I’m in a crowded museum, at one of those big exhibitions for which one has to purchase a timed ticket. On this particular day, it’s not packed, as such shows often get, but there are a lot of people present. Suddenly, as if on cue, everyone in the gallery where I stand wanders out, and I’m left with Edvard Munch’s Death in the Sick Chamber before me. Inexplicably, for probably three minutes, I am alone in the room and have the painting all to myself; it’s as if I’m in the chamber with the mourners.

Edvard Munch1 is generally thought of in the popular culture, if he is thought of at all, as the unhinged artist who painted The Scream, on which the mask from the slasher movie franchise Scream2 is based. The painting is probably one of the most recognized, and certainly one of the most parodied, images in art history. The poor distressed figure has not only had to endure the precarious mental and physical states of the artist,3 the existential angst of the time, and the burden of representing Munch’s entire oeuvre to most people, but has also been subjected to the humiliation of being forced to hawk cars4 like some late-nineteenth century Cal Worthington.

In 1893, when Munch painted The Scream,5 the piece must have seemed like an open wound – even Impressionism was still considered radical in his home country of Norway. He eventually did five versions of the image – two paintings, two pastels, and a lithograph. I’ve never seen any of those actual pieces, although I have been to two large exhibitions of his work – in 1993, Edvard Munch and His Models, 1912-1944 at the Berkeley University Art Museum in its only US stop; and in 2017, Between the Clock and the Bed, before it traveled to New York and Oslo, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The Berkeley show, comprised of Munch’s often-overlooked later work, focused on the six models with whom he regularly worked during the last thirty-two years of his life. The SFMOMA presented a general, career-spanning retrospective. What struck me about both shows was not the absence of Munch’s most well-known image, but how much of what has transpired in painting since Munch’s time can be seen in his work. While perfectly capable of modeling figures and objects in a convincing manner, Munch would often simplify and flatten form, leave portions of the canvas unpainted, apply paint in a sketchy, linear fashion – approaches which disregard the idea of three-dimensional illusion.

Munch’s focus on themes relating to alienation, sex, and death, and his rough and emotionally raw execution of them prefigured the German Expressionist movement. Although Munch showed in several German cities as early as 1892, when his paintings scandalized both the general public and the art world establishment, I’ve read that many German Expressionists denied seeing his work until many years later, after they had developed their mature styles. Some of them are also known to have backdated work, evidently to give the impression that they came to those styles prior to when they actually did, so their claims of not being familiar with Munch’s work can be taken with a whole shaker of salt. At any rate, Munch felt that painting should do more than represent “people who read and women knitting.”

It is not only Munch’s compositional and painting techniques or subject matter which show him to be an extraordinarily forward-thinking artist. He had an outdoor studio where he also often stored his work, allowing the paintings to be exposed to dirt, sun, wind, rain, snow, hail, et al. This attitude relates to concepts which are still controversial today. Contemporary artists who use non-archival materials or mixed-media combinations which are not archivally sound often say they aren’t concerned about how the work will change over time, or that the changing is conceptually an inherent part of the work. This thinking is troubling to museum boards, directors, and trustees, who obviously have a vested interest in the works in their collections being stable. Munch felt the stains, scratches, cracks, mold, and other uncontrolled consequences the elements wreaked on his paintings made the work better. However, he also obviously wanted his oeuvre cared for – when he died in 1944, he left his estate to the city of Oslo, where the Munch Museum opened in 1963, marking the centenary of his birth.

People stroll back into the gallery, breaking me from my reverie. As I leave the room, I don’t know if Death in the Sick Chamber is my favorite painting in the show, but having undistracted time with it without others around is the most moving experience of the day.

 

1 Pronounced muhngk, not like the sound you make when you’re on the couch with your head in a Party Size bag of Lay’s Sour Cream & Onion Potato Chips. And crumbs all over your sweatshirt.

 2 I’ve never seen any of these movies. I don’t imagine I ever will.

3 “Disease, insanity, and death were the angels which attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life,” Munch said. He wasn’t exaggerating.

