Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gordon Cook

Eastside Road, October 29, 2011—
IT'S TOO LATE to tell you about it; the show closed today; but the work of Gordon Cook has found its way to a new home in San Francisco's George Krevsky Gallery.

Born in Chicago in 1929, Cook came to San Francisco in his very early twenties, working at first exclusively as a realist printmaker specializing in botanical subjects, moving on to figure drawing, finally, after his marriage to the painter Joan Brown, developing his unique qualities as a painter.

It does him no disservice to mention that his paintings inescapably bring Chirico and Morandi to mind. His palette, lighting, edges, scale, and composition refer to their sense of dramatic realism, enigmatic statement, quasi-enchanted awareness; but the subjects — boats in the low Sacramento Delta light, gas tanks at the Richmond refinery, even the featureless Amish dolls — all convey a sense of specific place.

Guston is here too, in the curiously vulnerable, clearly humanistic content of his images, at first encounter utterly removed from subjective emotion, later growing in sympathetic resonance.

I once had a heated discussion with Cook: I was trying to persuade him of the possibility of painting from imagination, thinking up forms, even subject-matter, that didn't exist in fact. No, he said, That would be absolutely immoral; one can't legitimately paint objects that one hasn't actually seen.

So in order to paint his stick figures, men rowing boats, silhouetted kissing couples, he first actually made them, using thin wood, cardboard, glue, and paints of course. His sculpture is in fact maquettes made for posing for their portraits: he brings the concentrated gaze of the figure-painter (and, even more, draftsman) to the contemplation of the bulk, edge, directionality, even purpose of these three-dimensional inventions.

On another occasion, shortly before his early death in 1985, I sat in on a talk he gave to a number of graduate painting students at Mills College. One asked him about the repeated canvases depicting that gas tank in Richmond: why did he paint it over and over again?

My dealer asks me that too, Cook replied. Then, more seriously: I'm just trying to get it right.

What I love about the painting of the San Francisco Bay region, at its peak, among other things, perhaps most of all, is its morality, its ethics. Gordon Cook was among the most persuasively pure practitioners of any of them. His work, like his example, is haunting, and it's good to see it out there again. An artist of enormous presence and import, clear-thinking, poised, whose work has the compact kind of energy we usually call power. The exhibition has closed; images remain on view here.

Friday, October 21, 2011


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.
  • Nathan Oliveira Memorial Exhibition, John Berggruen Gallery, 228 Grant Avenue, San Francisco; (415) 781-4629; Mon-Fri 9:30am–5:30pm; Sat 10:30am–5pm; through October 22; catalogue available
  • Jay DeFeo, 430 Clementina Street, San Francisco;415-495-5454; Tue-Sat 11-5:30; through October 22
  • Sunday, October 09, 2011

    Steve Jobs

    Eastside Road, October 9, 2011—
    LOTS OF RESPONSE in the blogsphere, in the media, even in conversation, about the death last week of Steve Jobs. There's not much question but that in death as in life he was a touchstone, just as was his computer. It's odd how passionately people align themselves for or against certain forces, which is what I think he truly was. You were either a Mac person, or you were not. Apple or PC: like Fitzgerald or Hemingway, National League or American League, in my father's time General Motors or Ford.

    Since so many have had so much to say, I'll chime in, in three comments: personal, appreciative, more general.

    First: I'm a Mac man. My first computer was a Radio Shack Model 100, which let me see eight lines of type at a time, no matter how much copy I'd written, and then send it, marvel of marvels, over a telephone to the office. I taught myself a little Basic with that machine, too, to use it for various other things. I even began typing out Lindsey's book on it, saving sections to tape cassettes, but that quickly grew too clunky.

    So I graduated to a real desktop, a Morrow. Here I began dealing with arcane line-item entries, saving to drive A or drive B, always dealing with terminal commands. The rest of the book got typed out, and even printed, on one of those daisy-wheel jobs on paper with perforated tear-off margins. It was enough to drive you nuts.

    Then, in 1986 I think it was, I bought a Mac Plus. The primary reason for this was to take a class in computer composition. Instead of terminal commands, I was mousing, pointing, clicking. I could write music on five-line staffs; I could copy sections, transpose or augment or retrograde them, layer them. I could hear the music played back on an internal synthesizer. And of course I could print it out, too.

