Thursday, July 31, 2008

Trying to be intentional

not succeeding very well. I interrupt the usual art blogging to bring a bulletin from the real world of random violence that is far too frequent.

Lexington Unitarians honor shooting victims - Fayette County -

Monday night was a time for grieving and healing at Unitarian-Universalist Church of Lexington.

From Greg, the pastor of the SF Unitarian Church:

We are deeply saddened by the tragic shootings at our movement's church in Knoxville. There are so many questions to ask but our immediate response during this time of confusion and grief is to pray for those who have lost loved ones, for those whose lives now hang in the balance, for our brothers and sisters -- especially the children -- who witnessed this act of violence, and for the shooter. Then, when an appropriate course of action emerges, our congregation will put its members and resources in place to assist those who were caught in the crossfire.

Our Unitarian Universalist faith offers both those in Knoxville as well as those here at home a very human approach to a senseless tragedy, and that is this: we cannot change what happened -- that would be a miracle -- but we can respond in ways that demonstrate our commitment to non-violence, our belief in the sanctity of all life, and our capacity for forgiveness. In this way, they will know we are Unitarian Universalists by our love.

I encourage you to be intentional today: be grateful for your own well-being, express your love to family members and friends, be patient with those who make you anxious, and make sure that what you are doing is truly worthy of your time and attention. Take time to be holy, that is, to connect with that which gives you life, by whatever name you choose to call it. Know that in life and death, we are not alone. If you are feeling ill at ease, don't wait to call a member of your church, or one of your ministers; do it now. By faith, together, we can find the peace that passes our understanding and then be the peace that heals our world.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Birth of the Cool

A group of us, organized by SF Mike, ventured into the other side of the bay to see the exhibit at the Oakland Museum. Great report (with nice photos) here. The weather was hot but the company was - in the original sense of the word - totally cool!

What he doesn't say is how marvelous it was to meet him (again) in person, his domestic partner Tony, Ron (a new arrival in SF) and Matthew who writes another favorite blog of mine ( One of the great joys of both retirement and blogging is to meet those of like minds. Well, perhaps with Mike, "mind" is stretching it a bit (ahem...)...but the day was absolutely delightful and the company could not be beat.

Baker responds to critics; Chihuly redux

In Sunday's paper, Kenneth Baker replied to critics of his negative review of Chihuly and made some good points: (Baker's article indicated by italics..). I agreed with some of his original review but his rebuttals (while containing some good points) smacks too much of a thin skinned critic who has never been challenged.

Many of the letters commented on how they didn't need a critic to tell them what to like. I agree to some extent, but it's a sad commentary on today's lack of art education and connection to the wider public. Also, a role, which Baker - unlike his predecessor Thomas Albright – has not done well. If the newspaper reading public is ignorant of how to judge art, Mr. Baker should count himself among those who share the blame. The following comment is fair enough but how do you approach educating the public in an era of celebrity-obsessed mass media? If anybody read my previous post on this subject, you will know that I agree with Baker's assessment of Chilhuly but also felt that his review raised wider issues which he never addressed. Now that newspapers are on the net and have comments sections, the public - formerly silenced - can now be heard.

In today's culture, people need not merely critics to tell them what art is, but also artists, curators, art historians, art dealers, collectors - and the viewers' own education and sensibility.

The critic owes his readers not reassurance or even judgment, but a point of view, and thus, an example of how a point of view forms.

Hence, my practice of comparing one artist's works with those made by others. Art is made of connections - connections available to any informed observer - not just of materials and good intentions.

One reader seemed to speak unawares for many others when she asked: "If Duchamp's urinal can be art, how can you discount Chihuly?"

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt defined artworks as "thought things," that is, things that materialize thought, things to be thought about and, in rare cases, things to help us think.

Marcel Duchamp's notorious "Fountain" (1917), a mass-produced plumbing fixture turned on its back, signed with a pseudonym and presented as sculpture, proclaimed a fissure between the concept of art and its unambiguous embodiment in objects.

