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 and 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.”

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.

Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure show leaflet (2002); Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.

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.

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:


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

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 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 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 thirty 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