Art in San Francisco, 1940-1950

ART IN SAN FRANCISCO

1940-1950

San Francisco was the center of high culture on the West Coast, boasting an opera and art museums and art schools while Los Angeles was a provincial oil town. Remarkably, the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute, was established in 1871.The H. M. de Young Memorial Museum honored the de Young family in 1895. The original building, which had been built for the California Midwinter International Exposition, was damaged by the Earthquake of 1906. The museum was rebuilt in 1929 and again in 2005. The College of Arts and Crafts was established in 1907, which became California College of Arts and Crafts in 1936 and the California College of Art a few years ago, almost a decade before Otis College of Art and Design was opened in Los Angeles. The Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, brought the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts, designed by Bernard Maybeck, to the city on the Bay. Maybeck went on to become the designer of the Los Angeles Public Library. The California Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park was built in competition with the de Young family, the family of Adolph and Alma Spreckels. In other words by the beginning of the twentieth century, San Francisco was the major and only site for art on the Left Coast.

As Nancy Boas points out in her book, The Society of Six: California Colorists, the artists who made up the Society of Six: August Gay, Bernard von Eichman, Maurice Logan, Louis Siegriest, and William H. Clapp were exposed to Impressionism in the 1915 exhibition. California produced its own “California Impressionists” or plein air painters who took inspiration from the colors of Monet and Renoir. These kinds of landscape artists, working in the clear and strong California light, could be found up and down the coast, depicting the extraordinary landscapes with a combination of post-Realism and late-Impressionism. Although we appreciate the Society of Six today, Boas mentions that these artists, like most of the landscape painters, were ignored in favor of more avant-garde art, which could actually be found in San Francisco.

In Painting on the Left. Diego Rivera, Radical Politics and San Francisco’s Public Murals, Anthony W. Lee points out that the Panama Pacific Exposition left an empty building behind, inspiring the idea of a San Francisco Museum of Art. The founding families of San Francisco were devoted art patrons and the family of railroad baron, Charles Crocker supported the idea of a museum, just as the family of Mark Hopkins had founded and art school. William Randolph Hearst also used the might of his newspaper to sponsor art in the city. Equally prominent in the effort to establish museums and art galleries in San Francisco was the legendary Bohemian Club. In fact the Galerie Beaux-Arts, founded by Beatrice Judd Ryan was a cooperative space and the first private gallery devoted to contemporary art, including artists who belonged to the Bohemian Club. Not to be outdone, the famous collector, Galka Scheyer, showed the Blue Four (Kandinsky, Klee, Jawlensky and Feininger) at the Oakland Art Gallery in 1926–27.

While the twenties might be remembered as a decade of building art patronage and art museums for the city, the thirties is marked by the powerful presence of Diego Rivera who left three major mural projects in the city: The Allegory of California for The San Francisco City Club, located in the Stock Exchange, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City for The San Francisco Art Institute, and Pan American Unity for the San Francisco City College, located in the Diego Rivera Theater. For a fuller account of Rivera’s impact on the city, read Lee’s Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and in San Francisco’s Public Murals but the arrival of the artist in San Francisco announced the arrival of social realism, the prevailing style of the Depression. As would be typical of Rivera’s career, his mere reputation as a Communist, set off waves of anxiety in the city.

A reporter from Time Magazine paid a visit in September 1931 to the California School of Fine Arts to write of Rivera disrespectfully as “famed, fat and 40.” The article goes on to describe the artist’s “plump posterior squashed comfortably down on a plank” while he painted. Although the article was mostly descriptive and not entirely unfavorable, the reporter, who is not named, concluded his article, ”Art: Rivera in California,” with the final facts: “A huge, roly-poly man, he sometimes works 16 hours a day. Once he exhausted himself, fell off his scaffold, split his head.” Diego Rivera also found time to do a mural for the dining room of the Sigmund Stern (later transferred to Stern Hall at Berkeley) entitled Still Life and Blossoming Almond Trees, 1930-1931.

