Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Allison Adams At the SF MoMA's Artists Gallery at Ft. Mason

"I seek the outdoors and that feeling of connection as much as possible, but I am still within this urban environment most of the time, which can sometimes feel isolating. I reflect and muse upon all that I experience and see here and seek out the Nature hidden under asphalt, pavement, and planted green lawn. " Allison Adams

Allison Adams, Pathway (now on exhibit at the SF MOMA Artists Gallery)

At the current show in The Loft space at SF MOMA's Ft Mason gallery, Curator Renee de Cossio has paired Adams' woven textile forms with Stern's more open and airy pieces. Using an old-fashioned loom four harness loom, Adams uses recycled plastic as well as wire, monofilament, audio and video tape to create asymmetrical woven pieces and three-dimensional sculptural pieces. The woven pieces are shinny and dense, glittering with bits of recycled material, integrated into the irregular grids. The Nebula pieces are more open, and very evocative of the star clusters from which they get their name. Many of the woven textile pieces are enclosed within dark frames which does not, in my opinion, allow their need for visual expansive space. The lighter framed pieces are more successful because the frame disappears against the wall, allowing the viewer to be pulled in far enough to examine the superb craft of the artist as well as the inventive use of recycled materials.  

Allison Adams, Swirl Nebula III

 Unfortunately, Adams' three-dimensional pieces and Stern's airy abstractions (some of which are on unframed paper) don't always work well together -- or, to be more accurate, the Loft's gallery space is too small to allow each artist's work to claim its visual territory. I was reminded of SF MoMA's exhibit in which they combined pieces by Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keefe. In many instances, Adams' dark, glossy photographs sucked energy from O'Keefe's more delicate and colorful abstractions. A 2009 show at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts,  which paired O'Keefe and Dove was more successful. Both those artists shared a painterly vision and a similar technique and palate. Yet I understand why the curator packed the small Loft gallery with these pieces. They are unique and deserve to be shown. But, given the gallery situation in San Francisco, artists like Adams and Stern have to fight for recognition in a town with too little space for serious artists.
SFMOMA Artists Gallery at Fort Mason
Building A, Fort Mason Center
San Francisco, CA 94123 USA
Hours : Tuesday - Saturday, 11:30 a.m. - 5:30
All images courtesy of SF MOMA Artists Gallery and the artist

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pia Stern Redux

Pia Stern. Premonition

I forgot to include a link to Ms. Stern's website in my previous post - so here's the link and another image (because it's my blog and because I want to). Elins-Eagles, a local gallery here in San Francisco also carries her work but their website is down so I'm not including it for the time being.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pia Stern at SF MOMA Artists Gallery at Fort Mason (through April 23)

Stern didn't start out to be a painter; in college she studied social sciences, language, city planning, anthropology - the grab bag of a student unsure of her direction and lacking discipline and focus. That's an observation, not a criticism. I think most of us were in the same place in the less financially stressed college atmosphere of the 1960's and 1970's. But she spent her junior year in Aix-en-Provance, signed up for a painting class which changed her life:

Pia Stern. Nocturne

"I felt at home with the people teaching that class...They were all devoted to Cezanne and lived in the shadow of Monte Saint-Victoire. I felt at home with how they looked at things, philosophically speaking, as well as their way of perceiving things visually."

" I remember the first stoke; cobalt blue, a diagonal stroke on a rectangular three-by-four canvas. I burst into tears when I made it. It was a Zen experience."

