Born from the trauma of World War II, a unique kind of painting took form in San Francisco in the ’40s—abstract, expressionist, but totally different from the New York School.
By Bruce Nixon
By the fall of 1945, the war had come to an end at last, and in the months that followed, American troops began returning home. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, more familiar as the GI Bill, had gone into effect in 1944 and would soon exert an immense effect on national life by providing veterans with low-interest mortgages and business loans, unemployment compensation and—of particular importance for American cultural life at mid-century—educational tuition. Colleges and universities everywhere felt the consequences of this ambitious, innovative federal program, none more unexpectedly than the California School of Fine Arts, a tiny institution in the Russian Hill section of San Francisco, whose studios were flush with veterans by mid-1946.
Within another year, the art school, along with the bars and coffeehouses of nearby North Beach and the studios around the city, had become an industrious outpost for the new abstract painting that had already taken root in New York, and by the end of the decade, San Francisco would be the only American city other than New York to produce a significant abstract expressionist group. Yet even now, the San Francisco artists, their work and even their existence as a coherent entity are neither well-known nor well-understood, having been overshadowed both historically and critically by concurrent events on the East Coast.
In truth, the San Francisco group was fully active for only a brief time. What began in 1946 was over by 1952. The GI Bill, which gave life to the group and nourished its activities, also spelled its demise. The Bay Area at that moment still lacked other components necessary to an art career: contemporary galleries, committed patronage, an interested and informed audience, an art press—and as federal tuition benefits expired, artists were for the most part forced to go elsewhere, typically to teaching posts, and only a handful were able to sustain durable studio careers. Still, a great deal of exceptional painting had been done in a relatively short period, and today, as we continue to examine the terrain of postwar American modernity in art, San Francisco abstract expressionism is open ground.
Figures vary, of course, and are open to some interpretation, but one could safely speculate that the ranks of GI Bill students at the California School of Fine Arts—now the San Francisco Art Institute—never grew much beyond three dozen, a modest number, certainly, but significant considering the size of the city and school. Nonetheless, at its highest level, the San Francisco circle yielded a body of work comparable in originality and complexity to what was being done in New York. Three particularly exceptional artists emerged from it: Hassel Smith and Richard Diebenkorn, both young instructors at CSFA and not beneficiaries of the GI Bill, and Frank Lobdell, who was. In addition, they were surrounded by a close second tier of strong artists, almost all veterans, remarkable for its size and consistency in a world where good painters are few and far between at any time: Edward Dugmore, Edward Corbett, Ernest Briggs, Jack Jefferson, James Kelly and Deborah Remington. And there was a third, noteworthy group: James Budd Dixon, John Grillo, Sonia Getchtoff, John Saccaro, Walter Kuhlman and George Stillman, who lent substance to the circle and whose work can assist in delineating some of the fundamental characteristics of San Francisco abstract expressionism as a cohesive movement.
The need for a comprehensive critical reclamation of the San Francisco abstract expression group turns on a number of points, one of which is the idea that abstract expressionism in the United States at mid-20th century was indeed a genuinely American phenomenon, not limited to activities in a single city or region. It would further require that we reconsider at length the careers of a number of artists, some of whom—Smith and Lobdell especially—were working at a level equal to the best-known East Coast painters of the period. They got started too early to be followers, and probably should be viewed as a correspondent, overlapping phenomenon. We must be careful, therefore, not to rely too heavily on direct comparisons to developments in New York art. Differences between the two cities are not only more revelatory, they can assist in establishing some further bases from which to consider the San Francisco painters.
Of particular importance is the fact that the New York painters undertook their project before the end of the 1930s, and none of the principals were military veterans, while the San Francisco group must be understood as an postwar event, one that probably could not have occurred without the direct, immediate experience of war by so many of its members. To follow the same timeline, New York abstract painters also encountered at first hand some of the crucial developments in advanced European art, notably the considerable attention given by the Museum of Modern Art to the surrealists, Miró above all, starting in 1941. But if this had the virtue of creating an atmosphere of lineage with European modernism, it only inflects without defining whatever is distinctly “American” about New York abstract painting.
The San Francisco group lacked similar contact with European art, in any case. If we today have no difficulty seeing a surrealist ambience in the work, it is more a rumor of surrealism, the infiltration of general surrealist ideas captured at a distance and subsequently drawn into a broader sense of process before the canvas. This speaks in turn to the international transmission of ideas and how the process of filtration takes place, verifying, too, the imagination with which those ideas were accepted into a vernacular American setting and transformed by it.