If Duchamp's gesture had found no resonance in the wider situation of culture, his prank would have been forgotten long ago. But the peculiar cultural condition that he diagnosed persists: We still seldom see thought and thing brought together seamlessly outside the realm of mechanical engineering. Artists' struggles with this problem continue to produce bizarre and fantastically various results, some provocative, illuminating and pleasing, most not.

Does the art public need critics, specialists, to help it sort these struggles out? Yes. It truly is a full-time job. Bloggers cannot - at any rate, do not - get it done.

Ah - now we come to another article of faith in mainstream journalism. Bloggers are just not good enough. We ain't got the chops, the skills, the eye, the whatever. Of course, he's not the first "paid" journalist to be threatened by the rise of Internet blogging. Many chefs, celebrity and otherwise, are extremely angry at food bloggers and never lose an opportunity to put them down. Others, being wiser, solicit their opinions and listen when the opinion is given. His dismissal of art bloggers negates all of the links on my page and dozens more. It also tries to continue the tradition of elitist art, in which the critic, the artist and maybe a few NY galleries decide whose is in and who is out and the rest of us are supposed to just look up with silent and reverential awe.

In The Reenchantment of Art Gabrick made a passionate plea for artists to rethink the thought and practice of a century of modernism. The thesis is not original. ``Since the Enlightenment,'' she maintains, ``our view of what is real has been organized around the hegemony of a technological and materialist world view...we no longer have any sense of having a soul.'' Spirituality and ritual have been the first casualties of this attitude, but the most profound reordering, Gablick says, has “occurred in the area of social relations,” as the spread of individualistic philosophies has weakened or destroyed the cohesion of traditional communal structures--leading to the modern artist understanding his or her vocation in terms of the objects created rather than the audience addressed. If the artist has any awareness of the audience at all, it is usually seen as a hostile force to be either ignored or shocked. She points out, quite eloquently, the limits of the alienation of the artist from community but, unfortunately, hasn't come up with any solutions. Well, neither has Baker and his put-down of art bloggers – who do try to connect with the wider community and are also often artists themselves – is part of the old, elitist establishment that has helped create this schism.

I know that some of the artists that we revere today were ignored or slammed by the critics when they first showed their work. From Van Gogh onwards, artists in the vanguard have been slammed by critics. In time, critics will realize art criticism has moved beyond their control and their ability to describe it. The future will decide what is art, what survives and what remains of value. As for art in the now - I'm glad for the controversy because it makes people think and I'm sorry for us in the Bay Area because we deserve better newspapers with reporting on all issues.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

St. Frida

For better or worse, Kahlo’s painful life and unique paintings have produced a romantic, feminist mythology of suffering and defiance in the face of physical and psychic pain. “Balzac has invented everything,” Colette wrote and he might have even been able to invent Kahlo if she had not done it herself. Born to a Hungarian-Jewish father and a Spanish-Indian mother, Kahlo was a rebel even before the traumatic accident, which, at 18, left her with grim life-long medical problems. During her long recovery – which, in some ways, lasted the rest of her life – she used her art to express her pain. She had met Rivera before her accident and was attracted to him, but it was during her convalescence when she painted her first self-portrait that they became friends and later, lovers. Like Jane Eyre, she could say “Dear Reader, I married him” and their tumultuous marriage lasted until her death (with one intermission for divorce and remarriage). Her marriage to the elephantine and womanizing Rivera was both a blessing and a curse; they were mutually unfaithful, tormented each other and yet, inspired and supported each other.