4 Specifically, the Pontiac Sunfire.

5 I understand that the Norwegian title, Skrik, more accurately translates to English as “shriek.”

In my mid-twenties when I started showing my work in galleries, Gustav Klimt was perhaps my favorite painter and almost certainly my main influence. My introduction to him was Charles Wentinck’s book The Art Treasures of Europe,1 which I received as a gift well over ten years prior. His painting reproduced therein was a revelation to me – at that young age, I was not familiar with the story of Salomé and John the Baptist, nor had I ever seen a painting so sultry, provocative, and unnerving. I’d seen a lot of nudes – there are plenty in Wentinck’s book alone – but Salomé doesn’t depict a woman simply bathing or lounging on a divan; she’s grasping a man’s decapitated head by the hair. Both the image of Salomé and the painting itself are dynamic and aggressive, and played a major role in the development of my painting aesthetic.

Forty-five years later, I’ve seen actual examples of Klimt’s work on only one occasion, at the Klimt & Rodin show at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in early 2018. One of the paintings exhibited was Nuda Veritas (“naked truth”), which depicts a life-size, full-length standing nude. Veritas, the Roman Goddess of Truth, was traditionally portrayed in a classically idealized manner, but Klimt painted her as a contemporary woman. This immediacy prompted many critics to proclaim the piece pornographic, but Klimt had truth on his side.

I would like more opportunities to see Klimt’s work, and want as much of it as possible to be available for viewing by the public now and in the future, so I obviously don’t want anything to befall any more of his paintings.2 Unfortunately, something recently did happen to a Klimt piece – two members of Last Generation, the “environmental protest group,” attacked his Death and Life at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. The painting and the frame are protected by glass, on which Halfwit 1 threw an unidentified black substance and to which Halfwit 2 glued himself. This was not an isolated incident; there have been similar “protests” by other groups in England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Canada. Other artists whose work has been targeted include Raphael, Johannes Vermeer, Francisco Goya, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Emily Carr, and Pablo Picasso. If these “protests” continue, they will almost inevitably escalate, and it’s only a matter of time before a painting is destroyed. If that happens, individuals may be reluctant to lend artwork they own to museums, and institutions may refrain from letting their work out of their possession for extended periods for traveling exhibitions.

I’m all for saving and protecting the environment – I find Greta Thunberg an articulate, inspiring young woman. She knows that intelligent discourse, peaceful protest, and education are the means to get people who may be sympathetic to her cause to think about these issues. She knows the urgency of the environmental crisis the world is in but realizes the situation cannot be rectified overnight. She is a nuanced thinker and knows solutions are not simple. She is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect, and she has truth on her side.

On the other hand, I’m not sure which side groups like Last Generation are on, or what they think they’re accomplishing with these acts of vandalism, which often involve the throwing of food; it’s as if their demonstrations are conceived and organized by John Blutarsky. Greta Thunberg they are not. Gustav Klimt they are not.

 

1 Simon & Schuster (1974).

2 Klimt’s “Faculty Paintings,” PhilosophyMedicine, and Jurisprudence, were destroyed in a fire set by retreating SS cretins in 1945.

Back in February 2020, I wrote about Wayne Thiebaud and the show 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings, which was due to open at the Crocker Art Museum in October of that year. Because of the pandemic, the museum was closed for part of the scheduled run, so the exhibition probably didn’t turn out to be the 100th birthday celebration Thiebaud was hoping for and deserved. During the time one could view the show, I was still sheltering-in-place, and did not venture there. Thiebaud passed away in late 2021, and now, after stops in Toledo, OH; Memphis, TN; San Antonio, TX; and Chadds Ford, PA, the show is back in Sacramento, expanded and under the new moniker Wayne Thiebaud: A Celebration, 1920-2021.

