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San Francisco School of
Abstract Expressionism

by Peter Frank

Few exhibitions are as fascinating as those which argue that someone or something has been left out of the history books, and is (over)due for reconsideration. Russian women avant-gardists, African-American impressionists, Argentinian constructivists, Czech surrealists, Japanese neo-dadaists, the plein-air schools of southern Indiana and northern Ontario, these are gold mines for historians, museums, collectors, and an easily bored public. If the stuff is good, and if the historical research is thorough, nothing is as gratifying as shows and books about movements rescued from obscurity.

Photo:  Classroom, CSFA (1948)

A case in point is the in-depth look at the abstract-
expressionist school that emerged, and stuck around for quite a while, in San Francisco. Organized by Berkeley-native Susan Landauer,
"The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism" reclaims a place on the art-historical timeline for Bay Area-based gestural abstractionists of the 1940s and 1950s. More importantly, the show demonstrates that abstract expressionists in San Francisco did not labor in the shadow of their New York counterparts: Although related, the Californians' work was emphatically distinct

Coming west to teach at the California School of Fine Arts for brief periods, Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt did have a marked impact. But theirs was modified, and even overriden, by the continuing example of

Painting: Kuhlman (1957)

CSFA stalwart Clyfford Still. Landauer begins her survey with several, choice Still canvases--choice not simply for their gnarled, fiery beauty but for the characteristics they imparted to the work of younger Bay Area painters. Even those artists who did not study under Still were influenced by his passionate viewpoint and turbid style. The School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) was the crucible in which the Bay Area version of action painting was forged (with the local Museum of Modern Art helpfully stirring the cauldron)

Painting: Hemlock (1962) Had she her druthers, Landauer would have presented a comprehensive overview of San Francisco's postwar gestural abstraction. She does that in her exhaustive (but by no means exhausting) feast of a catalogue, but a museum's walls are more restrictive than a book's pages--especially when the work in question is heroic in size and scale. As shown in the Laguna Museum's gracious but restricted (and possibly doomed) galleries, the exhibition had to be limited to a few, powerful examples by each artist--and, then, by only 21 of the many artists cited in the catalogue. (The show will be slightly smaller in its San Francisco incarnation.) The brooding, lambent fields of Edward Corbett, Frank Lobdell's gigantic kernels sprouting in air, Sam Francis' blobs and cells of luminous color, Jay di Feo's alluvial plains of grayish lava, the angry undulations stirred up by Sonia Gechtoff, and of course the lines and washes that send the eye skipping and bumping across Richard Diebenkorn's quasi- landscapes, all these gobbled up major wall space while churning the optic nerve into a froth.
Painting: Hemlock (1962)

Not all the San Franciscans created immense fields of angry, clotted pigment. The earlier work in particular, tends to be easel-sized and clearly post-cubist and post-surrealist. The paintings of the late-1940s Sausalito Six (including a tyro Diebenkorn), for instance, maintain a compactness which in some cases amplifies the struggle to volcanic levels, and in other cases enervates it. Most impressive among the Marin- based sextet is James Budd Dixon, the group's senior and most accomplished member, whose deeply, brilliantly hued swirls and vertical accents implode Pollock's explosive formula.

Dixon's contained, muscular painting is one of the show's most exciting rediscoveries. Also especially welcome back from obscurity are the vibrant, intricate, and masterfully orchestrated formal interplays of James Kelly, Jack Jefferson's similarly rhythmic but much darker and sealike paintings, and the immense, roiling organisms of Charles Strong. But all the artists Landauer features in her show, and nearly all she discusses in her landmark text, are worthy of renewed attention. After all, they helped build, develop, and modify a movement and sensibility that more than holds its own in the annals of American art.

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