California postwar abstractionists are suddenly au courant in New York. For those who have spent years advocating for this neglected crew, the extraordinary works in “Bella Pacifica: Bay Area Abstraction, 1946–1963,” an exhibition divided among four venues, have come as no surprise. But the opportunity to gain access to rarely seen early works generously displayed, by underappreciated figures such as Hassel Smith, Ernest Briggs, Deborah Remington, James Kelly and Sonia Gechtoff, has been a treat. Also present are their better-known contemporaries Elmer Bischoff, Frank Lobdell and Richard Diebenkorn, among others. You have to wonder: considering the enthusiastic reception of the Museum of Modern Art’s installation of its New York School artists (on view through Apr. 25), are curators Tim Nye and Jacqueline Mirò delivering a riposte or creating a market?
Work is still on view at Nyehaus, Franklin Parrasch Gallery and Leslie Feely Fine Art; David Nolan Gallery opened and closed its exhibition earlier. (Thankfully, a catalogue is promised.) Championed by the late dealer and curator Walter Hopps, founder of Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, the Bay Area artists flourished alongside poets and musicians, and cultivated alternative spaces such as The 6, which hosted shows, readings and concerts from 1954 to ’57. (Allen Ginsberg first read Howl there, on Oct. 7, 1955.) The 6 was the focus of the Nolan show, which included vitrines of ephemera along with assemblages by Bruce Conner, a collage and painting by Jess, and canvases by Remington, Smith, James Kelly, Wally Hedrick and Gechtoff. (She and Lobdell are the only survivors of the 18 artists at all four venues.) Gechtoff was the first artist to have a solo show at Ferus, in 1957. In San Francisco, with few commercial galleries, artists circulated around the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), dominated in the ’40s by Clyfford Still (whose influence is frequently felt in this show) and, later, Hassel Smith, whose paintings from the late ’50s, laterally composed in patches interspersed with delicate, biomorphically inflected lines and shapes, are a bit reminiscent of Gorky’s.
Gechtoff’s painting Angel (1960), a vaguely female form (the artist says it’s a self-portrait) in a crucifixionlike pose, energetically composed of shards of bright hues, dominantly pink and sky blue, lit the front room at Nolan; in the back was a large (61-by-40-inch), radically abstract Gechtoff drawing from 1956–57 in which an entity made of long graphite strokes appears to traverse the otherwise empty page. An intricate collage by Jess showing his Ab-Ex roots, Blasted Beauty (1954) rested comfortably alongside two delightfully awkward, colorful, deliberately rendered 1953 paintings by Remington.
Two monumental Briggs canvases at Nyehaus, one stained, painted and spattered (Untitled, Dec. 1958) and the other (Untitled, Dec. 1952) rendered in allover dense strokes, in a palette (and composition) reminiscent of Pollock’s, demonstrate the impressive range of this woefully underknown artist. Especially breathtaking, at Nyehaus, is a big painting by Lobdell, who—a veteran with horrific memories of WWII—tended toward moodiness. In Fall (1957), a terrifying celestial apparition tumbles through a misty, blue-gray ground.
It’s one tour de force after another at Feely. Of particular note are two Bischoffs-a moonlit nocturne (1950) and a high-spirited landscape (1952) in which a green fistlike form slams down on the horizon. Two Diebenkorns from 1949 demonstrate this artist’s early, free-floating, surrealist-inflected gestalt, all soft-focus forms and subdued colors.
It is rumored that, at the time of his death in 2005, Hopps was preparing a huge exhibition of Abstract Expressionism created outside New York—not just encompassing California, but the whole country. One can only hope, based on what we’ve seen here, that the project is revived; who can guess what untold treasures lie undiscovered once one departs from the prevailing discourse and familiar monuments of a movement about which, it now seems, we know precious little.
Photos (left) Frank Lobdell: Fall, 1957, oil on canvas, 75 by 70 inches; at Nyehaus. (right) Elmer Bischoff: Untitled (Feb ’52), 1952, oil on canvas, 66 by 62; at Leslie Feely. Both in “Bella Pacifica.”