Chapter Onesusan landauer the not-so-still life a survey of the genre in california, 1950-2000
WHEN ART CRITIC HILTON KRAMER visited the Poindexter Gallery in 1963, he was deeply impressed by the nerve of Richard Diebenkorn's Knife in a Glass of that same year (fig. 80), a tiny still life hanging amid a welter of larger figurative canvases in the artist's New York solo show. "One hardly knows," he pondered in his review, "whether to embrace its audacity-it is certainly a very beautiful painting-or shudder at such naked esthetic atavism." Kramer's appraisal can only be understood within the context of the extreme degradation still life had suffered since midcentury. It is not that the genre had run dry, dissipating itself into dull familiarity. On the contrary, as Patricia Trenton's essay in this volume attests, from the 1920s into the 1940s modernists in California as elsewhere had freed the genre from its staid reputation and transformed it almost beyond recognition. Dada and Surrealism had opened the Pandora's box of still life iconography-its precincts were now host to every subject imaginable, from fur-lined cups to armadillos (see fig. 67). Apples no longer sat in quiet clusters on a table but, following Magritte's lead, might fill an entire room. The thematic scope of still life now encompassed a vast range, from psychosexual auto-probings to philosophical musings about the universe.
Yet in spite of the multiplying options that would seem to point to a promising future for still life, the Second World War rendered it an anachronism. The rise of Abstract Expressionism, which aimed to transcend the physical world through emotive intangibles of color and form, reduced representation of any kind to a lowly status. The politically fraught modern art controversy of the late 1940s was crucial in ultimately demonizing "realism," which became a catch-all category for any art with even the most vaguely recognizable imagery.
To some extent, realism is still paying penance for the attack Truman and Congressman George Dondero launched in 1947 on modernist artists, accusing them of anti-Americanism. Cheered on by legions of traditional realists, and most infamously by the arch-conservative Society for Sanity in Art, the campaign backfired, however: instead of growing discouraged, modernists became more abstract with each new accusation. Ultimately, it became clear to politicians and the advertising industry that the brash new movement the fracas had helped to spawn-Abstract Expressionism-could in fact serve as the ultimate embodiment of egalitarian virtue and American brawn.
As the poorest stepchild of realism, still life seemed incapable of anything but the stalest triviality, reduced to early classroom exercises in shading. It had lost the enormous prestige it had gained earlier in the modernist era with the innovations of Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Still life would have to wait for Pop Art's aggressively vanguard approach to the common object to bring it out from the extreme margins, and longer still, for the postmodernists of the 1980s and 1990s, to recover its rich possibilities for plumbing psychological depths and philosophical ideas.
The major exception to this national moratorium on still life can be found in the painting of a small number of artists working in Northern California during the 1950s who came to be known as the Bay Area Figuratives. The leaders of this group-David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Richard Diebenkorn-had each embraced Abstract Expressionism before deciding that, as Diebenkorn put it, the movement was becoming little more than "a book of rules." They were especially troubled by certain artists' exalted claims of originality and metaphysical inspiration, which they viewed as empty rhetoric. The Bay Area Figuratives rejected the notion of avant-gardism altogether, believing that, as Park famously said, "concepts of progress in painting are rather foolish." Instead of catering to the art market's insatiable demand for the shocking and the new, the Bay Area Figuratives sought an art that would be approachable and self-effacing. Their initial aim, as Bischoff stated, was to find an expression that was "more humble, more down to earth, more every day, more accessible" than the monumental abstractions of the New York School, which dominated the pages of art magazines during the 1950s.
Given their credo of accessibility and respect for artistic tradition, it made sense that most of the Bay Area Figuratives gravitated toward still life, drawing on their most familiar surroundings for subject matter. Park was the first to strike out in a figurative direction, and some of his initial efforts included a series of still lifes whose homey subjects offered a clear defiance of Abstract Expressionism's lofty aspirations. Table with Fruit of 1951-52 (fig. 81) might depict the artist's own dining room. There is no pretense of profundity in this traditional home repast, which has the intimacy of a late-nineteenth-century Bonnard or a Vuillard. Yet unlike the French Intimistes' pyrotechnics of color and form, Table with Fruit attempts no stylistic virtuosity. Park pulls together his composition through idiosyncratic means-an echoing of stripes in the fabric of the man's shirt, the plain plank floor, the glistening ribbed glasses on the table. At the same time, Park's exaggerated foreshortening and perspective read like cartoony caricature, reminiscent of Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton. As Bischoff observed, when Park first began painting figuratively, he took "perverse pleasure" in going out on a limb with the corniness of his subjects.