Finally, the New York abstract painters labored in a more complete art world ecology. They had a rich museum life, while New York nourished a tradition as an art center and possessed a knowledgeable art press, and after the war, the region’s substantial body of patronage would be mobilized by a network of galleries in support of the “new” painting. San Francisco had none of these things, a fact of life that imposed severe limits on the group, limits that operated both for and against it and created a vastly different environment in which to work out ideas. The artists were left alone. Their pressures were internal. But if it is an affirmation of the tremendous force of abstract painting in midcentury America that we want, then San Francisco offers one, for almost overnight the gestural, nonrepresentational canvas assumed tremendous authority there. For painters in the Bay Area, abstract painting posed a material solution to a specific problem—the emotional and spiritual fallout of combat—rather than another turn in the cycles of action and reaction that tend to inform our critical readings of modernity in art.
Here, then, one can introduce a path of inquiry that may prove helpful to future reevaluations of the group: that San Francisco abstract expressionism was never a “pure” art movement, if such a thing could even exist, but another element in a much larger, pan-cultural, international response to the most extreme events of World War II—fascism, revelations regarding the death camps and genocide in Eastern Europe, America’s deployment of atomic weapons in Japan, the rise of a military-industrial complex and the incontestable triumph of capitalism at home, the emergence of the Soviet empire, and on and on. In Europe during the same period, we observe the appearance of an expressionistic sculptural figure (Alberto Giacometti, Germaine Richier, Marino Marini) as a vivid reassertion of the human spirit within this milieu, but the same issues were taken up by philosophy, theology, radical politics, and literature. For many artists, the questions were vital: how does cultural practice answer such extraordinary levels of human evil, alienation, dehumanization, and what at the time was called the massification of society? Can it? Does it truly have sufficient resources to do so?
In the Bay Area, the majority of the artists at CSFA had witnessed for themselves the conditions of industrialized warfare, and so we return to their urgent engagement with these concerns. The obvious case study would be Frank Lobdell, who witnessed the gratuitous, incomprehensible cruelty and brutality of the defeated German army as it retreated across France during the final months of the war. When he arrived in San Francisco in 1946 with his first wife, who was from the area, he was gratified to discover so many like-minded veterans at the art school, and wasted no time joining these troubled seekers.
Lobdell’s initial work there constitutes a rigorous study of recent developments in painterly modernism, but as he found each of them wanting, he identified his own voice: the monochromatic darkness of extreme human suffering coaxed into view through the manipulation of materials—he is the spiritual heir of Goya and Picasso, and his work bears the violence and dense darkness of grievous emotional and spiritual pain. Lobdell would have a successful regional career, and by the late 1970s he evolved a distinctive visual vocabulary, at once linear and exquisitely coloristic, for the purpose of continuing his contemplation of human suffering in the contemporary world, gorgeous painting but challenging, as his work has been from the start.
The fundamental structural unit of Lobdell’s expressionism was the gesture, the artist’s indelible calligraphic quest for authentic imagery. The gesture ultimately makes the intuitive unconscious of the artist available for viewing, and in this sense it might be regarded as a higher—or simply as a different—mode of realism. The same claim can be made of other artists involved in the self-discoveries of the forceful, intuitive mark: Kelly, Jefferson, Dugmore, or Corbett, or the fields of slashing, urgent brushstrokes that seem to sweep across canvases by Getchtoff or Briggs. In their hands, San Francisco expressionism shows one of its distinctive traits, which is its vernacular personality, a roughness or coarseness, a vigorous density of application and surface.
This tendency should not be seen as an indifference to beauty. It is, rather, a willingness to risk crudeness, ugliness, failure, in the arduous search for the image. Jefferson builds thick, energized fields of color where smaller, seemingly elastic animate forms gather and strive to emerge; Kelly’s hard-worked surfaces can be similarly dimensional, and even more daring in their color, but his constructive units are smaller, building and scattering as if in compliance with forces only they feel. Dugmore and Stillman construct imagery from patches and blocks, marshaled into sturdy compositions that chart their individual struggles for a balance at once formal and coloristic, asserting the conviction that the canvas is one place where these things can truly be achieved.