According to her biography, it was after her miscarriage in 1932 that she began to paint the works, which would make her famous. Combining the folk imagery of Mexican retablos, the grotesque details of suffering present in 17th century Spanish polychrome religious art and surrealism, she portrayed feminine suffering in ways that had only previously been seen in the more extreme examples of religious art. Think Grünewald, think Northern Renaissance paintings of Christ on the cross, think of the cruelty and delight in pain of Meso-American art, translated into 20th century visual poetry. As Hayden Herrera points out in her Biography of Frida Kahlo (1983), art was a solace. It was a way to say to the both herself and the world, “I am still here.” She turned her physical being into an icon of both masculinity and feminity. The unibrow, direct gaze and traces of moustache (less in real photos than the paintings) played up what she saw as the male aspect of her personal. But her vibrant clothing, flowing skirts, elaborate hair styles and jewelry were based on the traditional clothing style of the women of the Tehuana region of Mexico, who were the real figures of authority in their society. Nevertheless, although she claimed the authority of women in control, she also slavishly adored her oversized and unfaithful husband. (Sanford, The nerve of Frida Kahlo, NY Review of Books; Herrera, Chapter 8)

Her painting repeatedly refers to the pain of her attachment to Rivera. Among the most famous of those is “The Two Fridas,” from 1939, about the time the couple briefly divorced. On the left, Frida is dressed as a bride, her heart open and a cut artery dripping blood onto the dress. On the right, the everyday Frida is strong, her heart is healthy and she holds a cameo of Rivera as a child, a symbol that her union with him is far deeper than that of a marriage. In numerous paintings, she cradles him, paints him as a quasi-religious icon or indicates, in paint, that he was the center of her life.

Much of her work suggests surrealism, a tag that she rejected when Andre Breton tried to recruit her into his circle. In "The Broken Column" (1944), she portrays her naked torso, with a metal rod in place of her spine and thick straps and nails holding her body together. In "The Little Deer" (1946), her face is attached to the body of a deer, which is bleeding from nine arrow wounds. And in "Without Hope" (1945), ailing in bed, she appears to be vomiting animals, fish and a skull. Yet, it was not all paint, blood and suffering. She enjoyed life passionately – even during her many illnesses, she had enough joie de vie to say, “It is not worthwhile to leave this world without having had a little fun in life.”

"I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality," she claimed. And on another occasion, she noted. "I always paint whatever passes through my head, without any other consideration."

That was not strictly true. Her art reflects all sorts of influences, some European like Cubism and, yes, Surrealism - the predominant art syle of the day. Other influences are are Mexican, not only that of her husband, but also of Aztec and Roman Catholic iconography. Given her many illnesses and surgeries, it’s not surprising that she was obsessed with death. She was very Mexican, but her mixed heritage contributed to her originality.

She produced only about 200 paintings – primarily still lifes and portraits of herself, family and friends. She also kept illuminated journals and did many drawings. Arguably, it was during her and Riviera’s 1933 visit to America that she began to develop her signature style. In Henry Ford Hospital, done after one of her traumatic miscarriages, she graphically conveyed her desolation and pain. She exorcised her pain through her painting.

During the last decade of her lift, Kahlo’s health continued to deteriorate. She drank and took drugs to alleviate the pain and the works from this time are darker, with rougher surfaces. Yet, her caustic humor and playful wit could still charm. Just before her death, she incorporated the words Viva La Vida (Long Live life) into a lush, richly painted still life of watermelons.

She died in her sleep in 1954 at the age of 47, apparently as the result of an embolism, though there was a suspicion among those close to her that she had found a way to commit suicide although others reject the idea. Her last diary entry read: 'I hope the end is joyful - and I hope never to come back - Frida.'" Tucked away in the retrospective is an anonymous newspaper photograph of her state funeral. Rivera is there, his sadness evident. He only outlived her by three years.

SFMOMA's Frida Kahlo exhibition runs through September 28, 2008. For tickets and information, visit

* Imaging Her Selves: Frida Kahlo's Poetics of Identity and Fragmentation, by Gannit Ankori
* Portrait of an Artist - Frida Kahlo, VHS video.
* Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, by Hayden Herrera.
* Frida Kahlo; The Paintings, by Hayden Herrera.
Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo, by Margaret A. Lindauer.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Sarah Jessica Parker's art competition reality show has found a home at Bravo.

