Contemporary Realism

The View from San Francisco

by James F. Cooper

Jeffrey Ripple, Figs, 1999 Courtesy Hackett-Freedman Gallery, San FranciscoNew York City and San Francisco have long maintained a push-pull relationship, particularly in arts and letters. Despite its diminutive size, in comparison with New York, the City by the Bay has been remarkably influential in shaping twentieth-century American culture. In the lull before the storm, when Abstract Expressionism swept all other art movements aside as the dominant style of the 1950s, a group known as the Bay Area artists were impressively demonstrating the compatibility of abstract and figurative art in striking works by Richard Diebenkorn, David Parks and Elmer Bischoff. The relationship between the painterly viscosity of the New York School—Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko—and the Bay Area artists was demonstrated again in the recent Hackett-Freedman exhibition “A Culture in the Making: New York and San Francisco in the 1950s and 60s.” During the 1950s many New York artists and writers, such as Mark Rothko and Allen Ginsberg, traveled to San Francisco, attracted by its easygoing permissiveness and freedom from the pressure of New York’s egoism and competitiveness. The dialogue between the two cities was further explored at Hackett-Freedman in exhibitions juxtaposing early modernism with new realism drawn from New York and California. The best realist artists working today reflect some of the same issues of formalism, beauty and memory addressed by the modernists a half century ago. The exhibition at Hackett-Freedman appeared at the same time other important San Francisco art galleries were also showing contemporary realism.

Hackett-Freedman launched its 2007–08 season with “David Ligare: Aparachai” (through October 27).The word aparachai refers to the ancient Greek religious practice of offering the gods the first part of whatever was acquired for man’s use, whether by hunting, fishing or harvest. These “first fruits” were presented to the deities on altars set up at various sacred points—temples, mountains, roads and the seacoasts along the Greek isles. Almost from the start of his impressive thirty-year career, Ligare has sought inspiration in the aesthetic and philosophical practices of the Greco-Roman era, employing the classical ideals and theories of that time to highlight the relevance and importance of unity, measure and order in contemporary life. Luminous new paintings such as Still Life with Figs, Pots & Cup and Still Life with Water, Milk and Coffee (both 2007) become ritual offerings through the artist’s exquisite resolution of detail, form and color. He is well known in both New York and California for his allegorical landscape and figurative paintings based on ancient Greek mythology. For more than twenty years, these Arcadian scenes of Laguna Seca and Monterey, with its views of majestic Mount Toro, in northern California, have presented what Ligare likes to call “Pythagorean landscapes,” quoting Sir Kenneth Clark on Poussin. The formal qualities of Ligare’s classical compositions and their rich scholarly references have been embraced by other arts disciplines, notably in neoclassical architecture circles, where he is a frequent lecturer. Over the years, his paintings have become more contemplative and inner-directed. Humble everyday objects are invested with the gravitas of religious icons. We sense the perfect geometry of Still Life with Asparagus & Lemon (2006), the Fibonacci sequence of Divine Order in the carefully composed spiral curve of the upright bunch of asparagus. What the astronomer Johannes Kepler called “God’s numbers,” a mystical configuration, is made manifest in a humble vegetable. The exhibition of some fourteen paintings was truly a “first offering” in the most profound sense.

The same gallery is hosting a two-month exhibition, opening July 10, 2008, of new works by Jeffrey Ripple, one of America’s finest still-life painters. Hackett-Freedman has already presented two solo exhibitions of his exquisite, minutely observed compositions of flowers, glass and fruit. Every brushstroke, every nuance in tone and color, each object, every inch of surface has been thoughtfully considered for its effect on the entire composition. Earlier works such as Quinces & Blossoms (1998) and Figs (1999), on view at the gallery for the 2007 summer show, are nigh perfect. Ripple is known primarily on the West Coast and in the southwest, but, clearly, he is an artist with national appeal.

