freeway in San Francisco. The square was 11 1/2 feet on each side, twice the artist’s height.

At the center of the square was an indentation made by the artist’s body. According to a note posted in the gallery, Fox had lain there for six hours, trying to levitate. Around the indentation was an 18-foot loop of plastic tubing containing blood drawn from the artist’s body. Leading from the square of earth toward the walls of the gallery were 50-foot tubes said to contain blood, urine, water, and milk. The square of earth was garnished with bones, blood, and other organic substances.

Whether or not Fox succeeded in levitating, the piece itself disappeared unexpectedly after I saw it. Richmond’s Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, who is in charge of the Art Center, called in officials to determine whether the piece was a health or fire hazard. Perhaps because the earth might carry disease and the paper might burn, he ordered the piece removed. Marioni was not allowed to post an explanation.

As for the merits of Levitation Piece as a work of art, I think it misses being a masterpiece of its type, but it comes close. It is full of magic and physiology, and set up spooky vibrations .in me, but did not go all the way. Fox is one of the best conceptual artists we have in the Bay Area, and this was an excellent try.

“Fritz Glarner: 1944–1970,” at the San Francisco Museum of Art, begins just after Mondrian’s death, when Glarner found his mature style, and runs through 1968, when he finished a portfolio of lithographs entitled Recollections. I am told that he stopped painting in 1968 as a result of an injury sustained in a shipboard accident; the date “1970” in the title of the show is inexact.

After being propagandized about Glarner’s relation to Mondrian, I expected a certain systematic quality in the execution of these paintings and was unprepared for the spontaneity I found. The artist has published some theoretical ideas, but many of these paintings seem to result from an intuitive process of trial and error. In some places the errors have been quite hurriedly and incompletely painted over. Despite the geometric aspect of their form, many of these paintings seem also to be records of a man’s passionate encounters with canvas.

For the record, this was Glarner’s first major one-man show in the United States, and was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Art under the guest curatorship of Natalie Edgar, who lives in New York. Miss Edgar contributed an enthusiastic but unreadable catalog essay.

It is puzzling to follow the career of Jose Luis Cuevas, who is often referred to as Mexico’s leading artist. A recent show of Cuevas’s work at the SFMA included four suites of prints: Recollections of Childhood, Crime, Charenton, and Homage to Quevedo, spanning the years 1961 through 1969. The first three suites, although psychologically powerful, are formally retrogressive in relation to contemporary printmaking. It is common to describe Cuevas as an intensely Mexican artist, and to attribute some of the apparent insularity of his work to the Mexican art tradition. For myself, I was much more struck by the tendency to parody or pastiche: these prints are filled with references to Dürer and Rembrandt, and perhaps to Goya.

Some years ago, when Cuevas was associated with the Nueva Presencia movement, he helped bring Mexican art out of the stagnation caused by a single-minded concern with consolidating the Revolution. Since then other Mexican artists of his generation have gone in still newer directions, and for the most part Cuevas has not. In his most recent suite, Homage to Quevedo, executed in 1969 at Collectors Press in San Francisco, there is evidence that he is moving into the second half of the 20th century. Much as I liked his earlier work, I am pleased that Cuevas is experimenting.

When he published Recollections of Childhood, Cuevas wrote in Artforum, “Joy wearies me and I hate happiness when I occasionally think I catch a glimpse of it in a human expression.” Many of his old preoccupations—mental and physical illness, and the anguish of living in this world—remain in the newer works. But Cuevas is using color in a richer way than before. A print called Look at Yourself In This Mirror is done in metallic ink that acts as a dull mirror. The Mask is a portrait in extraordinarily sensuous color, with a face made of a hinged metal plate that swings out to disclose another face beneath it.

In spite of the artist’s tormented sense of life, this was a popular show, and I can look at these prints with great pleasure. Homage to Quevedo gives promise of new formal tendencies in the work of a valuable but strangely insular artist.

