When I point at and say, I like that painting, the one suffused with sulphury light, the golden warm of San Diego’s presunset hour, the painter, William Glen Crooks, replies, “Oh yes, that one. Now that was a California moment.”
That is Portico. It’s a four- by six-foot painting that depicts the semishabby, four-door entrance to an apartment house, built in the Craftsman style. Its four doors, side-by-side, are numbered 1,2,3,4 in italics. Each dixir has latticed windows at the top and each has its own character: 1 is opened, 2 has a wreath and a bamboo curtain behind the windows, 3’s green window curtain is drawn, and 4 picks up the glare of a near-setting sun. Doors 2 and 4 sport floor mats of different sizes; several rectangular mailboxes are off to the left and a potted plant on a curved-leg stand is on the right. Across the entire golden-to-yellow surface — or is it that the surface is being goldened by the sun? — courses a modulating, glaring light.
I ask Crooks how he found this image. In Coronado one day, after lunch with a friend, he went into a CD shop while his friend waited outside on a bench. When Crooks came out, he noticed his friend staring at an apartment house across the street. “Don’t bother me,” the other said, “I’m having a California moment.” Before them was Portico, bathed in a glowing, hyper real light. Crooks returned at the same hour the next day to photograph it. Perfect, he thought: One door is partially open. Suddenly a man appeared and shut the door. “It had to stay half-open,” Crooks says. He knocked and begged, “Excuse me, mister, but I’m a painter, and I need to photograph your front porch here with your door open, so would you mind?” The man gave him that look of “so who isn’t la-la these days in California” and obliged.
From photograph to canvas and with a bit of tweaking in the studio, Crooks says the painting is the instant he saw, that day’s late light trapping the architecture, giving the four-plex its peculiar life. The palmy airlight of Crooks’s palette has trapped something else too. Four lives, unwary of his eye, are also present beyond the four doors—four singles who work at banks or software firms, in their 20s, maybe friends but more the keep-to-them-selves type. The four people in Crooks’s vision are, like each door’s timid individuality, similar yet different, alone and equalized in the architectural division. The isolated, rambling young, which he’s suggested by the light and the arrangement of doors he’s captured, causes us to stop and stare, just as his friend did.
Though many of us crow about the warmth here that drove us from other climes, San Diego’s draw is also — maybe more because it’s less noticed — the light, the sun’s parallel thought. The light is the reason near the beach we face the Pacific at sundown, the reason farther inland we turn toward the opalescent glow off the Cuyamacas. Light shining upon may pull us out of ourselves, toward what one Los Angeleno calls the Southland’s “egoless bliss.” Nothing is as invisibly present in Southern California as the hours and seasons of light and air upon land and city — the diurnal paw of fog and near-day-long noontime sun, the white-specked haze, the glaring late July, the distanceless May, the downy green and poppy-full March, the Technicolor on New Year’s Day when television tourists behold the peacock hues from Pasadena and sing of flowers in bowers that bloom in spring and everything.
Glen Crooks — and other representational artists who have pictured San Diego — see with our particular light. Seeing light, though, is paradoxical: The painter needs the light to see the light and what the light beholds, what it softens, hardens, illumines, darkens. Artists paint light and object as one, and they have been doing so since the French Impressionists brought the illumined moment into painting to stay. This ability to render light is the plein-air or outdoor painter's calling: Capturing the object in the sun or shade despite its passing.
The best painters of any region fix a scene in a way that transcends the religiosity of a “glorious” sky or a “troubled” sea, usually attributed to a sincere but amateur work. The image may be blessed by the painter’s brilliance, by her cockeyed personality, her too-vibrant brush, quirky color, iridescent tone. What’s more, the very notion that a given view is artistic ironically makes it more realistic than the photograph’s snapshot. Indeed, people register a realistic photograph of Balboa Park in the 1920s as too plain, too uninspired, to reflect the past. The real view is a somewhat romantic one when it comes to picturing an area we love.
Thus, that artist-shaped scene of La Jolla Shores on a bright summer’s day is our past. It is San Diego as it was and, some say, as it should be. This may be the foremost delight in picturing San Diego: Regardless of the artist’s presence, the hour, or the historical-cultural moment held at bay—what is interpreted for us we regard as our history.
From Oceanside and San Elijo down the coast to La Jolla Shores and San Diego’s hospitable bay is California’s Costa del Sol, a sandy earth where temperate desert abuts balmy sea. Our coastal heliopolis keeps expanding eastward too, from palms to pines to desert scrub, and soon developers may pave it all. Until then San Diegans have a surfeit of dramatic vistas to see. In recording these vistas, San Diego painters have revealed a permanent nostalgia for something rare in the landscape, an unpeopled, austere beauty.
San Diego’s artistic rose bloomed with the 19th-century advent of French Impressionism, a style that featured spontaneous and direct painting often of an outdoor scene. The homegrown California Impressionists flourished from 1900 to 1930 and worked throughout the Southland. Collectively these artists changed painting forever by going outside, recording the region, and influencing how we see the region for more than 100 years.
The best early San Diego artists were Maurice Braun, Alfred Mitchell, and Charles Reiffel, who rendered our locale with fleeting and lasting impressions of the land, the coast, the sea, and the city. Among the finest contemporary painters who’ve carried on this tradition are Holly Weston, brothers Ken and Robert Goldman, Wade Cline, Carol Leach, and Glen Crooks. Those who sell, buy, or preserve these artists’ work—gallery owner, collector, museum curator—are enraptured by San Diego’s beauty out their windows as well as on their walls. They know, for most of them connect the fragile nature of painting the environment to the dwindling environment itself, that what is most precious about our light and land is also just as difficult to paint and preserve.
Glen Crooks’s Imperial Beach studio smells of turpentine, paint thinner, faint odors of paint. It’s a gritty artist’s lair with dribbles on the tacky vinyl, piles of boxes, discards, cans, rags. To one side is his paint application table — hundreds of scrunched-up tubes, a sheet of mixed oils from which he creates blue shadows and yellow light. On one wall is a picture of his SDSU mentor William Bowne (“an unsung great teacher”), postcards of several Edward Hoppers, a few Wade Cline paintings (a local cityscape artist) that Crooks says he rescued from the trash. “The better ones are in the house,” he laughs. In one corner are a dozen canvas frames, leaning on each other, away from view, paintings or paintings to be.
The messiness belies his marvelous, crystal-light, soft-strong paintings of San Diego city scenes and landscapes. Crooks is perhaps San Diego’s finest representational artist, a judgment most everyone I talked with confirmed. His paintings mix and develop glowing and glaring light in a palpable yellow that preserves or (perhaps) creates a primal atmospheric drama in San Diego spaces we recognize with a fond intimacy. The glowing quality of Crooks’s paintings is nearly tot) much — not to touch.
Suddenly, in mid-interview, he turns a painting from the lean-to stack around to illustrate a point — “it’s like this, this is the fruition of some of what we’ve been talking about” — and it’s a stunner. “These are four guys up at the beach during the sand castle contest.” Four almost life-sized skateboarding teenagers, three foregrounded with shirts off and sag-baggy pants, gawk at us in hardbody poses before a taco shop. The fourth behind them, with a white T-shirt, cap slung low, contrasts the three semi-tough poses: Thumb and little finger stuck out in a “hang loose” gesture. “They commanded me to photograph them — ‘Hey, man, photograph us!’ In the end, I think this guy” — he points to the covered one with the cap slung low — “becomes this enigma.
“The guy on the left will have a lot of luck with the women. The guy on the right is really very tiny. And I’m afraid the guy in the center” — the tilt to his body is most severe, he sucks a cigarette excessively, and his middle-parted hair curls around and then appears under his ears, poised to pop out of place — “is not going to do well in life. He’s a wisecracking guy, looks withered…like a person who’s had an abusive home life.” These boys are all of 17.
Photographing these four was serendipity for Crooks. When he was younger, he says, he might have altered the arrangement of the boys in the photo for “compositional integrity.” But he has quit trying to change what the camera sees. “I just left what life had done in the first place stay put. I found it rather than made it.
“The landscape issue taught me that if I start doctoring things and decide this tree does not look like everyone thinks trees look so I have to fix this tree to look like a tree, then I take all the life and character out of it. I turn it into a stereotype and it’s not the tree that’s there. Trying to he still and allowing this thing to be itself is half the whole process.” His term is “non-ego-driven seeing.”
Crooks’s vision seems to spring energized from his compact frame. He’s in his late 40s, with soft reddish hair and beard, and intensely articulate about his work. “Most painters can’t analyze it; they just do it.” He says he has “no life. I just paint.” A full-timer, he estimates he paints ten times the amount that others do, those who must work at other jobs.
He began at 4 with drawing, at 13 progressed to comics, then, after disastrous unhappiness in high school, where he had no instruction in art, he was “saved” by two teachers, one of whom, a psychology instructor, let him paint in class. He went to college but one year. Crooks, who says representation is in his genes, had the “misfortune” to grow up in the age of Modernism and the post-1960s radical art movements. “Everywhere I went to ask for help on representational painting I was given Modernism. And I felt kind of humiliated for it. I made an assignment for myself. I would buy a notepad filled with a hundred pages of newsprint and I would fill that up with gestural drawings every day. I’d get on the bus and just draw; I’d go someplace, draw on the bus, draw at the place. I did thousands and thousands of drawings because I was trying to teach myself.”
Crooks says he “blundered” into landscape painting after he had learned to draw the figure. “I had this thing lodged in my head that the figure was harder than the landscape, but now I think they’re both pretty hard. Fainting a landscape without a figure has to have another kind of rhythm to it, a whole structure, and there’s a meaning to it that is more divine. Or sacred. Landscape has a biblical quality, but the human being has this — no matter what you do, even a Norman Rockwell, there’s an undercurrent of tragedy. You can have an undercurrent of tragedy in a landscape but it’s a different kind. It’s a big, natural, sweeping thing; it has a whole sense of immortality about it. That’s a thing that human beings get out of land.... If we don’t turn everything into condos,” he says of an Alfred Mitchell print on his wall, “there’ll still be things like that.” Landscape, he says, “is an eternal thing.”
I sense in speaking with him that he’s thought out a natural progression to his artistic evolution. “This last show especially,” the one at the SOMA Gallery in La Jolla late last year, “the figure has been creeping back in and I can’t stop it. For years, there hadn’t been a figure in my work. There was one last December that was this big.” He squinches out an inch-size value with thumb and finger to show me. “It’s like you can’t repress certain things because they [the figure] just want to come back.” Is that a Crooks’s quality, I wonder, and he balks. “Oh no, if I ever thought I was getting to a ‘Crooks’s quality’ I’d probably shoot myself.”