I'm sure that every artist that reads this is going to run out and apply to be on the show (item found at multiple sites). Or not. This isn't really local to the Bay Area but it's so off the wall that I couldn't resist posting it. Art as a competitive sport that spectators find interesting - I don't think so. It's not that artists aren't competitive because they are - ferociously so. But making art is not the most exciting thing to watch and I can't image many artists would be able to create much while the TV cameras, crew and all the assorted noise is going on around them. Any bets as to how long the show lasts?

Aspiring artists to compete to produce various artwork

By James Hibberd

July 20, 2008, 12:00 PM ET

Updated: July 20, 2008,

Sarah Jessica Parker's art competition reality show has found a home at Bravo.

The network has picked up "American Artist," from Parker's Pretty Matches production company and wunderkin producers Magical Elves, as part of its development slate. Bravo is expected to announce the deal Sunday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour.

The hourlong show has been described by the Elves team of Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz as a "Project Runway"-style competition series that takes on the art world. Aspiring artists compete to produce various styles of artwork (painting, sculpting, etc.), which is then judged by a panel of experts. The network declined to comment.

If ordered to series, the art project show would give Bravo another skill-driven reality show to its lineup, along with the Elves' "Top Chef" and "Top Design."

Parker, Cutforth and Lipsitz shopped the art series earlier this year, before the Weinstein Co. made a deal to move the Elves' Bravo hit "Runway" to Lifetime. The Elves defected from "Runway" when the duo signed an overall deal in May with Bravo's parent company NBC Universal.

Facing the loss of its top-rated show, Bravo has said it will significantly increase its development slate this year by about 45%, including opening up a fourth night of original programming on Mondays.

Nice article (with comments here)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Bruce Conner, x 2 (from SF Moma Open Space)

Another great post on Bruce Conner from SF MOMA Open Space (URL link at the end); the comments section is also well worth reading. There's actual dialogue!

A Movie was constructed completely of found footage. As he described it, this was a “pseudo-criminal” process that nevertheless was little different than making a painting. Painting, no more or less than appropriating objects, was a kind of theft: “You’re stealing all the past experiences that everyone has had… You’re building on this huge pyramid which has millions of dead bodies down at the bottom of it.”

A Movie was a “new old movie” – it looked antique in 1959. It was a comedic archaeology of progress, and an elegy for American modernity. The twentieth century is pictured, first comically, then with increasing sadness, as doomed charge, a monumental hubris – a zeppelin exploding in midair. The last shot of the film, breathtaking in its context, shows a diver swimming into the hull a submerged ship. He’s exploring the ruins of a century barely half over.

BOOK PAGES, Bruce Conner, 1967, Collection SFMOMA

Conner’s relationship with SFMOMA was notoriously troubled. As Conner recounted in 1979 (in an interview published in Damage and reprinted in Stiles and Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art), Henry Hopkins, then the museum’s director, had proposed doing a retrospective of the artist’s work to date. But they couldn’t agree on certain things. Conner wanted to take part in curating his own history, and demanded a role in the conservation of assemblages that he’d originally intended to change over time. He also wanted his show to be free – the museum wanted to charge $2 admission fee – or at least to share in a percentage of the earnings from an increased admission.

“[Hopkins] told me that this exhibition would be a terrific boon to my career. It would make me famous and rich. I’ve been told that since I was twenty-one years old… It’s one of the more fraudulent myths of the art business. Whereas, the only way you can make any money is to get a percentage of the gate. The concept that the museum and the galleries have been working on for so long is a 19th century one, wherein you confront a robber baron…who smashed millions of tiny babies into the ground, tore their eyeballs out and disemboweled them; he’s done this his whole life… And he’s built castles around the world.”

