Bay Area Abstraction 1946 — 1963: A Symphony in Four Parts
January 21 —
March 12, 2011
Hans Hofmann Jess
Nyehaus is pleased to present Bella Pacifica: Bay Area Abstraction, 1946-1963: A Symphony In Four Parts that will take place from January 11th to March 5th, 2011 at David Nolan Gallery, Nyehaus, Franklin Parrasch Gallery and Leslie Feely Fine Art.
Characterized by tonal, harmonic, and rhythmic instability, the 6 Gallery exemplifies the ‘50s at its most restless, carefree and experimental. The work shown at the gallery within its short life span (1954 to 1957) ranges from expressionism, to surrealism, illusionism, collage, assemblage and abstraction; pure and impure. A DADA attitude of Hilarity and Disdain had replaced the grave sense of mission that characterized the period from 1945 to the early 1950s. It can be said that out of all these artists’ professors and mentors, Hassel Smith had the most influence over this group, as they were outgoing, gregarious and playful, with strong ties to jazz and a new poetry that was like jazz.
In the late ‘50s, both the San Francisco and Los Angeles scenes related to New York but on different channels. There were two different ways of constructing a conversation of difference, in which New York stood in for all of Metropolitan culture and each of the Alternative Scenes (Los Angeles, San Francisco) presented itself as the Real America.
In San Francisco, the Alternative Scene resulted in collective projects such as galleries, publications, jazz bands and film-screening societies. Founded in 1952, the City Lights project became the center for the literary movement, and was to poetry what the 6 Gallery (and King Ubu before it) was to art.
The factual history of the 6 Gallery has taken the form of memoires and oral histories (the latter archived by the Smithsonian Institution). The gallery was an informal co-op with six members and no records were ever kept. Its members and other participants became famous later as poets and painters, successes and failures, and they dragged it into history with them.
The 6 Gallery co-op was located at 3119 Fillmore Street, in a disused garage space that had previously housed King Ubu Gallery. The original 6 (members) were Jack Spicer, Wally Hedrick, Deborah Remington, Hayward King, John Allen Ryan and David Simpson. Its mission—clear but never explicit—was to show both teachers’ and students’ work alike.
The 6 fostered a spirit of coexistence not only between faculty and students, but between different art movements, disciplines and ideals. The community they helped to create was itself the masterpiece. These artists and poets, who came from such varied backgrounds, lived their lives as adventurers, without compromise, with mutual encouragement and participation.
They were: Robert Duncan, active in Bay Area poetry since the late 1940s (and, unusual among San Francisco artists, a native) had been involved with Jess (Collins) since 1951, and with the gallery space (King Ubu) they founded together with Harry Jacobus, since 1952. Jess Collins — a nuclear chemist who worked on the Manhattan project during WWII — went on to study art CSFA (California School of Fine Arts). A foreboding sense of doom was the catalyst. He remade the existing world, and rearranged it to be richer, stranger. Wally Hedrick, a Korean War veteran whose work was sarcastic and mystical. He had been in San Francisco before the war and had met Clyfford Still and returned in the ‘50s with a group of friends from Pasadena, which included Deborah Remington. He married Jay DeFeo — by then back from Florence in 1952. The final member of the original six was the poet Jack Spicer, who took over the lease from Duncan and Jess.
The other artists in this exhibit have equally important roles in the history of the San Francisco avant-garde: Sonia Gechtoff (the first woman to have a solo show at Ferus Gallery in L.A.), Hassel Smith and Bruce Conner. The mentors were Jack Spicer (then teaching in the English department at CSFA), Hassel Smith, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn and Kenneth Rexroth. CSFA was the focal institution of the moment, but others, including Black Mountain College (through the influence of Robert Duncan) and the Ferus Gallery of Ed Kienholz and Walter Hopps were palpable influences.
A few feet from the gallery, at 2322 Fillmore Street, “The Ghost House” was their place of residence. There lived the following eccentric constellation of energetic youths: Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Bruce Conner, Joan Brown, Craig Kauffman, Sonia Gechtoff, Jess, Robert Duncan, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure and James Kelly, to name a few.
The Beat movement — as the avant-garde of this period would later be called and to which these artists belonged—took hold of the Bay Area youth culture during the Cold War and can be book-ended by the Korean War and Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream”, followed by the student rebellions at Berkeley in 1963. It was a movement against “the gray, chill silence, the intellectual void, the spiritual drabness” and the oppressiveness of the times, McCarthyism a palpable force against dissent.