But the period of the art patronage of the Works Progress Administration and the age of murals with social content had arrived, so too was the antithesis, the European avant-garde in the person of Hans Hofmann who arrived at Berkeley, in the summers of 1930 and 1931. Although Hofmann would go back and forth between Germany and America for the next few years, in 1934, he received his permanent visa and remained in America. Hofmann pointed the way to the future direction of the painters in San Francisco, but there were other modernist contenders in the Bay Area. Erle Loran, devotee of Paul Cézanne who had lived in his studio in 1927,would become famous for his formalist diagrams of Cézanne’s works, published in 1943. In 1936, Loran established Cubism as dominant mode at Berkeley, but, as can be imagined but there was a gulf between the Berkeley School and the followers of Rivera.

By the time the Second World War broke out, San Francisco had a thriving art scene, with contending perspectives on art. Presiding over what would be an important shift from European Modernism to American contemporary art, was the newly established San Francisco Museum of (Modern) Art. Opening in 1935 with Grace L. McCann Morley as its first director. It was unusual if not outright rare for a woman to have such an important and influential position and Morley made adventurous and farsighted important purchases, such as Arschile Gorky’s Enigmatic Combat (1941), which was exhibited in1943 and Jackson Pollock’s Guardians of the Secret (1943), exhibited 1945. At that time, both artists were unknowns, but these two purchases would begin the foundation of what would become an important West Coast collection of Contemporary Art.

Indeed, Rivera returned to San Francisco to paint “art in action” mural to be displayed at World’s Fair on Treasure Island, 1940 and Gorky was in San Francisco the summer of 1941. But the time of one of these artists was ending in America and a new day was dawning. The California School of Fine Arts hired a new and ambitious director, Douglas MacAgy in 1945. MacAgy signaled that the old was out and that the new was in when he draped Rivera mural at the school. Another signal that it was not only the end of mural era was Clay Spohn, who instigated what would later become a West Coast outpost of late, late Dada when he organized the “Museum of Unknown and Little Known Objects” in 1941 at CSFA. Some day this iconoclastic impulse would be known as “funk.” The rest of the faculty included the famed photographer, Ansel Adams, and the painters David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Hassel Smith. It was at the School of Fine Arts that East Coast Abstract Expressionism arrived and changed the artistic landscape of San Francisco.

The powerful and impressive artist and art teacher, Clyfford Still made his career between New York and San Francisco, teaching at CSFA starting in 1946. He took an unlikely trip to Richmond Professional Institute, a vocational school in 1944 and moved to New York in 1945. Still who did large, dryly painted abstract works had one of the last shows with Peggy Guggenheim in 1946 before she left for Europe. Still had a romantic notion of the role of the artist, who he saw as a persona set apart from ordinary people. From 1947, he refused to allow his works to be shown in commercial gallery, but he allowed Betty Parsons to represent him. He taught his students that museums should come to them for their art, not the other way around. To make sure that his flock was beholden to no one, Still founded the Metart Galleries in San Francisco. This was an alternative space, a co-op where he and twelve of his students, co-op could show their art.

Clyfford Still’s exhibition at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1947 marked the death of the School of Paris and established CSFA as the counterpart to the “Berkeley School.” For his part, Loren was not impressed with Abstract Expressionism, about which he said, “We call it the drip school, even the shit school. It was pretty repulsive,” he continued. ”We saw it as a revolt as Hofmann’s and our teaching—which was very concrete, and based on real knowledge—Giotto and so on.” In retrospect, this statement by Loren seems odd, given the impetus that Hofmann had given to Abstract Expressionism in New York. However, Loren seems to have wanted the development of Cubism-Expressionism to be stopped at the point of synthesis seen in Hofmann’s work and not imaginatively extended to abstraction. Still continued his strong presence in San Francisco and at the California School of Fine Arts by starting a graduate painting class at a time when many veterans of the Second World War were returning to school, picking up the pieces of their interrupted lives. However, in 1950, Still left San Francisco and returned to New York, were a very different art scene was poised to become very important indeed.

Despite the powerful local objections from the art department at the University of California, Berkeley, by 1950, Abstract Expression was an accepted style in San Francisco, As Thomas Albright pointed out in Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980, the local “resistance” the style had been “exaggerated.” Given the general acceptance and promotion of the style as being quintessentially American, it is odd that in the histories of Abstract Expressionism, San Francisco is often left out and its importance in developing the large-scale works of important artists is less well known than that of New York City. One can assume the relative lack of emphasis is due to the fact that the Bay Area developed its own “brand” of expressionism, which was not abstract but figurative. In other words, painting in the Bay Area did not follow the orthodoxy of New York art critic Clement Greenberg who insisted that the proper destiny for avant-garde art was total abstraction. That said, two of the most important abstract painters, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, emerged from the Bay Area Figurative School. It was Still who encouraged Rothko towards abstraction and towards larger canvases while they were working together at the California College of Fine Arts.

