Right place, right time

November 4, 2012 § 3 Comments

Nathan Oliveira | Chas (1963)


Partly because it is exhibited in a gallery made up of several small rooms, partly because of the preferences that inform the collection of Charles and Glenna Campbell, visiting the show titled “Treasures” — now on view at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery — is almost eerily reminiscent of visiting Charlie’s gallery.

In 1947, when Charlie brought his love of jazz up from Los Angeles and opened a frame shop near the school now known as the San Francisco Art Institute, he was in the right place at the right time. Abstract Expressionism was being born, soon to be followed by the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Both styles featured an informal, spontaneous handling of paint, and the artists saw an obvious likeness between their way of working and the improvisation within defined limits that was typical of jazz.

In those years the school on the hill had perhaps more than its share of amateur musicians, a few of whom came together to perform as the Studio 13 Jass Band. Its early stars included some of the area’s best-known names. Among others were David Park on piano, Douglas MacAgy, the director of the school, on drums, Elmer Bischoff on trumpet and Wally Hedrick on banjo.

It isn’t every art school whose director is a jazz drummer, and Charlie Campbell was in his element. He began doing shows at the frame shop and, as a natural next step, buying and trading for art he liked.

In 1972 he opened the Charles Campbell Gallery down the hill in North Beach. By then abstract painting had passed its peak of popularity, and there seemed to be at least a niche for a gallery specializing in a mostly easygoing figuration.

Campbell says that with few exceptions, all of the shows at his gallery were of art that he might have collected; there was no very clear dividing line between home and office, or between pleasure and business. Walk up to the second floor of the gallery and you would often find Charlie eating lunch, surrounded by an array of photographs that seemed to be more about his interest in jazz than about his connections with art.

Apart from the show announced on the printed invitations, there would always be a mind-boggling assortment of Mexican folk art, East Indian miniatures and masks from God knows where. All in all, it was a heartening reminder that a passion for art need not confine itself to one region or continent or century.

Charlie closed his gallery in 2008, when he was 93 years old. At 97, he is still lively in conversation and, although officially retired, he hasn’t quite stopped buying and selling art.

Over the years he collected paintings and drawings by well-regarded local artists, by young artists barely out of school and by a few unpredictable outliers. The show at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery includes works by such Bay Area notables as Nathan Oliveira, Frank Lobdell, Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown.

Among the non-Bay Area objects in the show is a disquieting portrait by a relatively obscure French artist, Jean Rustin. “It’s a very tough kind of painting for the average person,” Campbell says. “Many people look at this and turn away in disgust. But I like it and I like Rustin. A sweet guy.”

An artist friend once told me he loved Charlie’s gallery because, unlike so many in recent times, it showed art that had a smell of paint about it. One had a sense of being close to the pictures and their models and the materials themselves. Seeing things from close up, seeing intimately, was what the gallery offered.

One of my favorite pieces in the “Treasures” exhibition is an unassuming conte crayon drawing by Fred Dalkey, redolent of the atelier tradition in art; centuries of study by drawing from the figure glow at the viewer from Dalkey’s drawings.
In both feeling and execution they are poles apart from another of my favorites in the show, Woman With High Heels, a confrontational though still engaging watercolor Nathan Oliveira painted in 1960.

If there is any lesson to be learned from the show, it is that what the gallery had going for it wasn’t any particular look; it was Charlie.

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


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.


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.

‘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

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

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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