The myth of the solitary artist, struggling in isolation, is exploded by “Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California” at the Oakland Museum of California. A joint production of OMCA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the show tells the stories of four creative communities active in the northern part of the state from the 1930s to the present. The four groups demonstrate that art movements are a function of the right people being in the right place at the right time.
The show is divided into four sections: Patronage, Public Art and “Allegory of California” (1930s); Postwar at the California School of Fine Arts (1940s-’50s); A New Art Department at UC Davis (1960s-’70s); and The Mission Scene (1990s-today).
The first section reflects the struggles San Francisco was having during the Great Depression, documenting unemployment and labor unrest, as well as works commissioned by the Works Progress Administration and private patrons. Among these is “Allegory of California,” a mural by Diego Rivera, here presented in a reproduction with original studies for the work, which depicts a classically beautiful woman whose gigantic arms embrace scenes of workers, gold miners, farmers and bountiful crops.
Rivera, then at the height of his fame, was invited to create the mural at the Pacific Stock Exchange (now the California Club) despite the fact that he was a communist. As painter Maynard Dixon remarked, you couldn’t have found a more inappropriate artist for the project. Rivera’s selection bred controversy even as he and his wife, Frida Kahlo, became local celebrities.
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The show includes Kahlo’s portrait of Diego and herself; “The Flower Carrier,” a masterful Rivera image of a worker bent down under the weight of blossoms; and works by fellow muralist Ralph Stackpole, who created the WPA mural in Sacramento City College’s auditorium. As is the case with each section, the artworks are accompanied by ephemera and films of events from the times and commentaries by curators.
The next section of the show focuses on postwar faculty and students at the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute). Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko were early members of the faculty, later joined by Richard Diebenkorn, David Park and Elmer Bischoff, the progenitors of the Bay Area Figurative School. As Bischoff remarked, these artists were closer as a group than the New York artists of the time because they were all in the same building.
Park’s return to the figure in the late ’40s initiated a new movement that would come to exemplify Bay Area painting for two decades. Among the works in the show is “Rehearsal,” a scene that reflects the city’s preoccupation with jazz in an image that depicts an informal combo with Park on piano and Bischoff on cornet. Other seminal Bay Area Figurative pieces include Parks’ dramatic “Two Bathers,” Diebenkorn’s “Woman on a Porch,” and Bischoff’s radiant “Orange Sweater,” which unfortunately is in serious need of conservation.
The third section of the show centers around the legendary art studio faculty that Richard L. Nelson assembled for the then-sleepy agricultural college in Davis in the 1960s. On view are works by Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri, Wayne Thiebaud, Roy De Forest and William T. Wiley and their students, among them Bruce Nauman, Deborah Butterfield, David Gilhooly and Peter VandenBerge.
Iconoclastic in spirit, their works often poked fun at the high seriousness of East Coast art and embraced popular culture. From Thiebaud’s lush, painterly oil “Delicatessen Counter” to Nauman’s sly “Wax Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists” (in actuality not made of wax and only impressions of Nauman’s own knee), this section will be familiar to Sacramento viewers but is worth seeing nonetheless.
At its heart is Arneson’s “California Artist,” a life-size self-portrait atop a base decorated with marijuana plants. A sardonic response to what New York critic Hilton Kramer called “the impoverished sensibility of the provincial cultural life of California,” the piece figuratively sticks its tongue out at what Arneson saw as the self-righteous pomposity of Kramer’s declaration.
The final section of the show focuses on the working class, bohemian, leftist, ethnically diverse artists of what is known as the Mission School. Beginning in the 1990s these young turks set out to fight the gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission District with calls to combat yuppies and give power to the people. I wish I could say that I like most of this art, but I can’t. It strikes me as self-consciously awkward and determined to take an anti-art stance.
A few exceptions include Amy Franceschini’s wry “Pogostick Shovel”; Matt Gonzalez’s small, elegantly assembled collage; and Barry McGee’s massive, bulging, optically active untitled work that combines panels of red-orange color with outsider-like sketches and doodles. It makes a strong splash in the midst of works that range from calls to damage expensive cars, found posters for missing birds, and sweaters knitted by an artist who gives them away, except when she need them for a museum show.
Overall, “Fertile Ground” is a strong and satisfying show, one that should not be missed. It’s a wonderful blending of the resources of two powerful Bay Area institutions.
Art and Community in California
Where: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St. (at 10th Street), Oakland
When: Through April 12. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Closed Mondays and Tuesday, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Cost: $6-$15, free for members and children 8 and under; half-price for adults, free for ages 18 and under Fridays from 5 to 9 p.m.
Information: (888) 625-6873. www.museumca.org