A friendly, mellow magic shop

September 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Nathan Oliveira (left) was the first artist Charles Campbell exhibited at his gallery.


After an adventurous childhood in Siberia and Shanghai, followed by college and military service in Southern California, Charles Campbell moved north to San Francisco in 1947 and opened the Louvre framing and art supply store near the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. Art students on the GI Bill — David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn and many others — used his shop for supplies and socializing, sometimes trading a drawing for a tube of rare French oil paint. Framing for the major local museums provided a hands-on art education.

When he came to San Francisco, “All I knew about art was Art Tatum,” said Campbell, who had been the legendary blind pianist’s driver for a time in L.A. He was mad for jazz, and relished being part of the post-war creative boom in the haunts of North Beach. At night he managed Turk Murphy’s band at the Italian Village and palled around with traditional jazz types like Lu Watters.

“Both painting and jazz have to do with improvisation,” Campbell said. “Jazz musicians are improvisers, and of course painters are. They’re always working on paintings and changing them.”

By 1950, Campbell had begun hanging occasional shows of local artists in the Louvre’s front room. He was an early advocate of Bay Area Figurative work, which was evocative of place and rich with human connection. He learned to trust his instincts, showed and collected what moved him, and befriended many artists and collectors.

“Really the first artist I started handling almost exclusively was Nate Oliveira,” Campbell said in an oral history, “but not to give exhibitions. I didn’t have that kind of space. I was selling watercolors and those marvelous things from ’60 and ’61 from the frame shop.”

Paul Wonner, Theophilus Brown, Charles Campbell and Wayne Thiebaud

At a new location a block east, he launched the Charles Campbell Gallery in 1972. Soon the gallery would become an important destination, showing Bay Area Figurative painters Nathan Oliveira, Paul Wonner, Theophilus Brown, James Weeks and Joan Brown. Later he partnered with Paul Thiebaud and showed Manuel Neri, Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn and others. He also showed the largely forgotten paintings of the Society of Six, American Indian artifacts, East Indian miniatures, pre-Columbian ceramics, Day of the Dead folk art — whatever he fancied, and he fancied many things.

“I always felt, look, I’ll put up what I think is the best stuff and you come and look at it and make your own decision,” Campbell said. “There’s a sort of rule I have that I don’t want to show anything in the gallery that I wouldn’t want to have at home.”

It was a friendly, mellow magic shop with a large sofa in the front gallery and a back room filled with treasures where Campbell could be found midday having Chinese noodles and beer for lunch. It was a comfortable place with real art, juicy conversation and fun openings and after parties.

“I’ve always had stuff in the back room, a little bit of everything from everywhere,” Campbell said. “Some people take one look at it and flee, and others just like what they see. It’s a good mix.”

Charles and Glenna Campbell in 2012

Everyone entering the gallery was treated equally, with no sales pitch. Lovingly chosen art well displayed sold itself, helped along by handsome catalogs designed by Campbell’s wife, the artist Glenna Putt. Anyone could rummage around the back room and find something special — perhaps a Dorothea Lange photograph or a Balthus drawing. Many could buy only on time, and that was fine. There were no credit checks, only a handshake and trust. No one ever failed to pay. Charles Campbell’s gallery was the real deal in a flashy world.

“I look at things and get them because I like them,” Campbell said. “If it really hits me right now, if I look and it’s an immediate gut feeling. In fact, the things I regret are the decisions I’ve made to wait a week, to think about it, and then when I decide, I can’t get it. It’s gone. But God, the feeling of I want that, I want it right now, I’ll go into debt — which I’ve done. Rarely have I regretted what I’ve bought. But I have regretted things I should have bought but didn’t.”

At 98, he continues living his charmed life, trusting his instincts, improvising as he goes along, like his friends in art and jazz.

Barbara Janeff worked with Charles Campbell at his gallery for a decade and remains close friends with Campbell and his wife, the artist Glenna Putt.

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