When she returned to California, she began to study painting in earnest. She was fortunate in her teachers for the art world here was still infused with the unique artists that came out of the post-war generation - Diebenkorn, Park, Thiebaud. They distrusted too much verbalization and taught in a direct, personal manner. One of her most influential teacher, Elmer Bischoff addressed the work on "what was going on, or not, in inner terms." (1)

 Pia Stern. This Time The Promise

Out of this she developed a lyrical style, based on intuitive gestures and spontaneous marks, a cryptic language that almost seemed understandable if the viewer looked long enough.  Her current work at the Artists Gallery at Ft. Mason is still lyrical but is edging closer to abstraction. The pieces are larger than the ones last shown here in the lobby of 555 Market Street but they still pull the viewer in. Stern describes her current oils on canvas as a cross between optimism at Obama's election but concern over the dismal decade that we had just survived and where we, as a country and the world, might be going. The canvas is large, rectangular, layered with a palimpsest of oil and oil pastels. She retains the poetic feeling of her earlier work but the gestural shapes and quasi-writing float in the luminous field, asking questions that only the viewer can answer.

 Stern's concerns with what she describes as "...existential nature of her work...the tension between light and dark" comes to the fore in the series "Earth Abides." These charcoal pieces were done just before the US entered the war in Iraq and prefigure the devastating conflict to come. Nevertheless, her work retains what Sister Wendy Beckett wrote about in her 1988 publication, Contemporary Women Artists:

 "When art is personal and private, we can feel an irritating sense of exclusion. The artist has therefore to win our trust, and lure us into his "private dreams" in a way that we can understand. Pia Stern ..has an unusual power of transforming her "dreams" into our own. They remain hers; she does not share them..But we are not asked to riddle out Stern's private meanings." (2) 

What I find fascinating is that Stern, while continuing to develop as a painter, has avoided the pull to make work that is completely insular and self-referential. Her work speaks to me beyond her biography - her parents escaped Nazi Germany -  or even (possibly) her intent. Like all good work, it allows the viewer to make their own assumptions and associations.

(1) Charles Shere. Impulse, Depth and Poetry: The Art of Pia Stern. Imagio, Vol 21, February 1999, pp 31-41.
(2) Sister Wendy Beckett. Contemporary Women Artists. 1988

SFMOMA Artists Gallery at Fort Mason
Building A, Fort Mason Center
San Francisco, CA 94123 USA
Hours : Tuesday - Saturday, 11:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
All images courtesy of the artist. Photographer Ian Cummings.

Friday, March 26, 2010

File under Not Good News..

I had begun to use the Getty Art Data Base on my slow progress toward that MFA. Even when I'm not in school, I am a research junkie so this is really bad news. It's even worse for more committed scholars of art history because finding sources can be time consuming, cumbersome and ultimately frustrating because you can't find what you want - even when you know that it's out there, the source material is buried in some inaccessible library or deep within an out of date and unworkable data base.

"Are we about to see the end of visual arts scholarship as we know it?

As reported on several art history-related websites (but not, as far as I've seen, in the mainstream media), one of the most lamentable results of the J. Paul Getty Trust's budgetary cutbacks is the Getty Research Institute's withdrawal of financial support for what it had previously called "one of the most powerful tools at the art historian's disposal"---the Bibliography of the History of Art (BHA), which in 2008 was renamed the International Bibliography of Art (IBA). This research database, indexing art historical records and abstracts and maintained by the Getty, was successor to the International Repertory of the Literature of Art (RILA) and the Répertoire d'Art et d'Archéologie (RAA)."

Read more at:

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pia Stern at the SF MoMA Artists Gallery at Ft. Mason

Pia Stern, "Wicked Romp" (2009). photo, Ian Cummings (courtesy of the artist).

From the press release..

"Stern's paintings suggest a logic of the heart, which she uses to guide her art-making process. Her painted and drawn figures and forms set within abstract fields combine to create rich, tactile, and vibrant expressions that allude to the individual's psyche and one's place in the natural world."

I am going to write a decent review later but for now, I just want to mull over the luminous beauty of her paintings. In her book on Peace, Sister Windy Beckett wrote: "Stern shows us two ways of being: the physical, answerable only to accident, to wind and tides; and the spiritual, answerable to inward truth. One is free-flowing; the other is fixed, grounded in more than its own small compass - in God. "

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Congratulations to Libby and Roberta

When I started focusing on writing about art, these two were my Internet "mentors." I enjoy reading their blog and while my writing style and interests are different then theirs, I've always seen them as role models in the world of internet arts blogging.