Many of Crooks’s images are of the South Bay — Imperial Beach, Coronado — and east to the “severe and arid” Otay Mesa. “I don’t want paintings that are too pretty. I like them to start out a little on the ugly side because if you start with beauty and then you add the passion and beauty of art, you get gunk. It’s just sickening, it’s so sweet. It’s good to start with something homely and simple and a little battered. You take that and put any amount of beauty and passion and concern for light into it that you want, and you won’t overflow it.”
Is what Crooks sees what is there, or what he wants to be there?
“I desperately try to put down exactly what is there.” He says it’s very hard to get that exactitude outdoors, in the plein-air moment, because “the speed of light really means something when you’re out there.” He says that human beings are “unfortunate” as a species “because we are always busy. Things are constantly glowing and flowing with huge amounts of color and light, and it’s all just blazing in at us.”
The process of art for him is fraught with discovery. “I have found things in me by the process of landscape painting I did not know were there. Emotions. Whether I liked it or not, the harder I struggled to hold still, the more completely what I felt and what I resonated to was placed onto the canvas. It’s some sort of painted Zen. I sometimes feel like I can’t even take credit.”
Glare, with its yellow and orange, is often in his works. He doesn’t paint San Diego noon, as much as sunset, which is softer. The glare colors of the sunset. I ask him to characterize the light in Southern California. “The trouble is for me that every single second is a different set of light circumstances. All of that plein-air light coming in just changes like that” — he snap, snap, snaps his fingers — “like a motion picture. You get one frame per instant and then you’re on to the next thing and in a very short time it’ll change enormously. So to characterize light, any light, anywhere, as having some single property. I’m not up to that. I think, though, that because we have more sunny weather, we have a tendency to have a more golden tone to the light. It’s real easy to see a lot of yellow light and blue shadows. And a certain lavender-pink quality is a very San Diego look.
“I think glare is what light really is. The basic property of light is it’s always moving. Less so on cloudy days but on sunny days that’s a strong characteristic. That’s a San Diego thing, the lack of cloudy days. We have this incredibly voluptuous set of modulations of light. A constant arabesque. Now, mind you, we’re a lazy bunch in this city, so we don’t even look at those things.”
A year ago, Crooks exhibited 18 paintings that were “about glare.” Before that he had done a series of “glare” paintings but nobody saw his intent. They just looked bright. So in the next set he emphasized the glare and light modulations and everyone got it. They all sold.
Crooks talks about halation, a blurring or spreading light that can ring the bright areas of an image. He says a color is added whenever light shines brightly and spills over. If looked at long enough, one can see a color in the shadows right next to the glaring light, a color that’s jumped from the light spectrum into the shadow’s proximity. He calls this “color leap” a “glaring effect. As it comes in, it’s spreading out, refracting out into the room, and you’re seeing the path of that refraction like a comet. And it’s bleeding onto a fiat surface. A painter has to think of these things as going onto a fiat surface. So the fiat surface sees it as the light actually coming into this color. And that’s what I’ve been trying to paint.
“There’s a point,” in the painting of the four doors, he reminds me, “where you can see a sunset in one of the windows. It’s got glare, a very light application of sunset glare, which could have, as I saw it, obliterated everything. But that whole painting is completely unified by using glares as a whole system all across it.”
I recall the startlingly perfect Portico at SOMA. In the same show were several other glare paintings — Straw Geometry with its stacked hay bales on the straight-plowed furrows of a field that become more curved as they approach a road; Morning from Above with its cantilevered hill over the gradations of a traveling yellow light; an exquisite South Bay painting called Slow Dance, with a la/y estuary in the foreground, a palm-topped suburb that peeks out on the middle horizon, and a sky of purple that feels squeezed by the pinkish glare of a rising sun.
And that’s just the beginning. Crooks also produces dozens and dozens of scene paintings. A brilliant painting of the Ramona Theater with its soft 1930s curves and Palace at Sunset, an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet sitting shabbily before a fully rendered 40-foot California palm.
For the light of Portico, Crooks tried to “transform the ordinariness of the image” into something like a celestial event. “The feeling that you are in the presence of a huge celestial light pouring down out of the sky — that’s exactly what that is. But we forget that, that there’s a huge atomic explosion pouring out the substance of existence upon us.”
Does “celestial” carry too much religiosity, I ask, which may not be what he means? He considers it. “Even if there isn’t a God,” he says, “art stumbles into the divine all the time.”
Before California reached statehood in 1850, European-trained American artists came west to paint breathtaking scenes of the state’s natural beauty. Thomas Hill and Albert Bierstadt of the Hudson River School often set up easels in Yosemite Valley, dramatizing their transcendental views of nature — magnificent valleys, mystical dawns, heroic overlooks. Such views were unknown to Eastern buyers and became sudden emblems of a new, spiritualized America. Westward expansion, commercial and aesthetic, was bred on their romantic images of the High Sierra. The spectacular end to America signified as much untouched physical terrain as it did the psychology of a young, westering country: If the great expanse was out there, in the spaciousness of Yosemite, then a similar expanse might be found inward, by the seer and the seeker.
Around 1870 some European and American painters turned away from the idealized vision of these romantics, toward more personal, intimate approaches. Using the open-air techniques’ of landscape artists, the Impressionists reinvigorated art by painting their subjective views of the changing atmosphere upon a scene. Centered in France, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and others portrayed the fluctuating moments of sunlight and shadow as they passed before their easels. Jean Renoir’s 1881 Luncheon of the Boating Party emphasizes the dappled light-coloring of a Sunday soiree, while Gustave Courbet’s Burial at Ornans, crafted only 32 years earlier, portrays the realistic plainness of a peasant funeral. The light effects of Renoir and other French Impressionists have influenced succeeding generations of artists more than the somber tones of Courbet probably because the former’s paintings are simply more beautiful to look at. Impressionists recorded life and life’s passing, fixing objects like cathedral facades, cornfields, rivers, and bays with bold color, especially in morning or evening hours, in fog, mist, or steam. To intensify the passing tableau, color evokes mood; brush strokes are broken, flecked, and daubed quickly.
In the early 1900s, American Impressionists like Childe Hassam summered on the California coast to paint the (Kean coves and cypress bluffs around Monterey. In the south, Elmer Wachtel and his wife, Marion, William Wendt, Guy Rose, and Granville Redmond painted the soft light and high-keyed colors around Laguna Beach. These California Impressionists, particularly in the art colonies that sprang up at Laguna and Pasadena, flourished until 1930. One reason for the Southland’s growth was obvious: Less rain meant more days out painting. And clearer light meant that more of the light itself was seen. Art historian Joachim Smith writes that “To the Southern California painter... light does not always exist to reveal form; sometimes form exists to reveal light.” Available light also conferred a formal difference between European and American Impressionism. Jean Stem, executive director of the Joan Irvine Smith Museum in Irvine, has spoken of the Europeans’ “dissolved form,” as in Monet’s paintings of mist, against the Americans’ “solidity,” as in the Wachtels’ paintings of a sun-sculpted coastline. Thus, because of the bright sun, the California artists sharpened the contrasts. (Contrarily, a tonalist style, darker hues and less light, fit Northern (California.) Southern California paintings were occasionally mistaken for the real thing (as opposed to the artist’s painted reverie) because what they so often picture is the fleeting impression of the land, the sky, or the sea we recognize.
As Eastern and Midwestern Impressionists migrated west to paint what State Librarian Kevin Starr calls California’s “geography of expectations,” so too did people embrace these views with immediate praise and purchase. What they recognized in the images was as beautiful as it was spiritual. Romantic, realistic, or impressionistic, California landscapes possess this complementary inward and outward bounty: They are as private as they are limitless and, as befits our laid-back sensibility, reveal less angst than paintings of other American locales. As if this corner of the country was for—and would, so rendered, always remain for — our meditation.
Once San Diego’s serene climate was discovered by the summering artist, slipping south by train from Laguna, the Impressionist style appeared in most painters’ views of San Diego’s pristine vistas. Clear or occasionally hazy, painting the light was primal. The first Impressionist here was Maurice Braun, a student of William Merritt Chase. Born in Hungary and drawn to San Diego by the Theosophical Society here, Braun arrived in 1909, took a studio on Point Loma, and never left. He is identified as San Diego’s first artist because his images of the rural areas were often exhibited in the art centers of Los Angeles and New York City; his audience was so large and his style so recognizable that his work occasionally suffered from overfamiliarity.
One of Braun’s first pictures of San Diego may be his finest image, the joyously opulent Bay and City of San Diego, 1910. His characteristic muted colors and harmonious hues are upstaged, even glorified, by the panoramic brightness of the light. Lofty, sensual thinking permeates Bay and City— a sparse and distant San Diego sits unassumingly across the bay, under a robust sky of flat-bottomed clouds. Sky and sea share the same baby blues. Soft dunes in the foreground are matched by soft-lined hills in the distance; though clouds parade by, few shadows fall. Today, there is little doubt how important a painting Bay and City was — it combined sea, land, and city in one view; it recorded a historical image in subjective tones; it inaugurated San Diego’s spiritual beauty, giving the scene actuality as well as creating nostalgia for it.
As we know, the city didn’t stay that way for long. In 1942, when war production peaked in San Diego, one writer noted that Braun’s 1910 masterwork was “significant” because the hills “covered with sagebrush in this painting are now thickly dotted with attractive homes; the line of the bay is entirely changed by dredging; a manufacturing plant and an airfield now stand on the ground where there is only blue water in the painting.”
Aesthetic Claim #1 about picturing San Diego: Landscape art records what has changed since the scene was painted. Paradoxically, one reads the history after the painting because the painting has so well defined one particular moment. Claim #1 is followed fast by Aesthetic Claim #2: landscape art renders nostalgia for something immediately bygone. Braun’s 1910 masterpiece captures a San Diego that would have to change, in part, because he has painted it, thereby eliciting the romantic sensibility in subsequent viewers and initiating collectors to preserve it.
Braun’s scenes, of the back-country in particular, are richly impressionistic, his color high-keyed, occasionally vivid. The landscape is clear, classic, and intimate, yet cushioned with a soft haze. His painted scrub is his liveliest element — the seasonal rusts and oranges that overlap the summer greens have great subtlety and drama. His motifs, seashores, meadows, desert vistas, and lakes, lie gently before placid hills. His decorative palette, when seen, creates a hush, then a spell; his work quickly quiets us. And yet despite his way with the light’s softness, the harmony can be overwhelming — the exquisite sagebrush rusts of Summer Moon over El Capitan Mountain, the lavender daring in The Road to the Canyon, the balance of mystical longing and openness in Land of Sunshine.
