Nowhere in the United States is art made with more passionate conviction or a greater sense of noble futility than in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more than 40 years this gorgeous, moody precinct has nurtured art that counts. If you fill in the blanks before and after its brushy figurative art, its Zen ceramic tradition and its cockeyed gooney-bird Pop movements of the '50s and '60s, you come up with an impressive list of artists from Diebenkorn to Voulkos to Wylie and many another.
For at least 10 years the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art stood undisputed as the leading showplace for modern art in California. A small but engaged cadre of dealers and patrons are so dedicated they will occasionally pool resources, as they did in a subscription drive to bring out a handsome and heartfelt book on their art, "Art in the San Francisco Bay Area" by the late critic Tom Albright.
For all that good stuff, the Bay Area missed a reputation as a real contemporary art market or creative center, remaining an "interesting outpost" like Chicago. In the '60s it was Los Angeles that stole--and kept--the palm as a seedbed of innovation when the truth was there was so much cross fertilization between the North and South they might claim equal parentage of the emerging art.
Anyone who puts himself to the trouble of examining the stable lists of old vanguard La Cienega Boulevard galleries like the Ferus or Nicholas Wilder galleries will find that a weighty percentage of the artists now thought of as typically Los Angeles were from the Bay Area, including Robert Graham and Ron Davis. Wallace Berman linked Los Angeles to San Francisco's Beat poetry scene and heavy talents like Diebenkorn and Sam Francis moved down South.
Now Los Angeles is on the eve of the opening of a Museum of Contemporary Art and a new building for modern art at the County Museum of Art. Henry Hopkins, the director who put San Francisco's modern museum in the forefront has resigned to direct the proposed Frederick Weisman museum in Beverly Hills. If these combined events make Los Angeles into the anointed and institutionalized international contemporary art center imagined by their devotees, are they bound to effect aesthetic morale by the Bay?
Such musings may provide the best background for a trip down to the Newport Harbor Art Museum. Through Nov. 23 they are up to the second edition of a biennial event that surveys California art in three-part round from Los Angeles to the Bay to Everywhere Else. At the moment it is the Bay's turn.
Assistant curator Anne Ayres has chosen to characterize the area by assembling the work of a dozen artists out of several dozen who would have done the job slightly differently but equally well. Perusing the catalogue, one gathers that the curatorial strategy behind the selection was somewhere between protective and defensive. Essays by a group of art writers and curators have a similar aura of parti pris, thoughtful and well-meaning but perhaps flavored with excessive advocacy. We see enough advertising on television.
Anyway, the point seems to be to prove that all Bay Area art is not fueled by that combination of personal eccentricity and historical clogging that results in the Funk sensibility sometimes associated with the geography. It's a funny premise but it has the effect of creating an interesting, vaguely surprising show. It's like running into an old, familiar friend who has decided to get a perm or trade jock-style outfits for Italian suits. You get a little different take.
The Bay's artistic sense of history, for example, does not come across as a rejection or a satire as it sometimes does. The work here--particularly the sculpture--seems historically cultivated, subtly absorptive and cosmopolitan. Mark di Suvero's selection includes "To Intuit," a rusty dinosaur made out of a defunct earth-moving machine. It is basically like '50s cool jazz brought slightly up to date, admirable in its humanism and throbbing harmonics, glancingly smug in its inertia and self-righteousness. Di Suvero's presence is a nice touch. Since we don't identify him as a Bay Area artist (he lives mainly in New York), we are reminded of San Francisco's fertilizing influence.
Viola Frey grafts ancient Egyptian monoliths to folk art to come out with one of the rare examples of Neo-Expressionism that works. We've seen her 10-foot painted ceramic figures here recently in commercial gallery exhibition. At Newport something makes us wonder at the staying power of a content somewhere between a Steig and Hamilton cartoon but there is no question that she captures the looming oppressive pettiness of domestic and bureaucratic life.