Bischoff's first figurative works, by comparison, partake of a straightforward naturalism, with none of Park's propensity toward playful caricature. Nonetheless, he clearly shared Park's desire to return to the bedrock of perceptual reality as a kind of reclamation of art's lost innocence. Bischoff's still lifes, few in number and mostly confined to his sketchbooks, concentrate on direct notation of scenes of everyday life. In Pink Table (1954), the tilted tabletop is laden with artifacts of domesticity: a coffee pot, a vase of flowers, and a rag doll. Similarly, Untitled (Table with Baby Bottle) from about 1953-54 (fig. 82) presents a kitchen table cluttered with dishes and a baby bottle. As he described his intention, Bischoff was choosing subjects that evoked a response within himself. In effect he was saying, "Here is something that exists out in the world that I think is worth dealing with ... that I have a certain love for, possibly ... as opposed to inventing a brand new language."
By the mid-1950s both Park and Bischoff had considerably softened their reactionary attitudes toward Abstract Expressionism and begun reincorporating aspects of gesture painting into their vocabularies. Although their close associate, figurative painter Theophilus Brown, has stated emphatically, "I don't think gesture painting played a great part in any of our work," there can be little doubt that the Bay Area Figuratives absorbed many stylistic innovations of the New York gesture painters. Park's still lifes, while continuing to focus on only the humblest of subjects, now showed an obvious pleasure in spontaneous handling of paint. The juicy impasto of Brush and Comb from 1956 (fig. 83), for example, gives the work an almost sculptural presence, with upward-thrusting incisions giving tangible life to the bristles of the brush.
Diebenkorn, the last of the trio to make the shift from abstraction, may well have encouraged Park and Bischoff to loosen their brushwork, since he had turned to the figure in 1955 without substantially altering his earlier Abstract Expressionist approach. Regardless of subject matter, techniques such as dripping, kneading, and incising remained mainstays of his work. Diebenkorn's thematic range followed that of Park and Bischoff, with a focus on his immediate environment. While acknowledging a personal attachment to the objects he painted, Diebenkorn's primary concern in his still lifes is the working out of formal problems. On first glance his subjects appear to be scattered in haphazard fashion. In Bottles of 1960 (fig. 84), one might almost miss the ink container behind the wine carafe. Yet the same curious vertical alignment of contiguous and overlapping forms appears in Still Life with Letter of 1961 (fig. 85), where the open sketchbook lies edge to edge with a match striker, a letter, and two coffee cups. Clearly, Diebenkorn did not paint his objects the way he encountered them in his studio, but organized them into complex compositions that were offbeat and unlikely, even while hinting at the classicizing geometry of his later elegant "Ocean Park" paintings.
Paul Wonner seems to have taken Diebenkorn's cue in his "Dutch" still lifes of the 1980s and 1990s, which feature meticulously painted objects often stacked in neat vertiginous piles (see fig. 131). These still lifes would earn for Wonner a reputation as one of California's premiere realists, but during the 1950s and early 1960s he enjoyed a distinguished career as a member of the Bay Area Figuratives. Wonner began painting figuratively around the time he graduated from Berkeley in 1953. He met Bischoff, Park, and Diebenkorn two years later, joining them for weekly drawing sessions. The next year he moved to the agricultural town of Davis, where his work took on the brilliant light of the Sacramento Valley. Still Life with Artichoke from about 1962 (fig. 86) is typical of Wonner's work of this period, with its Diebenkornesque wedgelike shapes, "pistachio" colors (Wonner's own phrase), and melting, buttery brushwork suggestive of a radiant noonday sun.
