Paul Wonner in the Met

October 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

Paul Wonner | Dutch Still Life with Orchids (1983)

Paul Wonner | Dutch Still Life with Orchids (1983)
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The accidental dealer

October 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

Photograph of Charles Campbell by Matt Gonzalez

By PETER STEINHART

Charles Campbell stands in his small Potrero Hill living room looking up at a painting. It has been in the house for years, one of dozens he believed in, bought or traded for, and held onto. The walls around him are clamorous with paintings, most of them by artists who became famous partly through Charlie’s efforts. There are Diebenkorns, Oliveiras, Wonners, Weekses and Thiebauds. Each one has deep personal associations. They’re all old friends, guests at his party.

This one he has just moved from another wall and been installed over the fireplace, where he can have a long last conversation with it. For it is about to leave. He has just sold it to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur for close to $2 million dollars. Charlie stands before it like a father before a son he is about to send off into the world: appraisingly but proud.

A San Francisco art dealer for six decades, Charlie asks me not to divulge the name of the painting, its price or its buyer. Discretion is an essential condition of dealing with wealth. But right now Charlie is clearly bragging. He poses, bird-like, hawk-nosed, chin up, gray sweat pants all but falling off his rail-thin hips, and it is a posture of triumph as if to say: “I wasn’t given a lot of advantages, but how do you like me now, world?” And then, his gaze shuffles behind his thick eyeglasses, his chin lowers and something softens in him and you see he is sad at parting with an old friend.

Charlie doesn’t look much like a gallery man. He doesn’t seem to calculate your social standing or your net worth as you walk in his door. He hasn’t got a day of academic training, has never taken a college art history course. No ascot, no fancy suit, no monocle. If you entered his gallery, he would not stand over your shoulder lecturing about the artist or the painting or how the painting’s value is expected to grow. “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,” he told interviewer Joan Bossart. It’s up to the people who come into his gallery to decide what the paintings are about.

There is a common man quality to him. His close friend Wayne Thiebaud calls him “the accidental dealer.” Unlike most of his gallery competitors, he backed into the business, with no preconceived idea of the nobility of art or its patrons. And one gets the impression that he did it not for beauty or wealth or social standing, but because he has always taken pleasure in sharing the enjoyment he gets out of life.

— excerpted from The Accidental Dealer by Peter Steinhart, copyright 2011.

A friendly, mellow magic shop

September 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

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

AN APPRECIATION | BARBARA JANEFF

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.
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‘That’s how we met’

May 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Paul Wonner | Valentine to Bill

Paul Wonner | Valentine to Bill

William Theophilus Brown — Bill to his friends — and Paul Wonner met as graduate art students at Berkeley in 1952. Their partnership endured. “He was my best critic,” said Brown, “and I think I was his.”

Paul Wonner | Happy Christmas (2004)

Paul Wonner | Happy Christmas (2004)

In a conversation with Paul Karlstrom of the Smithsonian Institution in 2011, Brown recalled when they met.

WTB: I came out to California because I wanted to try to find out a little more about who I was. And I knew nobody in California. I knew the Stravinskys, but they were in Los Angeles. And so I decided to go to graduate school at Berkeley and get a degree so I would be able to teach. And I did. And I came out in the fall three days before classes began and signed up. And Paul Wonner was in three out of four classes the first semester.

That’s how you two met?

That’s how we met. Well, we met, but he thought I was such a snob that he didn’t really speak to me very much.

He got over it. How?

He got over it. I didn’t change. Anyway, it took a while, but then I could see from my point of view that Paul was the best painter among the students and also the faculty. So we did get together then.

How old was he relative to you?

I think he was about two or three years younger.

Because you were together a very long time. When did you become a couple?

I think by the end of that first year. We were together 50 years. He was my best critic and I think I was his best critic. We really trusted each other. And, well, I thought he was a marvelous man. Still do.

Paul Wonner, Theophilus Brown, Charles Campbell and Wayne Thiebaud

Paul Wonner, Theophilus Brown, Charles Campbell and Wayne Thiebaud

Art, music — and good Scotch

April 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

The artist Theophilus Brown was also a talented musician from an early age and a music major at Yale. Throughout his long life he played the piano with dedication and talent, often accompanied by a violinist, and even recorded some of his original compositions. He was still at the piano the day before he died at age 92 on February 8, 2012.

His beloved Steinway grand piano has been donated to the San Francisco Towers, the senior home where he lived during his last decade, which he called “the Versailles of retirement homes.” A memorial recital was performed on his piano in the grand salon of the Towers on April 21, 2012. Friends have proposed an annual recital in his memory to spotlight rising stars in the music world.