For sheer gestural beauty and verve, we can look to Hassel Smith, whose work, especially in the 1950s, shows an elegance unusual within the group. For all his energy before the canvas, Smith was a thoughtful, intellectual artist, and in almost every respect his closest counterpart in New York would be Robert Motherwell. Smith was interested in the alternating disclosures and withdrawals of the artist within his painting, negotiated through idiomatic arrangements of painted spaces and forms, curtains, coverings, and of course the openings left behind. But Smith was a strikingly mercurial painter as well, who passed through a variety of styles throughout the 1940s and 1950s, figurative as well as abstract; he went on to spend the early 1960s in Southern California and in 1966 moved to England to teach, which effectively ended his American career. Though Corbett and Saccaro were not gestural painters in exactly the same way, their work—Corbett’s delicate, evocative field painting in particular—often reaches for something of the same elegance, almost European in its tonalities. Saccaro favored crisp surfaces and shapes strongly mythic in atmosphere. Corbett, on the other hand, was more inclined to turn from the mythic to the mystical, though his moods are never facile or casual. Indeed, his canvases seem to glance in the direction of Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings, still many years in the future.
Another quality in San Francisco abstract painting, touching every artist other than Lobdell and Smith, is the profound empathy for landscape that is brought to high fruition in Diebenkorn’s canvases of the 1940s and early ’50s. This quality was implicit during the immediate postwar years, and explicit in the figurative canvases that he began in earnest in 1955. The feeling for landscape that occurs throughout the group suggests several motives. San Francisco at that time was much smaller than it is now, and the wild coastal hills were very close, impressing themselves upon the city in all their palpable intensity of color and light, their topography and weather, and for these painters, individual communion with the forces in nature represented one pathway out of the nightmare memories of war—a healing, a kind of resurrection. Gesture, color, form and mood became tools in the struggle to regain a sense of humanity. And still the same questions: can art achieve this, and by what means? Such inquiries are unequivocal in Kelly and Jefferson, detectable in formal metaphors distressed by the violence and stormy emotional weather that lie under surfaces of wrought harmony.
More than the New York painters, the artists in San Francisco tended to create variety within a discernible zone of mutual sympathy and coherence. Individuality comes forth, and yet there is often a strong feeling of stylistic connectivity from artist to artist, a sense that all participate in the same conversation. On the surface, at least, they are less dramatically diverse than their East Coast counterparts, a circumstance that reflects, of course, the embrace of the new painting by so many of the artists as a mode of response to their wartime experiences. But it demonstrates, too, the centrality of the art school to their development as a group. They arrived in the Bay Area at a fortuitous moment. CSFA had recently hired a progressive new director, Douglas MacAgy, who knew something of the developments in art elsewhere in the country, and he assembled a group of unusually gifted instructors that included Smith, Diebenkorn, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Clay Spohn and Clyfford Still. Still’s presence at CSFA is invariably mentioned in any account of those years, but as the stuff of legend it is overstated. Lobdell avoided classes with this imperious, authoritative teacher because he did not wish to be reshaped in a Stillian mold, and he was hardly alone; Still’s 1949 exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor had a more durable effect on the abstract painters in the city, but they absorbed the ideas without mimicking the style.
The local citizenry left the painters to themselves, and so the art school provided the group with a headquarters that would soon become a hothouse. Without a true marketplace or patronage base, however, the group never really had a chance for long-term survival. Some of the painters did migrate eastward in the early ’50s, but by that time New York art was too codified to assimilate their radical individuality, and they, too, failed to build strong careers.
As it went, only a handful of the artists from the group were still in the city after 1952: chiefly Jefferson, Kuhlman, and Lobdell, who taught at CSFA for several years before migrating south to join the faculty at Stanford University. Jefferson died in 2000 after a long local career, Kuhlman in 2009. Lobdell is still working at 92, sole survivor among the major participants in the group. Some very good painters of the period—Kelly, Corbett, Jefferson—seem virtually forgotten, unjustly so. In any case, there would be no true “second” regional generation. Although the Bay Area figurative painters of the 1950s are sometimes hailed as successors to the abstract expressionist circle, this is finally inaccurate: for all its love of painterly gesture, the figural group was engaged in a wholly different undertaking, rather reactionary in tone. In truth, the most outstanding painters to emerge in late 20th-century San Francisco have more generally been loners, individualists, and rebels, not the kinds of artists who attach themselves to movements of any kind.
This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Out of Darkness, Light.”