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

A life of art

March 26, 2019 § Leave a comment


He’d lived in the flat on California Street for 37 years. Suddenly late one afternoon Jim Scott realized something was wrong. He called 911 and tried to answer all the dispatcher’s questions. Finally he told her: “Look, I have to get out of here. My room is full of black smoke.”

Sparks from a welder working next door had started a fire. The squadrons of firefighters soon on the scene flooded the blaze before it reached Scott’s apartment — but only after they had bashed in his ceiling and windows, leaving his home a soggy and smoky mess.

In his book, The Al Tarik, Scott, now 96, gently unfolds the story of the three years that followed and landed him in a residential hotel on Sutter Street he describes as “a century-old San Francisco pile” that is “a refuge for those like myself who in their last years have been roughed up and tossed on the rocks and shoals.”

At first his landlord assured Scott he would be back in his apartment within a few months. He moved in temporarily with a neighbor across the alley. But as the renovation of the building languished, he needed another place to stay, and found no good options. So he moved back into his charred apartment.

“There was no heat or light, but the water was still running,” he writes. “It was much better than the Tenderloin cesspool I had fled. On my first night in what had been my old bedroom, I looked up through the blackened rafters to the shingles of the roof, which roared with a great downpour and thunder while lightning lit the plastic sheets stretched over the window spaces. Oddly, it all felt elemental and reassuring and that something positive could now happen.”

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Lessons in stained glass

January 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

Putting finishing touches on the Swedenborgian's St. Christopher window

Putting finishing touches on the Swedenborgian Church’s St. Christopher window


Like many people, I had been active in church life from childhood into early adolescence. Then, confronting what my teenaged mind saw as cowardice and hypocrisy within my church, I swore off religion.

In college I became aware of the writings of the 18th century scientist and Christian mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg and, as a scientist, was drawn to his insistence that the teachings of faith and reason must conform. But I had no interest in being part of any organized religion.

Until I walked into the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church.

I was awestruck by the building’s humble strength and simple beauty. Everything breathed a spiritual essence. I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

By 2012, the condition of the stained glass windows that had graced the Swedenborgian church at the corner of Lyon and Washington Streets for more than 100 years had deteriorated. We learned that if action were not taken, the beautiful windows — an integral part of the National Historic Landmark — could be lost forever.

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Audel Davis honored at Grove Park

March 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Audel Davis Coppersmith

A catalog of Audel Davis’s work accompanied the Grove Park exhibit

AUDEL DAVIS is the first living crafter to be honored with an exhibit in the Great Hall of the Grove Park Inn. The exhibit [from February 21 to 23, 2014] is also the first one-person showing of his work in a non-commercial setting. It is entirely fitting that Audel Davis be honored in this way, and in this place. He has a long affiliation with the Grove Park Inn Arts and Crafts Conference, having attended all but three of the 26 conferences. His deep commitment to the ideals of the movement, too, both aesthetically and philosophically, make this exhibit a supremely natural manifestation of the conference’s mission to educate and inspire those who revere the Arts and Crafts movement and its contemporary renaissance.

Those who know Audel personally will understand how his self-effacing nature initially rebelled against the idea of an exhibit honoring his work. A modest man of unfailing good humor and grace, Audel is not comfortable in the spotlight. But if you are also familiar with his work, which this exhibit seeks to elucidate, you will know that Audel Davis is completely deserving of the attention this exhibit brings to him.

Some years ago I was the very happy recipient of a pair of Audel’s candlesticks. They have become like members of our family, such is the warm and personal character that they express over years of closeness and familiarity, not unlike the people who are dear to me. The attributes of family and warmth are naturally a part of Audel’s work, and as you contemplate the objects in this exhibit you may also sense the traits that make his way of working copper to be so very much more than merely raised, planished, hammered and patinated sheets of metal.

— TED BOSLEY, Director
The Gamble House
Pasadena, California

Foreword to Audel Davis Coppersmith
Copyright 2014 by Roger Moss

Read more: “A coppersmith of skill and maturity

The art of Tibetan rugs

February 2, 2013 § 2 Comments

A rare Tibetan leopard spots rug from the Piccus Collection

A rare Tibetan leopard spots rug from the Piccus Collection


Before they returned to San Francisco in 2000, Pacific Heights residents Robert and Alice Piccus lived in Hong Kong for three decades. Both were inveterate travelers and knowledgeable collectors who had the interest and proximity to seek out Vietnamese ceramics, Southeast Asian sculpture and Tibetan silver, among other treasures. They also built an important collection of traditional Chinese furniture.

In the mid-1980s they became interested in Tibetan rugs, which were beginning to appear in Hong Kong. During the next decade they assembled a notable collection of almost 200 Tibetan rugs, now celebrated in a lavish new book, Sacred & Secular: The Piccus Collection of Tibetan Rugs, published by Serindia Publications in Chicago.

How did you begin your collection? Alice and I had the good fortune to live in Hong Kong from 1968 to 2000, a 32-year period that saw Hong Kong grow from a relatively sleepy colonial backwater to its present status as the dynamic business, financial and art-collecting center of Asia.

The Asian art that surrounded us in Hong Kong and that we found during our extensive travels throughout the region led us to collect in a number of areas. During the 1970s and early 1980s we collected early Chinese rugs made for use in temples in the Tibetan religious and cultural areas of western China and Mongolia. But the Tibetan rugs available then were never of interest to us, and we assumed that would always be the case.

