San Francisco

“Poets of the Cities”

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

There must be a reason why the Dallas Museum of Fine Art with the help of Southern Methodist University has decided to meddle in the already muddled affairs of New York and San Francisco painting in the ’50s. Geographically, this seems like some kind of mistaken identity crisis with wish-fulfillment overtones; but more likely, it is simply a chance to present something impressive and important. You feel that the motivations will be good, wholesome and clean but the execution overbearing yet incomplete, expansive yet (or thus) banal, and, well, wrong-headed. That yearning for culture, the we-try-harder syndrome will be in evidence; it’ll have those big, imported works that you’ve got to see and you’ll be able to see the strain of ambition between the individual works themselves. They’ve got money in Texas, for sure; they’ve got brand new museums and huge cultural centers, but what they want is to be known as cultured, to be certified cultural custodians. “Poets of the Cities” is a complete mess, a Midwest sprawl jammed into the peninsula, an incoherent conglomeration of every period and style from AE on the way down through collage, assemblage, junk, funk and clunk through Pop and then Robert Whitman slide projections. There was no idea present at the inception of this exhibition, no notion of what a motive or motif for an exhibition might be, no less an understanding of how associations of history and style will automatically occur when paintings are placed next to each other, notions and associations which are necessary (not to say natal) to a decently organized display. This exhibition could have only traveled to San Francisco; with its outright misunderstanding of the meaning of Johns’s and Dine’s key images, its inexplicable exclusion of Warhol and inclusion of a whole range of Beat-era, SFIA art, it is perfect foil for the SFMA audience, but it would be clobbered in, say, New York or Chicago. We are made to feel like San Francisco really has contributed to history: here is Bruce Conner, George Herms and Wally Hedricks right next to Oldenburg and Rauschenberg. (Incredibly, you get to see de Kooning and the erased de Kooning by Rausch-enberg within steps of each other; cute, but a misjudgment in this context.)

The organizers, straining to he fair, had no idea that fairness to so many would result in everyone being cheated. Stepping into the West Coast section one has a feeling of total esthetic withdrawal, a loss of intelligence and guiding purpose in the work. The good pieces here are very personal, dealing with specific issues, not at all related to the theme of the city per se. And the bad work may have to do with the city, but it’s short on poetry. The vastness of the notions “Poet” and “City” is vague enough to include everyone, even friends of Poets, like Larry Rivers, whose presence with two works is weird since neither of them are of O’Hara.

SFMA has irritated matters by adding its own works to the crowded space, works by artists already in the show (it’s the revenge of the auteur theory more than mere guilt by association). The huge Clyfford Still has nothing to do with the mass of trash and personal pornographic references; its transcendental aims couldn’t be more alien to the down-to-earth posters for Ray Gun performances. Jasper Johns’s extraordinarily beautiful Map (1961) is here, but as nice as it is, it makes no sense in reference to the city; furthermore we shouldn’t have to have a reason to be exposed to great painting simply because we don’t live in New York: we don’t need to be punished like this to savor the gems from abroad. Dallas has tried too hard and overextended but has brought us treats we might never see. They’ve taken on too much in one bite as if speculating in an oil field, but they’ve brought it off to most San Franciscans because we’re used to decorative clutter in our small spaces. Window shopping excursions on Divisadero can be as satisfying, dotted with the same kind of surprises among the sea of junk.

Jeff Perrone