Over the years, I’ve been to several surveys of Thiebaud’s work, but on a recent warm, blustery Saturday, I paid a visit to the Crocker to see what I missed out on nearly two years ago. I’d seen much of the work in previous shows or in the Crocker’s permanent collection, although a good portion of the pieces were new to me. Unfortunately, because of the wind, the surrounding agricultural fields, the fact that Sacramento is in a valley, and my overly-vigilant, histamine-releasing immune system, I was sneezing so much I had a hard time focusing on the work. I spent about an hour and a half in the galleries before I gave up, went home with red eyes and a runny nose, and crashed on the sofa with a box of tissue.

My second excursion to the show was much less allergen-infused and much more enjoyable. Thiebaud’s work is playful and fun; a less angst-ridden notable oeuvre would be difficult to cite.1 His technique of applying the paint to physically mimic the subject, whether it be cake frosting, ice cream, mustard, or potato salad, is signature Thiebaud, consummate and humorous. Of his paintings, I have a preference for the still lifes, not only the food, but the clothes, the makeup, the tools – objects which are designed to be adornments to or extensions of the human form but are presented in unused states.

It’s simple enough to understand why in the early 1960s, given Thiebaud’s subject matter, he was seen as a Pop artist. However, although his serial pies, cakes, and other foods were certainly related to that movement, time has proven him to be a much more traditional painter than that connection would indicate. As early as the mid-’60s, he tried to get away from the Pop label by painting the figure, which he approached in much the same manner as the still lifes – brightly lit, straightforward depictions in austere settings. His figurative work is most compelling when it most resembles the still lifes, when the figures are static, doing absolutely nothing, engaging with no one.2

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Thiebaud added landscapes, both rural and urban, to his oeuvre. These paintings were often constructed from multiple viewpoints and contain all the movement missing from his figurative work. People rarely appear, and when they do, they are miniscule. As in Asian landscape painting, with which many of the cityscapes share an exaggeration of verticality, the figures shown illustrate the disparity in size and importance between humans and their environment.

As much as I enjoy the paintings, I have had fairly consistent access to them, courtesy of the Crocker, for most of my life. With the exception of the relatively recent “Clown” series, of which I don’t recall ever previously seeing an example, they no longer hold much surprise for me. Consequently, the highlights of the show were the ink and the watercolor thumbnails – simple sketchbook exercises which show Thiebaud’s ability to quickly capture the essence of an object or the attitude of a figure.

I’ve said before that Thiebaud was almost certainly the first contemporary artist of whom I was aware. I told him that once, and he laughed, as though he didn’t think of himself as particularly “contemporary.” I didn’t know him, although over the years I did have several interactions with him in non-art-related circumstances, and he always seemed like a genuinely nice, low-key person. Godspeed, Wayne Thiebaud.

 

1 My taste, although quite catholic, veers toward the Expressionist. “Playful and fun” generally does not describe what I look for in a painting.

2 A Thiebaud canvas which I saw for the first time on my second trip to see A Celebration was Supine Woman (1963), which was included in a separate exhibition, Twinka Thiebaud and the Art of the Pose. It could be my favorite Thiebaud figure painting I’ve ever seen.

At the de Young Museum in San Francisco, I recently saw the Alice Neel retrospective People Come First, which is up through July 10, 2022 and is the first large survey of her work to ever be exhibited on the West Coast. Prior to this show I don’t believe I’d ever seen any of her actual paintings, so I was eagerly anticipating my visit, which would be my first out-of-town trip in well over two years, since shortly before the world closed down. I’ve been a fan of Neel’s for many years, and it seemed her work, with its strongly humanist approach, would be perfectly appropriate for my reentry into the realm of museum-going, which I have missed terribly.

From the mid/late 1980s to the mid-’90s, I was regularly borrowing Patricia Hill’s monograph Alice Neel1 from the Sacramento Public Library. Neel’s painting of Andy Warhol, which appears in the book, is what initially prompted me to do so. I don’t remember where or when I first encountered the piece, but it was almost certainly my introduction to her work. It is a masterful portrait, capturing Warhol as he was rarely seen – sensitive and vulnerable. I actually find it surprising that Warhol sat for her in this way, without the mask of the “Andy Warhol” persona. Unfortunately, the painting is not in the present show; I would have loved to have seen it, although while at the museum, with so much strong work to see, I really didn’t think about what wasn’t there.

