California: North and South

June 16 - September 30, 2018
San Francisco, CA


Developed along very different trajectories, California artists’ important contributions to modern art have been traditionally recognized to a far lesser extent by art historians than their New York counterparts. Seeking to readdress this imbalance, California: North and South, curated by Hayden Hunt, HJFA’s Assistant Curator, presents an insightful and vivid portrait of the influential styles pioneered by artists working in California since the mid-1940s. The accompanying illustrated catalogue (including additional works by Northern and Southern California artists on offer) features an introductory essay by Hunt.

Many of the artists from Northern California included in the exhibition, such as Elmer Bischoff, William H. Brown, Richard Diebenkorn, and Paul Wonner, are known for their important contributions to Bay Area Figuration (a movement comprising the First, Bridge, and Second Generation of artists who abandoned non-objective abstraction in favor of representational art.) In Untitled, 1954, Diebenkorn employs subtle shifts of color to evoke the languid beauty of Northern California’s vivid sky and expansive ocean through abstraction while in Untitled, 1968, his interest shifts to capturing the delicate interplay between figure and form, light and shadow.

A significant grouping of small-scale figure studies by Elmer Bischoff and by Nathan Oliveira, among others, is on view in San Francisco. Bordering on pure abstraction, Oliveira’s faint application of watercolor in Untitled, 1961, vaguely registers the body being represented. In marked contrast, William H. Brown employs sharply-drawn lines with washy areas of India ink to create Nude, 1961. Featured among the works on view in Palm Desert, Manuel Neri’s rare, life-size, Male Figure, c. 1960, dynamically reflects the artist’s radical use of polychrome to create a dense surface texture rendered in a thick painterly impasto.

In opposition to the gestural immediacy of East Coast Abstract Expressionism, a select group of artists largely working in Los Angeles during the mid-1950s adopted their own distinct aesthetic, which was often imbued with formal austerity. Known as West Coast Hard-edge painting, and stylistically aligned with work by Minimalists such as Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, and Agnes Martin, Hard-edge painters were also greatly influenced by Southern California’s radiant light, which at once sharpens and idealizes forms. On view in San Francisco, Karl Benjamin’s Untitled, c. 1960s, weaves arbitrarily-chosen primary and secondary colors into a complex series of geometric patterns. Frederick Hammersley’s Tête-à-Tête, #4, 1975, displays bold lines and areas of color rendered with crisp, clean exactness. Radiating with Zen-like transcendence, and analogous to the Hard-edge style, works by early proponents of the Light and Space Movement on view in Palm Desert include Norman Zammitt’s North Wall, 1976, and East Wall, 1977. Ranging in tones from striking to subtle, color transitions shift across Zammitt’s picture plan, echoing Southern California’s open horizons.