Art review: Oakland Museum of California

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OAKLAND --When the Oakland Museum of California unveiled its sprawling and distinctive new building for art, history and natural sciences 41 years ago -- a terraced, walled-garden structure that became an instant national landmark -- a review in The Times opened with this observation: ‘The ‘60s saw Los Angeles firmly established as California’s art capital.’ The review made the point that although L.A. had the most challenging new art, institutionally, the Bay Area was on a roll. Though true, the comment also implied the long-standing rivalry between the state’s northern and southern precincts.

Closed 28 months ago for a $58-million renovation and reinstallation, the museum reopens its art and history galleries Saturday. (The reconditioned natural sciences galleries are scheduled to open in 2012.) A nice touch: In keeping with its 1969 genesis as a ‘museum for the people,’ the public debut precedes the high-ticket patron gala by a week.

And that north-south divide? It remains much in evidence today.

Although painting, sculpture, photography, video and other art from around the state is installed throughout most of the 30,000-square feet of newly refurbished permanent collection galleries, the museum’s location seems an inescapable guiding principle. For art, it’s the Oakland Museum of Mostly Northern California, Plus Some Detours Down South.

Thomas Hill’s great painting, ‘Yosemite Valley’ (1876) dominates the first room, its monumental size matching that of the dewy, light-filled natural void depicted in the famous landscape. It was painted for the main parlor of San Francisco’s luxurious, then-new Palace Hotel. Destroyed in the fire following the 1906 quake, the hotel was reputed to be the largest of its kind in the world. So the big painting, building and landscape together spoke of Gold Rush-driven abundance.


Nearby, Barry McGee’s lively wall-size mural is ruled by a skewed, syncopated, multicolored checkerboard-pattern, dotted with drawn faces and caricatures. It juxtaposes the low-down energy of contemporary urban street art to Hill’s romantic vision of natural paradise, as contemplated from the comfort of a gilded settee. The long arc of the state’s cultural shift from idealized rural splendor to the rough-and-tumble of cosmopolitan city life is neatly encompassed by strong works from a 19th century British American artist and a current Chinese American artist -- both San Franciscans.

The collection has some long-standing strengths. Nineteenth century painting is one. The important Dorothea Lange archive, encompassing some 25,000 negatives and 6,000 photographic prints -- not least ‘Migrant Mother,’ her iconic 1936 image of Depression-era strength and despair -- is another.

So is Bay Area Figurative painting of the 1950s -- especially David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Joan Brown -- and abstractions by Mark Rothko, Sonia Gechtoff, Frank Lobdell and others. These provide welcome context for six fine paintings and five works on paper by Richard Diebenkorn, encompassing virtually every figurative and abstract style in which he worked between 1949 and 1978. But John McLaughlin, whose 1950s hard-edge abstractions are L.A.'s (and arguably California’s) first major Modernist paintings, is missing in action.

The collection is installed thematically, with just a very loose chronology. Main selections along a central spine focus on California and its ‘People,’ ‘Landscape’ and ‘Creativity.’ Think people, places and things.

Exactly what is meant by ‘creativity’ isn’t clear in an art museum context, though, since surely it applies throughout. Here it’s attached to the early 20th century American Craftsman movement and late 20th century studio crafts -- ceramics, glass, woodworking, etc. -- with a nearby nod to 1960s Finish Fetish art. (John McCracken’s luscious 1967 slab of lacquered lavender color, ‘Love in Italian,’ leans nonchalantly against a wall, the sexiest work in the building; a cigarette would dangle from its lips, if it had them.) ‘Creativity’ would benefit from updating with the functional aesthetics of such top-notch, current artists as Jim Isermann, Jorge Pardo, Pae White and Andrea Zittel.

Sub-themes such as the Gold Rush and the counterculture, plus temporary exhibition spaces, branch off at the sides. For the inaugural, the most compelling is a small show of 14 works on paper and one small tempera self-portrait by Miné Okubo (1912-2001), a Japanese American artist born in Riverside who worked with muralist Diego Rivera at the Golden Gate International Exposition. The Japanese internment after Pearl Harbor ended all that.

The selection of Okubo’s work shows her skillful, youthful experiments in Cubism; Rivera’s profound influence, in her simultaneously modern and ancient 1940 self-portrait; and, after internment, her stark, sometimes melancholic documentation of routine life in the camps. In a marvelous bit of installation design, trenchant quotations are printed on opposing walls.

‘I am not bitter,’ says Okubo, who moved to New York after the war. ‘I hope that things can be learned from this tragic episode, for I believe it could happen again.’

Opposite is this claim: ‘The President’s authority to detain enemy combatants, including U.S. citizens, is based on his constitutional authority as Commander in Chief.’ It’s signed by John C. Yoo, Bush administration deputy assistant attorney general, and refers to the Guantanamo prison camp. In a grimly ironic twist, Yoo now teaches at UC Berkeley, the school from which Okubo graduated with a master’s degree in 1936.

This sort of subtle, questioning installation packs a visceral punch. The museum has attempted to introduce similarly pointed interactivity throughout, but it doesn’t always work.

A self-portrait sketching station that transmits your handiwork to a video screen among museum portraits is gimmicky. Easy chairs facing a terrific Albert Bierstadt Yosemite landscape is a welcome place to sit (happily, there is lots of seating in the galleries), but the set-up recalls a home theater; the effect is heightened by stereo headphones, which I had to remove when a soothing voice suggested I take a deep breath, exhale slowly and sink into the painting’s glow.

The toughest problem is the same one the museum has always faced: Rather than rooms, architect Kevin Roche originally designed a huge, open-plan space, which can be subdivided by temporary, free-standing walls. Flexibility was a 1960s mantra. But most of the art, whether an 1851 easel painting of a rosy-cheeked fire captain by William Smith Jewett, a muscular 1950s ceramic vessel by Peter Voulkos or Depression-era automotive photographs of a Hollywood drive-in diner by John Gutmann or Golden Gate bridge-workers by Peter Stackpole, were meant to be looked at inside discrete spaces. The vast, subdivided interior often feels chopped up and cluttered, distracting from intimate art encounters.

Roche’s awkward concrete walls have been covered with drywall, sometimes with punches of color, which helps. So do two new galleries enclosed from what used to be outdoor sculpture patios, adding 4,800-square-feet of welcome indoor space. (San Francisco’s Mark Cavagnero and Associates was the project architect.) Lighted from clerestory windows, these handsome rooms -- conventional post-1960s galleries -- offer considerable promise. --Christopher Knight

Follow Times art critic Christopher Knight on Twitter: @KnightLAT