San Diego’s landscape tradition begins with Braun’s soft, exquisite, serene Impressionism, a meditative space evoked by his unpeopled vistas. Even today, artists like Glen Crooks or Carol Leach, who picture San Diego in harmonious color and reverent spaces, owe much to Braun’s delicacy. He is the one painter before whom curators and collectors remain speechless: What is California about San Diego’s art — a lack of figurative presence, a communion with the countryside, an independence that supersedes competition, an escape into the solitary self — are all unmistakably Braun’s. We are under his spell as much as we are lifted by his spirit. He has captured the peacefulness of San Diego’s landscape so well that we seem poised to value its replication and forget its disappearance.
What painters admire about their subjects is not necessarily what viewers share. Sure, artists love to be praised for their latest oil or pastel, but what they believe they’ve captured is unique, and private. As Dan Hofstadter has written in his book Temperaments: Artists Facing Their Work, “Painters love not exactly their subjects but, rather, what they find paintable in those subjects.” Such is the case with contemporary painters Holly Weston and the Goldman brothers, Ken and Robert. These three artists paint San Diego with Postimpressionist and Expressionist techniques, at times emphasizing abstraction or Fauvist coloring though their images remain representational.
A lifelong resident of San Diego’s North County, Holly Weston recently exhibited Passages: Landscapes from 1988-1998. These suburban-scapes are restricted to hedges, lawns, streets, house or garage corners, in glassy, geometric swaths of green, blue, and lavender with the green outmuscling the other colors. The effect is one of calm and loneliness, and the look, so close to abstraction, is the artist’s intimate landscape, miles from Pantheistic Nature.
“I’ve always tried to eliminate the extra details and busyness that we have,” she said at a talk last December at the Pacific Beach Library gallery. “For me, it’s calmer, more peaceful. You will not find people or cars or much activity going on. They seem very isolated and quiet. At the same time, you don’t know what’s around the corner or where the shadows are coming from. There is some tension; it’s not always peaceful.”
She likes to paint the fantastic images of Banker’s Hill, where “everybody shapes their hedges a little bit different, these neighborhoods are absolutely empty during the day, there’s nothing stirring. So, even if I wanted to eliminate anything, I didn’t have to think about it.”
Why such strong purples and greens for San Diego?
Even though it’s dry here, she says people often “Miracle-Gro” their lawns. “When the light hits the grass, sometimes, it’s just...it does something for me. You can get high from seeing it. The greens are there. If you go out and look, they’re really there. As far as the lavenders and the pinks, it’s a play on the cements, and the light on the asphalt, which, at times, becomes gorgeous lavenders.” She calls the color changes in San Diego “glorious. I may punch it up a little bit, so it’s how I see it. All my areas have well-watered lawns.
“What catches my eye first is the contrast between dark and light.” Her eye is also caught by a landscape’s abstraction, which her works edge toward with their large blocky hedges and severely angled pavements and sidewalks. Abstraction — to let go of the representational — “is so hard,” she says. “I think there will always be a touch of reality because I like a lawn, a sidewalk, and a curb, and that, by itself, can be very, what is it? It just feels good to not have [too much] stuff” in the painting. If there is darkness in her paintings, then “so be it. There is isolation. In general, artists are always tucked away, so it’s always interesting to see how we deal with it. You’re not in an office building,”
An alone life?
“Yeah. By choice.”
Weston shows me her work at her home in Leucadia. Evening Walk comes from dogwalking at night through the suburbs; the painting’s “strong colors of the day would turn into these sinister dark shadows of the evening.” Its bold oranges are cut by the shadow of a cypress tree, coming from outside the picture plane.
Of the light in San Diego, Weston says, “I like how light can ground your subject matter, either be flat with nothing or have such strong shadows that it holds everything down, pulls you in. I try to capture what time of day I’m seeing. I paint in Hawaii a lot, and the light is much different. There’s really never any muck in the sky in Hawaii with the trade winds. It’s just clear. You don’t have a lot of yellow in the sky like here; you get more yellow and oranges and pinks. [San Diego light) can be fuzzy. It gets muted, a lot of gray days. Even when I go out and paint on a gray day, I may not make it as gray as it is.”
Despite the rampant housing development on the coast, Weston says she can still see “the simplicity” in the landscape “and if I don’t I kind of make it.” Ghosts of Batiquitos, 1991, shows the lagoon between Leucadia and Carlsbad and the verdant hills as they were only eight years ago. It’s now Aviara, hill-combing condos girding the Four Seasons Resort and redefining the landscape. “Every year with the rains these hills would glow green and lush. You’d see these wonderful shadows and reflections of green in the water.” Ghosts has horizontal sinewy shapes, shadows, lagoon lines, long undulation of hill, and darkening greens. The slough mirrors what’s in the middle-ground, while the sky appears fingered with tendrils of fog from the ocean. The few trees and two bushes cast heavy shadows. Weston’s style makes an instant memorial to what has passed.
“What I like to do,” says Ken Goldman, who has painted all over San Diego County and lately likes to render in multi-toned pastels the alleyways of Ocean Beach, where he lives, “is to go into areas that are ordinary and try to do something different or new with them, bring an artistic sense to what most people would consider mundane.” He acknowledges that many people don’t understand the lure of the ordinary for the representational artist. “For example, I’ll be painting [in O.B.], looking up the street with my back to the ocean, and people will say, ‘What are you painting?’ and I’ll say, ‘I’m painting the street,’ and they’ll say, ‘Why, you’ve got the ocean, facing that way, isn’t that much more beautiful?’ And I have to think about it for a second and say, ‘No, not really, if you’re interested in the play of light and darkness and values and design, actually there’s more going on up the street for me.’”
When Goldman makes that point, the observer of his work stares at him and says, “Whatever.” He calls it “another score against the eccentric artist.”
Eccentric, though, Goldman is not. He defines himself as a contemporary artist (who’s “still alive”) whose work is not purely representational because “they don’t look like what’s out there. There’s a lot of inventing going on.” He “inclines” toward representation, he says, putting in something “for the viewer to grab ahold of.” In a long career he has done a surprising number of different styles — wildlife drawings for the San Diego Museum of Natural History, oriental brushwork, murals, portraits, landscapes, wood carvings, still lifes, cloud ceilings for theaters and private homes, and continuing work with veiled watercolor painting.
“A lot of people say [to me] you do so many styles, you do so much of this and that, it’s almost as if they’re holding it against me. I just say I’m curious about a lot of things. Landscape painting is very relaxing, though. To go outdoors, I feel, it’s nice to be surrounded by the elements. It’s not relaxing psychologically because you’re often battling nature and the tyranny of what nature has to offer versus your artistic sense of what you’d like to see it become.”
Goldman likes to paint the inland mountains, close to Mexico, around Tecate, he says, “especially for the boulders.” He likes Sunset Cliffs for the “play of light and shadow on the water.” He compares California light to New England’s or the Pacific Northwest’s, where “there’s a haziness to the light that you don’t have here. Here it’s sharp, almost desert-like, but it still has the moisture. It’s either sharp or misty. It doesn’t have that constant mist, which other coastal places have.”
“Smog,” he adds, “is pretty helpful. Sometimes it makes for good atmospheric effects.”
From his lean-to stack, Goldman shows me several views of Ocean Beach alley-ways with steep inclines and stacked vanishing points that intrigue him. The shadows are a rich blue, the pastels not quite bold but colorful. His other pastel plein-air works are highly impressionistic. A view of Kate Sessions Park in early morning.
An intensified carmine view of light over the Prado, “a classical painting with a lot of atmosphere.” A fog rise that plays with several blue shadows in the California palms, wonderfully angled distances and an ambivalence about entering what looks in part foreboding. An even more mysterious dark green and gray look at Famosa Staugh, the last of Ocean Beach’s neighborhood sloughs where shorebirds still reside.
Goldman’s paintings of Carlsbad flower fields in bloom are, like Holly Weston’s views, very distinctive. Goldman plays with the perspective by focusing on the buildings in the distance and blurring the foreground. It works well with fields of red ranunculi: You feel yourself to have stumbled into the blooming, as though on the road to Oz, and the heaviness of the color awakens like a scent the clarity of the distance. As he says, “representational but with lots invented.”
One of his finest San Diego paintings is Morning Shadows on Redwood Street. Goldman remembers painting in Balboa Park with his brother, Robert. “[We] used to work in this field a lot. We called it ‘Brothers’ Field.’ ” In the work, palms line a skinny street before several Spanish-tile-roofed homes. On location Goldman renders the field in watercolor, reds, purples, and golds. Back in the studio he deliberately over-colors with pastels to enrich the undercoat. Goldman’s streetscapes of San Diego often transform our vision with their sharpened values. “I’m not afraid to use color,” he says. “I like to push it.”
Ken’s brother Robert moved recently to Tucson and infrequently returns to paint San Diego. Though his works are hard to find, they can be seen in the Pratt Gallery. Nancy Cary, who teaches writing at City College, owns Robert Goldman’s Last Light, a large image that is dominated by a purple road, radiant sky, and orange-daubed houses. Goldman told Cary that he painted it near 30th and Grape, in South Park, and she and her husband hunted down the actual scene. “He widened the road and took out all of the telephone poles and wires. When we came back and looked, we noticed a lot more emotional intensity in the painting from just standing there.”
Robert Goldman’s paintings of San Diego are noted for their simple structural grids and their Fauve-like colors that both portray and enrapture the emptiness of the scene. Cary told me that “With the title, Last Light, and that time of day, an empty street with cars parked, with no people present, I like the idea that there’s an absence in the painting. I tend to focus on the natural elements — the trees and the light. The road itself speaks about absence and something about suburbia, but I’ve never put it in words. Why would we pick a painting that had such a big road and sky in it? Somehow we just liked the balance and the setting.
“It has that San Diego feel to it. One of my students wrote a [paper] where he said San Diego, for all its attraction with the weather, is kind of a junky-looking city. One of the neat things about this area is the fact that we’ve got great sunsets and interesting weather that makes things look better than what they are.”
Maurice Braun’s most famous pupil was Alfred Mitchell, who lived from 1888 to 1972. He arrived in San Diego early in his life but as an artist bloomed much later. He was seduced in part by Braun’s challenge to make subtle impressions; but he preferred to use sunnier tones for greater contrasts. His landscapes possess a sort of high-toned serenity that often feels more decorative than original. Braun’s expansive colors harmonize and veil his back-country subjects in mystical light. Mitchell’s particular style was much less consistent than his teacher’s.
