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Rising in the west: the new New York?

San Francisco (finally) gets some respect, with the spotlight centered upon Diebenkorn, DeFeo and other masters.

By Paul Wilner

he popular perception may be that the worldwide art scene is still located in New York, fed by romantic myths surrounding the long-gone days when Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning hung around Greenwich Village watering holes like the Cedar Tavern, with their work promoted by critical tastemakers.

But as lower Manhattan and Soho have evolved and gentrified, the broader influence of the Bay Area is in ascendance.

Take the “new” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—whose stylish remodeling by the Norwegian-based architecture firm Snohetta last May gave it the largest gallery space of any contemporary art museum in the United States.

In keeping with the changes, SFMOMA is making a determined effort to celebrate West Coast artists. An exhibit of work by maverick video pioneer Bruce Conner last October (which originated at MoMA in New York) was widely praised for bringing an artist who had been long considered part of the “underground” into the light.

And the museum’s Matisse/Diebenkorn show, which runs through May 29, highlighting the influence of Henri Matisse on San Francisco-raised painter Richard Diebenkorn, is the first show to directly showcase the work of a California artist together with a master from the European canon.

“Here at SFMOMA, we’ve been showing Diebenkorn since the late ’40s, but now we’re seeing a broader recognition for California artists,” says Janet Bishop, curator of painting and sculpture. “There’s a growing awareness, nationally and internationally, that the best art is not necessarily the art that’s been made in the cities that have been considered the centers of the art world. The fact that our recent Jay DeFeo exhibition was organized by the Whitney and the Bruce Conner show made its debut in New York represents a wish by curators to expand the kinds of stories we tell. San Francisco is certainly now a place where the curators of the Whitney Biennial, for instance, will come out to do studio visits—there’s a conscious effort to seek out and acknowledge the work that’s going on here.”

Veteran art world figures like Peter Selz agree. The founding director of the UC Berkeley Art Museum, recently renamed the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, left his position as chief painting and sculpture curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art to come to the East Bay in 1965.

At the time, despite the presence of a vibrant and innovative artistic community, an East Coast bias was very much in effect.

“New York doesn’t really pay attention to artists who are not in New York,” Selz reflects. “[Sam] Francis was the only California artist [of the 17 shown] in the first major ‘international’ show of abstract artists Alfred Barr put on at New York MoMA.”

For their part, the California artists weren’t very interested in their eastern counterparts, including influential East Coast critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, who helped put postwar abstract art on the map.

“No one paid much attention to people like Greenberg out here,” Selz recalls. “They accepted the situation and did their work.”

Kathan Brown, founder of Crown Point Press, a widely respected etching and publishing house based in the Bay Area since 1962, concurs.

Over the course of her career, she has worked closely with icons like Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, Agnes Martin, Ed Ruscha, and Beat-era icons DeFeo and Conner.

Brown first met Diebenkorn “when he invited himself to a workshop we were having in 1963,” she remembers. “I certainly was aware of him and impressed that he wanted to come. He was certainly very well known in our area, but for artists like him or Thiebaud, at least initially, East Coast recognition was a harder hill to climb. … The New York Establishment didn’t particularly think anything of what was going on out here. It wasn’t that they had anything against us—they just didn’t notice.”

Again, the feeling was mutual: “I don’t think the artists cared, actually. Diebenkorn told me: ‘What I like is not making something, but doing something.’ I always took that as a motto. If you got something you liked, that’s fine. If you didn’t, then you learned something. Most of the people here weren’t tremendously interested in their career—if they were, they would have moved to New York.”

In other words, passion for the craft—not the pursuit of Warhol-level fame—may have fueled these Northern California masters, no less ambitious than their cousins working 3,000 miles away. “The whole Abstract Expressionist movement started in the Bay Area, contrary to what people in New York want you to believe,” says Debra Burchett-Lere, executive director of the Sam Francis Foundation. “Mark Rothko, David Park and Clyfford Still were teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, which was then called the California School of Fine Arts. Hans Hofmann taught at Berkeley and the abstract influence was very much in the air.”

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