Most of the galleries in San Fransisco which specialize in representational art are to be found along Geary and Sutter Streets, which run through the center of the commercial business and theater districts surrounding Union Square. Jenkins Johnson Gallery has an impressive two-story ground-floor space with big plate glass windows confronting one of the largest hotels in the city. Prominently displayed in the window for the recent “Celebrate Summer 2007” group show was David Ligare’s Still Life with Figs & Peaches (Aparchai), 2006. Another outstanding work in the show was Ben Aronson’s Paris Morning, Left Bank (2007), a study of raking light and cool shadows in palpable brushstrokes. Also featured in the group show were works by Steven Assael, Daniel Sprick, Ralph Goings, F. Scott Hess, Jacob Pfeiffer, Amy Weiskopf and others who will be featured in Jenkins Johnson’s Tenth Anniversary Show, from November 2007 through January 2008. Assael is one the most accomplished and creative realists working today. With the possible exception of the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum, few other artists possess the feral imagination and talent to explore the dark realm of the human soul. Assael’s searing portraits of young adults who live in the tribal underworld of goth, ritualistic body piercing and tattoo evoke a medievalist rebuttal to traditional order. Assael, like his former teacher Harvey Dinnerstein, does not confuse formal aesthetic considerations with brutal honesty. Nevertheless, these are beautiful works of art.

Ben Aronson, Paris Morning, Left Bank, 2007 Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San FranciscoA growing number of galleries in New York and San Francisco share a common interest in the current renaissance in representational art. Not only do galleries in both cities feature many of the same artists, but common themes and philosophies permeate the curatorial organizing. Today’s realism seems to have sparked a national movement, in contrast to the realistic Regionalism of the 1920s and 1930s. Still, artists such as Aronson and Dinnerstein maintain intense relationships with their home cities of San Francisco and New York, respectively. America was still predominantly rural in the 1920s, and representational artists remained grounded in traditional landscape. The modernist sensibility of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth transformed that naïve view of America. There was a relatively small group of representational artists forty years ago; their ranks have now swelled into the hundreds, if not thousands. We are clearly into the third generation. A critic can no longer capture the breadth and scope of the many artists making significant contributions to the new realism. It is gratifying to note that Harvey Dinnerstein and Burton Silverman, two of the most influential and talented realists of the last sixty years, are still very active. In May 2008, Frey Norris Gallery will host the largest retrospective of Dinnerstein’s work ever held in a private gallery. Dinnerstein’s professional career embraces the entire history of new realism, beginning in the 1940s in New York City, where he still resides and works. His uncompromising depictions of twentieth-century urban life have inspired three generations of artists. His work has considerable range, from insightful portraits to themes of social and political relevance. During the 1950s, he made trips into the Deep South, to help register voters and to record his own artistic impressions. He has mentored hundreds of students, offering the kind of rigorous, atelier-style art training that was in short supply during much of the last century. A retrospective book will be simultaneously published by Chronicle Books. Dinnerstein describes his work as a “process of distillation and sustained effort over a period of time…to combine aspects of naturalism, or incidental observation, with classical elements of form and structure.” Naturalism, he explains, is overly concerned with appearance, but equally troublesome are the arid qualities of the classical form: “It is the difficult subtle balance, or tension, between these two elements I hope to arrive at.” Dinnerstein’s Ferry Crossing Sunrise (2001) depicts a diverse group of passengers (among them two self-portraits) on the voyage of life, caught in the existential limbo between departure and arrival. The same gallery is hosting a two-month exhibition, opening July 10, 2008, of new works by Jeffrey Ripple, one of America’s finest still-life painters. Hackett-Freedman has already presented two solo exhibitions of his exquisite, minutely observed compositions of flowers, glass and fruit. Every brushstroke, every nuance in tone and color, each object, every inch of surface has been thoughtfully considered for its effect on the entire composition. Earlier works such as Quinces & Blossoms (1998) and Figs (1999), on view at the gallery for the 2007 summer show, are nigh perfect. Ripple is known primarily on the West Coast and in the southwest, but, clearly, he is an artist with national appeal. 

Most of the galleries in San Francisco which specialize in representational art are to be found along Geary and Sutter Streets, which run through the center of the commercial business and theater districts surrounding Union Square. Jenkins Johnson Gallery has an impressive two-story ground-floor space with big plate glass windows confronting one of the largest hotels in the city. Prominently displayed in the window for the recent “Celebrate Summer 2007” group show was David Ligare’s Still Life with Figs & Peaches (Aparchai), 2006. Another outstanding work in the show was Ben Aronson’s Paris Morning, Left Bank (2007), a study of raking light and cool shadows in palpable brushstrokes. Also featured in the group show were works by Steven Assael, Daniel Sprick, Ralph Goings, F. Scott Hess, Jacob Pfeiffer, Amy Weiskopf and others who will be featured in Jenkins Johnson’s Tenth Anniversary Show, from November 2007 through January 2008. Assael is one the most accomplished and creative realists working today. With the possible exception of the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum, few other artists possess the feral imagination and talent to explore the dark realm of the human soul. Assael’s searing portraits of young adults who live in the tribal underworld of goth, ritualistic body piercing and tattoo evoke a medievalist rebuttal to traditional order. Assael, like his former teacher Harvey Dinnerstein, does not confuse formal aesthetic considerations with brutal honesty. Nevertheless, these are beautiful works of art. 

