San Francisco

“The Human Condition: Biennial III”

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

With this enormous exhibition of painting, sculpture, photography, and works on paper by over 60 artists from the United States and seven European countries, the Bay Area’s major Modern art museum boldly (and belatedly) acknowledged the international resurgence of expressionism and figuration. The idea of the “human condition” offered a brilliantly apt organizing concept within which to focus on the psychological, social, and political statements pervasive in current art, but the broad theme, and the loose interpretation given it by the show’s curator (and the museum’s director), Henry Hopkins, also permitted an amorphous roster and an irregular number of works per artist, resulting in an exhibition that looked less curated than haphazardly assembled. The show functioned better as an inconsistent sampling, generally of figurative expressionism, than as a cohesive examination of artists’ reflections on what it means to be alive at this historical moment.

One of the strengths of this mélange was its intermixing of local artists, both established and unknown, with New York art stars and internationally acclaimed Europeans. And a handful of paintings by Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, Jean Dubuffet, Philip Guston, and Alice Neel served as reminders of figural precedents. (Chicago’s “Hairy Who” group was notably overlooked.) Regional idiosyncracies were diluted, and international affinities for highly emotionalized, dramatic imagery were emphasized. Yet as far as Bay Area artists were concerned, the egalitarian gesture was undercut by the inclusion of some works that were thematically irrelevant (Roy De Forest’s whimsical Country Dog Gentlemen, 1972) and others that were esthetically weak (Joan Brown’s fantasy Dancers in the City #2, 1972). Also, some imagery that would have been particularly appropriate to the “human condition” theme (William Wiley’s and Squeak Carnwath’s metaphysical speculations, for example) was omitted. Equally surprising was the presence of disparities like the veristic surrealism of Irving Norman’s starkly crammed subway commuters (Rush Hour, 1970) and the array of rhetorical posters from Galeria de la Raza/Studio 24, in San Francisco’s Chicano/Latino Mission District. Robert Arneson’s uncharacteristically bleak, oversized, supine ceramic head from 1983, with ravaged face, ripped neck, and forehead stamped “A War Memorial,” made a more effective political statement.

The representation of photography was also scattershot, but on an international level. The exhibition’s expansive, humanistic theme could have generated a panoply of photographers’ treatments, but only a half-dozen were chosen by Assistant Curator of Photography Dorothy Martinson. Astrid Klein’s symbolic juxtapositions, Barbara Kruger’s found didacticism, and Joel-Peter Witkin’s spiritual perversities were in the main forceful and, from diverse perspectives, appropriate. But here as in the better-represented medium of contemporary painting one had to give up looking for scholarly argument or assessment, and simply respond to individual pieces in the potpourri.

Among the numerous strong paintings by artists who have rarely or never exhibited here before, a couple particularly struck me as compelling and complex. Eric Fischl’s Master Bedroom, 1983, like a suggestive snapshot, shows a teenage girl in underwear and curlers sitting in the center of her parents’ bed, hugging her dog. The soft, painterly blue grays of the room and the girl’s uncertain expression intimate vulnerability and an ambiguous trust in the situation. Two weather-beaten planks fixed to the canvas in Rainer Fetting’s Holzbild Grün (Wood-picture green, 1984) vertically intersect the hypnotic orange irises of a large bald head and extend above as unpainted horns. The ragged wood underscores the pathos evident in the face, which mixes civilized, tribal, and devilish ideas of the human spirit. The works that dominated the show, however, not only in size but also in dramatic impact, were the seven mixed media environments by Ed and Nancy Reddin Kienholz. Four of these elaborate assemblages, including the well-known Sollie 17, 1979–80, are set in Spokane, Washington, and offer poignant glimpses of the life of the urban poor, especially among the isolated elderly.

Beyond comprising merely a catch-all title, the idea of the human condition could have been analyzed and installed in subthemes of attitudes, subjects, or styles, which would have facilitated understanding. Hopkins evidently recognized the weaknesses in the show’s organization; his catalogue preface offers a defensive litany of them. Essays by Wolfgang Max Faust and Achille Bonito Oliva reiterate the previous positions of these critics, but no discussion analyzes the pertinence of the show’s grand theme to contemporary imagery, or indeed what the human condition suggested by the work here is. The show brought a multitude of new work to local viewers, but the region needs not just greater breadth in the presentation of contemporary art, but greater depth in its framing consciousness. The condition it revealed most directly was that of the curatorial effort, which, lacking in intellectual substance, didn’t measure up to the art it presented.

Suzaan Boettger