On the ramparts of high art

October 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

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IN THE EARLY 1880s in San Francisco, Samuel Marsden Brookes had been hard at work, waiting patiently for better times. His paintings, of which he by now had a large number, were stacked all around the studio, with good prices affixed to them. Once Brookes put a price on a canvas, not even Satan himself could make him reduce it.

One portrayed a life-size peacock, posed on a balustrade before a palatial country house. The painting had been languishing in Brookes’ studio for quite some time, waiting for a buyer. The longer the bird remained on his hands, the higher Brookes jacked up the price. He had started at $750, a figure already pronounced much too high by his dealer. Out of sheer spite Brookes immediately raised it to $1,000. Thereafter, the price of the peacock had steadily escalated. From $1,000 it went to $1,200, then $1,500, then $1,700. By the time Timothy Hopkins, adopted son of the late Mark Hopkins, came to see the painting, the price had soared to $2,000. A few days later, when Timothy returned with Mark Hopkins’ widow for a second look, Brookes promptly raised the price to $2,500, announcing that, while he did not have any money he did have the picture, “and here it stays until I get my price.” In the face of such rapid developments, Mrs. Hopkins surrendered on the spot, adding two still lifes, one with apples, one with fish, for a total of $3,000.

The idea of the solitary artist brandishing his mahlstick on the ramparts of High Art, willing to die, yet prevailing in the end, was inspiring. However, it was merely the exception confirming the rule.

— From Artful Players: Artistic Life in Early San Francisco by Birgitta Hjalmarson

Saving the murals

August 26, 2019 § Leave a comment

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IT’S BEING HAILED as a victory. The school board in San Francisco reversed course and voted merely to cover up — not paint over — a remarkable series of murals by noted artist Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School. But the plan is still to make the frescoes disappear.

That’s a shame. A quickly scheduled, little noted public viewing of the controversial murals on a weekday afternoon nonetheless brought out scores of people eager to see for themselves what the fuss was about. It turned into an art party, with a gathering of many leading figures from the Bay Area art world. Most seemed to agree it was a silly idea to destroy — or even hide — the murals so that the young minds of high school students would not be subjected to the trauma of passing by Arnautoff’s intentionally provocative art.

Said one: “If they’re worried about the kids being traumatized, don’t let them read the front page of The New York Times.”

MORE: “The case for keeping the murals

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John Sloan meets Duke Ellington

August 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

FIRST PERSON | D. A. PENNEBAKER

I WANTED to make a film about this filthy, noisy train and its packed-in passengers that would look beautiful, like John Sloan’s New York City paintings, and I wanted it to go with my Duke Ellington record, Daybreak Express.

Read more

UPDATE: Pennebaker film archive looking for a home
RIP: D.A. Pennebaker dies at 94

A new studio at Sea Ranch

May 19, 2019 § Leave a comment

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Says Sandy Ostrau: “The Northern California coast has always been an important inspiration for my work. Now I’ve leased a beautiful studio space on The Sea Ranch and plan to spend more time up there working. The surrounding coast will undoubtedly continue to influence my work.”

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Sandy Ostrau: Inspired by Sea Ranch
The Sea Ranch at SFMOMA

Popping up again

May 3, 2019 § 2 Comments

Q & A | PAMELA FEINSILBER

For two decades he ran the Thomas Reynolds Gallery, an elegant, welcoming art gallery just off Fillmore Street. Since 2015, Thomas Reynolds has exhibited art online and privately by appointment. When a jewel of a space at 1906 Fillmore became available a couple of years ago, he organized a pop-up exhibition. And now, until the end of June, he’s showing art there again.

We met when you were my boss as editor and publisher of California Lawyer magazine. The next thing I knew, you had an art gallery. How did that happen?

I got interested in art and design as a young lawyer in Chicago, going to the Art Institute on Thursday nights. When I came to California Lawyer, we always aimed for strong covers — we even had a Gauguin on the cover once when we wrote about litigation over the bequest that created the Armand Hammer Museum in L.A. I think you edited that story. Through the magazine, I met some wonderful, just-emerging contemporary California painters. Francis Livingston and James Stagg both painted early covers of California Lawyer, and both were in my first gallery show, in 1994.

What made you decide to open a gallery?

I happened into the graduate exhibition of a young painter who lived near Fillmore, Veerakeat Tongpaiboon. His family owned Neecha, the Thai restaurant then at Sutter and Steiner, and many of his paintings were of this area. I lived here, too, and had already fallen in love with the neighborhood. On a lark, I rented the three-room Victorian space at 2291 Pine Street to show Veerakeat’s paintings, and those of a few other artists I admired. I had a six-week lease — it was to be one exhibition, not a new venture.

What happened?

I loved it — both being surrounded by art and becoming more involved in the neighborhood. And people loved Veerakeat’s paintings. His first three shows sold out and he was able to buy a home nearby, where he still lives and paints. I found a lot of satisfaction in helping launch the careers of some incredibly talented painters who’ve had great success.

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Straight to the gut

April 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

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Tina Modotti | Roses, Mexico (1924)

IT ALWAYS SEEMED a bit incongruous, at the very least, to walk into Susie Tompkins Buell’s penthouse atop the 2500 Steiner Street tower in San Francisco — a full-floor flat with 360-degree views of the city and the bay — and be confronted by images of the Depression.

She was a serious photography collector for decades, and the collection she built has been called “one of the finest and most select collections of photography in private hands.” Back in 1996 she said: “I wanted to collect photos with real social significance — I didn’t want to collect just pretty flowers.” And she did, acquiring straight-to-the-gut images by Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti and other revered photographers, just as photography was becoming a more respected and collectible art form. She helped to make the market for fine art photography.

Now her collection has been dispersed into other hands, in other neighborhoods.  On April 4, the Phillips auction house in New York offered 58 images from her collection, including these three by Tina Modotti. View the collection and the auction results here.

Read more: “Susie Tompkins Buell: A Collector’s Story

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Tina Modotti | Woman Carrying Olla (1926)

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Tina Modotti | Campesinos (1926)

Wonner-Brown estate to the Crocker

March 30, 2019 § Leave a comment

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William Theophilus Brown | Standing Bathers (1993)

THE CROCKER ART MUSEUM in Sacramento has received more than 1,800 works of art by Paul Wonner and William Theophilus “Bill” Brown and established the Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown Endowment Fund.

In accordance with the artists’ wishes, the fund will support museum projects relating to emerging artists or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning and intersex artists.

By 2023, the Crocker Art Museum will use the fund to mount an exhibition of the work of Wonner and Brown — the most comprehensive show of the artists’ body of work ever presented — and produce an accompanying catalogue.

“Paul Wonner and Bill Brown were trail blazers, both individually and as a couple,” said the museum’s associate director and chief curator, Scott A. Shields. “It is wonderful that their legacy will live on, not only through their own art, but though their forward-looking support of other artists. It is what they wanted, and everyone at the Crocker is honored to be able to realize their vision.”

Read more from the Crocker Museum