    Since I've always been intrigued by typefaces and page design, the Mac appealed to me. Soon I learned about Hypercard, and could give up Basic and design little applications of my own to handle other chores concerned with databases, calculation, design, and composition. It didn't hurt that I never had to think about computer viruses. I have remained loyal to Macintosh ever since, going through the AV series desktop, various laptops beginning with the first, and working now on an iMac, an iBook, and of course the iPhone and the iPad, which have served me well on travels abroad.

    So I am thankful to Steve Jobs for having had the vision to reify, in hardware and software, practical approaches to computer-based handling of music, graphics, text layout and so on, weathering the scorn of business- and science-oriented criticism that Apple was somehow "only" about games, or art, or hobbies.
    Second: Jobs himself was apparently inspired by two or three things that meant a lot to me, too (and I hasten to state that I'm not setting myself up as an unsung Jobs). He was brought up by parents who were skeptical of formal education, though in the end they helped him enter college. His own college career was similarly skeptical and cut short. (I finished, but took a number of years, and turns, before managing.) He was fond of tinkering and learned a lot about that from his dad. When he did go to college — Reed College, in Portland — he was particularly inspired by studying calligraphy.
    Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus, every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.
    quoted from Jobs' 2005 commencement address at Stanford, as posted here
    In this context, Lindsey brought to my attention a comment made by Malcolm Margolin in the 2009-10 Annual Report of Save the Bay:
    …I think that at Save The Bay's root there was something else besides a concern for the environment — it was a concern for beauty. There was something about the fact that people looked out the window and realized the spectacular, poignant, transformative beauty of the Bay. This is what they wanted to preserve — the sense of living in a beautiful place that restored you on a daily basis — the respect for beauty. Today, Save The Bay is rooted in science, environmentalism, social concerns, social justice. But there is still the beauty that inspires this whole enterprise.
    "50 Years of Making Waves," 2009-2010 Annual Report of Save the Bay, as posted here, page 6
    I believe that Jobs's fundamental sensibility was that of an artist, a maker, a poet, a player; and that it was this that made him misunderstood and, to an extent, scorned by the mainstream worlds of business and the media.

    Obviously the history of Apple Computing after its early successes went mainstream in its turn; it's now famously one of the richest corporations in the country. Obviously critics are justified who decry the extent to which such success exploits cheap labor, oppressive working conditions, corporate secrecy and all that. But I think it's a mistake to extrapolate from those observations the idea that Jobs was simply a hypocrite. (Nor do I, or anyone I know, have any idea the extent to which Apple's corporate decisions concerning retained earnings, global marketing and sourcing, and the like were driven exclusively by Jobs, rather than his board of directors.)

    What I like about Steve Jobs is that his brilliance was fully in service of a consistent vision: the extension of technological tools to people who simply want them to work in applications concerned with art, entertainment, design, communication, and the like; rather than (more narrowly) statistics, mathematics, physics, and computation. I'm aware a number of people I know manage to use the Windows operating system, on their PC personal computers, to pursue their work in the liberal arts; I hope they realize the extent to which Apple pushed Microsoft in that direction.
    Third: All that said, the tremendous, global, across-the-classes outpouring of comment on Jobs's death was extraordinary. I doubt that Jobs would have liked it much, though he might have been wryly amused. As usual, the media reacted far too heavily, too quickly: but that's in the nature of the media.

    More interesting was the huge amount of popular expression of love, grief, thanks, and then to an extent repudiation. I think there are two basic reasons for this outpouring, one nationalistic, the other psychological. The nationalistic one is simple: at a time when America seems to be losing its storied leadership in can-do, inventive, meteoric entrepreneurship, it's great to be reminded of a recent personification of all that, and distressing to lose him.

    Psychologically, at a time when there's so little to pin your faith on, when governments and banks, corporations, the military, even Mother Nature herself seem to be letting us down at every turn, people the world over seek heroes who manage to counter such obstacles, who rise from little more than their own ideas and hard work, who embody a kind of optimism and drive.

    After Mozart it was impossible to go on composing like Mozart. Jobs was no Mozart: he was more like a Cage, a Duchamp, a Stein. He, and his work, challenged the assumptions, picked up neglected ideas and reconfigured them to useful approaches. In the course of this he attracted partisans and detractors; neither camp has much to do with the historical necessity and the eventual impact of what he imagined and achieved. What comes next, remains to be seen.