His spirit lives on

July 20, 2022 § Leave a comment

Barbara Janeff, who worked with the Charles Campbell Gallery for a decade, and Claire Carlevaro, whose Art Exchange gallery later occupied the space.

WHEN THE CHARLES CAMPBELL GALLERY opened in January 1972 at 647 Chestnut Street in San Francisco with an exhibition of work by Nathan Oliveira, Campbell had known many of the prominent San Francisco artists for almost 30 years, and art had undergone several changes.

The Charles Campbell Gallery was unusual, noted for its relaxed attitude and a comfortable sofa in the front room. According to Barbara Janeff, who worked with Campbell from 1983 to 1993, the gallery was “very informal and eclectic. . . . It was a hangout place. It was a low-key fun party, with people drifting in and out.” It was also very well respected. The San Francisco Chronicle, Artweek and other regional papers took notice right from the beginning and reviewed the gallery’s shows regularly.

Dancing With Charlie: Bay Area Art From the Campbell Collection brings together works of art that the legendary San Francisco gallery owner amassed over a period of some 60 years. Campbell collected and exhibited both emerging and long-established artists he believed in, irrespective of the market or fashion; all were friends and members of an extended family and many eventually turned out to be central figures in American art history.

— excerpted from Dancing with Charlie by Susan M. Anderson, a catalog of the exhibition at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.

EARLIER: “Right place, right time

When Thiebaud came to San Francisco

December 27, 2021 § 1 Comment

Wayne Thiebaud | Holly Park Ridge (1980)

LEGENDARY SAN FRANCISCO gallery owner Charles Campbell on how he became friends with Wayne and Betty Jean Thiebaud:

They were close friends for a long time. At one time they’d come down to San Francisco, living in Sacramento as their permanent residence, and they’d stay in a hotel and would drive back. A few times we got them to stay with us at our house instead of going back or staying in a hotel, and they liked Potrero Hill. They started looking around and found a little house on the hill they bought. It’s like two minutes away from our house. At least twice a month, we entertain back and forth.

Wayne does paintings that are 5 feet by 4, and works in a space that’s not as big as our front room. In San Francisco now, his studio is in the basement of that house. It’s probably got 6-foot or 7-foot ceilings, and he’s very comfortable there. In fact, the new house next door, which they are selling to [their son] Paul Thiebaud, was to be part of his studio, but after a couple of months he just felt he would go back to that smaller, cozier space.

He works all the time, drawing, sketches, watercolors, big paintings.

— Excerpted from “A Life of Art, Jazz and Travel,” an oral history of Charles Campbell conducted by Joan Bossart, 1992-1994, in the Bancroft Library.

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Wayne Thiebaud | Holly Park Ridge Study (1979)

Charles Campbell (1915-2014)

October 9, 2014 § 1 Comment

Glenna Putt | Charlie Listening to Music (2000)

Glenna Putt | Charlie Listening to Music (2000)

San Francisco Chronicle

Charles Campbell, a San Francisco gallery owner who represented major Bay Area contemporary artists for more than 60 years, died of natural causes Friday [October 3, 2014] at his San Francisco home. He was 99.

Mr. Campbell became famous locally for showing what he liked, irrespective of fashion or potential profit. He happened to admire and exhibit many artists later identified with the region’s signature art movement, Bay Area Figuration. They included Nathan Oliviera (1928-2010), Paul Wonner (1920-2008), Gordon Cook (1927-85), Theophilus “Bill” Brown (1919-2012), James Weeks (1922-98) and Joan Brown (1938-90).

The back room at Mr. Campbell’s gallery was long known to locals as a treasure trove of artistic miscellany. There visitors might pore over an ever-changing array of works on paper and small paintings by American and European artists both famous and obscure, interspersed with Indian miniatures and the odd pre-Columbian or African artifact.

Nothing comparable exists, or perhaps could exist, in the supercharged and economically polarized art market of today.

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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.

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.

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