The first painting in the exhibition is French Girl, one of Neel’s earliest known extant works,2 done when she was in her early twenties. It’s a stunningly attractive piece, but Alice Neel’s artistic ambitions went far beyond the creation of attractive paintings. Her expressionist bent; her employment of caricature; and her drive to produce work which would reveal something of the inner life of the sitter – to paint what she considered “truth” – often resulted in images which do not fall into traditional notions of beauty. Neel did, however, imbue her sitters with the dignity she believed they all possessed. Her wide range of subjects included family, friends, lovers, leftist political figures, pregnant nude women,3 art world luminaries, feminist leaders, kids from her Spanish Harlem neighborhood, members of the LGBT community, and a Fuller Brush man who was also a Holocaust survivor. Her intent was not only to paint individuals, but also to document the times; her oeuvre, in a sense, is a portrait of the era in which she worked.

In one of the de Young galleries, near the piece Ginny in a Blue Shirt, a monitor shows a short silent film of Neel working on that painting. Although Neel was a straightforward easel painter, I found the film to be a fascinating addendum to the exhibition. She started by outlining the figure and other parts of the image – what she called “dividing up the canvas” – in thinned ultramarine blue oil paint. It’s a startlingly direct method of working, and as a result the sitters display a remarkable presence in the paintings. Neel developed compositions very quickly and if some aspect needed to be adjusted, she simply repainted it.4 She would then fill in color, modeling some areas while keeping others flat. This representational/abstract juxtaposition is heightened by her practice of leaving areas of the picture plane unpainted, as in Ginny in a Blue Shirt and many other pieces done in the latter part of her career. Viewing the work in today’s context, it still looks contemporary and, in the present socio-political climate, her obvious affection for her subjects makes it feel not only current, but revolutionary.

Alice Neel passed away in October of 1984 at the age of eighty-four.

 

All artwork © The Estate of Alice Neel.

 

1 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (1983). In those barbaric pre-internet-shopping days, I was unable to find a copy for purchase until it was reprinted in 1995.

2 In 1934, much of Neel’s early work – about sixty paintings and two hundred drawings and watercolors – was slashed and burned along with her clothing by Kenneth Doolittle, a controlling boyfriend/opium addict. She believed he would have killed her had she not fled their apartment.

3 Neel’s interest in pregnant women, mothers, and children was probably informed by the loss in 1927 of her first baby to diphtheria and the fact that in 1930, her husband abandoned her and took their second child with him to Cuba.

4 She would often leave the initial, “incorrect” lines evident in the finished work, visually flattening those areas.

Francis Bacon entered my life when I was about ten or twelve years old, via Charles Wentinck’s The Art Treasures of Europe.1 The book includes a full-page reproduction of Two Figures (1953), which I found simultaneously captivating and unsettling. The painting depicts two male nudes in the act of coupling; at the time, I’m not even sure I realized both were men, but a few years later I would learn that the bottom figure is a self-portrait. By the time I graduated from high school I had gained, courtesy of the Sacramento Public Library system, a working knowledge of Bacon’s oeuvre. I would also soon read David Sylvester’s engrossing book of interviews with him – it is a volume which continues to be a fascinating and revealing document of the creative process.2

In 1990, a large general survey of Bacon’s work came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Although he had been an artistic icon of mine for many years by then, I had only seen a few actual paintings and was thus very much looking forward to the exhibition. Unfortunately, because of reasons not really appropriate to go into here, my plans fell through.3 Shortly afterward, I came into possession of the exhibition catalogue and found that Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953), one of my favorite paintings ever, had been in the show. It alone would have been worth the trip, and it is to my eternal regret that I did not make it to LA during the exhibition’s run.

In the summer of 1999, the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco hosted Francis Bacon: A Retrospective, and I was finally able to see a large show of his work. The aforementioned 1953 Innocent X was not part of this exhibition,4 but that was ultimately not a concern – my museum-going companion for this excursion sidled up to me while I was taking in a different pope painting and informed me my mouth was hanging open. “I’d never thought of the term ‘jaw-dropping’ as literal before,” she later said.