Andy and the Fame Game

When I returned to SF, I saw that Baker had written about the Warhol portrait that is part of SF MOMA's 75th Anniversary celebration. I was reminded of the notes that I took when I saw the exhibit of paintings by Warhol, Ten Jews of the Twentieth Century (exhibited at the JCM in 2009). The series depicted ten luminaries of Jewish culture: Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, the Marx Brothers, Golda Meir, and Gertrude Stein. The exhibition at the JCM was the first showing on the West Coast of a complete set of paintings that Warhol made in this series. The museum also displayed an edition of the final-silk-screen print portfolio, the photographs that Warhol used as source images, several preliminary sketches, and a preparatory collage. The drawings and source photographs had not previously been exhibited alongside the finished pictures which made this a unique opportunity to understand Warhol's process and technique.

Obsessed with fame and media hype, he appropriated images from popular culture and created unforgettable -- and highly marketable -  portraits of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Warhol's portraits, typically produced in multiple, defy customary expectations for a unique or psychologically revealing view of the individual. By openly embracing commercialism and the trappings of fame, and by employing photography and silk-screening, he challenged concepts of originality and self-expression. He also proved Duchamp's theory that if you are successful, anything you label art will be accepted as art.

 Andy Warhol. Martin Bluber. From Ten Portraits. @ Andy Warhol Foundation.

When it premiered in 1980, Andy Warhol's Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century aroused both conversation and  controversy. While some Jewish audiences tended to embrace Warhol's series, several leading art critics dismissed it when they were first exhibited. Since its debut, Ten Portraits has continued to confront viewers with these questions: Why did a Pop artist who otherwise displayed little interest in Jewish culture or causes create a series devoted to eminent Jews? How do we reconcile Warhol's commercial motives with the high-minded portrayal of cultural and historical icons?
Unlike many of Warhol's portraits, Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century depicts subjects whom the artist never met, because none of the subjects were alive at the time. Warhol was evasive when asked to divulge his selection criteria for the series and once told a reporter that he chose these ten subjects "because I liked the faces." The idea for Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century originated with Ronald Feldman, a New York gallerist, who commissioned it with Israeli art dealer Alexander Harari. Warhol dubbed the series his "Jewish Geniuses." So, in essence, this is not really about Jews per se, but another variation on Warhol's obsession with celebrity; in this case, celebrities of genuine merit whose achievements are not confined to the red carpet du jour.

The way it exploited its Jewish subjects without showing the slightest grasp of their significance is offensive - or would be, anyway, if the artist had not already treated so many non-Jewish subjects in the same tawdry manner," New York Times critic Hilton Kramer wrote in a review that appeared the day before Yom Kippur. Other New York critics were no less harsh. A review in Artforum accused Warhol of pandering to a "synagogue circuit" and the Village Voice noted that the series "will certainly sell well in Miami and Tel Aviv but it's profoundly hypocritical, cynical, and exploitative." In hindsight, however, some critics have come to view Warhol's superficiality and commercialism as "the most brilliant mirror of our times," contending that "Warhol had captured something irresistible about the zeitgeist of American culture in the 1970s."

Warhol adored Hollywood glamor. As an sickly child and a bizarre looking adult. he worshiped the beautiful people. If he couldn't be one, he would try to possess them through his art which validated their value as commercial icons while simultaneously devaluing their unique iconic status  their through mass reproductions.  He once said: "I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're so beautiful. Everything's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic."

 Sales validate the product -- true then, true now. He may have been the first to so successfully manipulate the art market but the coming decades would prove that he would not be the last.