And yet some of his many images (Mitchell is among the most prolific of the locals) can dazzle. One of his best is Morning on the Bay, 1923. It’s a wonderful view from Seventh Street between Cedar and Date, past the spire of St. Joseph’s Church, toward North Island and what appears to be a smog-trapped Point Loma. Compacted rooftops run along the near horizon with blooming, green, and (seemingly) dead trees. The distance, which the tightness of the foregrounded homes and church stand guard against, is ominous and otherworldly. Mitchell’s characteristic high contrasts are here, but the punishing haze has an equal say.
Mitchell’s work can be studied and picturesque. One collector told me that there are “very good Mitchells and very bad ones.” Some of his paintings have merit as teaching tools, examples done while instructing in the plein air. Mitchell did a good deal of traveling and painting outdoors, but these pictures show off the proverbial tourist enthralled with paradise, as in his images of Mt. Shasta, the Delaware Valley, and Mendocino Countv. But then his La Jolla paintings can be stunning. Look at Summer Sea (on your left as you enter Social Sciences, third floor of the Central Library): It's a dramatic view of the white cliffs above Black’s Beach seen from La Jolla Cove — five wave-obscured boats either ply or struggle with the rising tide.
Aesthetic Claim #3: A landscape painting surely must depict. But that’s never enough. Something else, beyond the decorative portrayal, must emerge. It’s not easy to corral, but it’s the artist’s personal slake in the depiction that captures us. It’s immediately felt in Mitchell's La Jolla paintings. How? For some reason he identified emotionally with the tension between the inviting cove and an ungenerous sea. His awe is palpable, and he resists the decorative (which he was so good at) by emphasizing the fearful side of beauty.
Perhaps the most controversial of our former masters was Charles Reiffel, who, like Maurice Braun, pictured San Diego with utter originality. Before moving west, Reiffel achieved fame in Connecticut as a fellow traveler of the Ashcan School of painters, “apostles of ugliness,” as they were labeled. These artists, during the aughts of 20th-century New York, caught the uncompromising chaos of cities — smokestacks, harbors, traffic, poverty. Their most famous members were the passionate George Bellows and the understated Edward Hopper.
Reiffel moved to San Diego in 1925 and painted here until his death at 79 in 1942. His style combined a near-abstract rendering of almost flattened surfaces with an improvisatory brush rhythm, perhaps too lively (at the time) for the staid, harmonious views that Braun had accustomed San Diegans to. Reiffel’s vitality helped drag San Diego, along with the changes wrought by Modernism and the birth of government-sponsored public art, closer to San Diego inventing itself as an art destination.
Reiffel’s brush stroke undulates as it goes, creating a surface motility that resembles (although a tad less flamboyantly) Vincent van Gogh’s. Reiffel’s Near Old Town, 1929, actively bunches together a rich scene of foreground vegetation from which three things emerge — telephone poles, a squat red house, and the Presidio on a mid-distant hill. Unlike Braun or Mitchell, there’s a forced temporality, a busyness that Reiffel captures — the jittery surface is like painted wind, a bit out of focus. It's a painting that involves you musically with its near-audible balance between movement and stillness. His style was wholly new to San Diego art; it has, to my knowledge, seldom been copied by another artist, while the art leagues of weekend painters spawned copycat Brauns and Mitchells by the hundreds.
In his portraits of San Diego, painted in his 70s, Reiffel further refined his Expressionistic vision. Harbor Night and Rainy Evening, both 1937, are superb urbanscapes, done by a mature and visionary artist. We see clearing and overcast skies, a bumptious city skyline as yet unlofted but full of promise, and a natural evening light that is counterbalanced by the electric lamps and the slickered streets. Reiffel was a patient observer but with a twist — though he established a clear vista, there was a dramatic confession, a surprise to what he saw. San Diego had done more than just arrive. It had snuck in unannounced, all-at-once, big city BOOM! And Reiffel caught it, put it on canvas. His fluid buildings and streets, his churning sky, captivate one’s senses with a sudden lived-in quality that, in the late ’30s, must have felt both old and new. Another work, San Diego Waterfront, 1938, is also alive with an arrested progress — the “waterfront” is now all harbor, teeming with activity, ropelines, docks, ladders, piers, masts, the smoke of fires. Finally, on display at the San Diego Historical Society is one of Reiffel’s very large WPA murals, over 20 feet high, originally hung in Russ Auditorium at San Diego High School. The work shows the city’s ongoing settlement and industrialization amid a benign landscape. Reiffel’s message is clear: The landscape is the source of San Diego’s beauty, and it must remain in balance, in perpetuity, with the new civilization.
As great a painter as Reiffel is, though, his majestic, original work remains underappreciated by the public. But not by artists and critics. Bram Dijkstra’s reprimand of how the San Diego community has treated him stands as the last best word about this master. “That a painter of such imagination and power should still be so completely neglected by the city in which he died, that the San Diego Museum of Art should have a number of the man’s most powerful late works, yet refuse to place any of them on permanent exhibit — preferring to hang minor examples from the oeuvre of ‘big name’ European painters — is a sad demonstration of the continued prevalence in San Diego of a truly provincial conception of sophistication.”
San Diego representational painters have not only captured the county’s rural land and light, they have also rendered the city’s growth from 75,000 in 1920 to 1.5 million at the millennium. Landscape images of the city are called cityscapes — a skyline, a neighborhood, a street, an industrial lot, a strip mall, or the natural environment seen from, and including, the city’s contours. Urban realism also depicts the lived-in grit of modern life, eschews the bucolic, intensifies the abstract. The nonartist may see obvious distinctions between Mission Valley farmland and the Broadway skyline. But the artist sees much less of that. She paints the structural elements — the play of light and shadow on buildings, for example—and leads viewers to complex meanings about the human presence that landscapes are often incapable of rendering.
Indeed, cityscapes surpass landscapes in their portrayal of humankind’s time and place, and thus offer up two essential elements to the idea of landscape: the inevitable psychology of city life (with or without the actual presence of people) and the abstract (that is, humanmade) forms that mass architecture creates.
Of San Diego’s current cityscape painters, Wade Cline is among the most compelling and self-deprecating of artists. I caught up with him at the Pratt Gallery recently, where he and other cityscape painters were featured in a show called Bridge. Cline is stocky and solid, with blue denim shirt hanging out, the brim of his slouchy boater’s hat turned down low. He is honest and playful, candid and critical about himself and his first love — making images of San Diego in rain and fog.
He tells me that he is not the accomplished painter others think he is. He says his paintings have only a “limited scope.” They are “delicate” while others’ works are “more powerful.” He says he’s not a “creative painter.” He just sees it, if he can see it, and then paints it. He accuses, with mordant humor, San Diego’s rich of spending $300,000 for homes and not having the sense to put any good art in them. In the next breath, he celebrates the private “self-pleasure” of doing street scenes and still lifes.
Cline paints the fog and, if fog’s unavailable, the haze. He paints neighborhoods and streets haunted by traces of movement. One such painting is Dove Street. It’s very early and there are two light sources — one from the mist-clad taillights, the other from a porch light just visible behind a tree. Cline walks me toward this work, hanging in a corner of Pratt’s gallery, sweeping his hands across its surface as if the painting radiates. I ask him if he knew ahead of time how crucial those two lone lights would be.
“I’m very aware of the lights in the fog. It’s funny but I hit that just right — with one dab of the brush I got the porch light. The light on the car I just touched with white paint to get a luminescence. But I couldn’t let myself leave it white. It wasn’t right.” So, he says, there’s a faint red over the white, and that spells all the difference.
The composition is wonderful, I say. A telephone pole, with a hair-breadth tilt, splits the canvas, and the foreground covers half the painting. There’s a wide sidewalk alongside the street that curves suddenly to the left, and seems to rise from the air in front of us. “Foregrounds are hard to paint, to get right,” he says, wagging his head.
Just then Cline introduces me to another artist. “You ought to talk to him about all this con-tent-and-light stuff. If you want to know the difference between us. I’m an ‘eye’ ” — he points to his own — “and he’s a ‘soul’ ” — and he points to the man’s chest. The other artist, taken aback, grimaces as though he’s been arrowed with a compliment he had no idea was coming.
Cline works from snapshots, several in fact, from which he cuts and pastes a unique scene. He drives by places he wants to paint but doesn’t always see what’s there. He says that other artists, like Suong Yangchareon, a contemporary realist from Los Angeles, can drive by the same scene that he does, photograph it, and later paint it convincingly. “He sees it, whatever it is that’s there,” Cline says. “It’s discouraging to pursue something which doesn’t yield up enough of these paintings. I only get seven or eight of these [paintings] done a year. That’s not very much.”
Discouragement is a word Cline returns to, like an itch. He says that it was discouraging to go to school in the 1950s when the art departments at UCLA and Berkeley were teeming with Abstract Expressionists, the opposite of what he is drawn to. “I tried to get as conservative an education as I could get,” he says, noting that the teachers couldn’t give him what he wanted. “They did teach me things, but then painting can’t really be taught. It can only be learned by doing it. And it takes years to learn how to do it.”
Cline often paints scenes that attract him more than once. One favorite is the Georgia Street Bridge across University, a block east of Park Boulevard. When Cline heard that the bridge might be tom down, he started painting it and, by now, has done seven renditions. “I’ll paint something a dozen times. Do it over and get it right, get it a little better. Then do it again, hoping to get it even a bit better, and then it turns out worse. God,” he says, with desperation, “painting is hard to do.”
San Diegans know the Georgia Street Bridge — know where it is once it’s identified. But how many of us have actually seen it? Wade Cline sees it as atmospheric, looking east, toward a dawning sun. It’s all gray, in early fog, perhaps a brilliant day coming on. Earliest and last light is, for Cline, much more interesting than the bright sunlight, which always reveals too much. What he paints — or hopes to — is an image that actively resists showing itself.
In his latest Georgia Street Bridge painting, the Roman architecture is emphasized, the clearest image in the fog. The long delicate arch is surmounted by smaller, more vertical arches above it. One car, with lights on and a green traffic light above, is coming at us from the picture plane, seemingly from the sun itself. The car has passed under the bridge, balancing two industrial powers, one moving, the other stationary. Interpretations abound: The car is continuing on unaware or the driver is slowing to consider the feat of the bridge or the viewer is wishing something more were unveiled. Perhaps all this complex ordinariness is imposing itself onto the artist who, in turn, imposes it upon us, belaboring the obvious so that we see where we are and what we have made of this place.
