Celebrating the art of Alta Plaza

February 19, 2020 § Leave a comment


Mark Ulriksen | Dogs Only (1995)

A NEIGHBORHOOD GALLERY is celebrating a favorite local park in San Francisco with an exhibition of paintings and photographs, many offered for sale.

Alta Plaza Park, which sits at the top of Pacific Heights a block west of Fillmore Street, has drawn a variety of artists through the years to its sloping terraces — especially since the Thomas Reynolds Gallery opened nearby 25 years ago. Among the artists included in the gallery’s newest exhibition dedicated to the park are:

• San Francisco artist Mark Ulriksen, who has painted more than four dozen covers of the New Yorker magazine


Michael Reardon | Legion of Honor at Alta Plaza (2012)

• architectural watercolorist Michael Reardon, who has led plein-air paint-outs in the park and imagined how the park might look if San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum had been built there, as founder Alma Spreckels originally intended


John Payne | The Park (1959)

John Payne, a painter who had a studio on the park in the 1950s and captured, among other subjects, the Washington-Jackson cable car line, which ran by the park for decades


Veerakeat Tongpaiboon | Uphill: Alta Plaza

Veerakeat Tongpaiboon, who moved near the park from Thailand three decades ago and has made it one of his frequent subjects.

inquire about availability, or
make an appointment to visit the gallery, which operates privately near the park.

A studio by the park

February 17, 2020 § 1 Comment


John Payne | The Park (1959)

JOHN PAYNE had no desire to settle in California until he visited San Francisco. He immediately fell under the city’s charms and uniqueness.

There was no doubt that in the 1950s it was the place to be. Lawrence Ferlinghetti had just opened City Lights bookstore in North Beach, and the free-spirited culture of the Beat generation appealed to the young painter. The hills, the Victorian houses and the liberal politics were irresistible. Best of all, his allergies disappeared like magic in the gray fog.

In 1956, after three years at Art Center in Los Angeles, he packed his paints, brushes and easel into his car and headed to the Bay Area. If he couldn’t have Paris, he could always have San Francisco.

With the unlikely luck of finding an ample flat at 2775 Clay Street, directly across from Alta Plaza Park, John eagerly set up his studio. An elderly woman owned the house and she rented only to women boarders, all of them retired domestic workers. They had considerable savings and were living quite comfortably, if frugally, in the elegant Pacific Heights neighborhood.

He never quite understood why the landlady accepted him into this matronly community, but neither did he need to know. For $10 a week, he had the entire top floor of the old Victorian. The solicitous landlady took him under her wing, cleaning his room as well as frequently cooking dinner for him in the evening. In turn, John became the surrogate son for her and the other women boarders. He ran errands, assisted them when they needed a ride to the doctor, and even helped with funeral arrangements for those without close relatives.


John Payne | Lady by the Park (1960)

The space was ideal for painting, and he immediately began preparing for his first show at the Tillman Place Gallery owned by Frank Ashley. Alta Plaza Park became a favorite spot for setting up his easel. His camera, a trusted ally, was slung around his neck and helped him capture scenes that would eventually flow from his palette.

In 1959, John’s first major exhibition was ready. With a fantastic stroke of fortune, it was shown in the number one gallery in the city, Maxwell’s. “San Francisco Sits for Her Portrait” was a huge success, selling out almost all of the paintings. Fred Maxwell was so impressed with John’s work that he sent him to France for six months to do a similar show on Paris.

With camera and sketchbook as his constant companions, and the curiosity of a child, he charted his own way through the City of Lights. He made his own the famous words of Hemingway in A Moveable Feast: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

He returned to San Francisco six months later with drawings, photographs and experiences to inspire paintings for his next show and memories to last a lifetime. His second show was also a huge success and for the next three and a half years he stayed with Maxwell, who always welcomed his paintings. After the gallery owner’s death in the mid-60s, his nephew Mark Hoffman inherited the business. John’s relationship with the gallery continued as before. But by the late 1960s, the popularity of abstract and psychedelic art overshadowed the art world and there was little interest in his style of painting. His work became more difficult to sell.