Images courtesy of Ronald Felman Fine Arts and the Jewish Community Center Archives

 Ben Blackwell / S.F. Museum of Modern Art. Andy Warhol. "National Velvet" (1963)

Warhol "National Velvet' - part of the current exhibit at SF MOMA's 75th Anniversary Celebration:
Baker's review at SF Gate:

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Abstract Expressionists commemorative stamps.

 The function of the artists is to express reality as felt.
When I was a kid, I used to collect stamps from all the countries where I lived (Navy brat and all that). Later, I collected stamps that featured reproductions of art; somewhere I probably still have an album of Japanese stamps with images from Japanese woodcuts AND a sheet of French stamps which Matisse images. But I got out of the habit when prices went up and I turned to other pursuits. But this gorgeous sheet of images from abstract expressionist artists just might reawaken my stamp lust!

In celebration of the abstract expressionist artists of the 20th Century, Art Director Ethel Kessler and noted Art Historian Jonathan Fineberg (Gutgsell Professor Art History, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign) selected ten paintings to feature on this colorful pane of self–adhesive stamps. Kessler used elements from Barnett Newman’s Achilles (1952) to frame the stamps. The arrangement of the stamps suggests paintings hanging on a gallery wall. For design purposes, the sizes of the stamp are not in relative proportion to the paintings. The pane also features selvage text and a quotation by Robert Motherwell. Each stamp includes the artist’s name and verso text that identifies the painting and briefly tells something about the artist.

List of Stamp Artwork

  • The Golden Wall (1961) — Hans Hofmann (1880–1966)
  • Romanesque Façade (1949) — Adolph Gottlieb (1903–1974)
  • Orange and Yellow (1956) — Mark Rothko (1903–1970)
  • The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb (1944) — Arshile Gorky (1904–1948)
  • 1948–C (1948) — Clyfford Still (1904–1980)
  • Asheville (1948) — Willem de Kooning (1904–1997)
  • Achilles (1952) — Barnett Newman (1905–1970)
  • Convergence (1952) — Jackson Pollock (1912–1956)
  • Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 34 (1953–1954) — Robert Motherwell (1915–1991)
  • La Grande Vallée 0 (1983) — Joan Mitchell (1925–1992)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Shanghai - Art of the City at the Asian - Soiled Doves, New Women and Celluloid Goddesses

What do the following have in common – foot binding, prostitution, the silk industry, concubines? They all have to deal with the reality of women in Shanghai and they are all omitted from the current exhibit at the Asian. Shanghai, The Art of the City, presents such a cleaned up and ready for its close-up image that you would never guess that it was a byword for decadence, corruption and violence.

Shining Eyes and White Wrists. (1887-1893) Wu Youru. Ink on Paper. Collection of the Shanghai History Museum. Women are playing billards in one of the new public gardens in Shanghai. Since upper class and "respectable " women were largely secluded during this time, it's a reasonable assumption that these women were prostitutes (from the catalog of the show, p. 95)

 In the first part of the exhibit, we are treated to a display of charming images about women. In the cataloge, one brush-and-ink drawing is described as women playing table tennis, another one is identified as a courtesan while another women is using a sewing machine, but among the lot, there is only a casual mention of bound feet.

Bound feet were a fact of life in China. In a conversation during the press preview, Barbara Koh, the Shanghai Celebration assistant, told me that food binding wasn’t banned until 1949. So, all those tiny feet peeping out underneath trousers were actually bound, one of the numerous ways humans have invented to torture themselves in the name of fashion. Girls, some as young as four years old, had their feet strapped and broken. They suffered years of pain and a life-long restricted mobility, all for the sake of as fashion, a cruel custom and what was thought of as sexy and erotic.

It wouldn’t have taken much to include this information in the exhibit –  maybe a photo, a pair of the tiny embroidered slippers and we would have had a telling visual of the deformed feet that Chinese women tottered on for centuries.

