In an epoch when all art styles are quickly mooshed into an international blender, it appears almost willfully quaint to write a book called “Art in the San Francisco Bay Area.” It seems like the high-culture equivalent of a tract on “Coca-Cola in Greater Des Moines.” All the same, the late San Francisco Chronicle art critic Thomas Albright made such a book his epitaph, and it works beautifully.
The Bay probably has the most distinctive, even eccentric cultural personality in America. It exists in a mantle of stunning, temperamental geographic beauty populated by people who embrace the arts with nearly fetishistic fervor. The area is cosmopolitan in its receptiveness to outside influence but incestuous in the way it enwombs alien sensibilities.
Inbreeding is probably Albright’s sub-textual leitmotif. In art, the practice is by no means confined to his geography, but it is dramatized there by a certain native insularity and by the fact that the Bay, while it both makes and admires art, has never been a significant market for art. That fact may account for both a purity of motive and a mocking idiosyncrasy marking its product. Initially spawned by small bohemian coteries in schools and saloons, the sensibility alternates between lovely expressive eloquence and a neurotic self-indulgence that can turn it into lantern-jawed cult art with all the profundity of Mardi Gras paraphernalia.
Albright chronicles the aesthetic from its GI Bill glory days after World War II to the odd, animated fallowness of 1980. If he were nothing but a conscientious journalist, the richly illustrated book would stand as a valuable contribution to the inappropriately tiny literature on contemporary California art. (Astonishingly, the only other critical book on the subject is Peter Plagens’ “Sunshine Muse.”) It would also stand in tribute to a number of internationally recognized artists and distinctive movements nurtured--if not rooted--around the glittering harbor.
Clyfford Still made his first great hurrah there and influenced subsequent generations with his conviction that art was a high and lonely calling requiring a morality as rigorous as it was unconventional. He was followed by native artists like Richard Diebenkorn who made Bay Area figurative art a trademark of the locality. Sam Francis concocted an international form of Abstract Expressionism. Bruce Conner became known far and wide for necrophiliac assemblage. Peter Voulkos revolutionized the use of clay.
Then came the soft-core Pop Art of Wayne Thiebaud and Mel Ramos, the hard-edged Photo-Realism of Robert Bechtle and Richard McLean and an occasional brilliant abstract artist like Tom Holland. (It may be of some wincing significance to observe that the Bay’s most truly prominent and accomplished artists are those who have left the area. Los Angeles got Diebenkorn, Francis and Robert Graham. Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero, among others, went international.)
But Albright is never a salesman for San Francisco art. The numbers just aren’t there, and besides, Albright’s heart wasn’t in it. He obviously loved both San Francisco and important art, but he was not a booster by temperament. He was a critic with a novelist’s sense of place, character and drama. His prose is crisp, and his real subject may be the chemistry of an area that simultaneously encourages creativity and allows it to fizzle into triviality.
His best chapters illuminate rare eras when art and life intertwined. Sections on the Beat Era of the ‘50s and the ‘60s Counterculture spring to life first with the blending of poetry, jazz and art in North Beach bars, a phenomenon symbolized by the character of Wallace Berman. (He, of course, eventually settled in Topanga Canyon. Albright touches on the cross-fertilization of Northern and Southern California art just enough to remind us that the job is largely left undone.)
Arriving at the Counterculture and its hybridization of politics, drugs, high art and low music, Albright had the generosity and good sense to include the markedly original popular art of such people as Bill Hamm and Elias Romero, who are said to have invented the psychedelic Light Show; poster makers such as Victor Moscoso, and the Underground Comix genius, R. Crumm.
Who? Some perfectly knowledgeable readers are at this moment wondering who the hell the aforementioned artists are. Bringing us finally to Albright’s theme of themes, the tendency of San Franciso to embrace, foster and encourage minor artists. (Albright does it himself in an appendix including nearly 700 artist biographies.)
It is hard to know what to make of a town that celebrates artists of such disparate talents as Benny Bufano, Ruth Asawa and J. De Feo. The only thing they have in common is “interesting” artistic personas. One suspects that some days the Muse of San Francisco loves funky characters more than she loves art.
Albright seems to proceed from a ‘50s idealist’s assumption that the artist’s calling is to be a great bohemian visual poet, careless of reward, avid only for the realization of personal fantasy. The ideal seemed to retreat evermore in time, and the book sounds a diminuendo of disappointment in what Albright saw as growing slickness and shrewd professionalism. Even the adolescent-style rebelliousness of Robert Arneson began to seem like a formula, except in that delicious moment when the ceramic artist stood City Hall on its ear with his shocking portrait of assassinated Mayor George Moscone.
Albright admired William Wylie’s earlier art but comes regretfully to concur with Hilton Kramer’s devastating label, “Dude Ranch Dada.”
There are those that say that Albright’s debility--he was seriously ill for several years before his death--shadowed his attitudes. If they did, they only deepened his impressions of subtle tragedy playing itself out in one of the Edens of the civilized world. San Francisco has produced a few great artists and battalions of “interesting characters,” but its heart has always been in the right place regarding the creative individual. Albright’s important book seems to look at the ashes of his ideals and say, “Hey, we did right and it came out wrong.”
He was probably too hard on himself and his milieu, but his unflinching book proves that the dream of originality produces as many monsters as the sleep of reason.