The Rewards of a (Not So) Extreme Make-over

It’s easy to believe when you visit a museum’s modern and contemporary art collection that you’re seeing an art world consensus about what is important in the art made in recent decades. The reality is hardly so simple.

A visit to any of the San Francisco Bay Area’s rich bounty of contemporary art venues yields decidedly different takes on what to exhibit. The San Jose Museum of Art for a time seemed to want to forge a duel identity as a home both for technology-based art, and the overlooked post-war and contemporary art of Northern California. The Oakland Museum of California embraces a broader time and geographical frame for modern and contemporary art of California, back to the Society of Six plein air painters of the 1920s, Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs, and a strong collection of Bay Area Figurative artists. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art plays on a national stage, and is amassing a collection particularly strong in the proto-Pop art of Robert Rauschenberg forward, a significant commitment to new media art, and a world-class photography collection.

The Arab by Alice Neel

"The Arab," 1976, by Alice Neel. Museum Purchase made possible by the Robert and Ruth Halperin Foundation, Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

In short, modern and contemporary museum collections are pulled in various directions by the sizes of their budgets, their missions, the taste of their patrons and, of course, the eye and interests of their curators. All of which brings us to “Extreme Makeover: A Fresh Look at the Cantor Art Center’s Contemporary Collection,” which opened last month along with a companion show, “Go Figure,” a look at figurative art that is dominated by sculpture.

Truth be told, the origins of the show at Stanford University’s museum were humble: the gallery floors were in need of refinishing, so museum officials made a virtue of necessity and used the emptying of the galleries as an occasion to re-consider what pieces from the permanent collection to exhibit. The result is less extreme than simply refreshing, with first-rate examples of ceramics pioneers like Robert Arneson and Peter Voulkos returning with renewed prominence, some unexpected change-ups like the single and singular portrait by New York portraitist Alice Neel, “The Arab,” and a really unexpected addition of some California Op Art. (The passage of time may have changed how we receive op art, but not necessarily for the better. Chalk it up to the Cantor being a teaching institution.)

“Some things you find here you won’t find anywhere else in the Bay Area,” said Hilarie Faberman, the curator of contemporary art at the Cantor and person most responsible for the re-installation, from the subtly daring gray-blue highlight walls (yellow was an earlier, failed experiment) to the reconfiguring of the space to create an alcove of work from the print collection, and more space in general for two dimensional work.

Among those things you won’t find elsewhere are some of Nathan Oliveira’s very best paintings. The Stanford professor emeritus, who died this past fall, was a seminal part of the informal group known as the Bay Area Figurative Painters, who returned to the figure at a time in the 1950s when abstract expressionism ruled contemporary art. Oliveira’s particular interest was in the lone figure executed with ab ex’s energetic brushwork but whose heart lay in his capturing of the existential quandary of a single human alone. In the Cantor exhibition these gifts are on display in the 1970 “Seated Man with Blue Face and Red Hand.”

Seated Man with Blue Face and Red Hand by Nathan Oliveira

"Seated Man with Blue Face and Red Hand, "1970, oil on canvas by Nathan Oliveira (USA 1928-2010). Bequest of Mrs. Edgar Sinto, Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

Indeed, if there is a common theme across Bay Area modern and contemporary collections it is the degree to which the Bay Area Figurative artists increasingly seem the Bay Area’s most enduring and original contribution to post-war art, a fact implicitly acknowledged by their prominence in the Cantor’s re-hung collection, from “founders” David Parks and Elmer Bischoff to second-generation artists like Manuel Neri and Joan Brown.

The Family by Joan Brown

"A Family Portrait," 1971, by Joan BrownEnamelMuseum purchase made possible by the Burt and Marion Avery Fund and the Modern and Contemporary Art Fund, Cantor Arts Center at Stanford.

Faberman, who has lived with this collection since the newly expanded Cantor reopened a decade after damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the original structure, knows the collection intimately and has arranged sympathetic works together to see what kinds of “conversations” ensue. Consider the alcove joining the above mentioned Neel portrait with portraitist Philip Pearlstein’s “Reclining Model in Kimono with Homespun Blanket,” 1982, and Duane Hansen’s mischievous super realistic sculpture of a cement worker,  “Slab Man,” 1974.

Coupled with “Extreme Makeover” is by turns naughty and politically pointed “Go Figure!” a gathering of figurative sculpture that is anchored by northern California’s other singularly important contribution to post-war art, the work of the ceramicists gathered around Robert Arneson at UC Davis in the 1960s. Credit Arneson and those around him with being the first to elevate ceramics from craft to art. The sensibility of the work is witty and transgressive, the perfect response of an art scene roundly ignored by New York City’s then ruling taste-makers.

If you can get past the Cantor’s abysmal parking, the two shows are just a small part of the museum’s wide-ranging collections and well worth an afternoon’s visit. The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday – Sunday, 11 am – 5 pm, Thursday until 8 pm. Admission is free. The Center is located on the Stanford campus, off Palm Drive at Museum Way. Parking is free after 4 pm weekdays and all day on weekends. Information: 650-723-4177,

Jack Fischer is the former arts reviewer for the San Jose Mercury News. He can be reached at

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