Like most people, I've long regarded the Abstract Expressionist painting done in San Francisco in the decade after World War II to have been a quick, sometimes deft response to extraordinary artistic developments principally being generated in New York. Spurred on by well-known Eastern visitors to the Bay Area, such as Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt, and shaped by the voluble self-taught painter Clyfford Still, who soon enough decamped for Manhattan, San Francisco's Abstract Expressionism always stood as a provocative Northern California variant of the New York School. Now comes art historian and independent curator Susan Landauer to tell us how wrong that interpretation is. In her book and accompanying exhibition, "The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism," which had its debut Saturday at the Laguna Art Museum, she defies the standard notion.
Here's the kicker: The thesis Landauer lays out is completely convincing. A marginal art scene in San Francisco was in fact not responding to developments in the artistic center. Something else entirely was underway.
Our perception of this fundamentally important period needs slight but critical adjustment, and the assembled paintings by Still, Sam Francis, Richard Diebenkorn, Edward Corbett, Hassel Smith and the 16 others at Laguna help accomplish that. I, for one, will never look at the origins of Ab Ex painting in quite the same way as before.
Like a lot of good ideas, Landauer's is really rather simple. And it is built on a firm foundation of widely accepted views concerning the origins of Abstract Expressionism.
It's well known that in the years immediately following World War II, as American soldiers flooded into universities (including art schools) under the auspices of the G.I. Bill, a new conception of American art was taking shape. That art was abstract, in opposition to the often jingoist Social Realism that had marked American art in the 1930s, as well as to the classical realism favored by the vanquished fascists in Europe.
Furthermore, the unprecedented American urge toward abstraction was being shaped by fluid principles borrowed from European traditions of Surrealist art. A grim, inescapable recognition of a collapse in the guarantees offered by rational, modern scientific thought had been born in the ashes of Hiroshima and the Holocaust. Surrealism, with its emphasis on the unknown and the irrational, spoke for possibilities inherent in a radically different method.
Finally, this newly developing artistic consciousness was being formed by a faith in democratic freedoms, vividly renewed by Allied victory in Europe and Japan. Art that embodied political values of disciplined independence and rigorous self-determination would valorize personal liberty.
Now, that much is pretty standard art history. Landauer's little bombshell is this: The new conception of art did not begin in America's cultural center--New York--and then move outward to its margins, including San Francisco. Instead, the idea was taking shape everywhere, all across the country, simultaneously.
Landauer's impressive book--which incidentally includes a terrific introduction by Dore Ashton, doyenne of New York School historians--points out that radically sophisticated experimentalism could certainly be found in the paintings selected for the annual surveys organized by New York's Whitney Museum. But it was also much in evidence in countless regional shows, held all across the country.
In Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa, Oregon, Northern and Southern California and elsewhere, artists were already hybridizing abstraction, Surrealism and Expressionism, to an unprecedented degree. More than one commentator writing in New York in 1946 noted that the tendency toward what would later be termed Abstract Expressionism was becoming a full-fledged American phenomenon. In 1947 conservative politicians even launched a vigorous attack, questioning the moral appropriateness of this Modernist revolution to America's national life.
In San Francisco, the ferment was centered at the old California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). The Laguna exhibition largely focuses on CSFA artists, either faculty or students.
With nascent Abstract Expressionism convincingly reframed as a national artistic phenomenon rather than one emanating from New York and responded to elsewhere, you begin to look at these paintings in a slightly different way. Polarities shift. Influences go in multiple directions. The richness of Abstract Expressionism is enhanced, not diminished, by this gently altered perspective.