Cline, like the precisionist American painter Charles Sheeler, is giving us the minimum to work with, and we end up working it until we find meaning or else accept its contrariety. Aesthetic Claim #4: The grittiest cityscape painters purposely remind us of things we may not wish to recall (Sometimes, because of their grit, no one buys them either.) Painting the environment that we’re inured to sharpens our confusion, for better and worse. Cline’s diffusing fog and obscure streets his private, no-traffic time of day, his candor about how difficult it is to get any scene onto the canvas — all replicate the doubt that artists (certainly the best ones) face in the fire of creation.
On another afternoon, Doug Pratt says, while we sit among the paintings of local scenes in his gallery, that if anyone wants to see contemporary San Diego, they should look at Wade Cline. “That’s San Diego,” he says nodding his head in the direction of several of Cline’s paintings that line the wall. “He captures it, and I’m not sure I can say exactly what it is. When you’ve looked at his paintings long enough, you start seeing this place differently.”
It’s impossible to corral all the fine painters who have pictured San Diego with occasional or uniform brilliance during the last 100 years. Thumbing through the record, though, I come upon two painters whose individual approach to painting our locale is irrepressible: Belle Baranceanu and John Baldessari.
Baranceanu, who spent the majority of her 86 years in San Diego, had a flair for social realism and modernist technique. She is most regarded for her WPA murals of the 1930s. Among these was a tribute to artistic production, The Seven Arts, painted on the proscenium arch of the La Jolla High School auditorium. According to Anne Weaver, Baranceanu used “the dry fresco technique in which casein pigment was applied directly to the dry surface.” Unfortunately this arch along with much of La Jolla High was tom down as seismically unsafe in 1975.
One of two murals still standing is Scenic View of the Village 1935/36, in the foyer of the La Jolla Post Office. Though soiled, this view shows off Baranceanu’s talent: Everything in this dreamy image of La Jolla and the Cove, as seen from a hill, swirls and curves — roads, cliffs, horizon, sky. Scattered telephone poles without lines and Spanish-style houses hidden in clumps of vegetation reveal a human presence. No traffic, no people—how perfect, the artist seems to say—only the ocean- and wind-whipped fantasy of La Jolla as it was, the fantasy of its location having resisted civilization. The hardest part, Baranceanu said in an interview at the time, was to paint it around the postmaster’s door. “Every time I tried to build the composition. . .it had a tendency to fall apart. I had to work so hard to get all of it organized. Then, too, the La Jollans wanted La Jolla. So I climbed Soledad Mountain. As I went up I made sketches of a little bridge, and some houses, and roads that lead over a hill and seem to just drop off into eternity and the Cove, and the ocean beyond.”
Baranceanu is a unique painter because she embraced Modernism, which flattened and abstracted the picture plane, and she insisted on picturing and celebrating recognizable objects. Her play with perspective did not distort the idea that artists produce harmonious, beautiful images. But the question of what paintings should depict was changing fast. Once nonrepresentational forms became central to artists during the 1940s and 1950s — the heyday of Abstract Expressionism — San Diego per se dried up as a subject for local artists. (The older plein-air painters were still at work and less admired than ever.) It wasn’t until the 1960s that a new method of picturing our locale was attempted. And this in a style that was, like much during the era of protest, adversarial to the traditions of painting itself: Conceptual Art.
During the ’60s John Baldessari was San Diego’s anti-romantic, anti-art artist. His deliberately mundane phototext landscapes in his National City series portrayed his hometown (he later moved on to Santa Monica) in tongue-in-cheek plainness, the sort of thing one sees (and forgets) while stopped at an intersection. Street-labeled images like 18th and Highland or Econ-o- Wash, 14th and Highland had the “artistry” of cast-aside photo sets from Sav-On. Each photo shows a car going by stores, telephone poles, and lamp-posts. Drive-by art. Baldessari wanted his art to knock the chip off the plein-air painter’s shoulder, so he conceptualized an “art” that would take minimal effort to produce — stretch a canvas, attach via photoemulsion a photograph, send it off to a trained sign painter to letter the title on the lower half of the canvas.
In 1996, for an anniversary show of these phototexts, Baldessari returned to the form, this time with color. One particularly loud piece is Sunny Donuts, 724 Highland Avenue, National City, Calif. The photo catches a Yellow Cab with a Pacers sign on top driving by, a yellow Checks Cashed sign on a tower overhead, a red pickup truck, and two banners in Italian colors advertising Espresso, which is for sale in Sunny Donuts. The red pickup and the yellow taxi clash so strongly that we see how color demonizes (or beautifies, depending on your point of view) the city in ways black-and-white photos never did.
Seeing Baldessari’s conceptual art in the broader context of California art history, we sympathize with his taunting depiction of San Diego’s artistic provincialism. The artist (in 1996) described his “fond frustration” with San Diego, a place he says he had to leave: “There should be more than one newspaper in the town. There should be more than one or two art critics. That’s just for openers. The same things still remain 20-plus years after I’ve left San Diego. Why? Everything else has grown. I don’t get it.”
And yet because one avant-garde artist is gone (or driven off) does not mean that traditional artistic styles have won. Baldessari merely limped the outsider’s limp, called as he was to protest the previously accepted means of being original and making beauty in art. Thus, Aesthetic Claim #5 is a lesson in simple tolerance. To favor representation over the nonobjective, or vice versa, is a conceit that excites few people anymore. Gone is the skirmishing of the past 50 years when artists, politicized by abstraction, Vietnam, and feminism, discovered that their work was most often judged by its nearness to the critical and commercial vogue. It no longer matters that any artistic style dominate. Not only is there room for Impressionism and Conceptual Art, for Pop and Photo-Realism, there’s so much well-executed art in Southern California from the previous century that the individual genius of the painter is far more important than the movements and manifestos of American and European art.
Indicative of such individuality is Carol Leach, whose landscape paintings draw attention to our locale because people see in them an idyllic quality they want to preserve. For two decades now Leach has been painting in the Torrey Pines State Reserve, which abuts her home in Del Mar Terrace. Her award-winning oils and pastels feature softened textures of intimate scenes; she creates haunting effects with complex purple shadows beneath everyday eucalyptus trees or Torrey pines in images that are otherwise quite clear. At her studio she showed me several “off-the-trail” paintings in which she renders her vision of the coast’s quixotic nature. “Yesterday I was [in the reserve] and I suddenly realized that I was almost standing right next to those foothills, and yet I was a long way away from them. It was so clear, there was no atmosphere in between at all. We have moisture in the air of the reserve almost automatically, all year long. And then there’s a day like yesterday when it’s absolutely clear.” On those days Leach rushes out to sketch or photograph that peculiar combination of light and shadow. Her work has recently brought a major commission from the Union Bank in Carlsbad. They wanted her to paint specific areas around Carlsbad before the hills and flower fields became tract housing. The result is three large paintings of the Carlsbad Lagoon. Of the preservationist boom in San Diego landscape art, Leach says, “How wonderful it is to have a record of the way it was and to leave a record of the way it is now.”
That some painters, exhausted by this century’s tempest of artistic innovation, would look back to the 19th Century as a means of looking forward to the 21st should not surprise us. Nor should it seem unexpected that painting is again linked to spiritualizing the land. The big new idea is that painting the environment may be part of the path toward saving it.
Collectors of San Diego’s historic paintings are a convivial lot. To enter their homes and offices is to be invited to Christmas dinner with strangers, served plum pudding and eggnog like one of the family. Such chumminess is the hallmark of the committed collector Sharing is key, especially when the share is large. One must be careful, though, around a host of landscape paintings: Just because a work is nicely framed, sits above the mantel, and depicts a bucolic scene does not necessarily mean it’s good. George Bellows once fulminated against those who made the “constant and foolish demand that pictures be ‘beautiful,’ as if Shakespeare [only] wrote love sonnets.” But aesthetic sameness is not a mote in the collector’s eye. Good collectors — those who “buy art for art’s sake” — know exactly what they like, perhaps to a fault. Of those I interviewed, one strain recurred: Collecting landscapes has little to do with investment and everything to do with enriching the soul.
Collectors come together via marriage, like Jim and Estelle Milch and their home chock-full of paintings, or inheritance, like the four generations of the Sefton family, former owners of San Diego Trust and Savings, who’ve acquired a small museum's worth of regional art. The most joyously obsessive of the local collectors are Sharon and Albert Cutri. Dr. Cutri, an oral surgeon and lifelong resident of San Diego, along with wife Sharon, a fine painter in her own right, have devoted much wall space in their new University Heights home to representational paintings by early San Diego and (California Impressionists as well as the occasional contemporary master.
The Cutris began collecting 12 years ago when they were captivated by the work of San Diego plein-air painter Christopher Gerlach. “We saw him painting at La Jolla Shores,” Sharon says. “The next day we saw a notice about his own show at the Orr Gallery. We bought three paintings that night.” One of his Ocean Beach images, a placid Pelican Rock and Doheny Cove with a foreground field of marguerites or coastal sunflowers, is a lofty centerpiece on the archway of their foyer. Another Gerlach Albert describes as “a view from the First Avenue Bridge looking down to the harbor and North Island,” with an “expressive palette” reminiscent of Charles Reiffel.
In the 1980s, Albert, whose handlebar mustache lends an air of play to his passion, would prowl the swap meet on Saturdays, often finding gems anywhere from $10 to $200. Nowadays, he says, “the dealers are out there before I am.”
With collecting, Sharon says she puts “the brakes on. I love to see [a new work], but I don’t need to own any more.” They both acknowledge the habit. “It’s not a bad habit. You could certainly find worse ones.
“Albert,” she goes on, “sees them more in the historical context, the way San Diego used to be, and he’s in love with that because he still remembers San Diego as a lovely rural town.” Albert Cutri was born and raised near the spot where he and his wife live today. For Sharon, though, a painting has “to sing before I own it. It’s something that I want to look at every day and say, ‘How did they do that? How did they capture that light and that color? It’s so spectacular.’ Every now and then there’s a painting that both of us say, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is so wonderful.’ And that’s when we dig a little deeper and,” she laughs, “tell our kids to forget college.” Their collection grew so large that they built a new home at Inspiration Point, which overlooks the heart of Mission Valley.
What about investing in art? “We started buying these things,” Albert says, “thinking they’d be a great savings account for [the kids’] college education, but they’re not.” “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it,” Sharon states. And her husband chimes in, “You better like it because you’re going to live with it a long time. It’s much easier to buy a painting than it is to sell it.”
The Cutris first show me their “high-profile” Alfred Mitchell laundry room, with washer and dryer and a dozen gold-framed paintings and drawings. There are several of Mitchell’s small field studies done with his plein-air classes. “He used to take his little ladies out in his Model-T Ford,” Sharon says, “and they’d go into the backcountry. He’d flatter the women so they’d bring pies. At the end of the day he’d done four little canvases and then he’d cut them [into fours] and give them to the ladies. Aren’t they wonderful?”
