The Cool Revival: Sonia Gechtoff in San Francisco

Sonia Gechtoff,  The Angel, 1960.

GECHTOFF: I was just trying to do a painting that was basically abstract, with some figurative suggestion to it. And I had done a couple of paintings like that a little bit earlier. One of them was a kind of self-portrait. I was deliberately introducing the female figure to a lot of things that I was doing at that time.

HIRSCH: And why was that? It was certainly before feminist art.

GECHTOFF: I wasn't the least bit interested in feminist art and I still am not. We were feminist before the feminists came along. I think I was really trying to do forms of self-portraits. The first one that really worked, which was 1955, I called self-portrait. Even when was I was sixteen I had big boobs so I put that in. That's all it was really about, and then I just took off from there.

Courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York.


Tough, straight-talking abstract painter Sonia Gechtoff is currently being rescued from ill-deserved obscurity, swept up in a wave of fervor for Abstract Expressionism sparked by MoMA’s more narrowly selected show (up through Apr. 25). Gechtoff, though, got her start on the West Coast. She had the first solo show at Ferus Gallery in L.A. in 1957, was photographed by Hans Namuth, married the brilliant, under-known artist James Kelly and was once so angry she threw her inebriated lover, the Bay Area abstractionist Ernest Briggs, down a flight of stairs.

Gechtoff is one of just two surviving members of the 18 Bay Area artists, angelheaded hipsters all, featured in the splendid exhibition “Bella Pacifica: Bay Area Abstraction 1946–1963, A Symphony in Four Acts,” mounted at four venues around the city: Leslie Feely Fine Art, Nyehaus, Franklin Parrasch Gallery (all through Mar. 5) and David Nolan Gallery (through Feb. 5).

Born in 1926 in Philadelphia, Gechtoff arrived in San Francisco in 1951 and found a heady mix of artists, poets and jazz musicians feeding off each others’ energy in a scene as lively as anything back East.

Her large oil Angel (1960) is featured on flyers and in ads for “Bella Pacifica,” and it has pride of place at David Nolan Gallery, which focuses on the 6 Gallery. An artists’ cooperative that flourished between 1954 and ’57 at 3119 Fillmore Street, the gallery is best known as the place where Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl,” on Oct. 7, 1955, initiating a national controversy.

Paintings, collages and assemblages by Gechtoff’s contemporaries Hassel Smith, Deborah Remington, Jess, Bruce Conner, Wally Hedrick and Kelly, all of whom showed at 6 Gallery, are on also view at Nolan.

Gechtoff, a terrific raconteur, talked to me about the Bay Area scene, which she remembers in sharp detail.