Art of the San Francisco Bay Area (1945-1980), by Thomas Albright

It happened again: one of my heroes died before I even knew about him. First it was Chris Whitley, a musician and amazing song writer I first became aware of in 1991 when his song “Big Sky Country” was the sexiest, most memorable and poetic thing I’d heard on the radio in years and I bought the album. He was in his 30s then I think, and I thought I had plenty of time to hear him live, even though I never go to live concerts and didn’t even really think about it until I bought two more of his albums, Dirt Floor and Soft Dangerous Shores, the latter released in 2005, the year he died of lung cancer at age 45. By the time I fell in love with Soft Dangerous Shores he was dead. 

So presently I am reading Art in the San Francisco Bay Area (AITSFBA from now on), and am so delighted by the introduction–how smart, self-effacing, engaging, colorful and original it is–that I google the author. He is dead, dead, dead. I will never meet the brilliant Thomas Albright, former art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle (1959-1977). He didn’t die last year. He didn’t die a decade ago. He died in 1984–33 years ago, a Christ’s lifetime ago– at the age of 48. Lung cancer again. It makes my own father’s 67 years before becoming sick and then dying from same disease seem lucky and long.

This is a book full of heroes and heroines, and Albright brings their stories to life, spending just enough time on each to be incredibly inclusive without creating an unwieldy tome on the one hand or an over-simplified index on the other. AITSFBA never reads like a college text book. It weaves a beautiful braid beginning with the relatively few strands of early artists in the area and getting thicker in the 1960s and 1970s, when many of the artists were living, working, studying together and sometimes marrying each other.

Albright writes about the art and artists as if he knew them so well they were friends, and several probably were, though he hits a perfect tone of objective professionalism. The last third of the book consists of short biographies of each artist discussed in the book along with a few artists important to the time/space that did not make it into the main part of the book.

As a docent at the diRosa Center for Contemporary Art, I began reading this book to become more familiar with artists in the collection. Museum founder Rene diRosa collected only artists living and working in northern California, so many of the names in the book were already familiar to me. I had no idea AITSFBA would be such a page turner though. Instead of skipping around to just read about the diRosa artists, I found myself fascinated with he introduction and reading one page after another.

Albright sets the tone by positioning San Francisco as “having historic ties to Mexico,” a “gateway to Asia,” and having a “strong rapport with native Americans.” Immediately we feel unique to Euro-centric New York; the west was fresh, reaching to the far East and embracing primitivism. He goes on to explain that the people who populated San Francisco were rebellious types, gold rush 49ers and ne’er do wells, but that there was always “a veneer of culture.” Sounds about right for the birthplace of the trust fund hippie.

With regards to what constitutes the Bay Area, Albright includes the nine counties that touch the San Francisco Bay as well as Sacramento and Davis to the east.

How the book is organized:

The Modernist Foundation: The first page of this chapter alone is reason enough for me to want to sit at the feet of Albright and absorb his wit and wisdom on art. He introduces Clyfford Still, who was the arbiter of Abstract Expressionism in San Francisco–the Pollock of the West Coast, but even more so, according to Albright. I thought I knew more than the average Jane about art, and Bay Area art in particular after my training at diRosa, but I had never heard of Clyfford Still. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Clyfford Still at a museum. How is this possible?

Albright’s word choices are fun to the point of making the writing as interesting as the subject matter and worthy of study. For example: “Clyfford Still… wandered out of the Dakota prairies into the quiet courtyard of the California School of Fine Arts one day in 1946 and instantly laid waste to all decadent traditions…” It makes Still sound like a gunslinger for art.

Albright paints a specific picture of the California School of Fine Arts (which is a huge presence in the book): “To be sure, in 1945 an explosion of any sort seemed remote from the cloistered atmosphere [of the school], serene in its twenty-year-old Mission style building (sometimes mistaken for an old monastery) on the seaward slope of Russian Hill–at the edge of North Beach and about half a mile from the financial district.” I visualize a school set apart, even somewhat holy; in view of the invigorating Pacific Ocean; rubbing elbows with the Beats,  yet is shouting distance from the money. Location, location, location.

We learn that the de Young Museum was built in 1894 by the publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle to house art for the California Midwinter Exhibition of that year and that in 1915, following the Panama Pacific Exhibition the Spreckels family received permission from the French government to make a copy of their Exhibition pavilion, which was opened as the Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1924 (the delay caused by World War I). No wonder I always feel transported to Paris when I visit.

