On the ramparts of high art

October 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

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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

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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

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Popping up again

May 3, 2019 § 2 Comments

Q & A | PAMELA FEINSILBER

For two decades he ran the Thomas Reynolds Gallery, an elegant, welcoming art gallery just off Fillmore Street. Since 2015, Thomas Reynolds has exhibited art online and privately by appointment. When a jewel of a space at 1906 Fillmore became available a couple of years ago, he organized a pop-up exhibition. And now, until the end of June, he’s showing art there again.

We met when you were my boss as editor and publisher of California Lawyer magazine. The next thing I knew, you had an art gallery. How did that happen?

I got interested in art and design as a young lawyer in Chicago, going to the Art Institute on Thursday nights. When I came to California Lawyer, we always aimed for strong covers — we even had a Gauguin on the cover once when we wrote about litigation over the bequest that created the Armand Hammer Museum in L.A. I think you edited that story. Through the magazine, I met some wonderful, just-emerging contemporary California painters. Francis Livingston and James Stagg both painted early covers of California Lawyer, and both were in my first gallery show, in 1994.

What made you decide to open a gallery?

I happened into the graduate exhibition of a young painter who lived near Fillmore, Veerakeat Tongpaiboon. His family owned Neecha, the Thai restaurant then at Sutter and Steiner, and many of his paintings were of this area. I lived here, too, and had already fallen in love with the neighborhood. On a lark, I rented the three-room Victorian space at 2291 Pine Street to show Veerakeat’s paintings, and those of a few other artists I admired. I had a six-week lease — it was to be one exhibition, not a new venture.

What happened?

I loved it — both being surrounded by art and becoming more involved in the neighborhood. And people loved Veerakeat’s paintings. His first three shows sold out and he was able to buy a home nearby, where he still lives and paints. I found a lot of satisfaction in helping launch the careers of some incredibly talented painters who’ve had great success.

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Feasting with the Staprans

April 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Ilona and Raimonds Staprans with his biographer, Paul Karlstrom, at left.

I FOUND MYSELF in the lucky seat between Ilona and Raimonds Staprans at an intimate and artsy dinner party down the peninsula the other night. They are two fascinating people. She’s a scientist at UCSF. He’s one of California’s preeminent painters, still going strong in his 90s, and an eminent playwright in their native Latvia, where they spend a part of every year.

Raimonds Staprans is getting some of the recognition he richly deserves, with an exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art through May 20 called “Full Spectrum.” It was seen last fall at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, which organized the exhibition and published a beautiful catalog. Even if you’ve seen his paintings, you may be surprised by the breadth of his work over the past six decades. And the paint and light and color are luscious.

In a talk in San Jose, he described how his work flows out of his daydreams.

A Mathews mural is in limbo

October 15, 2017 § 1 Comment

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The center panel includes Apollo and the muses, plus Hygeia, goddess of health.

ARTHUR MATHEWS CREATED his three-panel mural Health and the Arts in 1912 for what is now the Health Sciences Library in San Francisco. It has hung there for more than a century. Now the library has gone digital, disposed of its books and put its classical home in Pacific Heights on the market, leaving the fate of the mural uncertain.

The mural was commissioned for the reading room of the library’s classical home, designed by architect Albert Pissis. Mathews at the time was perhaps California’s most important artist, and one who exerted considerable influence over the education of a generation of early California artists and the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Other murals by Mathews include a series of 12 panels tracing the history of California in the rotunda of the State Capitol in Sacramento.

A spokesman for the library said “it is too early to tell” about the fate of the mural and that it “depends on a buyer’s intended use for the building.” The Beaux Arts building is being marketed as a “one-of-a-kind development opportunity.”

“Although the murals could be removed, it would be a costly conservation process that would make them even more difficult to sell,” said Harvey Jones, the longtime curator who built the Oakland Museum’s expansive collection of work by Arthur Mathews and his wife, the equally talented artist Lucia Mathews. “It seems unlikely that a new owner will be able to utilize the murals in a new configuration of the spaces. Their artistic appeal is dubious to contemporary business sensibilities.”

Jones, author of The Art of Arthur & Lucia Mathews, added: “I wish there were some reasonable possibilities for optimism here.”

MORE: “Medical library is on the block

Christo’s ‘Running Fence’ 40 years later

November 20, 2016 § 1 Comment

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In 1976, Running Fence was installed over 24.5 miles of Northern California farmland.

THE HAMLET OF Valley Ford hasn’t changed much in the last four decades. There’s more traffic, of course: It’s located on scenic Highway 1, and Bodega Bay is just 8 miles to the west. But Dinucci’s Italian Dinners is still there, serving the family-style meals that made its initial reputation more than a century ago.

Running Fence came through Valley Ford.

Running Fence crossed Highway 1 in Valley Ford.

Local ranchers still come to the Valley Ford Market for coffee and the latest talk on lamb prices and government regulation. And the land itself seems immutable: The rolling pastures broken by eucalyptus windbreaks — speckled with fat sheep and sleek cattle — present a prospect as timeless as the nearby Pacific Ocean.

But something happened here 40 years ago that changed everything. A discreet monument marking that event stands at the Valley Ford post office, a single, corroded metal pole 18 feet high, with a small commemorative plaque at its base. It was at this spot that Running Fence came through, completed on September 10, 1976.

MORE

STILL MORE:
Smithsonian Magazine: “Christo’s California Dreamin’
The Wall Street Journal: “A California Dream Come True
Christo’s Archives

VIDEO: In Valley Ford, the post office is also a museum of Christo’s work.

Ed Ruscha’s gas stations

September 11, 2016 § 2 Comments

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Ed Ruscha | Standard Station (1966)

ED RUSCHA WAS 18 when he drove a 1950 Ford sedan from Oklahoma City, where he lived, to Los Angeles to attend art school. That 1956 trip was the first of many in which he roughly followed the fabled Route 66 through western Oklahoma, northern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and the California desert.

The architecture and symbolism of the gasoline station — that archetypal element in any modern vision of the American West — has long fascinated Ruscha. He brought a camera on successive trips and decided to record in photographs the many stations he encountered.

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Ed Ruscha | Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1962)

For his book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Ruscha photographed gasoline stations between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. One of these, a Standard station in Amarillo, Texas, intrigued him more than the others and launched a major series of paintings, prints and drawings. “There was something new and clean about it. That gas station had a polished newness that I just had to draw and then paint,” he later recalled.

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Ed Ruscha | Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963)

For his first painted rendition of a Standard gasoline station, Ruscha employed one-point perspective to emphasize its angular architecture. The compositional device provided “a zoom quality” that, with the addition of roving searchlights, visually projected the building out of the night sky and into the viewer’s space, situated below the pumps as if encountering the scene from a car on the roadside. Painted in this way, the station became Ruscha’s iconic symbol of the new, brash culture that was emerging from the western United States.

In early versions the station most often appears as a sleek, modernistic red-white-and-blue symbol of the new American West, robust in the age when gas was cheap and great highways connected the land. Ruscha’s more recent renditions suggest meanings of change and obsolescence, whether they depict the station as a dark abandoned building, in a fiery haze, or as a ghostly apparition.

The exhibition “Ed Ruscha and the Great American West” continues at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through October 9, 2016.

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