Eastside Road, October 21, 2011—The San Francisco Bay area has long been one of the most significant American locales for painting, certainly since the middle of the last century, in fact going back at least half a century before then. There are interesting cultural, geographical, and historical reasons for this; we needn't go into them here. Suffice it to point out that an unusual combination of pioneer spirit and genteel tradition was almost immediately at the center of the Northern California mentality (for a brilliant study on this theme, see William Everson's Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as a Literary Region); that relative isolation with occasional exposure to European Modernism allowed that mentality to respond to the local natural and societal stimuli; and that by the time of the post-world War II years, when the GI Bill allowed many gifted artists of other than rich backgrounds the time and setting for their own personal development, a génie de terroir, so to speak, had already been well developed.
My own years as an active observer of the scene, from the late 1960s on for twenty years, coincided with the tremendous expansion of the Bay Area art scene from a marginal, almost underground activity, treated seriously in the newspapers but hardly known to any but real devotees of the art, to its present amplitude, with galleries in shopping malls, art school campuses everywhere, and almost total neglect in the few remaining news outlets. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the painters who had attained their mastery in the late 1950s and early 1960s remain my heroes, artists who dedicated their lives to painting in a context of almost total neglect by all but their own colleagues.
Few of them are still living: Frank Lobdell is perhaps the last. Even among what I think of as the second generation, painters my own age, now in their late seventies, slip away with melancholy regularity. Nathan Oliveira, for example: a marvelous painter and teacher (Stanford for many years) and a very nice man. He died nearly a year ago — there's a fine obituary by John Seed on the Huffington Post website — but we saw the memorial exhibition at the John Berggruen Gallery a few days ago: it closes tomorrow, October 22, but the website will, I hope, continue to present its forty-two images of the paintings and sculpture on view for a few weeks to come.
The last works are striking: the familiar Oliveira figurative images isolated against glowing grounds in his characteristic warm but muted, sometimes even darkened oranges, reds, maroons, ochres. Many of these figures stand (or, occasionally, dance, or skate) next to a single line, an edge — shadow, or skin, or crack of light in a doorway? Others have auras, or long hair bending back from the head as if the essence of the figure is escaping toward an unknown (or, perhaps, being breathed into the figure from that unknown).
It's impossible to see these late works, I think, without musing on the painter's own death so soon after completing them. Yet earlier canvases here, going back to the 1980s, not to mention drawings and watercolors going back a further twenty years, reveal this haunting meditative quality to be Oliveira's fixation, his constant orientation to his work, as his work is apparently his constant orientation to life, to his own individualization of the human condition.
Even the work that seems to stray from this — the paintings and bronzes that seem to confront relics from neglected or abandoned civilizations, reminding me of pavements left over from ancient Mediterranean sites — even these merely extend the personal expression toward a more universalized one. Oliveira's work, like that of his friend the (still living, thank God) sculptor Manuel Neri, remind the viewer of the affinity of the Mediterranean sensibility with that of the Bay Area, as if the Californio years were not lost on our cultural inheritance, and continues to haunt if not energize this very moving work.
Last week we saw also another moving gallery exhibition, of drawings, drawings with collage, and a few paintings by Jay DeFeo, truly one of the great painter-heroes of our time. I knew her slightly; we taught together for a time at Mills College, where I sat in on her beginning painting class now and then. (Alas, I never learned to be a painter.) The current exhibition at the Hosfelt Gallery closes, unfortunately, tomorrow, like Oliveira's at the Berggruen; I'm sorry not to have been able to get to commenting on these shows earlier.
At the Hosfelt there's a particularly arresting painting, Bride, from 1986. The title has inescapable Duchampian overtones, of course; and thinking about that, and about Jay's unique intelligence which rests at the intersection of seeing and contemplation, goes a long way toward explaining the central position her life and work intuitively seem to occupy in the late-twentieth-century context of visual art, not only locally, but internationally.
Fortunately, the Jay DeFeo Trust maintains a fine website and works passionately to further awareness of this important artist whose early death — she was only sixty — otherwise threatened to leave her in obscurity in a cultural climate increasingly rewarding more trivial, flashier entertainers. The Whitney Museum will produce a major DeFeo retrospective next November; I hear it will travel to San Francisco; it will be a major, major event.
I don't like to snatch images from the Web and re-post them here; you never know what's copyright, what's freely offered for second-hand retailing. I urge any visitor here to follow up the links embedded here — even better, of course: get to the galleries tomorrow.