Moving through the tri-level house, we admire paintings that outline, stack, crowd, and edge the wall space of each room, the bathrooms and toilet stalls, the dens and foyers. They are hung along a stairway, on archways, beside (and behind) table lamps — all Impressionist scenes of San Diego or early-California views of Nevada Falk at Yosemite or the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena. Fragile, timeless, these quiet forever views of Southern California gone by have made the Cutris’ home a gallery. A backcountry view near Santa Ysabel by Charles Small.
A watercolor by Mary Bell Williams of native California poppies. A gouache of Mission Beach by Charles Safford. A tranquil landscape called San Diego Bay, 1921, by Charles Fries, whose Impressionist works are highly valued by local collectors. Another gouache by Charles Reiffel, Cormorant Cave, in La Jolla. A Maurice Braun looking out on the bay from Braun’s Point Loma home. Mabel Schneider’s image of an old stage stop in Peñasquitos Canyon. Bookmarks handmade by students of Madame Tingley from the Theosophical Society in Point Loma. Paintings signed by unknown artists who painted sea- or cityscapes in the 1930s, no doubt vacationing at the Hotel Del Coronado. A painting of the old San Diego Rowing Club, which is now the Chart House by the Convention Center. Cutri shows me the backside of this painting: On the brittle brown paper is written “Gladys Nelson, O.B. $5.00.” Names, scenes, histories forgotten and yet kept alive by these avid collectors.
In the master bathroom is the Cutris’ George Spangenberg collection. “He’s an almost tragic figure,” says Sharon. “A little bit later, a Postimpressionist feel, he had an alcohol habit and paid off his bar bills in paintings.” One is Snow in the Back Country Around Descanso, another is Road to Julian, another, Early Snowfall Cuyamaca.
On the second floor, Sharon exclaims after looking at an unlighted painting in a dark corner, “We need more light, we need more room, we need a new house, Albert!”
Mission Cliff Gardens — the area of their University Heights home — was once part of San Diego’s Botanical Gardens, a trolley barn and park where, according to Albert, Sundays 100 years ago were spent at a pavilion with music, picnics, painters, plus an ostrich farm. Anything that depicts that time and place, the Cutris collect.
The night I visit them, a rainy evening in December, we step out onto their porch. I shield my tape recorder while they each spread a hand toward Mission Valley. In the drizzle a migration of headlamps streams by the neon of AMC-20 and Seau’s a half mile below.
“I guess we need all that,” I say.
“Do we? Do we really?” Albert replies. Sharon then adds with a laugh, “We’re praying for the 100-year flood. We’ll have ringside seats.”
How utterly different from what’s now overtaking the valley is the next painting they show me. It’s Mission Valley from Mission Cliff Gardens, by George Pearce, and it’s squeezed among other pictures to the right of their bed, a 1922 view (looking east from the same spot where their house now stands) of an alfalfa field, a graded road that is today’s Texas Street, and views of the San Diego River, all of it nestled before Cowles Mountain. “How wonderful,” Albert says, “to at least see the way it was.”
When I visit with attorney Jim Milch at his office on C Street downtown, and later at his and his wife's home in Kensington, an acquisitive delight surfaces, much like the Cutris’. Milch and wife Estelle have been buying San Diego plein-air paintings for 33 years. “It’s a disease that some people have,” Jim Milch tells me from behind the cluttered desk of his 18th-floor office. “Death is the cure, and then it’s an acute burden on your survivors because you don’t necessarily produce collectors to follow you.” Milch’s slow delivery and sharp wit skirmish with his vast anecdotal knowledge of San Diego history and his expertise, the lives of the painters.
“The first 10 or 20 years of collecting, nobody wanted the San Diego artists. They were low-priced. They weren’t sexy. After my wife and I were married, we moved into a Spanish-style house built in the late ’20s, and we found [we had] an appreciation of the same art. Her father had collected similar pieces. And they fit well within that type of a home.
“They’re attractive; they’re easy to live with. The more you’re with them, the more you know about them — and suddenly I’m a genius because I have them,” he laughs. “The rest of the world caught up with me.”
Interest in images of San Diego was, he goes on, “really hot in the late ’80s and early ’90s until the depression or recession hit, and now it seems like it’s happening again. People are willing to spend sizable sums of money for this kind of art.”
Why is he drawn to Impressionism?
“Art is a very individual matter,” Milch says. “I wouldn’t walk across the street to see what’s in the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. But if you look at where the swingers are, that’s where they' are. Into modem art and the Abstract Expressionists. I was joking with someone the other day that my idea of a perfect exhibit in New York is a Mark Rothko [show] in the Guggenheim Museum — I could do it on a skateboard in five minutes.”
I ask why he thinks there’s such a division in the art world. “There’s horses for courses.” What he owns “is not widely accepted high art. The San Diego Museum of Art has a cellar of this stuff and they don’t show it. It’s individual; I like the colors, and the movement.”
To the query of paintings as investment, Milch says, “It’s become an investment. Things that people may have bought 30 years ago have escalated beyond belief. I saw a Braun that went for $140,000. And [that painting] may have been bought for $2000 25 years ago.”
I ask for his favorites. “You can’t favor one child over another,” he gently scolds and takes me on a tour of his small exhibition, which spans more than a century.
Prominently hung in the waiting room is what’s been touted as Charles Reiffel’s best work, Rainy Evening, 1937, a cityscape whose panoramic scene of a bustling San Diego night rocks with rhythm and light. “People have tried to buy that from me, but I don’t have it for sale.”
Sunset Near La Jolla, done about 1885 by F.L Heath, shows Black’s Beach and a grand romantic beyond, a come-to-Jesus sunset, washed in carmines. A couple vistas of alpenglow hills by E.H. Pohl. Another Reiffel urbanscape of an old lumberyard down by San Diego Bay: Woodfire tanks are burning in this post-Depression industrial scene of working-class San Diego.
A few days later I am at their Spanish-style, 1920s Kensington home. By design, large windows and several windowed doors bring in the plant blooms from outside to mix like a garden in Provence with the colors of their Impressionist gallery. Here I find another 50 paintings by San Diego artists. Milch and Estelle, a trim athletic woman, begin the tour by praising a work mounted above the fireplace—four very dark-faced and tough-countenanced California Indians, with wraparound blankets by the legendary George Spangenberg.
“My father was a collector of George Spangenberg,” Estelle says. A resident of San Diego for 20 years during the 1930s and 1940s, Spangenberg, as the Cutris revealed, often traded paintings to pay for bar tabs. Estelle’s father patronized his work to a total of 30 images. Spangenberg painted country hoedowns, ballet dancers, Gramercy Park in New York City, backcountry views of Alpine, and a touching girlhood portrait of Estelle, which hangs in their foyer.
“I was the youngest of four,” Estelle says, “and he did one of each of us. I was thrilled to have this special time [with him]. He was particularly good with little kids. We just chattered away. We went up to our porch over the garage, looking out to San Miguel Mountain, and that’s where he sketched me. He had half of his thumb cut off, so he held the brush in an interesting way. I don’t think I’d ever seen anybody with fingers or thumbs missing. But I was so intrigued with his gentleness and his sweetness.
“The good combination was that my dad had a good eye and a keen interest and not a tremendous amount of funds to spend on fine art. And George Spangenberg had a real need to have a patron. My dad helped set him up with a place to live in Alpine.”
About Spangenberg’s lack of money and purported habit for the bottle: “It’s hard to distinguish if someone has no money because they spent it on booze or if [he] didn’t have much of an income.” Whatever the case, Spangenberg left San Diego in 1950 and wandered back East. In 1964, he died, an apparent suicide.
After viewing Charles Fries’s Rainbow Fleet, 1936, of sailboats on San Diego Bay, and Alfred Mitchell’s Navy Day, a view of Coronado with klieg lights beaming off a night sky, we stop awhile before an image by Alice Klauber. “She was one of the patrons of the art of San Diego,” Jim says. “She had special relationships with some of the great American Impressionists like Robert Henri and Nicolai Fechin and encouraged their participation in the exhibition of 1915 [in San Diego].” This work, from 1928, features Milch’s synagogue. Once he bought the painting, he says, “I took it down to Fifth and Laurel and put it up on the street and suddenly these buildings came into view. This is the Church of Christ Scientist” Part of the painting shows the circular construction of the Fifth Avenue Auto Wash, the first car wash in San Diego. Now the pillars have been incorporated into a Japanese restaurant.
“Remember, up until 20 years ago, nobody wanted these,” Jim says.
Today the majority of these old paintings are in the care of what we might describe as private-home museums. Not available for all to see but certainly better off than in a museum’s basement.
Captain Ted Davies, retired U.S. Navy, a finely dressed and soft-spoken man in his 70s, is my guide for the public side of the Sefton family collection at the Fifth Avenue Financial Centre, home of Sefton Capital Management. I first ask him to recite the family history: Joseph W. Sefton Sr. was a well-known businessman from Dayton, Ohio, who came to San Diego in 1888, built a house at Sixth and Laurel, and founded San Diego Trust and Savings Bank. His son, Joseph W. Sefton Jr., and his grandson, Tom Sefton (who is now in his 90s), sold the bank a few years ago. Harley, Tom’s son, now runs the family’s mutual fund business
Mr. Davies, an architect, came to the bank 21 years ago. “I did a small book on the architecture of the building downtown at Sixth and Broadway, which is about to become a Marriott Hotel.” Davies calls that building one of the city’s finest. “It’s a Romanesque Revival building, and I must say the Marriott Hotel people are doing a beautiful job of preserving it.”
Davies has been instrumental in decorating their new Fifth and Laurel offices, only part of which is devoted to San Diego and California Impressionists. (Also on view are Lionel model trains and dinnerware from passenger trains that once crisscrossed the country.) First up on the tour is a tableau of Leon Bonnet, a contemporary of Braun and Mitchell. Davies says Bonnet is “a subdued and restful painter, (whose works) seldom ever come on the market. One of my roles is to keep up with the value of the paintings for insurance purposes. The family never sells any.”
Next, a hallway of back-country paintings by Maurice Braun. “Braun did so many paintings that it's difficult to match them up with periods. He painted a long time. He was a master of color." Davies shows me three 40- by 50-inch Braun landscapes, which were Tom Sefton’s first purchases. Braun's characteristic softness in these images is sublime.