This chapter is the foundation for an understanding of artists of the Bay Area, and it was humbling to read it. I’d never heard of Selden Conner Gile, whose heavy, vibrant brush strokes obviously influenced Thiebaud and Diebenkorn. Looking at plates of these early painters reminded me of the disillusionment I felt when I realized Picasso lifted so much from African art. Great artists are great thieves.

These early male artists were in groups like Society of Six and Canadian Group of Seven, etc, and they gathered to smoke, chew tobacco, drink heavily and paint. But there were women in and around the scene too, including Beatrice Judd Ryan who opened San Francisco’s first gallery dedicated to Contemporary Art in 1925 with the help of Maynard Dixon (whose idealized, spare western landscapes I have always loved).

The 1930s brought Diego Rivera to San Francisco and Social Realism became a trend that mirrored the political issues of the times, elevating the worker to hero status. It combined the blocky, somewhat featureless Cubism with primitive arts from Mayan, Egyptian and other cultures that were in vogue.

Clyfford Still and the Explosion of Abstract Expressionism

At the end of World War II, Albright tells us, there was an almost mindless optimism in the country, a “restless energy.” If you saw the movie “Plenty” with Meryl Streep, you will recognize the almost manic feeling her character has after the war. Something amazing has just happened–the good guys have won–and each day is bound to be bigger and better than the next. Out of this kind of energy came a revival of New Orleans style jazz that captured the mood and set the scene for Abstract Expressionism.

An interesting point Albright makes: after World War I artists continued going to Europe to study and create but after World War II, artists began coming to America in droves. America was where it was AT. The notorious Peggy G (Guggenheim) hosted her uber-famous “Art of this Century” to showcase European surrealists. The everyman in blue jeans became the art darlings. It was all about the vernacular, rough and free.

The GI Bill made art school popular for returning soldiers. How cool is that? Nobody was rougher and tougher than Clyfford Still, who came to sunny California with the dark and frigid winters of Dakota at his back. He was rigid to the point that he had to create, hang and host his solo shows and even put up his own lighting. I don’t like his muddy, masculine, abstract art, but I do like what he said: subversion to the rules offers possibilities.

Cocteau said, “The only outcome of an increasingly pronounced individualism is solitude.” Still took his individualism that seriously and eventually moved away from the Bay Area after only 4-5 years, but his influence was strong and long lasting.

The Golden Years of Abstract Expressionism

Diebenkorn attended the California School of Fine Arts in 1946 and had his first one man show at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1948. This section is a lot about Frank Lobdell and Hassel Smith, both influenced by Clyfford Still. The descriptions of Frank Lobdell’s painting on page 46 (yes all the above and it’s only page 46!!) are intense: rugged, unpleasant, rhythmic, gnarled, convoluted, ambiguous, enigmatic, vaguely archeological, spinning, ragged, obscure, animated, thrusting, leaping, swirling. they were on either white or black grounds, the cheapest paints Lobdell had access to. Lobdell is described as one of those tortured artists, who are deeply committed to the struggle of art and the need for it to be a harsh, hostile road. Anybody or anything spontaneous or easy is suspect.

Hassel Smith’s “action painting” is lighter, jazzier, more free. But for the most part, the colors these guys used in the 40s were butt ugly. I’d describe them like Harry Potter’s Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans: vomit, bile, soot, dirty diaper, dried booger, and basic bean (post digestion). It may have been the golden age of abstract expressionism but I wouldn’t want it hanging in my house.

A few of the artists like Smith were social and sound exciting and fun. They hung out in North Beach bars and cafes, were involved in salons and loved poetry and jazz. They were inspired by Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Jacksoon Pollock.

Abstract Expressionism peaked in the mid-1950s and there was a push against it and a return to figures and formalism….

The Bay Area Figurative School: this chapter begins with David Park dumping all his paintings pre-1950 at the local landfill. He began to paint figures again, although still using the irritable bowel syndrome color palette of ochres and browns. Things were looking up in the post World War Two world and people popped back into the pictures. The public appreciated it. Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira and Manuel Neri are some of the artists discussed in this chapter.

Elmer Bischoff was strongly influenced by fellow teacher Park and Joan Brown was influenced by both. Albright reports that Diebenkorn came late to the figures party, but his art is the most recognizable and valuable (at auction) and the diRosa does not own a single Diebenkorn (Rene liked a good deal and Diebenkorn knew his worth).

There’s much more to write here, so I’ll do a Part Two of this book report in a future article. Chapters to be discussed will be:

Bay Area Funk (the Beat Era)

Funk, Pop, Formalism

Sculpture of the Sixties

The Utopian Vison


Photo Realism and the New Abstraction

Personal Mythologies

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