So what changed? Westerners were not able to visit Tibet until the mid-1980s, but some Hong Kong Chinese dealers did, and so did certain Tibetans living in Nepal. Some of the leading Katmandu dealers were accumulating huge piles of rugs. The condition of these seemingly never-washed rugs was horrible. It was clear that Tibetans did not put much care into their rugs, which in the absence of furniture and fixed accommodations were functional objects on which to sit, sleep and give some protection from the cold. The mid-1980s became a dynamic time for collecting Tibetan art, including the previously ignored rugs. We were concentrating on putting together our collection of classical Chinese furniture while continuing our interest in Chinese rugs and Tibetan silver and manuscript covers. We were aware of developments in Tibet, and we began to pay attention to the Tibetan rug market.
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The art of craft

November 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

SAN FRANCISCO was a hotbed of artisans and crafters in the early 20th century during the height of the Arts & Crafts movement, and hand-hammered copperwork was among the most prized of the crafts elevated to artwork.

Dirk van Erp, arguably the greatest coppersmith of the era, created a uniquely beautiful body of art copper. He also had a profound effect on many other art coppersmiths. A new book offers a windfall of new research about these artists, including more than 200 examples of their work and dozens of vintage photographs, many not previously exhibited or published.

Included in addition to Dirk van Erp are:

• Harry St John Dixon, brother of artist Maynard Dixon and van Erp’s first apprentice, who became the Bay Area’s other most celebrated coppersmith.

• D’Arcy Gaw, Dirk van Erp’s first partner in San Francisco.

• August Tiesselinck, Dirk van Erp’s nephew, whose technical skills and creative designs were especially admired.

• Dirk van Erp’s children, William and Agatha van Erp, both of whom became accomplished coppersmiths.

• Lillian Palmer, who moved from San Jose to San Francisco to found the Palmer Shop Cooperative, an early woman-run studio.

• Plus: Fred Brosi, Hans Jauchen & Old Mission Kopper Kraft, Armenac Hairenian and the other Harry Dixon, Harry L Dixon, among others.

REVIEW: “This book has class

Why they call it Funk

February 6, 2012 § 1 Comment

According to artist Wally Hedrick, the Funk art movement got its definition from the peculiar practice of his eccentric former wife, artist Jay DeFeo — with whom he lived at 2322 Fillmore Street — of storing her dirty underwear in the refrigerator.

“When I first got to know Jay DeFeo,” Hedrick said, “I’d go over to her house and talk. One day when she’s gone to the john or someplace, I began looking for something to eat. I went to the refrigerator and opened it up — and all of her old underwear was in it. It was a couple years’ supply. The refrigerator was off, probably hadn’t run in 10 years, and she never washed her clothes. And so — instead of putting it somewhere else or throwing it away when she finally took off her underwear — she’d just stick it in the refrigerator. . . . Funky.”

— from Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art © 2012 by Paul J. Karlstrom with Ann Heath Karlstrom, published by the University of California Press.

Now at the Wolfsonian

April 22, 2010 § 1 Comment

Portrait of Kay | Mac Harshberger

The Wolfsonian Museum in Miami is presenting “+5: Recent Acquisitions” showcasing the growth of the collection during the past five years.

Included in the exhibition is the elegant “Portrait of Kay” by Mac Harshberger, which was shown in San Francisco in 2009 for a final time before the William Whitney Collection was bequeathed to the Wolfsonian.

Due largely to Whitney’s efforts, Mac Harshberger’s work from the 1920s has gradually gained greater recognition in recent decades. Handsomely designed one-man exhibitions were mounted at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Honolulu Academy of Art and the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Examples of Harshberger’s work are preserved in the permanent collections of those institutions and in the Wolfsonian.

Whitney authored An Elegance of Line, a monograph on Harshberger, which made its debut alongside an exhibition of Harshberger’s work at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery.

Read more: “Keeper of the Flame

Bill Brown and his famous friends

February 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

A catalog of the exhibition is available.

One of the pioneers of Bay Area Figurative painting, artist Theophilus “Bill” Brown, 90, certainly qualifies as a local treasure. Still painting and drawing today, his work is celebrated in “Theophilus Brown Nudes: Five Decades of Drawing and Painting the Figure,” showing at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery in San Francisco through March 13.

After stays in Paris, where he met Braque, Picasso and Giacometti and studied with Leger, and New York, where he befriended the de Koonings, Brown moved to the Bay Area in 1952 to study painting at UC Berkeley. On his third day in California, he met a fellow painter, Paul Wonner, who would become his life partner. Along with Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and David Park, Brown and Wonner embraced the then-radical return of the human figure to the modern painting, what would become known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement. In Brown’s case, that returning to painting’s roots included extensive studies of the male nude. Brown still lives and works in San Francisco today.

During his one-man show’s run this month, Brown visited the gallery with Don Bachardy, the late Christopher Isherwood’s partner, and painter and official portraitist of Gov. Jerry Brown. Bill Brown is an old friend of Bachardy and Isherwood, and Bachardy came up from LA to see the show. Brown reminisced about old times with them, including a memorable dinner at their house. Before dinner, Isherwood had excused himself and left, and after a little while he returned — with Marlene Dietrich in tow. Of course they also talked about Tom Ford’s new film, A Single Man, from Isherwood’s novel. Both gave thumbs up.

Living history was flowering on Pine Street that day.


A Pflueger masterpiece

January 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

The newly restored Alameda Theater

We journeyed across a couple of bridges last night — all the way to Alameda — to hear a talk by Therese Poletti, who’s just published a beautiful book on the great San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger called Art Deco San Francisco.

We know Pflueger primarily for his Deco towers in San Francisco — the Pacific Bell building, which was the city’s first high-rise; the Stock Exchange building, with its stunning silver-ceilinged club up top; the Mayan medical building at 450 Sutter — plus the Castro and Paramount Theaters and on and on.

Among his most magnificent works is the little-known Alameda Theater, which recently has been restored to its full glory, with nearly all of its original fixtures and details still in place and fully polished. It’s definitely worth a visit.

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