John Payne | Clay Street Studio (1961)

As one point, John became so disillusioned with the art trends in San Francisco that he abruptly left the city and drove cross-country to New York, hoping to find a better market there. He arrived in Manhattan in the middle of a brutal heat wave and his allergies returned with a vengeance. Without testing the waters, he turned around and headed back to San Francisco. In later years, he recalled the thrill of crossing the Bay Bridge and seeing his city with her jewels sparkling in the night. Breathing in the clean, cool air, he resolved never to leave her again.

He drove directly to Pacific Heights to visit his landlady to see if he had any mail. To his surprise, as she had done when he was in Paris, she kept his room vacant — “because,” she said, “I knew you would return.” She was also holding a check that had come for him while he was away and it was just enough to pay the week’s rent. The very next morning he set up his easel and mixed his oils.

John was at the peak of his work at this time. He was overflowing with ideas and had the freedom, the heart and the enthusiasm of a young painter. His subjects were storefronts, cityscapes, restaurant fronts, bookstands and ordinary scenes from the city. Often he painted a little old lady on the street, carrying a shopping bag or a large purse. It was a characteristic of many of his early paintings. Once he commented: “A psychoanalyst could probably have a field day analyzing that one. But I really don’t know where she came from.”

For nearly a decade he lived on Clay Street and painted with no real distractions or worries.

— From The Life & Art of John Payne, by Frances R. Payne (Xlibris © 2014).


FLW tiles in Taliesin red

December 22, 2019 § Leave a comment


Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature red tile.

ARCHITECT AARON GREEN, who lived in an apartment overlooking San Francisco’s Lafayette Park for many years, helped Frank Lloyd Wright establish an office here in 1951 at 319 Grant Avenue.

Green’s mother-in-law, Jeannette Pauson Haber, lived near him at 2510 Jackson Street, on Alta Plaza Park, with her sister, Rose Pauson, who was a former client of Wright’s. In 1940 she had built the Pauson House in Arizona, which was destroyed by fire in 1943.

Rose was a painter, and Jeannette a ceramicist. When Wright decided to create red tiles, inscribed with his initials, to be affixed to a select number of his buildings, he asked Jeannette to fabricate them. Wright provided a drawing of what he wanted; Jeannette formed the tiles; Aaron Green inscribed the initials — FLLW — into each one; and Jeannette produced the “Taliesin red” glazed surface that Wright specified.

Among the Bay Area buildings that Wright designated as worthy of bearing the tiles were the V.C. Morris shop on Maiden Lane — his only building in San Francisco and a precursor to the circular Guggenheim Museum in New York — and the Marin County Civic Center, which was completed by Aaron Green after Wright’s death.

— From Frank Lloyd Wright and San Francisco, by Paul V. Turner, published by Yale University Press.

A very pretty show

December 13, 2019 § Leave a comment


James Tissot | The Circle of the rue Royale (1866)

“ONE LEAVES THE Legion show with a deep sense of disappointment,” writes San Francisco Chronicle art critic Charles Desmarais in his review of the Tissot exhibition at the Legion of Honor, while acknowledging Tissot “was a skillful painter who left us intimate glimpses into the styles and customs of wealthy France and England in the 19th century.”

More to the point are Desmarais’ comments in his weekly newsletter:

“James Tissot: Fashion & Faith,” at the Legion of Honor, is the kind of exhibition we had once come to expect from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: uncritical, untethered to the issues of today, and very pretty to look at. Then things changed, we thought.

I chose not to go down that critical road in my review. I think the museums are still shaking off the decorative flourishes of the Buchanan/Wilsey years, and in a big institution that doesn’t happen overnight. I’m willing to cut the new team some slack as it works through the deep investments made in the backlog of long-planned projects. And “Tissot” is, after all, a very pretty show.

REVIEW: “A story more of love than of art

On the ramparts of high art

October 21, 2019 § Leave a comment


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


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


John Sloan meets Duke Ellington

August 5, 2019 § Leave a comment


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.

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