Given the times, artists realized that before they made art, they had to create a culture in which to make art. “Whatever lives needs a habitat, a proper culture of warmth and moisture to grow...” as Gary Snyder put it.
But I have nothing
Shall have nothing
No one can afford
Being made here and now.
From the beginning, the 6 wanted poetry, TO SEE poetry on the walls along the works of art. They wanted to hear it, and they arranged for Michael
McClure to organize a poetry reading. Lacking time, McClure delegated to a young New Yorker he had just met, Allen Ginsberg, the task of herding a few poets together.
On the night of Friday, October 7th, 1955, the following happened: Rexroth was the Master of Ceremonies, Philip Lamantia read prose poems by his late friend John Hoffman and Mike McClure read “Point Lobos: Animism”, and “The Death of 100 Whales”. Gary Snyder read “A Berry Feast”, Philip Whalen read ”Plus ça Change”.
And then Allen Ginsberg read HOWL, in its totality for the first time, which was, of course, all anybody remembered afterwards. Something…but nobody remembers what. Jack Kerouac (who memorialized the event in his novel, The Dharma Bums), Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Spicer were present, as was an astonished audience of 150. Everyone present (except for a reporter for The Chronicle, who informed middlebrow San Franciscans that, as ever, their City was the home of assorted nutty art frauds from elsewhere) understood they had been present at one of those moments when everything changes.
By the 1970s, the memory of the early years of CSFA as an important part of the country’s history was mostly forgotten. Bruce Conner was still around, but the scene had scattered, the poets split for the East Bay or farther east. While one could still visit the East Bay or farther east. While one could still visit the Beatnik shrines of North Beach, the Beat scene had disappeared into academe, both its own academic version (The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, e.g.) and within regular curriculums.
Second & Third Movements:
Ecole du Pacifique or A Feeling of Strength, In Reserve
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Abstraction found a unique vocabulary. The mid-century avant-garde was composed of a cadre of extraordinarily gifted and energetic artists, each with a distinct personal vision. The Pacific, unlike The Atlantic, is not an ocean BETWEEN continents or worlds, old and new. It is, itself, the center and end of the world. Robinson Jeffers,
who spent the better part of his life staring at it, called the Pacific the Eye of the Planet. It’s the void the moon rose from, to which it calls, still. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Abstraction found a unique vocabulary. The mid-century avant-garde was composed of a cadre of extraordinarily gifted and energetic artists, each with a distinct personal vision. The Pacific, unlike The Atlantic, is not an ocean BETWEEN continents or worlds, old and new. It is, itself, the center and end of the world. Robinson Jeffers, who spent the better part of his life staring at it, called the Pacific the Eye of the Planet. It’s the void the moon rose from, to which it calls, still.
While they were the inheritors of an Abstraction that came to them as a tradition and a vocabulary of constraint, West Coast painters who were young at mid-century were committed to a modernism that broke rules and moved relentlessly forward. In time, the rules, the nostalgia and the regionalism all came back, but before the wave breaks, it’s all glory.
West coast artists also looked to Zen, to Jazz, and to the sheer overwhelming space and distance of a West that was not yet reduced by highways and jets. Theirs was a Modernism that consumes and abandons its own history; that fights the past and wins. Battlefields come in all shapes and sizes, from the beaches of Normandy to the weave of cotton tacked to a studio wall.
Bay Area Abstraction (also known as “Ecole du Pacifique”, “Hybrid Abstraction,” “free-form” or “first sensation”) flourished under the auspices of Douglas McAgy at the California School of Fine Arts who lead CSFA’s sweeping change in educational philosophy. Most of the artists in this exhibition either studied or taught there in the years from 1945 to 1952.
It is interesting to point out that CSFA’s entire history could be written as a reflection of American military history. The period after WWII was a great social mixer. The waves of GI Bill students created an influx that allowed creative writing and art programs to thrive; artistic communities to be formed; and prepared the rising audience for the avant-garde.
When resigning in 1950, McAgy cites as his main reason the fact that a palpable change was occurring, particularly the loss of a more mature student body. He was referring to the student body he encountered when he started his tenure as director: artists enrolled under the G.I. Bill, such as Jon Schueler, Hassel Smith, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, and Frank Lobdell.