Bacon’s varied subjects – the popes; the agitated, solitary, suited men; the biomorphic, often headless forms; the arresting portrait triptychs; the enigmatic, multi-figure tableaus; et al. – were all represented. His turbulent subject matter would be notable even if his technique had been more traditional, but the immediacy of his abstract mark-making in the service of recording that imagery is what gives the work much of its power. His sense of formalism in both composition and presentation – he preferred the paintings be in wide, gilded frames and under glass – adds to this duality of deeply ordered work which appears to have been made largely through improvisational means.

All these years after Bacon’s painting became a formative element in my artistic development, I still find his work viscerally affecting and, with the possible exception of Willem de Kooning’s, perhaps the strongest painting oeuvre of the twentieth century. Francis Bacon died of a heart attack at eighty-two while on a trip to Madrid in 1992. Back in his studio in London’s South Kensington, a canvas sat on the easel,  unfinished.

 

1 Simon & Schuster (1974).

2 The copy I eventually purchased in the late 1980s was The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon/Third enlarged edition; Thames and Hudson (1988).

3 Those plans involved an attractive young woman who lived in Los Angeles. With her boyfriend.

4 Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X  was exhibited in California in 1999, at San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art. I didn’t become aware of the show The Papal Portraits of 1953, which was comprised of twelve Bacon canvases, until after it closed. Maybe one day I’ll make it to the Des Moines Art Center to see the piece and finally put the feeling of missing out to rest. At least concerning the painting.

While pretending to attend community college in the early/mid-1980s, I was enrolled in a drawing class in which the teacher described several of my sketches as “de Kooningesque.” At the time, I had very little knowledge of Willem de Kooning’s achievement, and wasn’t familiar with much beyond Woman I (1950-52) and Woman and Bicycle (1952-53), so I took her remark as a cue to investigate his work. I was immediately entranced by his early 1940s Women series – I loved the push/pull dynamic which results from the blurred distinction between the figure and ground. I loved the juxtaposition of the modeled and the flat portions of the fragmented bodies. I loved the geometric shapes which only minimally suggest interior environments. Although de Kooning subsequently painted many other more celebrated series, those early Women continue to be among my favorites in an oeuvre as rich as any ever produced. I soon became a fan of both his paintings and his drawings from all periods of his career, and over the years have been lucky enough to have seen quite a lot of his work, in both group and solo exhibitions.

The first time I visited what was then the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on Third Street was in 1995 to see the de Kooning show The Late Paintings, The 1980s. It was the first time a large selection of the titular work had been seen, and there was much talk about de Kooning’s late ’80s Alzheimer’s diagnosis; how much of a hand his assistants had had in producing the work; and whether the paintings were worthy of being considered part of his oeuvre. It has been over twenty-five years since I saw the show, but I do distinctly remember two specific impressions I had – one: that the paintings seemed to change over the course of the day, going from subtle and elegant to stark,1 and two: while a disease was ravaging his mind, de Kooning was still a better painter than anyone else. The 1980s work comprises an evolving yet coherent period which is the most lyrical of his career – although there are similarities between these paintings and those of other earlier periods, the simplified palette and open compositions make them very different from any of his prior work.

In 2002, I saw the de Kooning drawing survey Tracing the Figure, which included work from the late 1930s to the mid-’50s, at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and again at the SFMOMA. De Kooning’s processes of painting and drawing are often indistinguishable – he drew on his paintings and painted on his drawings. In addition to graphite, charcoal, pastel, crayon, and ink, he also used oil and enamel in his works on paper, and in the late ’40s started cutting up drawings to use as collage material. A good portion of the exhibition consisted of work related to his series of Women paintings from the early ’50s, by which time he also sometimes, in a striking Exquisite Corpse2-like manner, fashioned the figure from portions of two or more separate drawings. I was also particularly attracted to the results of the subtractive methods he employed – the smearing and the textured pentimento which remained after he erased sections of the image. Tracing the Figure was not only an extraordinary look at the drawings of a master, but also a comprehensive reference on the techniques of mark-making.

