On January 27 the show ‘Renaissance on Fillmore 1955 – 65' closed at The di Rosa in Napa, CA. This important show contained numerous works from the Fillmore group of artists and exhibited them a historical context that has only begun to be fully investigated by the greater art world.
In the 1950s, art in the United States went through a period of drastic change and upheaval. Abstract Expressionism (AbEx) dominated New York for much of this period, and the style and ideas it engendered were practiced from coast to coast, including San Francisco. In the late 1950, however, another major shift in the direction of art happened. In New York, Pop Art emerged and its ideas immediately overtook the New York scene with its return to recognizable art and its’ ironic look at the mundane aspects of our lives.
In San Francisco, a group of artists loosely defined by the term ‘Beats’ went another direction. Instead of delving into the arena of consumerism for inspiration that was pop art, and rejecting the self-examination of AbEx, as well as the conformist values dominating the time, the Beat Generation created an atmosphere of personal and artistic freedom in San Francisco. Beginning in the North Beach neighborhood and then later moving to the Fillmore district, this group of artists, poets, musicians, and film makers created a multi-disciplinary, hybrid movement that combined art, music, literature and film together.
This group centered around the tenement apartment building located at 2322-2330 Fillmore Street. With so many artists either living there or visiting for the almost weekly parties in the apartments, the building was nicknamed ‘Painterland.’ The members of this group included Jay De Feo, Wally Hedrick, Sonia Gechtoff, Roy De Forest, Jerry Burchard, Paul Beattie, Wallace Berman, Joan Brown, William H. Brown, Bruce and Jean Conner, Dave Getz, Craig Kauffman, Les and Mary Kerr, James Kelly, Hayward King, Michael McClure, Deborah Remington, Ed Moses, and David Simpson.
The ‘Renaissance on Fillmore’ show is a mixture of both AbEx and that is more symbolic in nature. It is not surprising that these styles exist side by side with one another, since they happened simultaneously and AbEx was an unavoidable mode of painting during this period.
Well represented on the AbEx front are painters Sonia Gechtoff, Deborah Remington, James Kelly, and Jay De Feo. The works by Gechtoff, Remington, and Kelly are large and bold in this execution – rivaling the works done in New York during this era. ‘Song of Innocence’, 1957 (oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches) by De Feo is a distinct counterpoint to the other abstract works. Using an almost monochrome pallet of subtle purple-ish greys, De Feo created an alluring and deeply entrancing composition that draws the viewer in through the subtle movements conveyed in the paint.
The largest works in the show belong to Wally Hedrick. These two paintings – ‘Fred’s TV’, 1957 (oil on canvas, 127 x 78) and ‘Love Feel’, 1957 (oil on canvas, 60 inches in diameter) – command their own wall space, which they have been duly given. ‘Fred’s TV’ towers over the viewer at more than ten feet in height. The creation of this work is quite timely in the history of American culture. The television had begun its’ widespread proliferation into American homes in the early 1950s and it marked the moment when our national culture, for the most part, began to move inside this magic box and its use as a direct conduit for political messages that shape the national consciousness. Hedrick’s choice to paint this new machine at such an overwhelming scale is a prescient symbol of how this technology would come to command and consume the attention of every American.
The works of Bruce Conner and his wife Jean also demand our attention in the rear of the gallery. The works of both Conner convey the heavy angst and hint at the social conflicts that pervaded the 1950s. Jean Conner’s photo collage ‘Nixon’, 1959 (collage, 7 5/8 x 9 5/8 inches) of then vice president Richard Nixon, sitting in the back seat of a car with a collaged head of a football player and the head of another male figure peering through the rear window at him.
Bruce Conner is well represented through the iconic assemblage entitled ‘Cocoon’, 1959 (mixed media assemblage, nylon, gauze, and costume jewelry, 24 x 4 x 4 inches), the painting ‘Venus’, 1958 (oil on canvas, 54 x 42 inches), and ‘Hunk Ding Dong Ying Yank’ from 1962 (mixed media assemblage, 16 x 22 x 3.5 inches), another assemblage. These works all have a dark, gritty delicacy to them, leaving the viewer haunted by the implication of what they represent and what they could mean.
Highlighting the show are the photographs by Jerry Burchard. Burchard captured the portraits of almost every artist in the Fillmore group during the period of their living and working in ‘Painterland’. These portraits give us the rare chance to see an image of the artist next to the work they created, but also to see how they lived. Each portrait is a study in character and the images reveal a lot about the personalities of the artists themselves.
While ‘Renaissance on Fillmore 1955 – 65’ has now closed, the renewed interest in the Fillmore group locally, nationally, and at the international level, will hopefully continue to develop. Further scholarly and critical engagement will give each of these artists their due place in the cultural legacy of West Coast and American Art, bringing this period of feverish creative production to the attention of a wider audience.
A related exhibition 'Jay De Feo: A Retrospective' is currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Click Here to read a review and learn more about this seminal artist of her generation.
‘Renaissance on Fillmore, 1955-65’ closed at The di Rosa on January 27, 2013 in Napa, California. 5200 Carneros Highway (Highway 121), Napa, CA. 94559; (707) 226 – 5991. Winter Hours: Wed. through Sun. 10:00 am – 4:00 pm, Closed Monday and Tuesday.
‘Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective’ is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until Feb. 3, 2013. 151 Third Street, San Francisco, CA 94103; 415.357.4000; Hours: 11:00 am – 5:45 pm Mon., Tues., Fri – Sun., Thurs. 11:00 am – 8:45 pm, Closed Wednesdays.