It can be said that as a school, CSFA repudiated geometry, the easel, the frame, the constraint of a border. In one of America’s most beautiful cities, these painters rejected architecture, interior and urban space. The space in which they imagined their work was exterior, natural and vast. Elemental, organic allusions to space as well as specters of the figure remain.
The methods they individually employed–Gestural (Bischoff, Brown); free looping calligraphic lines (Hassel Smith), large canvasses of Color field (Clyfford Still, Jon Schueler, Edward Dugmore), pointilistic (Ernest Briggs and James Kelly), metaphysical (Frank Lobdell and Edward Corbett)—were influenced mainly by landscape; and, in some cases, memories. In the case of Gestural Painting, the influences were the strident sounds of Dixie and Jazz. “...In painting then we were talking about creation, about free
creation, about starting from scratch, breaking with the past, destroying the past, destroying the demand of the past, of Europe, of the formal scheme of things, of the convention of painting, and now Abend wanted to do the same thing with music...” (From: The Sound of Sleat: A Painter’s Life by Schueler, Picador USA, 1999, pages 223-225)
Schueler’s recollections evoke a change in Jazz as complete as the change in painting that took place in the 1940’s. Bebop, the music of Charlie Parker, had been kept prisoner in New York by a recording strike for the balance of the war years, and arrived in the rest of the country in 1945 and after, as something full-grown and radically new. Bebop required much
more intense, continuous engagement, but at the same time wasn’t social in the same way Jazz had been — it wasn’t dance music any more. This was the same transition painting was making from WPA populism to the highly engaged, but apparently obscure work of the action painters.
Contrary to the absolutist revolutionaries that influenced them (Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt and Rothko to name a few) this generation embraced interaction as a way of life. Teachers and students played in a band (CSFA’s “Studio 13” Jazz Band). Twelve of Still’s students (Jon Schueler amongst them) ran the MetArt gallery which operated for a year, opened
with an Ernest Briggs show and closed with Clyfford Still. A group of professors -— Richard Diebenkorn and Frank Lobdell amongst them, was known
as the “Sausalito Six” and met at Lobdell’s studio. Classes—Hassel Smith’s, Clay Spohn’s, Edward Corbett’s, David Park’s — were conducted as talks, energetic discussions, impromptu exercises.
The conflicts and splintering that followed this period of collective effort can once again be traced to he decline of a popular dance music soon to be replaced by rock and roll, and partly about individual versus social art: the end of WPA populism and the rise to market power of the personal gesture.
Was there, then, in fact, an Ecole du Pacifique? Part of our feeling as curators is a gut reaction mingled with curiosity, a belief that there is more than we’ve been lead to believe. That beyond canvases that explode
with unresolved problems and angst there is in fact a transcendental beauty, a Pacific Beauty, that has been long overlooked.
Three Dimensional Abstractionor Tension Beneath Calm
The last arrival to San Francisco in the fifties was Peter Voulkos. Having grown up in Bozeman, he studied ceramics there, at Montana State, and completed his MFA in Oakland. After a short stay teaching at Black Mountain, he moved to L.A. in 1954, where he becomes one of the most revered teachers at the Otis College of Art and Design. He moved from there to Berkeley in 1957 and started the new ceramics department at Berkley. He stayed there through his retirement in 1985. In every teaching position he had, from the beginning, he was the first to teach in a new department, inventing what he did from the ground up.
There was a substantial craft tradition in Ceramics, but Voulkos reinvented it as an art medium. He worked at a heroic scale, with a strength and endurance that drew each piece, and the medium with it, out of what was
understood as craft, and into its own artworld. They had all the freshness and weight of gestural abstraction when it was new. They were three-dimensional action painting, and just as much, were timeless.
This tendency to attack the craft traditions of a medium by pressing its limits of scale and weight is also characteristic of Joan Brown, whose first Bay Area paintings had active surfaces like those of Elmer Bischoff, built on simple, rather dark compositions. As the surface activity grew, the paintings grew larger and, fantastically, thicker. They’re still aging and drying, now, half a century later; still changing; still new.
Both Voulko’s and Brown’s work can be said to contrast with Voulko’s own early paintings, more influenced by colour field and Clyfford Still, as is the latter work of Corbett, Dugmore and that of Jon Schueler during his San Francisco period.