Willem de Kooning put down the tools of his labor for the last time in 1991, about two years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He passed away on March 19, 1997 at the age of ninety-two. If pressed to name my favorite painter, my answer might vary depending on whose work I happen to be fixated at that particular time. However, de Kooning would always be at least in the top two or three, a position he has held since shortly after I was prompted by a compliment to study his body of work. Thank you, Melinda Barbera.

 

1 Did the SFMOMA galleries have skylights prior to the re-model? I hope so, because the only other explanation I can think of for this phenomenon – which I’ve never noticed during any other exhibition – is that it was just my imagination running away with me.

2 Exquisite Corpse, or Cadavre Exquis, is a Surrealist game which generates collaborative compositions. The figure is divided into three or four horizontal sections. The first player draws the head and folds the paper to conceal what has been done. The next participant draws the torso and folds the paper again; the process is repeated until the figure is complete.

Sometime during the summer of 1990 my sister, who was then living in San Francisco, phoned to get my take on Jim Dine – I told her I loved his hearts and his robes and his use of real objects in his paintings. She listened patiently to my cursory knowledge of Dine’s oeuvre, then asked what I thought of his figure drawings, to which I responded I didn’t even know he did them.

“You should really get here right away and see this show,” she said.

My sister isn’t generally given to hyperbole, so the first chance I got, I made the trip to see Jim Dine: Drawings 1973-1987 at the de Young Museum. The show was comprised of figurative work, still lifes, and pieces which don’t fall into such neat categories – Dine’s hearts, robes, tools, et al. are images which, even when convincingly modeled, don’t inhabit space in the same manner as objects in more traditional compositions. Although I was attracted to all his imagery, at the time I was pretty much exclusively doing figurative work, so it was that to which I gravitated.

Dine started his career in the late 1950s and early ’60s with performances, installations, and paintings with actual bathroom fixtures and bedroom furniture; but in the early ’70s decided to focus his energy on perhaps the least avant-garde course of action an artist could have taken at that time: life drawing. His intensely-observed works of the human form eventually became aggressively-produced and expressionistic – characteristics which instigated the call from my sister. Dine draws, rubs out, builds up, erases, and reworks images with graphite, charcoal, pastel, acrylic, oil, enamel, and other media. This process results in multilayered works with rich, often distressed surfaces which reveal the histories of their creation. Despite the amount of reworking associated with these drawings, they are not labored or heavy-handed; on the contrary, they appear inevitable. Over the course of three years, two continents, and two different models, in The Sitter Progresses from London to Here in Three Years Dine managed to create a coherent, emotionally stirring and evocative figure which is enveloped by the atmospheric ground in a palpably physical way. The complexity, virtuosity, and diversity of the exhibited work was truly dazzling, and proved Dine to be one of the finest draftsmen in contemporary art.

My sister’s advice couldn’t have been better; seeing Drawings 1973-1987 was one of the most affecting and inspiring art experiences I’ve ever had. It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen heavily-worked mixed media drawings before – I was familiar with those by Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns, both of whom had done pieces I loved which were so layered they could be considered paintings on paper. It was that I related to Dine’s drawings in a way that I was then unable to relate to those by de Kooning or Johns. Dine’s works aligned so perfectly with my aesthetic, I felt as if he had drawn them especially for me. I saw what could be achieved by disregarding the conventional definition of “drawing” and being open to the possibilites in utilizing any process or medium which would serve the work. Although I had never subscribed to the idea that paper is merely a support on which preparatory works for larger, more important pieces are made, and although I had already begun tentatively using paint in my own drawings, the way I thought about art was transformed. Occasionally, one has an experience and afterward never sees the world in quite the same manner – Drawings 1973-1987 was one of those events for me, one that has enriched my life immeasurably.

