Sometimes I run a thought experiment. It’s the early 1950s, and postwar gestural abstraction is starting to wear thin even in the estimation of its proponents. People are looking around for another triumphant development to latch onto. In reality, this development was Pop. In my thought experiment, it is Bay Area Figuration, an undersung movement (undersung relative to Pop, anyway) of west coast painting and sculpture that took the discoveries of then-recent abstraction and applied them to figurative subjects.
If aesthetics were the only concern in the course of art history, this is indeed what would have happened. The attraction of Pop was its novelty, which counts for something in art. Pop rejected the effort of Abstract Expressionism to load every oleaginous stroke with sincerity, which by the ‘50s had attracted myriad third-rate practitioners and degenerated into a mannerism. But, at its heart, Pop was not a new aesthetic, but a surrender on the battlefield of aesthetics. The AbEx crowd was trying, in its fashion, to out-paint Monet. The Pop artists were trying to out-paint the graphic design on food packaging. That too turned out to be a pretty difficult challenge for everyone with clunkier chops than Roy Lichtenstein, so Pop moved on to an easier project: to ape the production methods of mass culture and let the look of any given object be as it may. Warhol, for one, got into the Warhol manufacturing business.
Meanwhile, in California, something novel yet as visually luscious as AbEx was coming into being. A small sampling, but an excellent one, is on display at the Yale University Art Gallery in Five West Coast Artists: Bischoff, Diebenkorn, Neri, Park, and Thiebaud. It’s installed in one of the top-floor galleries of the refurbished facility, and this room is among the most beautiful places to look at painting and sculpture that I’ve ever seen. The roof is a translucent white, and when the sun is out the light pervades every corner. Thus the Californian work has California levels of light on it, and total effect is stunning.
Jock Reynolds, the director of the YUAG, organized this exhibition and has a personal take on the material because he studied with Manuel Neri and Wayne Thiebaud at UC Davis. The walls are annotated with first-person remembrances of them: “When his spatulas, chisels, rasps, knives, and even hatchets finally came to rest, Neri would sometimes leave his figures just as they were. At other times, his sculptures might receive a second round or more of his attention, incurring additional regimens of hand carving, filing, and sanding, interspersed with active bouts of drawing and painting directly on the plaster figures.” This is an excellent foregrounding to the two Neris on exhibit, one standing and one seated, and both displaying the verve one would expect from Reynolds’s recollection.
There’s an exceptionally good David Park, who painted at a uniformly high level for the dozen years leading up to his untimely death in 1960. The Model (1959) shows a figure in front of an easel, putting the viewer in the position of the artist, though Park is known to have done most of his work from drawings and imagination rather than directly from life. Each move Park made in the painting is a bold one, from the sweeping blue-black of the model’s arm, propped on her hip, to the red, nearly pictographic shape with which he rendered her form on the depicted canvas.
There are good Elmer Bischoffs as well, including Cityscape (1965), eighty inches square and exemplifying the effort to magnify the figurative brushstroke into a phenomenon on par with gestural abstraction from a decade earlier. The dragged paint that softens the edge of the shadow cast upon the balcony railing is, by itself, worth the trip to New Haven. Diebenkorn is represented with splendid examples of his Ocean Park paintings. Thiebaud, who came the closest of any of these figures to adopting a Pop sensibility, has an utter gem of a watercolor—Nine Jelly Apples from 1964—that is mouthwatering both technically and gustatorially.
Geography and provincialism, not just style, worked against the proper consideration of these artists. The famously prickly Clyfford Still, who took a position at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) while Park and Diebenkorn were teaching there, thought he was mired in an aesthetic backwater. But however it played out in fact, I cling to my thought experiment. Pop was such a force in the culture that one had to explicitly accept it and work accordingly or reject it and work otherwise. It was the last movement of art history to require such a definitively pro or con stance. Had Bay Area Figuration taken its place in the canon, we might not find ourselves in the tiresome situation we’re in at the moment. Critics such as Jerry Saltz claim to revile everything that Jeff Koons stands for but is unable to stop writing about him, while Blake Gopnik recommends exhibitions of Koons and Warhol to “shake us out of our consumerist complacency” as if they weren’t its epitome. We are trapped on a wheel of evil karma made to whirl by too much art being made about the art world and the art world’s reflexive fascination with it.
Meanwhile, an exhibition of William Bailey appears at Giampietro Gallery, one of the lights (two of the lights, really, with as many locations) of the New Haven art world.
Bailey has made a deep commitment to a limited set of conventions, mainly still lifes and figures in interiors. But in contrast to the Yale show, where the artists are using the methods of abstraction to make figurative paintings, Bailey is doing the converse. The objects and spaces are drawn with a precision that harkens to Charles Scheeler, but his objective is to work the color field, making arrangements of shapes based on the Umbrian palette that has terra rosa, yellow ochre, and cobalt blue as its primaries. (The artist divides his time between New Haven and Italy.)
What the exhibition discloses about Bailey, not apparent in reproduction, is that despite the careful handicraft that goes into them, these are not slick paintings. They possess the hatchwork that one would associate with the Impressionists, though the hatching is sometimes done with a single color. This grants them considerable liveliness, and evinces the sort of questioning of the pictorial process that kept the work of Giorgio Morandi, a guiding influence, fresh and risky even as he kept returning to his familiar bottles in old age. The same could be said of Albers, who was Bailey’s teacher at Yale, and his squares.
His works on paper are executed in egg tempera, which he uses to produce pleasing, fresco-like surfaces. The hatching and variations in the oils lend them a similar feel. Green Room (2011) is a stage upon which his vases, pitchers, cups, and bowls act out a silent drama of order. That there is interaction and not merely a static harmony is a testimony to Bailey’s attention to the spaces between the objects. He can give character even to them.