“Eye on the Sixties” at the de Saisset Museum
and “New York Artists” at Michael Rosenthal Gallery
by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero, February, 2008

The beginnings of postmodernism and the flurry of artistic daring and inspiration in diverse media that characterized the sixties through the nineties are featured in two current exhibitions worth seeing. At Santa Clara University’s de Saisset Museum, “Eye on the Sixties: Vision, Body and Soul” is a selection of work from the notable California collection of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson. The de Saisset shows the Anderson Collection with an exhibition of works from their own collection, distinguished by important West Coast works from the same period. At the Michael Rosenthal Gallery in Redwood City, in “New York Artists” we see many of these same big name art stars that have made postmodernist history represented in a selection of prints from 1996. This timely exhibition also was executed in a presidential election year.

The simultaneity of these two exhibitions is, for me, nostalgic. As an art student in the sixties, I was liberated from my conservative roots, first, by coming to San Francisco, and second, by discovering a fit for my eclectic style in the new possibilities within printmaking and postmodernism. More than thirty years later, this is an exciting convergence of core material that I recommend to my own students in order to see and understand what the rebellion against Modernism was all about.

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Roy Lichtenstein’s Oval Office, 1996

By the sixties, “the cat was out of the bag”. The heyday of abstract expressionism and the reductive progression that was Modernism was being eclipsed by a new attitude. It was about the radical shifts in an art world that suddenly embraced contemporary and populist imagery from the comics and rockets to Elizabeth Taylor: Lichtenstein, Rosenquist and Warhol. It was about taking the permission to “appropriate” everything from art history to newspaper photos: Rauschenberg, and again, Lichtenstein. Surealism, narrative art, political art, performance, dada and happenings that had been shunned were revisited. Lowbrow became as fashionable as highbrow. Diversity was opposed to the single authority of Modernism. Media such as photography, ceramics, screenprinting and textiles that had been marginalized were now legitimized. Mixed media. Conceptual art, intellectual art, art with content. And it was about the sudden emergence of the specialized print ateliers that facilitated all the visions of the postmodern artist: traditional media like lithography at Tamarind, in Albuquerque, and specialized media such as paper-making at Garner Tullis’ Institute of Experimental Printmaking in Santa Cruz. Supported by the populist notion of art for the masses, printmaking got the art out to be seen widely and made the careers of artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, Jasper Johns and even Claus Oldenberg.

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Jim Dine’s Bathrobe series is represented in the New York Artists show.

“Hunk” and “Moo” Anderson, as they were affectionately known then, began collecting contemporary art in the sixties and subscribed to purchase prints from the print atelier, Gemini GEL, in Los Angeles. By the seventies, in the corporate offices of their company, SAGA Foods in Menlo Park, it was possible to see many innovative new works from West Coast artists, and a large part of the production of Gemini GEL. There were prints by Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and many more. The Anderson collection remains one of the great resources for overview of that historic moment when an art shift occurred from Modern to Postmodern. And, it contains many of those important works by West Coast artists as well as the “New York Artists” that defined the moment.

The juxtaposition of the Anderson Collection with the permanent collection of the de Saisset Museum allows us to see more works by artists that played an important role in Northern California. The imagery of William T. Wiley recalls Bay Area Funk and the UC Davis artists whose work was characterized by boundless humor and quirky irreverence. The screenprinted posters of Robert Fried are historic documents of a time of exuberant color, rich decorative mind trips and such San Francisco bands as the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead and Steppenwolf. The sculpture of Harry Powers, Sam Richardson, Bruce Beasley and Fletcher Benton are a celebration of light, color, space in a previously un-artistic substance: plastic. Assemblage by artists like George Herms and Bruce Connor introduced a social critique into sculpture constructed from social detritus.

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Robert Rauschenberg’s 1996 Untitled lithograph suggests two bikes and two paths, one Democratic and one Republican, perhaps?

Some of the “New York Artists” appear in the de Saisset show as well as at Michael Rosenthal Gallery. Rauschenberg’s famous 1967 Booster print which combines silkscreen printing and lithography, with its spark plug, diagrams and overlapping photomontage is part of the de Saisset show. And his Cardbird Door is seen there too. At Rosenthal we see a lovely small, untitled lithograph of two parked bicycles that appear above a very cropped and abstracted photograph of some rolled and tied material that is unidentifiable. It is classic Rauschenberg with its irreverent treatment of photographic imagery, its lightness, flaws, delicate beauty, mystery and inexplicable complexity. Lichtenstein is in his best comic book mode in a frontal view of the president’s desk in Oval Office, also in the New York Artists exhibition. As part of the Anderson Collection, he is represented by one of his Haystacks, and a view of the Rouen Chathedral which were printed at Gemini GEL, and which appropriate from historic studies of light by Monet. Using enormous ben-day dots, he simplifies and represents Monet’s haystacks and cathedral as seen at different hours of the day in different light conditions and in different colors. It is simple, silly, eloquent.

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Lichtenstein’s study of the light conditions on Rouen Cathedral

As a 1996 Democratic Party fundraiser the series of prints at Michael Rosenthal Gallery have many political references. Nancy Chunn’s May 8, 1996, is a lithographic reproduction of the front page of the NY Times on that date. The type is in black and white, as the Times did not used color on the front page until 1997. In 1996, Chunn did 365 page reproductions of the New York Times and on each she let loose her frustration with the deteriorating quality of journalism and the false priorities of the newspaper. Doodles, stamped slogans, symbols and coloring of photographs indicate her anger, outrage, boredom and sardonic responses to the reportage.

My absolute favorite print in the Rosenthal Show is Julian Schnable’s Vote, a screenprinted image of females in classical Greek robes, clambering upon rocks to rescue themselves from a stormy sea, and clearly appropriated from another artist. (In the Gallery, we could not determine who that artist might be.) In Schnable’s style, the edges are ragged with slurpy drops of white paint that occasionally hit the interior of the painting. The same loaded brush has crudely applied “vote” in black to the center of the painting.

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Julian Schnable advocates for an active democracy in his 1996 silkscreen, entitled Vote

Another wonderful moment in the Rosenthal Gallery is the photo litho of two views of the head of President Bill Clinton by Chuck Close. Next to the print, the Gallery has made an offer: “Buy this work of art and the Gallery will contribute half the cost to the campaign of Barak Obama.”

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Ida Appelbroog despicts social intercourse in her whimsical style.

Not every print in the New York Artists exhibition is strictly political. The engaging social commentary of Ida Appelbroog is even better in her prints than her paintings, for my money. And William Wegman’s photographic portraits of his Weimararner are given another twist in this show. Three consecutive prints of the proud dog standing alert are altered by simple line drawings of figures that are a cowboy riding the dog, or transform the dog into an artist with paintbrush in hand or a man in a raincoat putting on his hat. They are charming!

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Three engaging views of William Wegman’s patient model, with drawings superimposed.

Santa Clara University, de Saisset Museum of Art: <kkienzle@scu.edu>
Michael Rosenthal Contemporary Art: <mrosenthal2@mac.com>

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