Jim Dine is still creating, following his muse. Right now, he is somewhere in the world, painting or sculpting or photographing or printmaking or drawing, making art. I love all forms of his work, but nevertheless, I’d kind of like to think he’s drawing.

In the spring of 1983, I was an eighteen-year-old suburban kid who had acquired a taste for twentieth century avant-garde art. As such, I was excited to learn that the forthcoming Talking Heads album, Speaking in Tongues, would have a Robert Rauschenberg-designed cover that would be available in an edition of 50,000 copies. I quite liked their previous record, Remain in Light, and was already looking forward to the new album, but this news made the release special for me. The record is on clear vinyl and the cover itself is clear plastic. Inside are three clear LP-size discs on which collages are printed in cyan, magenta, and yellow (the three colors which, along with black, are used in four-color printing). The whole package references Rauschenberg’s 1967 Revolver pieces, which feature motor-driven Plexiglas discs, the movements of which can be controlled by the viewer. He didn’t simply design an album jacket, he rethought what it could be.

The first time I saw actual work of Rauschenberg’s was a few years earlier – I was of high school age – during a family vacation. I don’t recall when exactly this was, or even what city we were in, but I do vividly remember wandering into an art gallery and being confronted by his Chow Bags suite of silkscreen/collage prints. I was already a casual fan of his work, which I’d seen only in books – as was the case with most contemporary art with which I was familiar at the time. Seeing the surfaces of these pieces, with the collage elements and plastic twine, was a significant experience and the impetus for me to learn more about his art. By the time Speaking in Tongues was released, I had read extensively about him and had a good knowledge of his career – my admiration was no longer in any way casual. Since then, I’ve seen a lot of his work in exhibitions both large and small, and my esteem for both the artist and the man has only grown.

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during the winter of 2018, I twice saw Erasing the Rules, a comprehensive, career-spanning Rauschenberg retrospective. The exhibition contained work from the early 1950s to 2007, the year before he passed away. His silkscreen paintings, which were executed from 1962-64, were well-represented; they are among my favorite works from an oeuvre which I regard as as important and notable as anyone’s. In these pieces he expanded on ideas he explored in his earlier transfer drawings, but in a medium which could more vividly reproduce the photographs he was using. His juxtaposition of multiple, disparate images, which may have varying personal associations for individuals as well as wider cultural references, creates a poetic evocativeness which I find very engaging. In addition to the screened imagery, Rauschenberg also employed hand-painted gestural marks which hold the flat surface, opposing the three-dimensional illusion of the photographs. Although he is often credited with bringing imagery back into American painting, Rauschenberg was also intent on following the modernist tenet of keeping the picture plane flat. The resulting push/pull dynamic of this juxtaposition was conceptually very important to me while I was developing an aesthetic for my own work.

Rauschenberg continually expanded his artistic horizons, always utilizing new processes and collaborating with different people. This exploratory nature was an abiding aspect of his career, and Erasing the Rules showed his work to be perhaps the most varied and inventive of the twentieth century.

Don’t get me wrong; he was great. Really, really great. One of the best. But she didn’t need him. Yoko Ono was a respected, successful artist long before she met John Lennon. Of course, when they got together, their whole lives became an artistic collaboration, a two-person performance piece on the global stage. It was a challenge to which, against almost unbelievable adversity, she admirably rose. Like almost everyone, I only became aware of her through her marriage. Unlike a lot of people, I never thought that she was a Dragon Lady, a Svengali, a charlatan, an evil witch – that was racist, sexist, vitriolic character assassination; or that she broke up the Beatles – they didn’t need any help with that. I was a young teenager when I started learning about her work, and it was unlike anything I’d encountered prior. She was my introduction to conceptual art before I even knew the term. Her all-white chess set turned not only what I knew about art, but also the way I thought about it, upside-down.