Joan Brown, a student of Bischoff's and Diebenkorn's and a second-generation Bay Area Figurative, achieved an extraordinary fusion of Abstract Expressionism and figuration in the canvases she produced during the late 1950s. She credits Bischoff with her "diaristic" approach to still life, concentrating on simple objects she found around her home-shoes, dog toys: whatever happened to capture her eye. Despite Brown's quotidian subject matter, the canvases of the late 1950s are frequently so abstract that they are difficult to decipher without the aid of titles. Thanksgiving Turkey of 1959 (fig. 87), for instance, shows Brown's ability to transform everyday subjects into marvels of abstraction. Here she has surpassed Park in the thickness of her surfaces, using palette knives and even spatulas to layer on slabs of oily pigment. Trussed and stuffed, the splayed bird of Thanksgiving Turkey recalls the hanging fowls of Chaim Soutine, but without the brutality of the Russian expressionist; Brown's painting clearly revels in a joyful manipulation of paint.
Brown's best-known still lifes are the colorful impastos she painted around the time of her marriage to sculptor Manuel Neri in the early 1960s. Perhaps her association with Neri encouraged her to develop her earlier sculptural inclinations to an extreme, with massive build-ups of paint sometimes measuring as much as three to four inches. The environmental walk-in space of Brown's still life Noel at the Table with a Large Bowl of Fruit of 1963 (fig. 88) shows Brown at her most ambitious. Here, the colors are lush and abundant: vivid pinks and reds contrast with lemony yellows and greens, all lassoed together with a shot of electric blue that draws the eye directly to a heaping cornucopia of fruit. Brown's one-year-old son Noel sits behind the central melange, spoon clutched in hand as if to scoop up the apples, pears, grapes, lemons, and oranges toppling over each other in a riot of color.
While the Bay Area Figuratives were turning out their colorful canvases with their painterly textures, a movement of a very different temperament emerged representing another of the resolutely anti-mainstream chapters in California art: variously known as "Beat" or "Funk" assemblage sculpture. Part of a loose community of poets, musicians, filmmakers, and photographers of the so-called Beat generation, these artists-spearheaded by Bruce Conner in Northern California and Edward Kienholz in the south-coexisted with the Bay Area Figuratives, even showing together in the same galleries. Yet despite this peaceable kingdom, their aims were entirely different. Far from seeking the plain and down-to-earth, these artists sought drama and exotica, magic, mysticism, and fantasy-and as a consequence, their subjects were emotionally provocative. Moreover, whereas the Bay Area Figurative painters assiduously kept their distance from politics, the assemblage artists engaged in a full-blown critique of consensus values, attacking the bland conformist culture that profited from a terrifying Cold War arms race. They seemed, rather, to answer Norman Mailer's call "to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self."
It might seem odd that these sculptors, with their intensely nonconformist outlook, were drawn to still life, which avant-garde artists in America had long since spurned. True to their Dada and Surrealist predecessors, however, the Californians' approach to the genre was anything but conventional. Early in the century Picasso had made the discovery that the still life artist was first and foremost an assembler of objects; hence the final step-that of simulation-could be eliminated. After inventing the collage still life, beginning with his Still Life with Chair Caning (1911-12), Picasso made the logical leap into three dimensions; his first recorded assemblages, Guitar and Mandolin, were made the following year out of scraps of wood and other found materials. But it was Duchamp, as Robert Motherwell observed, who became the "asp in the basket of fruit," overturning previous conceptions of object assemblages with his "readymades"-composed of cast-off items that no one would have bothered with until they were presented as art. The assemblagists of the 1950s picked up where Duchamp left off. Their choice of discarded materials-the "rattier the better," said Joan Brown-compelled East Coast critics to later call them "Neo-Dadaists." Yet their sensibility differed from Duchamp's in important respects. While Duchamp's approach was essentially cerebral, cool, and deadpan, even when full of teasing conundrums, the Beat assemblage artists tended to work intuitively, often drawing from a core of intensely personal experience. Their aim was to achieve what George Herms called an "alchemical transformation": taking the dross of everyday existence and transforming it into "object-poetry." This object-poetry might shimmer with wondrous associations or create a sense of horror and dread, but in any case it would be "associationally alive." And unlike their East Coast contemporary Jasper Johns, also routinely classified as a Neo-Dadaist, the Californians never attempted to neutralize or dehumanize their subject matter. On the contrary, their use of dingy, cast-off materials gave their assemblages an aura of mystery, romance, and, occasionally, nostalgia.