Although Clyfford Still left San Francisco for New York permanently in 1949 and resigned in 1950, a more accessible and more congenial teacher, Mark Rothko, was on the CSFA campus between 1947 and 1949. Rothko was just emerging out of his figurative Surrealist phase when he began working with Still and it is during these important years in San Francisco that he transitioned away from his early Surrealism, typical of his generation and made a definitive move to a more reductive abstraction, reducing the number of shapes on the canvas and enlarging the forms. While Rothko shifted towards a simpler means of organizing areas of free floating paint, his “multiform,” and with Ad Reinhardt on campus in the summer of 1950, it seemed that CSFA was the place to be. “Under the leadership of Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko it is absolutely true that a new trend in painting has been marked off…it recalls the group feeling that we have read about among the French Impressionists,” Loren admitted. But the college’s moment had passed. After finding his mature and signature style in the Bay area, Rothko returned to New York in 1949. The warning bell signaling that Abstract Expression had peaked sounded in 1950, the year of Clay Spohn’s mocking last exhibition in which he left behind a book of “instructions” for Abstract Expressionism. In other words, the style was rapidly becoming academic, a “kit” of painterly gestures. Albright states that the Bay Area School was indeed “academic.” In New York, the academic was becoming marketable and profitable.

Perhaps Douglas MacAgy sensed the winds shifting away from painterly gestures and personality cults for he left CSFA, because, as the story went, he was not able to hire Marcel Duchamp. Although no one would have predicted it at then time, Duchamp was destined to become a seminal artist for the remainder of the century, taking art in a conceptual direction. Leaving aside for the moment the strange spectacle of Duchamp teaching in an art college, MacAgy denied this version of why he left the school. He felt that the student body was changing from males wanting to be serious artists to females on the hunt for husbands and students who wanted to teach art rather than be artists. In other words, instead of Richard Diebenkorn and Sam Francis (who attended Berkeley and hung around Clyfford Still) as students, the college would go into a decline. MacAgy’s strangely sexist attitude and his willingness to disparage female students and women artists seems archaic today, but his conviction that the presence of the female automatically lowered the standards proved to be totally wrong–as the art of Jay de Feo and Joan Brown attests to this day.

With Still and MacAgy gone, other faculty followed. Ed Corbett and Spohn left shortly after, then Hassel Smith was dismissed by the new director and David Park and Elmer Bishchoff resigned to protest the change in direction of the college. But in those short years of development, the Bay Area artists created a very different sort of Abstract Expressionism with figuration. But the representational aspect is only part of the story. The New York painters were engaged in formal play with the tradition of European modernism, but the Bay Area artists responded to the landscape of the West Coast. Even when painting abstractly, Diebenkorn always had a sense of sea, land, sky, and moved easily from the colored zones of thick gestures to the deeply colored interiors with lone inhabitants. When he moved to Ocean Park in the sixties, Diebenkorn, flattened his canvases, simplifying that natural creases in the northern landscape into the stripes of the freeways of Los Angeles. Away from the Bay, the artist became totally abstract and never returned to figuration.

Figurative painters, Bishchoff and Park showed more of the outdoor life of Northern California with figures on the beach—once again sky, sea, land—all painted with broad strokes of paint laid on with the strength of Still and the zones of Rothko. In contrast, Hassel Smith and Frank Lobdell were drawers not painters, in other words they were draw-ers who painted in writerly wire-like gestures. In the end it was the thick and assertive approach to paint itself deployed by Bishchoff and Park that eventually characterized the Bay Area Figurative School. These artists utilized the gesture as style and technique used to paint large and powerful figures, often in sea scares or beach scares, rendered timeless by the deep strokes of pigment. What was left of the glory days of Bay Area Figuration, the group of painters more or less disbanded before the color school wing, inspired by Mark Rothko. of the Abstract Expressionists in New York became prominent in the sixties.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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