Harvey Dinnerstein, Ferry Crossing Sunrise, 2001 Courtesy Frey Norris Gallery, San FranciscoAlthough San Francisco and New York City have long shared common cultural interests, their sensibilities are different. The Beat Generation and the counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s first gained prominence in San Francisco, but it was initiated by New Yorkers such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso, who settled into the Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill areas along the waterfront. New York existential angst provided the energy. San Francisco provided the freedom which allowed the counter-culture music, psychedelic art and alternative lifestyles to flourish. New York is about hegemony and power, with powerful cultural institutions wielding enormous influence to shape collective values. When Madison Avenue declared Jackson Pollock the greatest living American artist in 1956 (Life magazine), it became a fait accompli. Art schools in New York changed their curriculums overnight, from traditional educational standards to avant-garde. San Francisco encourages everyone to go their own way, which is why this delightful city sometimes gets things right (or wrong) before the rest of the country does. 

Douglas Flynt, Fencing Jacket, 2006 Courtesy John Pence Gallery, San FranciscoThe Pence Gallery, located on Post Street, is one of the handsomest exhibition spaces in San Francisco. It is also the largest gallery in the city, measuring more than 8,000 square feet. It’s not likely they will relocate, even though they are slightly out of the loop of art galleries strung along Geary and Sutter Streets. A large group show this summer organized by genre, “Landscapes, Interiors, Portraits, Still-lifes and Allegory,” anticipated the forthcoming 2007–08 season. Scheduled for solo shows are Steven J. Levin, Edward Minoff, Patricia Watwood and Douglas Flynt. Levin opened the new season at Pence in September 2007. His growing interest in narrative can be observed in works such as The Encounter (2006), which give his formal classical training an interesting twist. Two women turn as a man approaches them on the street. We have no idea of the nature of the encounter: the man is seen only from the rear. The women’s faces are impassive. Will he pass between them without saying anything? Do they know him? Nothing has happened, yet it conveys a certain tension. Flynt’s last solo show at Pence was highlighted by a tightly composed, classical rendering, Fencing Jacket (2006). Flynt is a talented young realist who received his academic training at the atelier of Jacob Collins in New York City. Collins, represented by several beautiful works at Pence, is listed as instructor in many biographies of the best new realist artists working today. His contributions as artist, teacher and thinker make him a significant driving force in the current renaissance of American figurative painting. In 2007 Collins opened the Grand Central Academy of Art, located on the top floor of the Institute of Classical Architecture in New York City. It was fully enrolled before its official opening. Also scheduled for solo exhibitions in 2008 at Pence are Tony Curanaj and Patricia Watwood, both known for their thoughtful still-life reveries emphasizing music and classical artifacts, and Minoff, another former student of Collins, whose tightly composed still lifes and interiors recall the Spartan austerity of a young Jacques-Louis David. Pence Gallery represents sculptors as well. This past summer, several handsome bronzes were on view by Brian Craig-Wankiiri, who was recently appointed chair of the sculpture department at Grand Central Academy. Pence also represents sculptor Gary Weisman, whose stretching figures evoke the elasticity of Degas’s dancers. Weisman’s craggy rough surfaces offer a striking contrast to Craig-Wankiiri’s smooth classical formalism.