They practically informed me it was a post-mortem,” the artist said - invoking, in part, the avant gardist cliché of the museum as mausoleum, or morgue. More to the point, however, Conner was hoping to retain, or recover, some determination over his work, and his public image. “Everything was being run as if I did not exist,” he declared. Needless to say, SFMOMA never did their retrospective. Perhaps those around at the time will have another perspective.

The rest of this great post up here:

Friday, July 18, 2008

Summer in the city

Summer is traditionally a slow time in the galleries but I found some interesting things to see

At 49 Geary:

Gallery 415 is showcasing the works of Brazilian artist, Silvia Poloto. Last Saturday, she spoke on her process which involves finishing her works with a layer of resin. Her paintings are pretty things, brightly colored with shiny surfaces. Her work is in many corporate collections - it's just the thing to brighten up a drab office with decorative, non-representational squares and squiggles. Unfortunately, a simple question about varying her process elicited a very hostile reaction; equally unfortunate is her belief that she can only make art that's pretty and that any other approach means that the art will be "ugly."

Toomey Tourell is featuring a group exhibition honoring the 10th anniversary of the gallery. They’ve got a stunning piece by Brian Dettmer up and numerous other small works from the gallery artists – all well worth seeing. Dettmer is the antithesis of decorative and meaningless; his altered books grab the eye and then, make you look deeper and deeper to probe their meaning. Todd Bennett, the gallery director is friendly and helpful; that always makes the gallery going experience more pleasant. He told me that they are going to have a video of Dettmer making one of his altered book pieces up on their website.

Brian Dettmer's carved books are intricate creations, which seek both to seduce the eye and provoke the mind. Through the cut open cover of a book the viewer sees layers of specifically selected text and illustration carved from the pages of the book. Through the gaps in an architectural drawing or perhaps the chambers of the human heart, one can see a word peeking through, perhaps a clue to the larger meanings of the piece. These pieces seek to bridge the gap between a medium's form and its message. Dettmer manages to use the contrasting layers of image and text to explore the conveyance of information, as well as being able to get the viewer to examine what that can mean.

Art Exchange Gallery has some gorgeous pieces by Dennis Hare and a whole wall of Ruth Wall’s surrealistic collages and monoprints as well as their usual eclectic combination of pieces. According to the gallery, even though Wall studied with Bischoff and Park, she decided not pursue a gallery career. In her old age, she chose this gallery to show her works. I’m glad that yet another hidden SF woman artist is getting her day. I always find it interesting to see what works come back on the market and how they are priced.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Bruce Conner: 1933- 2008

Another one of the members of the beat generation died this week. I was looking up his art work (along with that of Neri and De Feo) and realized that I came to SF just four years too late. A lot of their work was dated 1962 and I came here in 1966, just in time to avoid the hippies whose interest in art seemed pretty shallow and completely bound up with drug use (not that the beats didn't take some pretty lethal drugs themselves).

I remember seeing a lot of his experimental films in some pretty back room types of places. All you had to do to get a contact high was breathe deeply (and not very deeply at that). They were in parts of the city that I won't go to at night any more but then, were full of artists apartments, studios and store fronts where we used to show our work. Ah, the days of cheap rent. We didn't make much money but we lived a lot better on less because this was really the city that knew how. The glory was already fading; many painters had already left and the Monkey Block was being torn down to make room for what would be the BoA Headquarters. But I valued what I could find of that time and lament its passing. I doubt if the much ballyhood hippie movement will leave anything as substantial in its wake.

From his Obit:

Mr. Conner never stayed with one medium for long, resisting the art world's inclination to identify every artist with a style and a biographical myth.

Asked once by a critic to mention some artists who influenced him, Mr. Conner said, "I typed out about 250 names," and instructed the writer to add that "limited space prevents us from printing the remaining 50,003 names on Mr. Conner's list of influences."

Mr. Conner announced his own death erroneously on two occasions, once sending an obituary to a national art magazine, and later writing a self-description for the biographical encyclopedia Who Was Who in America.

