"The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism." (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California)

By Plagens, Peter | Artforum International, November 1996 | Go to article overview

"The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism." (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California)


Plagens, Peter, Artforum International


SAN FRANCISCO MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

Whatever the revisionist revelations of Serge Guilbaut, Griselda Pollock, et al, the consensus on Abstract Expressionism remains that it was both the first great homegrown American art movement and the center of the greatest period in American art (roughly 1945-60), modern or otherwise. There's an argument to be made, I suppose, that Pop art was bigger in the press, bigger in more galleries, bigger in its effect on subsequent art, (Abstract Expressionism, after all, can't claim to have turned every subsequent artist into a smart-ass ironist). But there's no argument, in my opinion, to be made in favor of European tachisme even holding a candle to the New York School. And whatever revisions are attempted by American critics, it's still clear that Abstract Expressionism - as an invention, as a force, as an artistic philosophy - was a New York phenomenon.

But it was not exclusively a New York phenomenon. A beautiful, concise exhibition - "The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism," in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's new building - pleasurably proved this. Of course San Francisco didn't host the same number and eminence of exiled European Dadaists and Surrealists to stir up the local talent in the '40s and '50s as did New York. Nor did this much smaller metropolis own the same reputation for, and tingle of, artistic aspiration as did Gotham. (Can you imagine Woody Allen making Bullets over Fisherman's Wharf?) Furthermore, the weather - Mark Twain's remark that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco notwithstanding - has always been better in San Francisco than in New York. What does that have to do with anything? Well, you've got to have winters - with sleety gutters, frozen water pipes, hissing radiators, and all the rest - to have those "overcoat openings" where a few hundred people, all smoking filterless cigarettes and smelling of wet wool, jam into a small gallery in which the basement boiler has kicked the room temperature above eighty, to look at a messy painting made in a cold-water loft. You ain't got that, you ain't got Abstract Expressionism with a capital A and E. But San Francisco did have a pretty good school of AbEx, and if you cut it a little comparative slack (i.e., don't ask every painting to be a Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, or Jackson Pollock), it has its rewards.

In this show the weaknesses of the Bay Area brand of brushy abstraction were readily apparent: riskless, cutesy paint application that says, in effect, "Hey, here's a surefire way to cover the canvas!" (James Kelly), overdesign smacking of mosaic coffee-table tops (John Saccaro), and kitchen-towel color schemes (Sonia Getchoff). But, through the teaching and general influence, on the West Coast, of the mega-lomaniacal Clyfford Still (the original "attitude" artist), some of the San Francisco painting manifests real grit.

The prime example is Frank Lobdell, who should have a truly major reputation instead of merely that of a craggy regional hero. Lobdell saw frontline combat during World War II, witnessed American victory there turn into the cruel, facile pseudopatriotism of McCarthyism back home, and arrived at an intensely sincere anticommercialism as one of the bases for his uncompromisingly undecorative painting. (Aside: we could use some of this integrity in the mid '90s. …

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