San Francisco

“The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism”

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

Whatever the revisionist revelations of Serge Guilbaut, Griselda Pollock, et al, the consensus on Abstract Expressionism remains that it was both the first great homegrown American art movement and the center of the greatest period in American art (roughly 1945–60), modern or otherwise. There’s an argument to be made, I suppose, that Pop art was bigger in the press, bigger in more galleries, bigger in its effect on subsequent art, (Abstract Expressionism, after all, can’t claim to have turned every subsequent artist into a smart-ass ironist). But there’s no argument, in my opinion, to be made in favor of European tachisme even holding a candle to the New York School. And whatever revisions are attempted by American critics, it’s still clear that Abstract Expressionism—as an invention, as a force, as an artistic philosophy—was a New York phenomenon.

But it was not exclusively a New York phenomenon. A beautiful, concise exhibition—“The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism,” in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new building—pleasurably proved this. Of course San Francisco didn’t host the same number and eminence of exiled European Dadaists and Surrealists to stir up the local talent in the ’40s and ’50s as did New York. Nor did this much smaller metropolis own the same reputation for, and tingle of, artistic aspiration as did Gotham. (Can you imagine Woody Allen making Bullets over Fisherman’s Wharf?) Furthermore, the weather—Mark Twain’s remark that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco notwithstanding—has always been better in San Francisco than in New York. What does that have to do with anything? Well, you’ve got to have winters—with sleety gutters, frozen water pipes, hissing radiators, and all the rest—to have those “overcoat openings” where a few hundred people, all smoking filterless cigarettes and smelling of wet wool, jam into a small gallery in which the basement boiler has kicked the room temperature above eighty, to look at a messy painting made in a cold-water loft. You ain’t got that, you ain’t got Abstract Expressionism with a capital A and E. But San Francisco did have a pretty good school of AbEx, and if you cut it a little comparative slack (i.e., don’t ask every painting to be a Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, or Jackson Pollock), it has its rewards.

In this show the weaknesses of the Bay Area brand of brushy abstraction were readily apparent: riskless, cutesy paint application that says, in effect, “Hey, here’s a surefire way to cover the canvas!” (James Kelly), overdesign smacking of mosaic coffee-table tops (John Saccaro), and kitchen-towel color schemes (Sonia Getchoff). But, through the teaching and general influence, on the West Coast, of the megalomaniacal Clyfford Still (the original “attitude” artist), some of the San Francisco painting manifests real grit.

The prime example is Frank Lobdell, who should have a truly major reputation instead of merely that of a craggy regional hero. Lobdell saw frontline combat during World War II, witnessed American victory there turn into the cruel, facile pseudopatriotism of McCarthyism back home, and arrived at an intensely sincere anticommercialism as one of the bases for his uncompromisingly undecorative painting. (Aside: we could use some of this integrity in the mid ’90s. All we’ve got is the bogus “strategy” of “appropriating the images of late capitalism,” supposedly to work against the “dominant ideology” and the “hegemonic culture” in something like Trojan-horse fashion. Trouble is—pace everybody from Lawrence Gipe to Victor Burgin—even when there’s a real fine equine on the outside, there don’t seem to be too many ferocious warriors inside it.) Unlike Still’s two most stylistically devoted disciples, Ernest Briggs and Edward Dugmore, Lobdell went through Still, instead of along with him, to get an astonishing compositional power and daring. His black and white painting April 1954, Number 1, 1954, would look radical on the walls of any SoHo gallery next week. And Black Edge III, 1962, tackles the clichés of the all-yellow glow that it shares with Greek travel posters, and becomes a deceptively menacing piece of work (the “black edge” in the upper left-hand corner, the anxious red lines on the lower left-hand one). Why this guy hasn’t had a major retrospective outside the Bay Area is a mystery while it’s not such a mystery, if you know what I mean.

There were other “discoveries” (that is, artists I haven’t thought about in a long time) among the couple dozen painters on view. Walter Kuhlman’s pictures are dark, quiet, and iconically powerful. Charles Strong, a follower of Lobdell who’s not sixty yet, is a—oh, what the hell, I’ll use the T-word—tough painter and one of the few to echo Still without succumbing to him. The disappointments, in this gathering, were Richard Diebenkorn, whose first abstract phase (before he cofounded the Bay Area figurative school in the mid ’50s, then switched back to abstraction in the mid ’60s) crackles with finesse without seeming to have much substance, and Jay DeFeo (author of the legendary, literally heavy painting The Rose), who seems more an art-scene heroine than a real painter: too much tan and brown, for all the loaded-on paint. But, although the show was superbly installed in what may be the most gorgeously functional galleries in any recent museum building, the problem could be context: a few more, and different Diebenkorns, a couple of DeFeo drawings, and the show might have told an at least slightly different visual story.

As it stands, I’d say that San Francisco Abstract Expressionism at least holds its own with the New York AbEx tier of Herman Cherry, Michael Goldberg, James Brooks, and Joan Mitchell. And in this exhibition, it looked a lot more aesthetically nutritious than (my memory of) its later LA cousins, the late-’50s pre-“LA Look” abstract improvisations of Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman, and Robert Irwin. Also, besides proving that San Francisco Abstract Expressionism was more than a parochial nice try, the exhibition demonstrated that painting—plain ol’ low-tech, brush-in-hand, confined-by-the-rectangle painting—still has an immediacy and relevance that, for those who care to look, recent history can’t seem to take away from it. I wish the scope of this show had been as wide, its physical presence as deep, as the wonderful catalogue by Susan Landauer that goes with it. For now, however, I’m grateful.

“The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism” show was organized by the Laguna Art Museum.

Peter Plagens is a painter and the art critic for Newsweek magazine.