Excellent analysis of one of his films:
other films seem to have been removed due to "copyright" issues by a third party.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jane Hammond at the De Young

A much better art show than Chiluly's and guess what - ignored by the local newsrag. This is the kind of work that I wish I could do in my small books. It's truly imaginative, creative and original.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- For nearly two decades, New York artist Jane Hammond has been using a fixed lexicon of 276 images to create paintings and works on paper, both flat and three-dimensional, that layer prints, photocopies, and photographs with collage and handwork. Her visual vocabulary borrows from carnival costume and puppetry, instructional manuals, board games, scrapbooks, maps, and more. Jane Hammond: Paper Work, on view at the de Young Museum through August 31, 2008, presents nearly 30 large-scale works on paper, many of which are unique and culled from private collections.

Hammond’s visual vocabulary of 276 images allows her to explore context and meaning while creating complex combinations of images that enhance the sculptural quality of the work. The range of Hammond’s work in the exhibition includes All Souls (Hefei), one of her exquisite trompe l’oeil butterfly map series; Scrapbook, a large, three-dimensional open book featuring silhouettes, paper doll-like figures, paper flowers, fortunes, feathers, and paper matchbooks; and The Wonderfulness of Downtown, an editioned print combining a map of lower Manhattan, the artist’s home, with a number of photographic images from her neighborhood. “My intention was to use the lexicon of the 276 images in ‘recombinant’ fashion––think DNA––and let myself make any kind of work of art I wanted with them,” says Hammond.

Info from the Art Newsletter
at the De Young from May 3–August 31, 2008
More links:

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Chihuly at the De Young

Kenneth Baker does not like it. I just knew that Chihuly wouldn't be his cup of tea but a lot of people really like his work. I always wonder, when viewing shows of that nature, which is better? To show understated art that is more authentic but only appeals to the elite or to show gaudy glitz that a lot of people like and which brings in crowds which then can be exposed to more significant art? Perhaps we forget, in this era of mass marketing, when art (of some type or another) is available to more and more people how rare, historically speaking, this access to art is. They are a product of the 19th century populist movement which aimed to educate and "uplift" the masses. Sure, Chihuly is gaudy, his work is done by others and I don't much care for it myself. But I read the plaudits for Koons, Clemente and other artists whose work is also produced by others and doesn't have mass appeal and I wonder how much of this dislike is valid art criticism and how much is snobbery? The De Young now has a long record of really low brow shows but I don't remember this type of hostile criticism being directed at the fashion show exhibit not too long ago - maybe because the movers and backers of that show were part of the SF elite? Don't get me wrong; I agree with his critique of Chihuly but the finger he points at Chihuly would equally be pointed at others. How does a museum appeal to the crowd today, especially when so much of modern art is inaccessible to the majority of people?

Baker from the Chron:

Admirers of empty virtuosity may thrill to "Chihuly at the de Young," the de Young Museum's celebration of contemporary glass master Dale Chihuly. But so will those among the art public building a dossier against director John Buchanan's leadership of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Perhaps in today's arts funding environment, every museum must work a potboiler or two into its exhibition calendar. But Chihuly has come to personify everything meretricious in contemporary art. The most exciting thing about his work: Its status as art stands in question.

Worse, the de Young originated this one-venue exhibition.

Chihuly's presentation at the de Young consists of ensembles of works in blown glass, so theatrically lighted that they make a visitor feel like a walk-on performer in some costly, unnamed spectacle. That spectacle is Chihuly's career.

With the Rhode Island School of Design as his first important launch pad, Chihuly, a Tacoma, Wash., native, propelled himself into the international glassworks world. He bootstrapped his own glass-blowing mastery into an impresario role, eventually leading teams of glass craftsmen around the world. The outcome of these collaborations always bears his name.

A fair-minded critic must ask why Chihuly's work cannot be taken seriously as sculpture. Sculptors of acknowledged importance have at times made good use of glass: Robert Smithson (1938-1973), Christopher Wilmarth (1943-1987), Barry Le Va, Kiki Smith. But all of them shunned Chihuly's forte: decoration.