Davies says that one of Tom Sefton’s favorite artists, whose publications he financed, was Everett Gee Jackson, a local painter who taught at San Diego State for 30 years. “Jackson went through a period of painting like Diego Rivera, the Mexican artist. One of his paintings came up for auction in Pasadena, and we went up and looked at it and decided I would bid on it that night by phone. [The price] got up to where I thought it shouldn’t go any farther. And I quit.”
Of the few Alfred Mitchells on view, Davies says, “I found that he did very fine dramatic paintings, always very crisp, but he tried to do things that didn’t work out. He’d try to put in a mist or have fog rolling in, and it didn’t work. I’ve turned down some of his paintings.” One painting of El Cajon in 1968 by Mitchell (this, toward the end of his life) Davies states is not very distinctive. Though Davies is a very selective buyer, he says he still makes mistakes, which he may not realize until after he’s looked at the work for many years.
Harley Sefton, in between meetings, comes by with files in one hand, coffee in the other. He nods appreciatively at the large Brauns. “They do glow,” he says. “You stand back from them, and they come alive. They shimmer with movement. You can see it, you can feel it, it’s there.”
I ask him what he likes about the older art.
“It’s not me, personally,” he says, “this was all my dad’s. He liked their impressions of where he grew up in the back-country and spent time. I think that was the basis for his interest; it wasn’t to be an art collector. And years later, he had a bit of a collection. He wasn’t an art aficionado, wasn’t anybody who knew much about it. He liked what he saw. These things were far more affordable back then too. There wasn’t the premium there is now. There’s a much bigger following than ever for — what do they call this, plein-air painting? I know other people who are my age who love these things. My interest is purely superficial. I just like to look at them. But other people really get into it, the history, the preservation. That’s why I think it’s growing. It’s awareness; it’s that simple. These [painters] are now being revered as the masters. As they are.”
Regional representational painting, as Harley Sefton has noted, is currently undergoing a renaissance in sales and esteem. The man who jump-started much local interest was Bruce Kamerling. As the San Diego Historical Society curator for 20 years, Kamerling staged in 1988 the Sunlight and Shadow retrospective of Alfred Mitchell. In 1991 he compiled the catalog, 100 Years of Art in San Diego, from 1850 to 1950, selecting one or two works from 50 artists (mostly oil painters) out of the society’s stock of some 900 works of art. With his articles and exhibitions, Kamerling, who died in 1995, led the charge for greater exposure of local masters. Gail Goldman, the public art director of San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture, told me that Kamerling was “a passionate advocate and incredibly knowledgeable individual on California art and architecture. He was a tremendous resource and was very generous with his knowledge.” It was Kamerling who began cataloging the City of San Diego’s 450 works of art (a different lot than what the historical society has stored) and each year successfully solicited the city council for restoration and maintenance funds for this collection.
One beneficiary of Kamerling’s research is San Diego’s downtown Central Library. In 1994, he recommended that 5 of the 14 paintings by California artists from the 1930s owned by the library be restored. The best of the 5 is Springtime in the Orchard by Alfred Mitchell, an impasto-rich impression of a cozy Lakeside farm in bloom. Helga Moore, the deputy director of the library’s Central Division, said that she is hoping to “get more funding from the Commission for Arts and Culture so we can get more [paintings] restored and securely displayed.” Moore also stated that the architects of the new library—wherever it ends up — are by city policy designing the building to include exhibit space tor the library’s regional paintings.
Gallery owners and collectors say that the art market for older California landscapes is booming. It began in the 1980s when, according to Ted Davies, Joan Irvine Smith began buying up the California Impressionists for her Irvine Museum. “I don’t know if you know it,” Davies said, “but she changed the outlook here in terms of cost.” Davies says that she bought up so many things simply because “she had all that money.”
Impressionist paintings bring stability to people’s lives, says Lela Harty of the Robson Gallery. “People are getting less cynical and more home-based. They work at home too, and they enjoy landscapes a lot. They’re peaceful compared to their stressful work spaces.” Harty also thinks that buying landscapes is a reaction to “all the canned things we deal with every day. These paintings are homemade, one-of-a-kind, precious.”
Keith Kelman of the K. Nathan Gallery in La Jolla echoes the sentiment. The California Impressionist paintings he deals in remind people “what California was, [what] the potential for California was, and even though we’ve got so much development, there’s still some of that left. People can still see the natural, unspoiled areas of land. That’s what they’re looking for.” The problem, he says, is not selling San Diego landscape painters; the problem is finding their work.
Nancy Moure, a freelance curator and author of California Art: 450 Years of Painting and Other Media, writes in a recent article for Southwest Art that in addition to an economic turnaround and the galleries’ proximity to the tourist trade, two other causes are feeding the trend in Southland art. First is “the ecology movement of the past 30 years [which] has touched many parts of the art world. Not only have we seen real-estate developers collecting painted views of areas they are about to despoil, but [one painter] tells how he and others now travel to little-known Peñasquitos Canyon in San Diego’s back-country to find undefiled nature.”
In Pasadena, the home of the California Art Club, one of the oldest plein-air groups in the state, a weeklong event was held recently at which artists painted areas in Riverside County slated for development. Their works were then sold to raise funds for preservationist activities.
Second, Moure cites the political upheaval in Russia and China and the consequent Pan-Pacific immigration to California. “These immigrants,” she writes, “have been 'encouraged’ toward realism and away from ‘revolutionary modernist styles.’ [They] have settled in Southern California, joined art clubs and turned their technical expertise to subjects that are salable to an American audience." She notes that the cashless Russians are selling their hoards of representational art, some of it by California artists, to westerners with deep pockets.
Doug Pratt of the Pratt Gallery tells the proverbial get-rich-quick anecdote about the unidentified family jewel. “One guy saw the name ‘Mitchell’ on a painting in a La Jolla gallery where it was selling for a lot of money. He said to his wife, ‘Honey, that’s the name on the painting we have at home.’ [Theirs] was of the Emerald Cove in La Jolla, so you can be sure it would command a good price. The man had it appraised at $20,000 but sold it for $12,000. It had the original price tag —325 bucks — on the back.”
Pratt describes the painters he shows (among them Wade Cline, Carol Leach, Suong Yangchareon) as “the embodiment, the natural progression of the early California landscape painters.” One artist Pratt exhibits and admires is Geoffrey Krueger. Krueger paints landscapes in symmetry—orange groves and banks of trees in slant light, enshrouded in mist. The paintings are mysterious, dense, tactile, and each one, in spite of its symmetry, contains hints of imbalance: a tiny light on a telephone pole, for example, that’s not repeated on the other side. The effect is eerie because we feel what’s missing is more significant than it actually is.
Artists paint, collectors buy, galleries show, and the three seem synergistically cozy. With so many gloriously painted scenes of San Diego’s natural and human-made surroundings watched over by the eyes (and security systems) of collectors, galleries, and museums, it seems there’d be nothing but open arms and shared resources in San Diego’s arts community. Wade Cline’s claim about the “real value” of painting — to help us see our world more clearly—would be, just as clearly, the majority view.
But it’s not that simple. Collectors are conservationists by nature — what they own costs money and time to buy, insure, house, show, and loan. Although the collector is on occasion called to lend her work for an exhibition, collectors are not public museums. Nor are collectors the best critics of what’s good. They’re more like the artists’ champions. It falls to the curators (critic-cum-preserver) to label good art aesthetically worthy in a world of Hollywood schlock and Elvis on velvet. For better or worse, the public’s taste in art is left to those who select works for public view. The galleries may sell fine art and thereby make judgments, but the museums exhibit, catalog, publish, and pass it on as the community’s identity. What these institutions show determines, especially as long lines of docent-led schoolchildren snake their way through the galleries, what the public believes art is, and should be. What museums don’t show is what people define as not art. Thus, as long as there are curators making such decisions, there is controversy.
For most of San Diego’s history, the decision of who decides what is shown is found in the community’s shifting self-image, San Diego as both a provincial and a cosmopolitan enclave. Bram Dijkstra, in his preface to Robert Perine’s 1988 San Diego Artists, cited one original culprit. In 1915, Alice Klauber, who had studied with major modern painters in New York, and was a San Diego artist of some renown, wanted to put our fair city on the artistic map. She invited her teacher, Robert Henri, to plan the Panama-California Exposition in newly constructed Balboa Park. Henri, in turn, chose the work of his eastern colleagues, including John Sloan, William Merritt Chase, and Maurice Prendergast. The exposition itself, however, was bent on celebrating San Diego’s uniqueness — its proximity to the new Panama Canal, its Spanish heritage at Old Town and along the Mission Trail, its impending boom in rail-end real estate. Although local painters did have their own juried show, the majority of the artwork was brought in from elsewhere. Why? To make it seem as though San Diego was just as well-bred as any other emerging metropolis in its ability to recognize the finest art in the country.
San Diego’s art face was cast as a mask — the inward-looking grimace behind the out-ward-appearing grin. Dijkstra called it “a problem which has consistently dogged the San Diego art scene to this day.” We seem to continually play out the farce: Enthralled with the possibility of being more than a western province, we look elsewhere for self-definition and thus shortchange our finest artists who have said, in their paintings at least, that our strength is our tradition, our locale, our light — not our subservience to another venue. Which in the American art world means, first, New York and second, San Francisco. Such is the tale Modernism tells in a geographically hierarchical culture: the shock of the new so beloved by the critics versus an allegiance to the past embraced by the public. Every museum and historical-society curator, every plein-air and studio painter, every collector who may or may not donate his or her treasure to an exhibit space has faced — and lost face to — San Diego’s cultural insecurity.
Though civil, the controversy surrounding San Diego’s art scene is more pressing than ever, now that so many fine canvases have been painted, now that the private collections are bursting their seams, now that collectors, curators, and the public are aware of how grand our regional art history is. All this raises a big question: What responsibility do our museums and historical societies have in preserving and showing regional masters?
Answering that loaded query is not easy for any museum head. It’s especially tough after Martin Petersen, the former curator of American Art at the San Diego Museum of Art, responded enthusiastically to our local plein-air heritage by writing Second Nature: Four Early San Diego Landscape Painters. With two dozen selections each of Charles Fries, Maurice Braun, Alfred Mitchell, and Charles Reiffel, Petersen’s 1991 book cataloged a very successful show at the museum that has galvanized a new appreciation for San Diego’s historic artists.
Petersen’s successor at the museum is Scott Atkinson, who, with Rochelle McReynolds, the deputy director of development, spoke to me recently in the rabbit warren of administrative offices that crowds the building’s basement. I first ask them to define the museum’s role. “Its main role,” says Atkinson, a veteran curator hired in 1997, “is to collect and preserve and present examples of fine art that represent American and world cultures. And to interpret. Interpret to the public so that they not only see an object but they understand it and its relevancy to them or to a culture.” McReynolds, who is responsible for raising funds for exhibitions and programs for the museum, says that part of her mission is to entice people to come in via programs. “There is a way of building an audience for a museum through youth-education programs, dance programs, music programs, all tied directly to the exhibition.”
