Bay Area Abstraction: 1945-1965” featuring paintings by Jack Jefferson, Frank Lobdell and Charles Strong is the best exhibition
to date that I’ve seen at David Richard Contemporary. They always have some good work, but the space is usually so overhung and
cluttered that it is impossible to see anything. This time, thankfully, there was no sculpture to back into or get in the way of the paintings.
While New York is considered the center of Post-War American Art, abstract expressionism was explored on the West and East Coasts as early as the mid-’40s. The exhibition takes a look at this formative period in the Bay Area.
Critic Peter Frank begins his essay for the exhibition catalog: “San Francisco is a painting town.” The painting scene in San Francisco in the ’40s centered around a small, tight-knit group of teachers and serious students at the California School of Fine Arts (renamed the San Francisco Art Institute in 1961), who were influenced by Clyfford Still (1904-1980), a major first-generation abstract expressionist painter, who taught at CSFA from 1946 until the early ’50s when he moved to New York. A link between the two coasts, Still had a profound influence on students such as Jefferson and Lobdell who were interested in abstract painting.
While the two schools of abstract expressionist painting shared certain characteristics –– large scale; bold, gestural brushwork; emphasis on the materiality of paint; figure and ground equal or collapsed into overall, non-hierarchical compositions –– Bay area artists, influenced by Asian cultures and the expansiveness of the western landscape, in addition to European painting, invited landscape references into their work whereas New York painters resisted such associations.
It was not about the individual artist’s “mark” –– not about who did what first, but rather about an engagement with the paint –– the “give and take” of shapes, strokes, and space in relation to each other and to the painting rectangle. Formal painting concerns mirrored the communal spirit –– exchange, influence and lineage were enjoyed and acknowledged.
Frank confirms that in contrast to the New York School: “The social and artistic attitudes prevailing among San Francisco school painters never emphasized individual career achievement, much less fetishized superficial distinctions of style.”
Jefferson, Lobdell and Strong (who studied with Jefferson and Lobdell), are each represented in the exhibition by five or six significant pieces, plus smaller representational works. These are painter’s paintings. All three artists, in quite different ways, wrestle with spatial issues inherent in painting — indeed that is the strength of their paintings –– there’s tension between opening up deep pictorial space and reasserting the flat picture plane, in conversation with painting’s materialism and objectness. Additionally, painting space is understood as metaphor for the various physical, social, political, cultural spaces we inhabit and negotiate.
The titles of Jefferson’s paintings reflect the locations of his studio. Starting with “Chestnut Street Untitled” (1947), a bold hard-edged flat composition of burnt sienna, yellow ochre, black and white that attempts to wrench open and reveal a space below, and “Chestnut Street #2” (1948), with its similar palette but softer edges, or “Chestnut Street #3” with thicker wet into wet paint, Jefferson gradually varies the surface to reveal layers of paint positioned in space. In “Jackson Street #4,” (1960) a central visceral passage comprised of discreet smaller shapes moves on a vertical diagonal across the darkness. The painting can be viewed pictorially (upright) or topographically (looking down).
Titled by date, Lobdell’s linear quasi-notational markings suggest petroglyphs and pictographs –– more excavation than topography, as well as biomorphic shapes drawn on or scratched into the paint, linking painting practice with prehistoric creative impulses.
The underground bulbous shape (suggestive of Louise Bourgeois) in “20 January 1948” and “17 February 1948,” reappears much later in “3 October 1963,” as a gaping hole surrounded by marks filling a white painted canvas, harkening back to Picasso’s “Guernica” at the same time it anticipates Elizabeth Murray.
Strong’s paintings (also titled by place) are the surprise of the exhibition –– tough, rich, complex, gritty, hard-won. They move from the dark murky palette of “Rocky Mt. Quartet” (1960) and “Harrison St. Nocturne (Swirl)” (1963) to more vibrantly colored all-over compositions such as “Bolinas” (1965) with its painted yellow crack (reminiscent of Still) jagging in from the painting edge and bending around on itself in a primarily red field.
In “Wharf Road” (1966), a glorious diptych over 10 feet wide, Strong appears to paint with nature’s energy. Strokes and marks function variously as line and shape recalling the decorative arabesques, patterns and color fields of Matisse, Bonnard, and Vuillard, as much as they anticipate the work of nature-based abstract painters as varied as Bernard Chaet, Gregory Amenoff, Bill Jensen, Terry Winters, and John Walker.
Together, “Bay Area Abstraction” and the related “pendant” exhibition of works from the 1950s and ’60s by Madeleine Dimond, Edward Dugmore, Lynn Faus, Lilly Fenichel, James Kelly, Michael Kennedy, Robert McChesney, Deborah Remington, and Hassel Smith, painters who also studied at the CSFA, create a lineage of teachers and students across three generations.
The gallery never looked better!