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Shockwaves from San Francisco

From Clyfford Still to Joan Brown, how the city’s landmark artists inspired one another and shook things up, changing the art world forever.

By Mark Van Proyen

Exactly two full decades before the Summer of Love, an artistic culturequake hit San Francisco, taking the form of a solo exhibition held at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in July and August 1947. The featured artist was Clyfford Still, who had come to teach at the California School of Fine Arts a year earlier after having been hired by the then-new director of the school, Douglas MacAgy. It is worth noting that the exhibition was curated by MacAgy’s wife, Jermayne (who held a curatorial position at the museum from 1941 to 1955), but in those days, community of interest loomed much larger than did any concerns about conflict of interest, so questions pertaining to the professional propriety undergirding that exhibition never came to the fore. Prior to his being hired as the director of the CSFA in 1945, MacAgy worked as an assistant curator at the San Francisco Museum of Art under the museum’s founding director, Grace McCann Morley. It was in that capacity that he first encountered Still’s work, presenting an extensive selection of the artist’s earlier paintings there in 1943.

The paintings that Still presented in the 1947 exhibition were small as measured by the standards of his later efforts, but in every other way they were fully realized examples of his “mature” work as a formidable pioneer of Abstract Expressionism. The shaggy edges of their upsurging shapes were haunted by a subliminal symbolism that could be compared to some aspects of traditional Asian art, conjuring an energized geomancy that evoked rugged natural forms that were kindred spirits to the contemporaneous poetry of Robinson Jeffers and the late photographs of Edward Weston. The paintings also established many of the artistic attributes that would earmark the art made in Northern California during the next 30 years. There was nothing about them that could be called ingratiating. They were defiantly garrulous and idiosyncratic, and they made no compromises with effete taste or financial instrumentality. They were simultaneously taciturn, grandiloquent and ugly, which is to say that they were everything that School of Paris painting was not, wearing their pride in that fact on their heavily impastoed sleeves. By the time Still decamped for the East Coast in the summer of 1950, his work and artistic persona had become models for a kind of righteous artistic individualism that inspired at least two succeeding generations of artists.

Like all earthquakes, the culturequake of the 1947 Still exhibition had several powerful aftershocks, each representing an important chapter in the subsequent artistic history of Northern California. His uncompromising attitude about the high-minded pursuit of painting exerted a powerful influence on artists like Frank Lobdell and Hassel Smith. Lobdell’s grim and muscular paintings reflected some of his traumatic experiences as a combat officer during World War II, while Smith added a swashbuckling calligraphy to richly saturated fields of color to create works that were lighthearted foils to the dark austerity of the Still esthetic.

Nonetheless, Still’s departure created something of a vacuum. For a brief moment, it seemed that a group of Surrealist-inspired artists who called themselves The Dynaton Group (Gordon Onslow Ford, Wolfgang Paalen and Lee Mullican) would step into that void after their 1951 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art, but their embrace of esoteric mystical ideas would soon prove to be out of step with the meat-and-potatos spirit of that McCarthyite moment. A much better fit was found in the work of David Park and shortly thereafter, Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff, all three of them teaching at the CSFA at that time. It is interesting to note that, in 1950 and ’51, Northern California hosted two large exhibitions of the work of the exiled German Expressionist Max Beckmann, who had found employment teaching painting at Mills College during the summer of 1950. It is well known that Park was no great fan of Still’s high-minded sanctimony, and it is also well known that Park returned to painting figurative subjects in 1951, much to the chagrin of his artistic compatriots. What is not well known is the extent to which Park’s return to figurative work might have been inspired by his viewing of the Beckmann exhibitions, but they were presented in prominent venues (the Mills College Art Gallery and the San Francisco Museum of Art), so it is fair to assume that he did see them. Another notable younger practitioner of Bay Area Figurative painting named Nathan Oliveira actually studied with Beckmann during that summer at Mills.

The central artistic problem that Park had set for himself was simply this: How might one use an abstract expressionist technique of bold gestural painting to articulate a figurative subject occupying a convincing location? The main answer to that problem had to do with Park’s mastery of the spatializing effects of color, which impressed both Diebenkorn and Bischoff (as well as many others), both eventually going beyond Park’s work in their ability to use color to recreate atmospheric effects that locate their figures in specific environments. But Park’s figurative paintings had something that those of the other two artists lacked: the celebration of the primordial dignity of the human body as both a part of and distinct from the prima materia of undifferentiated nature (represented by Park’s use of thick luminous earth tones). This might represent an oblique influence coming from Still, but it sets Park’s work apart from all the other practitioners of what would come to be called the Bay Area Figurative School in a 1957 exhibition held at the Oakland Art Gallery (later renamed the Oakland Museum).

One young practitioner of this kind of figuration was Joan Brown, besting them all in the use of thickly slathered impasto paint. She was a student at the CSFA in the late 1950s, working closely with Elmer Bischoff and enjoying a stupendous early success represented by her having had two solo exhibitions at the George Staempfli Gallery in New York while she was still a student (1958–1959). Over the years, Brown’s work went through many profound changes, some influenced by her second husband, Manuel Neri, who gained attention for making figurative sculpture in roughly formed plaster that embodied many of the rough-hewn attributes of Bay Area Figurative painting in three dimensions. Over the years, the thickness of Brown’s paint diminished and her color brightened in a long series of large self-portraits showing her in both imaginary and everyday life situations. These became an important touchstone for later generations of feminist artists in that they were widely understood to portray the intertwined relationships between the personal and the political.

Another prominent female artist of the time was Jay DeFeo, whose earliest work from the late 1950s still invites comparisons with the earlier Clyfford Still-inspired Abstract Expressionist generation. As was the case with Brown’s work, DeFeo’s paintings also reveled in thickly layered trowlings of pigment, but almost none of them were explicitly figurative. It is better to call DeFeo’s early, pre-1964 paintings examples of “abstract symbolism” in that their configurations bespoke the flow and coalescence of radiant metaphysical energy, culminating in her wildly acclaimed painting titled “The Rose,” which she worked on for almost eight years leading up to its completion in 1966. When it was finally finished, “The Rose” weighed in excess of 2,100 pounds and in places was up to seven inches thick. The story of the work’s removal from the Fillmore Street apartment that she and her husband, Wally Hedrick, shared is the subject of a remarkable documentary film made by Bruce Conner that same year. Hedrick attained underground fame for painting the first anti-Vietnam work by any American artist—in 1957, titled “Anger,” now in the collection of the San Jose Museum of Art.

For a number of years, DeFeo and Hedrick’s apartment was the social epicenter of yet another Northern California culturequake that came to be called The Beat Generation, which achieved national attention after a California Superior Court ruled in 1957 that the public reading and subsequent publication of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (in 1955) was not obscene. Soon thereafter, the “Evergreen Review” devoted a whole issue to what it called “The San Francisco Scene,” putting San Francisco on the national map of important centers of art and literature. It is worth noting that the original public reading of “Howl” took place at the Six Gallery, of which Hedrick was one of the directors.

In 1965, the California School of Fine Arts would be transformed into the San Francisco Art Institute, and a decade later the San Francisco Museum of Art would eventually become the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In many ways, the story of these two institutions is the story of the artistic heyday of San Francisco, and it also reveals much about a city that went from being a haven for Barbary Coast renegades to an internationally recognized center of radical politics and alternative lifestyles. Soon thereafter, the city would again morph into a globally connected financial center, firmly rooted in the techno-bureaucratic “Third Wave” information economy that a prescient Alvin Toffler predicted, in 1970, would eventually transform all aspects of everyday life.

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