Art and life and death

August 12, 2018 § 1 Comment

I’D HAD COFFEE with Kelly Johnson — or at least said hello — almost every day for many years. He was a regular at Peet’s on Fillmore, our neighborhood gathering place, with tales to tell from his colorful artistic life as a childhood vaudeville star who later created a modern dance studio on Fillmore Street, helped put the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra on the map, and was himself a dancer and a concert pianist. One day in April he called and asked me to come by his third-floor flat, less than half a block from our usually sunny coffee corner.

We’d talked a few times about my interest in hand-hammered copperwork from the Arts & Crafts era. He’d told me he knew Armenac Hairenian, a noted coppersmith whose shop was just across the street from his flat. He had a pair of copper candelabras Hairenian made for him half a century ago as a birthday gift. He’d promised to invite me over and show them to me, and I was looking forward to it.

I climbed the stairs to his flat and found Kelly sitting on the red couch in his round-bayed living room overlooking the heart of Fillmore Street. It was a beautiful old rambling Victorian flat he’d called home since 1969. His daughter was visiting, and she brought in the candelabras. “I want you to have these,” he said. As he was telling their story and recalling the many dinner parties on which they cast their glow, I pulled out my iPhone to record his recollection of this important but little-known coppersmith. Kelly was one of the few people left who remembered him.

THEN HE DROPPED A BOMBSHELL. I knew Kelly was not well, and that it was increasingly difficult for him to leave his apartment, even to go to Peet’s. He said he was giving away a few choice possessions, and that his daughter had come home to help him die. He had decided to end his life on May 7 under the procedure authorized by California’s new End of Life Option Act.

Moved and shaken, I went back to my office and put together a short video about the candelabras. It was a bittersweet project that would also save a memory of Kelly in his final days. But I knew I was not telling the most important story I had heard that day. So I asked Kelly if I could come back and make another video, this one about him and his decision to end his life.

Kelly was game. He’d been a performer all his life, and he had a message he wanted to share. The video turned into a much more elaborate production capturing Kelly’s final two weeks and the end of his life. It was an intense project created with a talented young journalist, photographer and filmmaker fate brought along at just the right time. A Dance With Death premieres at 7 p.m. on August 15 — three months after Kelly died — at our century-old neighborhood theater, located on the same block where Kelly lived for half of its history.

— Thomas Reynolds

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Making it precise

July 6, 2018 § 2 Comments

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Gerald Murphy | Watch (1925)

A MAGICAL THING sometimes happens when an unexpected door opens. The excellent Precisionism exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco starts off with two of the few surviving paintings by Gerald Murphy. Who?

Gerald Murphy’s introduction to painting began in September 1921 when he happened in Paris to come upon some paintings by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris. “I was astounded,” he said. “My reaction to the color and form was immediate. To me there was something in these paintings that was instantly sympathetic and comprehensible.”

He began immediately to take lessons from the Russian painter Natalia Goncharova, and in the next seven years he completed 14 paintings, of which only seven have survived, and it is on these seven that his reputation rests.

It is said that although the artist chooses his subject, at times it seems rather that the subject has chosen the artist. Such was surely the case with Gerald Murphy. Outwardly his life on the Cote d’Azur was the essence of gaiety and vitality. It was not the bright colors that surrounded him on every side that he chose for his canvases, but the somber tones, the 14 shades of gray in Watch (1925) that overwhelm the watch’s gold encasement. His greatest paintings depict with great objectivity and precision the triumph of time and death.

— William Jay Smith in Making It New

 

Seeing light

June 7, 2018 § 1 Comment

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Ruth Bernhard | Doorknob (1973)

Seeing light is a spiritual experience for me. I saw the exciting sprays of light from the glass doorknob in my apartment. Here I was with a perfect subject and the light would change before I could do a picture. The following day was overcast, and so was the next. The sun finally shone, but not on the doorknob.

Determined, I decided to mark the calendar for one year from the date when I “saw” the photograph, the 11th of May. A year later I was ready and everything happened as planned. I couldn’t have been happier.

— Ruth Bernhard

Coming: a Joan Brown retrospective

May 20, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Joan Brown | Self-Portrait With Fish and Cat (1970)

JOAN BROWN met SFMOMA painting and sculpture curator Janet Bishop in 1989, while helping mount a show of Bay Area figurative art at the museum. It included paintings by Elmer Bischoff, who had mentored Brown at what’s now the San Francisco Art Institute and inspired her to follow her instincts, and other works from second-generation practitioners like Brown and her second husband, sculptor Manuel Neri.

“I was struck by the incredible vitality and freedom in her work,” says Bishop, who’s planning a Brown retrospective that SFMOMA intends to present around 2021.

In the pictures that brought Brown acclaim at 22 — when she had her first New York gallery show and was featured in the Whitney Museum’s prestigious “Young America” exhibition — “she just loaded the brush and the canvas with paint,” Bishop notes. “They have an intense physicality that was very much her own. Later on, in the ’70s, when her work becomes more flat and graphic, I think she emerged as a truly distinctive voice. That work is still underappreciated.”

SFMOMA has 29 Brown works, several acquired in recent years.

— Jesse Hamlin in the Nob Hill Gazette

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Joan Brown | Woman Waiting in a Theatre Lobby (1975)

Feasting with the Staprans

April 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Ilona and Raimonds Staprans with his biographer, Paul Karlstrom, at left.

I FOUND MYSELF in the lucky seat between Ilona and Raimonds Staprans at an intimate and artsy dinner party down the peninsula the other night. They are two fascinating people. She’s a scientist at UCSF. He’s one of California’s preeminent painters, still going strong in his 90s, and an eminent playwright in their native Latvia, where they spend a part of every year.

Raimonds Staprans is getting some of the recognition he richly deserves, with an exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art through May 20 called “Full Spectrum.” It was seen last fall at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, which organized the exhibition and published a beautiful catalog. Even if you’ve seen his paintings, you may be surprised by the breadth of his work over the past six decades. And the paint and light and color are luscious.

In a talk in San Jose, he described how his work flows out of his daydreams.

Thanatopsis — Aeterna

April 16, 2018 § Leave a comment

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AETERNA VOLK IS DEAD. She did not pass! She did not fall asleep! She did not go to the great beyond! Aeterna Volk just died. She was never afraid of death, for if you are afraid of dying, you cannot love to live.

Aeterna Volk does not need a memorial or funeral service to convince herself that she truly is dead. The people who have known and loved her will memorialize her in their hearts. Those who never understood her philosophies will not be moved because she has expired.

— Final entry in a book of poems left behind by Carol Aeterna Volk

Precisionism at the deYoung

March 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

A WALK THROUGH “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art” with curator Emma Acker. The exhibition continues at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco from March 24 to August 12, 2018.