In July 2002, I saw Yes, a traveling retrospective of Ono’s work which came to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Artistically, she casts as wide a net as anyone in the twentieth century or beyond; her oeuvre includes written instructions, paintings, objects, installations, performances/events, advertising media, films, music – all of which were represented in the exhibition. About twenty-five years after first reading about and seeing photos of them, I finally got to experience White Chess Set and Eternal Time, another piece which jolted my perception when I was thirteen or fourteen. It consists of a clock with neither an hour nor a minute hand, but a stethoscope with which to listen to the continuous beat of a second hand. The kinds of questions these koan-like objects raise – How is chess played when one can’t distinguish between one’s own men and those of the opponent? and What does a clock measure if it doesn’t tell the time? – are at the heart of much of Ono’s work. She invites a questioning of the status quo, a collective meditation on the concepts of possibility, of visualization, of transformation.

Born in Japan and raised both there and in the United States, Ono drew inspiration from Eastern tradition and brought it to the Buddhism-enamoured Western avant-garde. Her poetic sensibility gives her pieces a beauty not generally associated with conceptual art, which she more or less invented with her Instruction Paintings, a series of “imaginary pieces” to be constructed in the reader’s mind:

PAINTING FOR THE WIND

Cut a hole in a bag filled with seeds of any kind
and place the bag where there is wind.

1961 Summer

Ono’s work has always embodied an activist spirit, a (N)utopian optimism which I find admirable and inspirational, if not personally attainable; it has no trace of the irony or cynicism present in much contemporary art. The hopeful nature which has imbued her work since the early 1960s, although not unusual in the counterculture of that decade, is now anomalous to the point of being revolutionary. Like Robert Rauschenberg and Patti Smith, two other of my artistic icons, Ono has the belief that art can be a moral force for good and has the capability to instigate real and positive change in both individual and wide-ranging ways. Don’t you know that you can count me in.

“A dream you dream alone is only a dream – a dream you dream together is reality.” – Yoko Ono

“Yoko’s work is very dangerous. If one is not careful it could get one thinking and may cause one to form an opinion. A subversive notion if there ever was one.” – David Bowie

What is the relationship between activism and art? I believe it is the responsibility of everyone to be socially engaged; for an artist, that may or may not include creating work which addresses the issues of the day. Either way, one can be pushed to the point where action is required – where one is compelled to say something using any available forum. Art is another platform in which to make one’s voice heard.

Barbara Kruger is an artist with something to say and the ability to make captivating art to say it. Her work is as quotable as it is visually arresting; the phrases “Your body is a battleground” and “I shop therefore I am” are familiar to people who wouldn’t recognize her name and have never set foot in an art gallery. In 1999, I twice saw a retrospective, titled simply Barbara Kruger, of her work at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; it was one of the most aggressive and audacious shows I’ve ever seen.

Kruger arranges a relationship between her work and the viewer with phrases regarding different power structures: sexual/gender-based, political, economic. The words come from different “narrators” and are by turns accusatory (“You substantiate our horror”), questioning (“Who dies first?”), exclamatory (“Hate like us”), aphoristic (“Doubt tempers belief with sanity”). These terse, confrontational phrases, along with her visual acuity, combine to make some of the most provocative art of the last forty years.

Barbara Kruger show leaflet (1999). LAMOCA.

In addition to the silkscreens, the show also featured photographs, engravings, lenticular works, sculpture, video, and, perhaps most notably, an installation. One wall was covered, floor to ceiling, with two black and white photos of a screaming face, mirror images of each other, and the words “All violence is the illustration of a pathetic stereotype” in white type on a large black rectangular ground. In a red strip between the photos was a long list of epithets – racial, sexual, religious – which evoked the violence cited in the main text. The other walls, floor, and ceiling were all covered with images and text. Being surrounded by, to be immersed in the piece, had a very visceral impact. Kruger’s work is emotionally hard-hitting, but also invites an intellectual examination of beliefs and behaviors. Incidentally, she can also be very funny.

If you believe in science, civil rights, saving the environment, a woman’s right to choose, taxes for the 1%, healthcare for everyone, if you believe we have the right to peaceful assembly, brownshirts don’t belong in the oval room, Black Lives Matter, immigrants don’t belong in camps – the list goes on and on – please make your voice heard. Please vote.