In the autumn of 1994, I made a trip to see an Egon Schiele retrospective at the San Diego Museum of Art; it was a rare opportunity to view a sizable body of his work without going to his native Austria. The previous comprehensive solo show to come to the United States took place in 1960, so I was very much looking forward to seeing this one.

Schiele became one of my favorite artists when, in my teens, I discovered his work through my studies of turn-of-the-century Vienna. The art of Gustav Klimt had piqued my interest in the subject, which I found as fascinating as sixties Swinging London or seventies Max’s/Mercer Arts Center/CBGB NYC. Vienna at that time was a hotbed of activity in many areas, including, most importantly for me, the visual arts. Austrian Expressionism, even its rawest examples, had a grace not present in its German counterpart, thus it was more aligned with my sensibility. This approach was due to the influence of Klimt and the Secession group, which emphasized design, ornamentation, and a cross-pollination among disciplines.

The Schiele exhibition was comprised of perhaps a dozen paintings and over sixty works on paper – drawings, gouaches, and watercolors. Although Schiele was an accomplished and ambitious painter, more notably he was one of the 20th century’s preeminent draftsmen, and that is where the strength of his oeuvre lies. Untethered from the need to make a statement, his works on paper are more direct and immediate in their expression. With the actual work, one can see what a confident hand Schiele had – next to no erasing and very little redrawing is evident; his surety was staggering. His quality of line gave the whole an elegant framework while his use of color and masterful sense of composition, especially in the employment of negative space, heightened the intensity of his psychologically and sexually charged imagery. In the years since I saw this show, my appreciation of Schiele’s paintings and drawings has not waned; if anything, it has grown – especially for his later, more naturalistic output.

Schiele had only a little over a decade to produce his life’s work. The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed over twenty million people worldwide; Egon Schiele died on October 31, three days after Edith, his pregnant wife, succumbed to the same disease. He was twenty-eight years old.

In November 2014, I had plans to go to San Francisco to see a show of skulls at the California Academy of Sciences. As an afterthought, I checked other SF museums for shows I might also want to see while I was there, and found a retrospective called Keith Haring: The Political Line had just opened at the de Young. I bought a ticket, thinking it would be a nice diversion, a fun show.

When Keith Haring came to prominence in the early 1980s, I really didn’t pay too much attention. I was aware of him, of course, and thought his baby, dog, flying saucer, and batman imagery was playful and amusing, but lightweight. I think the fact that it reproduces so well – I had certainly seen enough of it on buttons, t-shirts, greeting cards, refrigerator magnets, et al. – made me think I knew, and contributed to my reading of, his work. The day I saw The Political Line, I realized how wrong I had been.

The show was startling; I was taken aback by how powerful it was. Reproductions of Haring’s art, like those of Roy Lichtenstein’s, look great but can’t convey the formal aspects which give the works much of their strength. Seeing the actual paintings made me realize how important scale is in Haring’s work, and allowed me to see them as not just cartoons – to recognize their abstract qualities. His bold, confident stroke frequently possesses as much visual weight as the object it delineates. He also often utilized an all-over compositional style and created tension by minimizing the distinction between the figure and the ground until they became almost interchangeable. The push-pull results of these components contribute to his work’s signature pulsating energy.

The Political Line’s focus also made clear the gravitas of Haring’s oeuvre, which I had previously not considered. His unwavering dedication to his sociopolitical concerns continues to inspire. Drug addiction, nuclear proliferation, children’s issues, apartheid, and AIDS (another public health crisis exacerbated by presidential ignorance, ineptitude, and inaction) were some of the causes he took on in his work. If his “radiant child” image symbolizes hope, we could use Keith Haring now. We could use his hope and his activism and his drive, and we could use his anger.

Keith Haring would have turned 62 today; he died on February 16, 1990 of AIDS-related complications. He was 31 years old.

All artwork © The Keith Haring Foundation

Corey Oada standing in front of Wayne Thiebaud's Water City mural
With Wayne Thiebaud’s Water City mosaic (1959) at SMUD Headquarters building, Sacramento (2020).

Wayne Thiebaud was almost certainly the first contemporary artist of whom I was aware. I was four or five years old when my mother brought me to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) headquarters to show me the building’s exterior mosaic, which depicts the city’s skyline and its reflection in the river. I imagine we made the excursion because my mother knew that even at that young age, all I wanted to do was draw and look at art. The experience must have made an impression, because I not only remember her telling me that the artist lived nearby, but also that the tiles came all the way from Italy.

In the late 1950s, when Thiebaud was commissioned by some savvy individual to do the mural, he was teaching at Sacramento City College. Ten years later, when I saw it for the first time, he was at UC Davis and a famous artist. By the late 70s/early 80s, when I was a teenager, I had become fairly well-versed in his career and as a young adult, I saw large shows of his work in Sacramento and San Francisco. I must admit it was a bit of a thrill when he attended the reception for one of my early shows. I didn’t see him, but as the evening was winding down, the gallery owner excitedly showed me the guestbook, and there was his name, alongside his signature heart.

To commemorate Thiebaud’s 100th birthday, the Crocker Art Museum will be presenting a show titled Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings, which opens in October. It’ll be an opportunity to view a good representative sample of his work, much of it apparently previously unseen, together in one space. I wish my five-year-old self were here to see it. I’m sure my current self will enjoy it, as well.

Corey Okada visits the Warhol exhibit at SFMOMA
At Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, SFMOMA (2019).

This past summer, I twice saw Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again at the SFMOMA. Despite the negative and sometimes downright nasty press Warhol still sometimes receives, the repercussions from his work continue to run rampant through contemporary art, over 30 years after his death in 1987.

Roy Lichtenstein once said that, upon seeing Warhol’s silkscreen paintings in the early 1960s, he felt very old-fashioned. This from a guy whose work was so aggressively avant that Life Magazine once asked “Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?” Even now, Warhol’s oeuvre makes still-wet paintings by Young Turks seem old-fashioned. 

Warhol has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager, and although it may not be readily apparent, he and other Pop artists have had a big impact on how I approach my own work. I admire his sharp eye and conceptually-minded bent. He also remained artistically adventurous until the end, when he produced a series of self-portraits which I consider to be among the most powerful ever made. We haven’t seen the last of his wide-reaching influence – not only on art, but on culture in general.

“The mystery was gone but the amazement was just starting.” – Andy Warhol