What about the reality in the section titled "New Women?"  In Stella Dong’s book on Shanghai, she recounts the experience of Alicia Little, a 19th century Englishman who attended an upper class banquet. As upper class women were secluded, the only women who attended were concubines and prostitutes attached to the various brothels in the district. Beautiful, young and beautifully dressed, the women were carried into the room in palanquins and "limped" back into them after the dinner was over. These women were the lucky ones, pretty, with some accomplishments who lived in fairly luxurious surroundings until they got too old to ply their trade or got ill. But the reality for most women in Shanghai was different.  By the time Shanghai became a treaty port, it was the brothel capital of the world. One in every 130 women in Shanghai were prostitutes, making Shanghai also the V.D. capital of the world. (Dong, 35 - 45).

It Often Begins with a Smile, Jin Meisheng, 1930's - New Woman or just another version of the world's oldest profession, dressed up in the fashion of the day but still plying the same trade? What other choices did working women have? (from the catalog, pl 148).

The exhibit would have gained immeasurably if there had been an open acknowledgment of the status of women during the 150 years covered by the show. Women were regarded as inferior and expendable. An ancient maxim decreed “Eight saintly daughters are not equal to a boy with a limp.” It's something that the Chinese Communist government fought against but their "one family, one child" policy resulted in more male births with girls being either aborted or abandoned (and China is not alone in this attitude).  This policy resulted in a disparate ratio of 114 males for every 100 females among babies from birth through children four years of age. Normally, 105 males are naturally born for every 100 females.

There is a whole section of the exhibit on the new women of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The posters are gorgeous, the new fashionable dress elegant but how many women would afford this life style? There is a delightful poster of two women dancing together. They are called tea girls but the text tiptoes around what their actual profession was.

Now, I realize that the museum is doing a survey and that a lot of children come to view the exhibit. It wouldn’t do to have too much frankness in the signage but why not somewhere in the catalog? In fact, given the talented museum staff, why not something in the wall text?

 Some new women – like the Soong Sisters, daughters of a millionaire family really were new women -- although they were still defined by whom they married.  The second daughter, Ching-ling married Sun Yat-Sin, the founder of the Chinese Republic. The youngest daughter, May-Ling married Chiang Kai-shek, the eventual dictator of China and Taiwan while the eldest daughter, Ai-ling, married the richest man in China at the time. There were the daughters of the nouveau riche who bought the gorgeous Art Deco furniture and carpets displayed in the exhibit but the majority of women in China, in Shanghai (or elsewhere), worked for pennies, were treated like dirt and lived hard and difficult lives.

Even the goddesses of the Chinese Cinema suffered from public expectations. Ruan Lingyg, one of the most famous, committed suicide because of this. I wrote about this in a previous post:

Where the Asian DOES get it right is in their film series. Starting off with the film "Triad," they will be showing a wide variety of films not normally seen. The series focuses on films that portray the reality of the city, from the prostitute in "Triad" to "The Goddess," the best known surviving film staring Ruan Lingyu to documentaries on the Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

If women make up 50% of the population, why are we, why is the museum in 2010 promoting such an inaccurate and sanitized picture of their lives? The Shanghai exhibit at the Asian is a survey show. Parts of the exhibit suffer from taking such a wide-angle view of a city with such tumultuous past. Yet, it would not have taken much to include a few items such as an opium pipe, a pair of bound slippers, a portrait of of a real prostitute or the Chinese part of the city circa 1920 or 1930  to have made the show more accurate, without sacrificing its broad appeal. Monday is International Women's Day and we are still fighting to have our authentic experience and history told. 

Shanghai, Art of the City. Catalog of the exhibit
Stella Dong, Shanghai, 1942-1942. The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Looking at the weekend

This looks fascinating. I've always been impressed with the illustrations in children's books and the opportunity to watch this man illustrate his process is too rare to pass up:
Family Day at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art: Saturday, March 6 (12-5)

In conjunction with the Museum's exhibition, Rhythm and Hues: Cloth and Culture of Mali, award-winning children's book author, illustrator and storyteller, Baba Wagué Diakité, will join us  for a colorful presentation on his book illustrating process, with storytelling, booksigning, and snacks.  Sessions start at 12pm, 2pm, and 4pm. To reserve your space, please contact Betsy at or at 415.227.4888 ext. 10. 