Louise McGinley, who has had a show of sculpture at the William Sawyer Gallery, deals with the problems of being human in a frightening world. Her major works are environments inhabited by monsters. The monsters, executed in roughly finished clay, have the faces of birds or animals and more or less human bodies. They wear benign facial expressions, and it is possible to think of them as charming. There are a number of small pieces in the show that seem to fall into the category of lawn animals; in the larger pieces, however, any cuteness in the faces is overshadowed by the atmosphere of brooding and danger created by the work as a whole.

McGinley frequently draws upon mythology for her subject matter. The princes and princesses in fairy tales are handsome, but they are involved in horrible deeds, and there is a similar contradiction between the ingratiating faces of McGinley’s creatures and the upsetting situations in which she puts them.

Unfortunately for her recognition as a sculptor, the problems she is dealing with have not attracted many distinguished visual artists since the last years of Surrealism. Her affinities seem to be more with say, Jorge Luis Borges than with the young men who are redefining sculpture today. This is not absolutely contemporary sculpture, but it is emotionally powerful and often formally interesting as well.

At the Berkeley Gallery we have had a show of uncommonly ambitious works by Sätty, who is well known as a poster artist. In subject matter and sensibility most of these works bring to mind commercial art influenced by the psychedelic drug experience and occult studies, and it is not surprising to learn that the artist has a collection of books on alchemy and a complete run of the German magazine Jügend. He also has a considerable and still growing command of lithography. The most typical pieces are made by taking snippets from the mass media, converting them to lithograph plates, overprinting repeatedly, and making a collage from the resulting print. This process is repeated until the final product, a collage, is acceptable to the artist.

Sätty comes at the viewer with opulent color and a large number of flowers, jewels, birds, paisleys, and other visual shibboleths of Northern California sublimity. The show illustrates an artistic program based on the premise that many powerful visual symbols have been debased by overuse in the mass media. According to the press release, “Sätty feels that the artist has an obligation to reclaim these universal, images and return them, purified, to their original role in the unconscious where they can contribute to the harmonization of man’s deeper psychological forces.” Good news for Jungians, maybe.

In this effort Salty has made only a beginning, and it is possible that he is producing some dreadful kitsch. The show was far too large to be judged as a whole, and the only conclusion I can reach is that the artist is pursuing an interesting course of experimentation for which he needs time and practice more than exposure. I hope his future shows are smaller and more selective.

The veteran painter Mason Wells has had a show of geometric abstractions at the Quay Gallery. His paintings typically consist of parallel diagonal bands of color intersecting in ways that create impressions of depth. I was particularly fond of Halcyon and Hercules, which gave off a glowing light in addition to playing the backgroundand-foreground game. Wells is a colorist of some accomplishment, and he makes pleasing though familiar statements about color and space. On the whole, these are neat and craftsmanlike but not effulgent paintings.

At the Graphics Gallery we have had a strong show by Shane We are. Two of the prints offer the combination of Surrealism and funk associated with such artists as the Hairy Who, but most of them reproduce photographs and other mass-media trophies in a way that calls to mind Kitaj and Rauschenberg.

There is a crucial difference: although one can easily read the headlines in Rauschenberg’s recent current-events lessons, the topicality of Weare’s prints is often outweighed by his tendency toward painterliness and design. He uses gradations of value so small and detail so fine that close study is needed for any full apprehension of the persons and things illustrated. Weare sometimes appears to be using reproduced photographs of Richard Nixon, or whatever, as if they were paint.

The gallery’s director, Hank Baum, has quoted Weare as saying, “I’m an artist, not a journalist.” The prints that have political subject matter—many do not—suggest a conflict between the impulse to comment on public matters and thereby live a committed life with other human beings, and the more purely visual and private impulses that lead men to become artists in the first place. Weare is talented, and it is painful to watch this conflict at work; he is not a poster artist, he knows it, and still he wants to do something. In general this was a good show. Weare offers an impressive use of the lithograph for painterly abstraction and, for those who want them, portraits of Richard Nixon.

Jerome Tarshis

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