An anomaly is the Nevska Gallery on Geary Street, established by a Russian expatriate who relocated to America after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The gallery specializes in contemporary Russian realist art, which has become plentiful since Sotheby’s opened the floodgate back in 1988, when it organized the first commercial art auction in Moscow with permission from Mikhail Gorbachev. The artists that exhibit at the Nevska are technically proficient. Many of them received their training at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, which maintained high academic standards throughout the Cold War years, although their artists had to conform to Communist propaganda. Now they are free to paint what they want. The still-life paintings by M. Nudga are opulent arrangements of fruit and ceramics on thick, folded tapestries. Igor Tiulpanoff paints very small religious paintings, influenced by religious icons of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian contemporary realism is not as well known in the United States as Chinese realism, but Russian artists are beginning to develop more appealing subject matter after so many decades of enforced socialist realism. Several galleries, such as Caldwell Snyder on Sutter Street, are predominantly modernist in orientation, but occasionally feature works by an exceptional realist such as Wade Hoefer, whose bucolic landscapes evoke the dreamy transcendentalism of George Inness. 

A very large modern office building at 49 Geary Street contains more than twenty art galleries, all of them devoted to contemporary modernism. The impressively mounted exhibitions—set in well-crafted interiors with flawless white walls, high-tech track lighting, polished wooden floors and HDT plasma computer terminals—are comparable to the best New York’s 57th Street art scene has to offer. The machined edifice bristles inside with money, power and efficiency. Here one comes checkbook in hand, with the worshiping look of an acolyte. This new San Francisco may be the future. Nearby, a 1.4 million-square-foot office complex is being planned, while several miles of warehouses and shops in the Mission District are boarded up and uninhabitable. The Manhattanization of San Francisco is regarded by some as an ongoing problem. As the perimeter of the city shrinks because of urban abandonment and decay, its center stretches up toward the sky. The new towers will block out views of North Beach and Telegraph Hill, where fifty years ago a new generation found their voices. Fifty years ago, a handful of Abstract Expressionist painters huddled together in the basement-galleries of several run-down tenement buildings on East Tenth Street in Manahttan. Today, the modern art establishments of San Francisco and New York are part of a vast enterprise, electronically networked with art museums, thousands of galleries, powerful multimedia and Wall Street corporations, regional and national government agencies, universities and a consortium of professors, scholars, historians and critics. It is logical, therefore, that Donald Fisher, the billionaire founder of Gap, the nationwide clothing chain, is constructing a 100,000-square-foot art museum on the Presidio—the former military base in San Francisco and now a federal park—to house his personal trove of 1,000 works of modern art. The collection, which includes Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol, is now housed at Gap Headquarters and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where Fisher is on the board of trustees. More power to them. But where does this disproportionate focus leave the imaginative and accomplished contemporary realists whose work can be seen in the half dozen galleries discussed in this essay? 

Realism is undoubtedly enjoying growing success and critical recognition. But it is still something of an outlaw movement, resisting the corporatization of America, with its vacuous architecture, music, art and popular culture. The art works we have briefly reviewed are crafted slowly, lovingly, reverentially and thoughtfully. They are about harmony, balance, nature and beauty. Modernism, which began with the ferocious talent of a handful of passionate artists and writers, has become an international business. Institutions such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York have overseas branches, and trade art and ideas like commodities. Museums have logos, sponsorships, gift shops and real estate. What passes for modernism today is text-driven, politically focused and media-networked. Not even the government-controlled academies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—with powerful affiliates in the church, aristocracy and ruling classes—exercised such pervasive and profound influence. But realist artists today are demonstrating that still lifes, portraits and landscapes can still pack enough moral wallop to remind the public why art is important. Aparchai is an appropriate theme to help launch the 2007–08 art season. The few galleries in San Francisco and New York that exhibit these works are presenting the “first fruits” of a new, aesthetically and spiritually fertile era. 

 
Galleries
 
Caldwell Snyder Gallery, 341 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California 94108
Telephone (415) 296-7896. On the web at www.caldwellsnyder.com
 
Frey Norris Gallery, 456 Geary Street, San Francisco, California 94102
Telephone (415) 346-7812. On the web at www.freynorris.com
 
Hackett-Freedman Gallery, 250 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California 94108
Telephone (415) 362-7182. On the web at www.realart.com
 
Jenkins Johnson Gallery, 464 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California 94108
Telephone (415) 677-0770. On the web at www.jenkinsjohnsongallery.com
 
John Pence Gallery, 750 Post Street, San Francisco, California 94109
Telephone (415) 441-1138. On the web at www.johnpence.com
 
Nevska Gallery, 357 Geary Street, San Francisco, California 94102

Telephone (415) 392-7456. On the web at http://www.nevskagallery.com/
 

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2007, Volume 24, Number 4