San Francisco

Donald Kaufman and Joel Bass

Walls Gallery

One of the loveliest places for the exhibition of art in San Francisco was the Michael Walls Gallery in Ghirardelli Square. For economic reasons, Walls has had to move from that vast room to the smaller though still impressive space on Clay street where he first opened for business in April 1967. Walls’s last show at his Ghirardelli Square location presented seven paintings by the New York artist Donald Kaufman. They are quite different from the work for which Kaufman is well known. Instead of the single ‘X,’ horizontally composed, that sometimes made me think of him as the Jasper Johns of the Confederacy, we have a whole network of diagonal bands. Some of the bands are discontinuous, so the nets have holes in them.

Not only are the bands discontinuous, the paintings themselves look less finished than Kaufman’s earlier work. In former days, Kaufman applied six coats of primer and six to twelve heavy coats of acrylic to the canvas. This laboriously built-up surface reflected a great deal of light and produced an effulgence that I took to be one of the artist’s hallmarks. Those paintings were definitive; if you wanted something like that, Kaufman had clearly done it. He wasn’t building Stonehenge, but his paintings seemed suitable as icons for people not seriously interested in doubt.

Kaufman’s present series is far more tentative, in its making and in the effect it produces. He is now using one coat of primer and one or two thin coats of acrylic, and therefore creating a surface that is far less reflective. Until the paint dries, Kaufman himself doesn’t know whether the bands will be lighter or darker than the field, and he says he destroys one out of three paintings he completes.

In these recent paintings the viewer is keenly aware of the artist at work, of the brush strokes, of the canvas. At first glance they are less persuasive than the earlier paintings, and I think this series will appeal to viewers and collectors with a chance-taking and process-oriented conception of the work of art. Kaufman is a substantial painter, and I hope he enjoys continuity of support in spite of the fact that he is now addressing a very different turn of mind in the viewer.

Walls’s next show, at Clay Street, featured an artist who may be moving in the opposite direction. Joel Bass, a Los Angeles painter, created a mild sensation in the Bay Area with his first one-man show, in January, 1970. He was then doing large paintings in which assertive masses of color came at the viewer with blurred outlines. They were perhaps cooler in hue than the explosions of Theodoros Stamos, but in other ways more explosive.

The look of his paintings has changed. His current procedure is to divide the ground into four equal rectangles. The figure consists of several overlapping rectangles, and some of the paintings include a rectangle of clear polyurethane gloss. The recent show at Walls included several drawings in mixed media—clear Mylar, aluminum foil, tracing paper, and Clear-Vu plastic—that use the same formal resources. Within these limits Bass has produced a body of orderly, restrained, but still exciting work. After only two one-man shows, he seems to be one of the most promising new West Coast painters of the past few years.

Jerome Tarshis