A shelf in Brown's studio.


An opening reception for a new exhibition of his work at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery followed, along with a single-malt Scotch tasting. The gallery hosted an earlier tasting of single-malt — Brown’s drink of choice — on his 90th birthday. “Life is too short for cheap white wine,” he said at the time.

The exhibition, “Theophilus Brown: A Celebration,” is drawn entirely from paintings, drawings and collages in his apartment and studio at the time of his death. It includes his collection of drawings by his partner, Paul Wonner, another key member of the Bay Area Figurative group.

At his memorial, an excerpt from a forthcoming documentary on Theophilus Brown was played, giving the great man himself the final word.

Coming soon: “Theophilus” the film

Remembering Theophilus Brown

April 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Self Portrait, 2001 | Theophilus Brown

By JOHN SEED
The Huffington Post

At the age of 11, William Theophilus Brown shook the hand of the artist Grant Wood, the creator of American Gothic, who was awarding him third prize in a juried adult art competition. “He (Wood) was amazed to see this kid walking up the aisle,” Brown later recalled. In the long and richly artistic life that followed Brown racked up interesting life experiences, meeting many more “gods and idols” along the way.

Part of Brown’s success in life seems to have stemmed from always knowing just what to do or say. One day in Europe, for example, he recognized the man knocking at a friend’s studio door as Alberto Giacometti, and immediately set up an easel and invited Giacometti to draw the model with them.

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Kissed by de Kooning

February 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Words are one language and painting is another.” Excerpts from an interview with William Theophilus Brown conducted on October 26, 2011, by Paul Festa.

The last supper

February 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Photograph by Matt Gonzalez

“I took him 36 oysters Saturday night and we shared dinner,” Theophilus Brown’s friend Matt Gonzalez said. “He had a good appetite and was in good spirits. But he couldn’t leave the apartment, and he was clear that if he couldn’t go to his studio and make art anymore, he didn’t want to live. So it was time.”

EARLIER: “A friendship with Theophilus Brown

‘An elegant and irreverent painter’

February 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

William Theophilus Brown
April 7, 1919 – February 8, 2012

By JULIAN GUTHRIE
San Francisco Chronicle

William Theophilus Brown, an elegant and irreverent American painter and member of the venerated figurative movement who met and befriended some of history’s great artists, from Pablo Picasso to Igor Stravinsky, died Wednesday [February 8, 2012] at his home in San Francisco. He was 92.

Mr. Brown, who lived in the opulent San Francisco Towers, which he christened the “Versailles of retirement communities,” was painting until the end, said his friend and gallerist Thomas Reynolds. He had a studio a few blocks from his home and continued to participate in drawing sessions.

“Theophilus Brown was one of those rare artists who was successful at every stage of his career,” Reynolds said. “And he was always at the center of the action — in France with Picasso, in New York with (Mark) Rothko and (Willem) de Kooning, in California with the Bay Area figurative painters.”

Reynolds added, “He was everybody’s favorite dinner companion — charming to the ladies and bawdy with the boys.”

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‘It seems improbable, this life’

October 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Theophilus Brown | Photograph by Sarah Rice

By JULIAN GUTHRIE
San Francisco Chronicle

William Theophilus Brown walks through the opulent marble lobby of San Francisco Towers where he lives and remarks, “It’s the Versailles of retirement communities.”

Brown, who is 92, is accustomed to moving in luminous circles. From Yale to New York, Paris to Antibes, Brown studied, painted or partied with a cast of artistic giants: Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Samuel Barber, Georges Braque, Mark Rothko, Alberto Giacometti and Willem de Kooning. Once in California, he found his own place in painting and is known as one of the members of the venerated Bay Area Figurative Movement.

“It seems improbable, this life,” Brown said. “I was so lucky running across such creative and interesting people. The encounters and friendships inspired me to take chances and to try new mediums. It freed one up from a certain rigidity. I still look forward to going to the studio, even today.”

Brown’s paintings are featured in a new show at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery in San Francisco, and a documentary is being made on his improbable life. His works are held in major California museums, from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum to the Oakland Museum and the Cantor Center at Stanford. Nationally, his paintings are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum at the Smithsonian.

“Sure, he’s a key player in the Bay Area Figurative Movement, but he’s far more than that,” gallerist Thomas Reynolds said. “He’s a bridge to the whole New York scene of the ’40s and ’50s, and even to postwar Paris.

“This is someone whose life and art deserve to be celebrated. He’s got more going on at 92 than most artists half his age. He’s engaged. He’s creating. And he’s still everybody’s favorite dinner companion.”

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