Baba Wagué Diakité's books have received a Coretta Scott King Honor, an Ana ALA Notable Children's Book award, and a Center for Children's Books Blue Ribbon.  His best-sellers include I Lost my Tooth in Africa, The Magic Gourd, The Hatseller and the Monkeys, and The Hunterman and the Crocodile.

The art of Richard Mayhew, now showing at the Museum of the African-American Diaspora  is closing on March 7th. His rich, luminous landscapes are both beautiful and spiritual-the exhibit has been held over once or twice and rightfully so as the paintings are simply gorgeous. I am hoping for a quiet viewing on Saturday as each time I've gone, the gallery was full of poorly controlled teenagers.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry

I am passionate about illuminated manuscripts. I love them so much that I sometimes wonder if I was a medieval calligrapher and illustrator in a former life (ahem...) When I was very young, I copied medieval art from a series of booklets from the Met. I even developed a pretty good black letter hand and designed my own little, hand written books, complete with tiny copies of art that I found in books on medieval art. I spent my allowance on purple ink and gold paint! I remember even stitching them on my grandmother's old sewing machine and I wonder where they are now - probably lost many moves ago.

This is on exhibit in New York right now and it's one of the many things that makes me realize how provincial SF can be. We have good museums here including the Legion of Honor and Asian. SF MOMA is working hard to improve itself but we have nothing like these medieval treasures.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Joe Cunningham, Quilter and Artist-in-Residence at the De Young

Bend in the River. Joe Cunningham. Now property of the De Young.
I've always liked quilts and even helped make a few when I visited my grandmother. My participation was limited to cutting out blocks of fabric as my stitches were nowhere near her standards. I enjoyed playing around with the fabric and listening to the ladies from her quilting group as they stitched away, needles flashing and tongues clacking as they destroyed the reputation of somebody else in the tiny Oregon lumber town where she lived. Of course, at the next meeting, it would be somebody else's turn to be the topic of gossip but the cakes and pies were always good. I especially remember the coconut pie which I will always associate with the Wedding Ring quilt pattern. It's funny how the memory works!

This months' artist-in-residence at the De Young probably doesn't continue the gossip portion of the quilting bee (and maybe not the coconut pie) but his quilting skills are right up there with the best in the tradition. He invites visitors of all ages to experiment with their own quiltmaking ideas, as well as learn quilting techniques such as hand-quilting stitch and quilting on a frame.

Joe Cunningham began making quilts professionally in 1979, after a ten-year career as a musician in Michigan. His early mentors were steeped in the history and traditions of quilts, leading Cunningham to a life of study in quilt history and a love of traditional technique. Over the years his work has evolved into a unique personal style both original and shaped by the tradition. Throughout Cunningham’s career, he has written eight books on quiltmaking, including an essay on the current exhibit on Amish Quilts. He has made appearances on the HGTV series Simply Quilts with Alex Anderson, as well as The Quilt Show with Ricky Tims and Alex Anderson. Cunningham performs a musical quilt show titled Joe the Quilter for guilds and theaters nationwide.

Cunningham explains, “I enjoy interacting with the public and explaining to them the history of quilts and the process of quiltmaking. It is rewarding to have people join me at the frame to learn how to quilt. I am an ambassador from the quilt world.”

De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118
Hours: Tuesday–Thursday, Saturday and Sunday: 9:30 am–5:15 pm
Friday: 9:30 am–8:45 pmClosed on Monday
Joe Cunningham's web site:
More on cloth and textiles at the always well-written and insightful Venetian Red: