The PPIE at 100

December 10, 2015 § 2 Comments

The New Fillmore

Like California itself, like the fair of which it was a part, the art exhibited at the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 looked two ways.

In principle the fair celebrated recent accomplishments made possible by big money and entrepreneurship: the completion of the Panama Canal and the rapid rebuilding of the city after the earthquake and fire of 1906. From the time of the Gold Rush, San Francisco had been a place where people could make a lot of money very quickly by exploiting the latest technology. Taking the edge off that reality, the city cultivated an image of Mediterranean charm, offering food, wine and art — in addition to venture capital.

The artistic aspects of the fair also looked two ways. Its buildings were in soothing pastel colors; the architecture looked back to a tranquil agrarian past; but many of the exhibits were devoted to the high-speed wonders made possible by machines and electricity and gasoline if not yet by silicon.

Nahl_PosterThe De Young Museum’s “Jewel City” show reflects both aspects of the fair. From all accounts, the more than 11,000 artworks exhibited at the fair must have included vast swaths of instantly forgettable art, and the 200-odd works exhibited at the De Young certainly offer many soporific moments.

Among all the academic genteelism and quickly pleasing Impressionism, however, there are more than a few pleasant surprises. Here a portrait by Oskar Kokoschka, there a provocation by Edvard Munch, and even among the usual suspects as they would have been listed in 1915, strong work by Cecilia Beaux and John Singer Sargent, among others.

The gallery devoted to pictorialist photography looks tranquil enough. By way of a surprise, the exhibition offers the earliest known work of Ansel Adams, a soft-focus print made when he was 13 years old. His father, far from keeping the boy’s nose to the grindstone, gave him a PPIE pass and ordered him to go to the fair every day instead of wasting his time in high school.

Prints of the Fair,” a supplementary exhibition on the main floor of the De Young, is worth more than a passing glance. Predictably, it offers high-quality work by Whistler and other artists who were influenced by Japanese art and design. Less predictably, it offers a far less tranquil section of prints addressing the urbanization and mechanization of America.

The exhibition ends with a gallery of avant-garde art that pushes a bit farther than New York’s Armory Show did in 1913. Almost as if to echo the high-tech aspects of the fair in general, the art shown at the Palace of Fine Arts included a large selection of Italian Futurist work, as the Armory Show did not.

James A. Ganz, the principal curator of the show, says he intended that contrast to shake up visitors to the De Young. “They’ll experience that surprise, that same shock, that visitors did in 1915,” he says, “when having been soothed by the harmonious color scheme of the Jewel City and French Impressionism, they found themselves in a raucous roomful of paintings by Boccioni, Russolo and Severini.”

The passage of time has made the respectable art seem less worthy of automatic acceptance and made the perversity of the avant-garde seem less novel, but the sense of surprise and discomfort is still there.

Botticelli to Braque

March 9, 2015 § 1 Comment

ANYONE WHOSE APPETITE for painting has gone cold will find it inflamed again by “Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces From the National Galleries of Scotland,” a spectacular exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Read more: “Scotland’s stupendous stash

Flowers for China

March 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Gary Bukovnik at work on his largest watercolor yet.

Gary Bukovnik at work on his largest watercolor yet.

SAN FRANCISCO PAINTER Gary Bukovnik has become increasingly popular in China, with a number of museum exhibitions of his watercolor paintings of flowers in recent years.

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Hometown boy makes good

June 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

WHEN HE WAS only 26 years old, in the summer of 1948, Richard Diebenkorn had his first solo museum exhibition at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, located not far from the home where he grew up in the city’s Ingleside district. He went on to an internationally successful career and became perhaps the best known and most respected of all California artists.

Now he comes home. “Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years,” at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, chronicles his work from 1953 through 1966 when he lived in Berkeley and moved from the abstraction of the Berkeley series through his great figurative period. Below, take a video walk through the exhibition with the curators.

Richard Diebenkorn’s Berkeley Years: New Perspectives

September 7, 2013

Nancy Boas
Portrait of a Friendship: Richard Diebenkorn, David Park
and Bay Area Figurative Art

Janet Bishop
Painters Looking at Paintings: Henri Matisse, Richard Diebenkorn,
Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Bechtle
Susan Ehrens
Interior Landscapes: Figuration and Abstraction in Post War Photography
Timothy Anglin Burgard
Richard Diebenkorn: Known and Unknown
Kathan Brown
Richard Diebenkorn Working: Video from Crown Point Press

Big Alma’s museum

January 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

The California Palace of the Legion of Honor | Photograph by Steve Whittaker

The California Palace of the Legion of Honor | Photograph by Steve Whittaker


Patriotism — pure American patriotism — was the way Alma de Bretteville Spreckels convinced her Teutonic husband to spend a million dollars for French culture. Her goal was to introduce French art to America, and she knew her friend the Parisian dancer Loie Fuller’s goal was to erect a shrine to Auguste Rodin, the great French sculptor. But she packaged those aims inside a red-white-and-blue flag. The museum she proposed to build in San Francisco — the Palace of the Legion of Honor — would be a memorial to the California boys who gave their lives defending their country.

How fervently her husband A.B. Spreckels bought the package is apparent in the statement he delivered to the Board of Park Commissioners when he made his formal offer at their meeting on January 5, 1920. He declared it was the purpose of “my wife and myself to contribute to the beautification of our native city something not only beautiful in itself, but also something devoted to patriotic and useful ends: something which might be dedicated as a suitable memorial to our brave boys who gave their lives to their country in the Great War, and also lend itself, as a home of art and historical treasures, to promoting the education and culture of our citizens, and especially the rising and coming generations.”

Along with his offer to build a museum, A.B. sent a check for $320,000 “to be used for and to insure the completion of the building.” He noted that “upon completion of the building it is the intention of Mrs. Spreckels to offer to you as a nucleus of the art treasures to be housed therein a valuable collection of sculptures and other works of art by famous artists.”
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Return of ‘The Rose’

January 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

Jay DeFeo working on The Rose at 2322 Fillmore. Photograph © 2012 Burt Glinn Magnum Photos


Youthful aspiration, ambivalence toward conventional art world success and a pitifully low budget came together for artists Bruce Conner and Jay DeFeo in the history of her masterpiece, “The Rose,” now on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through February 3.

DeFeo worked on the painting for eight years in her apartment at 2322 Fillmore Street, a four-unit apartment house between Clay and Washington. The building — still standing — was home to a small pantheon of artistic San Franciscans. In addition to poet Michael McClure and his wife, Joanna, its tenants included at various times the artist-couples William and Joan Brown, Sonia Gechtoff and James Kelly, and Jay DeFeo and Wally Hedrick.

DeFeo and Hedrick gave outstanding parties — they seemed to exemplify living everyday life as a work of art — and their studio became a popular destination for visiting writers, artists, collectors and curators.

For much of the time they lived on Fillmore, DeFeo was working on “The Rose,” building up layer upon layer of paint to a thickness of eight inches. By the time she stopped working on it, in 1965, it weighed a ton and its future was compromised by the fact that its paint was so heavy that the painting was pulling itself apart.

Bruce Conner, who lived nearby at 2365 Jackson Street, said that DeFeo’s potentially endless reworking of “The Rose” needed “an uncontrolled event to make it stop.” The Pasadena Art Museum had asked to exhibit the painting, but DeFeo put off letting it go. The eviction of Hedrick and DeFeo from 2322 Fillmore provided the nudge; it was necessary to move “The Rose” somewhere, and circumstances dictated Pasadena.

On November 9, 1965, a crew from Bekins Van and Storage removed “The Rose” through an opening sawed into the front wall of DeFeo’s studio and lowered it to a flatbed truck. That was not the end of what came to seem an obsessive effort; DeFeo worked on the painting for three more months in Pasadena before curator Walter Hopps could persuade her that she had done enough.

Conner filmed the painting’s departure from Fillmore Street, exposing 700 feet of film over a period of two days. In 1967 he released the seven-minute final version, with a sound track from Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. Its title was The White Rose: Jay DeFeo’s Painting Removed by Angelic Hosts. In their white coveralls the movers seemed to radiate light, much as the painting itself seemed to do.

Conner’s involvement did not stop with the film. Although the painting was an art world legend, and in 1959 any of a number of American museums would have loved to acquire it, by 1967 both DeFeo and “The Rose” had fallen off the radar.

Conner appointed himself DeFeo’s “manager” and over a period of more than 20 years participated, with other DeFeo admirers, in an often frustrating effort to find a museum that would acquire the painting and pay for the needed restoration. Until that happened, “The Rose” remained entombed in plaster behind a wall at the San Francisco Art Institute. DeFeo died in 1989, at the age of 60, her death arguably hastened by the unremitting work, heavy drinking and intense exposure to paint fumes that went into the creation of “The Rose.”

In 1995 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York signed an agreement to acquire the painting if it could be successfully stabilized. The following year “The Rose” was exhibited for the first time since 1969. It has since taken its place as a viewable artwork rather than a hidden-away object of legend.

Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, included “The Rose” in his book Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization. He describes it as “perhaps the single most expressive painting of the 1960s.”

During the many years “The Rose” lay hidden from view, Conner’s beautiful, elegiac film was the only form in which this masterpiece of American painting could be seen by the public. It remains a tribute to the friendship between two artists — and to a time when Fillmore Street was a center of avant-garde creativity.

Read more: “Renaissance on Fillmore, 1955-1965

The Rose being removed from 2322 Fillmore in 1965.

The Rose being removed from 2322 Fillmore in 1965.

The Aesthetes pay a visit

March 4, 2012 § Leave a comment


To the serious collector of ironies, the Aesthetic Movement of 19th century England has much to offer. Surely one of the most ironic things is that the business community may well have become aware of a need for something new and different sooner than most English artists did. Putting it in a nutshell, England’s traditional hostility toward what was merely artistic had begun to hurt the bottom line. During the 18th century beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in England, the lowering of prices made possible by machine production gave English products an enormous competitive advantage. But then time passed, foreigners began to catch up, and competition was no longer based on price alone.

By the second quarter of the 19th century, it had become clear that French producers were — not literally, perish the thought — eating England’s lunch. What England needed was at least a saving remnant of artists and designers who didn’t mind being like the French or Spaniards or Italians in having a taste for merely beautiful things. Although regrettably associated with loose morals, un-English taste could bring in money.

Enter, in a somewhat disorderly queue, the Aesthetes, whose hits and misses are handsomely displayed in “The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900,” a traveling exhibition that opened February 18 at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.
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