Perhaps dreamy color, glossy surfaces and flamboyant design - the signal qualities of Chihuly's work - should be enough. But in a culture where only intellectual content still distinguishes art from knickknacks, they are not.

The skeptical visitor to "Chihuly at the de Young," starting in the second of its 11 rooms, gets the queasy sense that here the gift shop inevitably barnacled to such exhibitions has finally engulfed its host. The earliest of Chihuly's installations, from 1972, and one of the latest, "Mille Fiori" (2008), look like surrealistic passages in a forest fit for Gump's. The many inanities of conceptual and other contemporary art may have inflamed the appetite for craft skill that Chihuly superficially satisfies.

He even exploits the open formal rhetoric of installation art. But there never develops any sense of linkage in thought or form to the work of a master of sculptural installation such as Jannis Kounellis, Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) or even Ann Hamilton.

Chihuly's most considered example at the de Young is "Tabac Baskets" (2008). On a series of long, horizontal shelves, he has placed glass vessels he made in response to American Indian baskets - ectoplasmic abstractions of the irregularities the baskets develop from the effect of gravity and the pliant nature of their material.

Baskets from Chihuly's own collection flank his pieces throughout the display, but the tiny spotlights under the lip of each shelf fall not on the baskets but on the glass works.

Educated viewers cannot look for long at Chihuly's work without wishing there were something to think about. So they think about something else. The capacity to hold our attention, in the moment or in reflection later, is a mark of significant art in an era when mass media work hard to abbreviate attention spans so as to cut costs and decapitate questions.

The history of art is a history of ideas, not just of valuable property. Chihuly has no place in it, and the de Young disserves its public by pretending that he does.

Chihuly at the de Young: objects and installations in glass, plus works on paper. Through Sept. 28. De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. $5 surcharge, above museum admission, applies for timed entry tickets to the exhibition. (415) 750-3600,

E-mail Kenneth Baker at

Friday, July 4, 2008

Glories of the Ming

Thanks to my dear friend Bob who is a member of the museum, I got to see the exhibit today - first thing on the 4th of July. Art first, barbeque and fireworks second; as a Navy brat, I can wave the flag with the best of them but for me, celebrating the 4th means acknowledging the contributions of ALL the people who built our country. It seemed appropriate to got to a museum of Asian art today, seeing how Chinese labor built so much in the West and was so poorly compensated. I am critical of China’s politics but I have no quarrel with the art; they have a long and fascinating history and I’m glad to live in a place where I can experience the best that their culture has produced. It’s also my way of celebrating the death of Jesse Helms, one of the most racist and homophobic bastards to ever disgrace the American political scene.

Glorious, glorious and more glorious, even if (as SF Mike pointed out) rather inhibited by being crammed into too small a space. The PR for the exhibit claims that that it displays the “grandeur and opulence” of the dynasty and for once, the PR is not just hyperbole. However, unlike Mike, I don’t think that the move downtown was all that beneficial for the collection. The old Asian had two huge floors wrapped around a beautiful central courtyard with windows overlooking Golden Gate Park. This visually expanded the space, allowed natural light and prevented the claustrophobia that occurs from the low ceilings and enclosed spaces that I feel is a problem with the new Asian. I took many art classes at the old De Young and having been “backstage” as it were, can testify to the miles and miles of storage and office space that was never open to the public.
Unfortunately, the new museum is right in the middle of a rather gritty downtown area and when you ride the escalator up to the various floors, you get a fabulous view of SF’s urban blight. The view down of the gravel-topped roof is (to say the least) not very interesting. I’ve always wondered why they couldn’t put a few strategically placed pots of bamboo or at least, rake the gravel into Zen patterns. Xensen of Seven Junipers, who works at the museum, says that there are load-bearing issues preventing a roof top garden but I also heard that there could eventually be a garden – for the elite. Let’s hope that it improves the view for us plebeians.

However, I do understand the politics involved and the need for the “new kid” on the block to pound his chest and proclaim that “his” is bigger than “theirs.” The architect managed to maintain the graceful Beaux Arts façade of the old main library while expanding the interior in very creative ways. I love that they have maintained the old catalogue room – complete with the original floor, roof and windows as a space for events. The huge marble stairway gives one an overlapping visual experience of the best of both East and West while the mezzanine is perfect to show off some of the museum’s collection of Persian and other Middle Eastern ceramics.

After seeing the exhibit, I think I have to revise my viewpoint that the Tang Dynasty is my favorite period for Chinese art. I love Tang pottery, especially the horses and the willowy court dancers. But the Ming Dynasty calligraphy and silk paintings are superb and the jewelry, while too ostentatious for my taste, is gorgeous. Apparently, according to the Met Museum web site, the “early painters recruited by the Ming court were instructed to return to didactic and realistic representation, in emulation of the styles of the earlier Southern Song (1127–1279) Imperial Painting Academy. Large-scale landscapes, flower-and-bird compositions, and figural narratives were particularly favored as images that would glorify the new dynasty and convey its benevolence, virtue, and majesty.” While I acknowledge their craftsmanship, I don’t much care for the more elaborate cloisonné pieces but I realize that everybody has their own preferences. Perhaps I appreciate the difficulties of painting on silk because I am a painter and calligrapher. There is no room for mistakes and the fluid brushwork and delicate colors are breathtaking. Mike has an image up of marvelous small horsemen and soldiers from a Ming Dynasty tomb. My inner child wanted them immediately to play with; my more adult side immediately coveted all of the silk paintings. However, I'd settle for even one as I don't want to be greedy.

Another thing that struck me as I was researching the Ming Dynasty is how many Chinese dynasties referred back to the art of a previous era; the Ming instructed their artists to emulate the Song; the Song Dynasty – one of the most brilliant eras in Chinese history – referred back to the Tang (619-906) which is considered “the” classical period in Chinese art by the Met. Tim Johnson’s blog, “China Rises” has an amazing list of Chinese inventions, many of which occurred before the Ming Dynasty gained power. In spite of my criticisms, I do love the Asian and think it's the only museum in SF that's clearly world class.

Links and information

The museum is open on July 4th and this Sunday, July 6th, is a free admission day. The exhibit will be here from June 27–September 21, 2008 and I think it’s a must see for the summer. There is also a host of related programs and activities.

Report of the opening by SF Mike:
Seven Junipers:
Metropolitan Museum:

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Always Striving

I studied at the SFAI from 1966-1970; went to State from 1972 to 1982 to get a degree and am now - returning to school at age 63 to further my studies. I had been a practicing artist and showing my work in SF for years before my return to school. I attended figure drawing classes whenever I could find them and was part of two long lasting art critique groups. I still consider those groups to be the most important parts of my education as an artist. So, I've been rather shocked and, frankly, disappointed at the bare studio offerings at SFSU. An on-line interview with the current director of the gallery and Mullins, one of the highly touted instructors at SFSU does not inspire me with any confidence; it sounded too much like the same old, same old boys club. Classes are scheduled on top of each other; want to take Drawing II and Painting II together. Well, you can't because they are scheduled at the same time. Want to take Painting III - well, good luck because there's only one session, it's at night and you'll either need a car or be braver than I am to walk down Market St. at 11 PM. I love my art history classes, the humanities classes and the access to the library but I suspect that I will remain - as I have for much of my artistic life - self taught and self sustaining. But it also gives me a great deal of freedom and the older I get, the more I value that.

I read a great interview with Jim Dine somewhere - he was asked if he felt that he'd "copped out" with his return to the figure in the 70's. He said, (and I think I quote) "No. Avant gard or no avant gard. I could give a shit." (found Via Art Vent)

Some current art at various places in SF:

And a post by the always eloquent Eva Lake on the market for Dead Artists (plus good comments)