Atkinson says the museum serves, first, the community of San Diego and, second, the parks visitors. McReynolds adds, “We serve locally, we serve regionally, and now we’re serving globally. Because of the high influx [of tourists) with exhibitions like Monet" — Monet at Giverny was their 1998 “blockbuster” show, the term for the museum’s newest pot of gold — “the Museum of Art is becoming a natural word for people who don’t necessarily live in San Diego.” With four curators at the museum — one each for American, European, Contemporary, and Asian art — the focus has become “much more global in thinking than just localized to San Diego.”
Atkinson calls the art-viewing patrons more sophisticated than ever. “People in a community the size of this one, the sixth largest in the country, are expecting to see international exhibitions. These exhibitions are the kind that please, that bring people into the museum so they become familiar not only with that exhibition but with our collection.”
Is there a conflict between the museum’s regional and global mission?
“There’s definitely a pull,” Atkinson says. “It’s easy for the regional mission to get pushed aside when we’re dealing with Monet. I wish I had a gallery, even a small gallery, where I could keep the California school up. We do that with our contemporary area, and it would be nice to do it with more historical work.”
Although I’m shocked to hear it, McReynolds remarks with aplomb that only 6 percent of what the museum owns is up! And that is the national museum average! “Ten percent would be a lot,” Atkinson explains. “But when you take that number, you have to be careful. We’re counting every single piece of paper, prints, drawings, watercolors, things that sit in storage for years before they’re ever actually used. We could fill up several museums with what we have.”
How does all that affect what’s defined as the “permanent” display?
“The old master galleries are pretty permanent,” Atkinson says. “There are certain long-term things that are always going to be up. The Giorgione is always going to be up. There are signature works of art for every institution. We have to consider everything we collect as important, but within that there is a hierarchy. Some things are more important than others. So if you have the only Giorgione in North America, it’s pretty darn important. We have Spanish baroque paintings that are unusual to see outside of Spain.”
One response to the call for showing more local art will be Pacific Arcadia, an exhibit organized by the Stanford University Art Museum scheduled for later this year. Atkinson says it will focus on representations of California from 1600, the time of the Spanish exploration, to 1915. “California is a unique state in that it's been packaged and sold to the rest of the country and the world in a way that really no other state has. What I want to do, to spin off of that show with my own little exhibition, an ancillary component, if you will, is to talk about San Diego as an Arcadia and bring images to bear on us locally. Given the coastal environment we live in, as well as the artificial environment we built in Balboa Park, San Diego was really envisioned by the founders of the city as an Arcadian landscape. I’m looking to pull together some paintings from about 1870 to 1925 that do this.”
Down the Prado at the San Diego Historical Society is Bruce Kamerling’s successor, the new curator of collections, Jennifer Luksic. A vibrant woman, Luksic’s been in the business of “material culture” for 20 years. She oversees the collections at the Balboa Park site and the Serra Museum, the Villa Montezuma, and the Marston House, three San Diego architectural landmarks. Also, she’s planning new exhibits at the historical society and a capital campaign to raise money. Only half of their Balboa Park site is finished. The back room is as large as the front display area.
Luksic, a native San Diegan who worked at the Smithsonian, becomes animated by a question about our self-image. She believes people here are perennially trying to define themselves. “We always try to look to other areas to compare ourselves. Even the structure here [in Balboa Park] is a Spanish Colonial. Who are we? It’s a big idea but I’d like to address those issues in our exhibits.” Luksic says that in the old days, the curator, usually a white male, had the attitude that “because I’m the curator, I’m going to tell you what I think.” The new thinking is to overthrow the Great Man View with one more inclusive, less hierarchical — to fit the curriculum of the schools, to draw on other cultures that have been underrepresented, and to emphasize different learning styles, moving away from Don’t Touch and moving to Please Touch.
“History tends to be viewed differently at different times,” Luksic says. She hates the word “permanent" when attached to exhibits because it precludes updating or changing an institution’s persona. “If we’re going to learn more history, it has to be something we can apply to our lives now. Yes, there are basic facts. This event happened, that event happened. But how you interpret that event or the significance you place on that event is going to change.
“One thing we don’t do well in San Diego is (focus on] other groups. We basically have white male groups represented. We don’t have a lot of Chinese-American or African-American artifacts. You look at images of the Horton days in New Town with muddy streets, and there’s a Chinese restaurant. The result of that, you’ve got the Chinese Historical Society because we didn’t fill those needs."
In the building’s basement, Tammi Bennett, the registrar, joins Luksic and me. Bennett’s job is to put her eyes on and record everything that comes in. She walks us through an administrative area, where file cabinets and paper-piled desks are packed together, then into the huge main storage room. The sudden odor is a mothball musk like an old university library. Floor-to-ceiling metal shelves hold hundreds of gray boxes inside which are textiles or other artifacts, wrapped in acid-free paper and identified by color photographs on each box’s edge.
Bennett insists the historical society is a museum, more than just an archive, which is what most people regard it as. “We’re more than just collectors of Grandma’s quilts,” she says. The society has around 20 percent of what it owns on display, which includes the three properties they oversee and which also compares favorably to the Museum of Art’s 6 percent. Their total, Bennett says, not including photographs, is “17,000 pieces, from tie tacks on up to a Model-T.”
Bennett, who worked with Kamerling, says that when he started in the 1970s, “the bulk of the [painting] collection was portraits of local citizens.” Surprisingly, many portraits of noted and less noted San Diegans were done by women artists. It was Kamerling, she tells me, who started acquiring the local plein-air painters, Mitchell, Braun, and Bonnet.
While Bennett escorts us into a darkened, sequestered art room and shows off rack after rack of portraits by women artists and landscapes by men, Luksic reminds me that the goal of the historical society is not “necessarily to collect. We don’t want to get our hands on this stuff just to collect it.” I may be wrong, but I hear her voice strain on “this stuff” as too much — as if a great (and exhausting) divide exists between the small amount that the curator can exhibit and the mounting mass of materials that she must hold on to because one day even the tiniest treasure maybe resurrected and shown.
And ,yet regardless of the museum’s and the historical society’s intentions to preserve and exhibit what they can, the view from the gallery owners and the collectors is much different.
Most I spoke with censured the Museum of Art in particular for not featuring the regional masters. Keith Kelman of the K. Nathan Gallery says that even though they install Monet at Giverny, “those paintings are not his best work. They are late in his life when his creativity was failing, and the show itself was quite small. Perhaps the public doesn’t realize what they’re missing.” The museum, he states, has no interest in showing early California works from their collection. He calls the institution uncooperative. “Regional artists,” he says, “are usually the focus of a regional museum. In our case, they look for things that will sell better to the public.”
Scott White of the SOMA Gallery in La Jolla is also discouraged. He believes the museum staff has not “gone out to see what’s happening in San Diego. They’re supposed to be ahead of the times, but they’re definitely behind the times. Let’s face it; they’ve got to make money. They’ve got to bring in what they hope are blockbuster shows, that will draw attention, pay the revenues, raise some funds, and keep the museum going. Why not try to bring the contemporary collector and the traditional collector in and merge those two interests. Why not do an exhibit that shows these great painters of 1915 and after and take it upon themselves to create something uniquely different. That would be more interesting and increase their audience.”
Perhaps most worrisome is the effect of the museum’s policies upon potential donors like the Cutris and the Milches. Albert Cutri says he would like to see a regional museum that would keep and show his and others’ donations, even periodically. Such a project needs a wealthy person to fund it, he says, and someone else to “spearhead” the acquisitions, “a curator who gets people to donate or loan their paintings. Just insuring a collection would be hard.”
Estelle and Jim Milch are less hopeful about the future of their collection. “I’ve recently become involved on a Museum of Art acquisitions committee,” Jim Milch says. “Maybe we can generate a greater interest at the museum level of taking some pride in our local artists to the point of showing them. It always hurts me to see at auction paintings of these artists that have been deaccessioned from the historical society because they have no room to display them. To me and people like me that is a turnoff to giving to these entities because they’re not obligated to keep the paintings and, depending upon the vagaries of the administration, they’ll say let’s get rid of this crap. And sell them. That’s always the right of the administration, to sell them.
“Nothing lasts forever, obviously. Three hundred years from now no one will know much of what we did. But when you have a structure dedicated to San Diego art, there’s a better chance of those things sticking around. A few years ago the historical society had a great scholar, a wonderful man, Bruce Kamerling, who was one of the major researchers about San Diego artists. He has passed away, and nobody has filled his shoes.”
Estelle Milch thinks there is no “hard core” at the museum or the historical society that is pushing for a new space. If there were something permanent, she says, people would donate. But, “at this point, I wouldn’t consider donating any of our paintings. If I knew they had a secure place where they would be shown and appreciated, I’d feel comfortable. Otherwise, not.
“People who have collections love to share. I’ve reached a point in my life now that I can see clearly: I am a caretaker for these. For the brief time I’m going to be around, they’ve really enhanced my life, and I’ve loved having them. But I would feel more comfortable if even a portion of them could be in a permanent collection in San Diego where everyone could see them."
As for San Diego’s self-image, she says, “We’re still getting over the inferiority complex of being a backwater Los Angeles.” Estelle Milch maintains that we have to “grow up” in order to honor our artistic past. “Be mature enough as a city. Until there is enough appreciation for what San Diego has produced in art, we’re going to have trouble having a permanent exhibit.”
I put the question of donor demands to Scott Atkinson. “Some donors say, ‘I’d like to donate this, use it as you will, or you can sell it.’ Others say, ‘I’ll give you this collection, but you have to build a wing and name it after me.’ This happens,” he says, “but generally people are much more on the accommodating side."
And what about collectors who feel they don't want to give you their works because the museum probably won’t show them on a regular basis?
“It always dampens the interest of prospective donors,” he says, “if their work is going to come into a museum and be stored. But again, most of the collection is stored. It is a rare, happy painting that is out most of the time. The value of a collection is not that it’s all up, all the time. The value of a collection is that it is part of a whole. If a person’s donation is accepted into a collection, it’s therefore stated as being valuable.”
The museum is interested in quality donations of any kind, Atkinson stresses, and he doesn’t want anyone to think it’s not. “One of the reasons I want to do San Diego Arcadia is to send a message that we are interested in here. I’m the new curator of American art, and I want people to know I’m interested and the institution’s interested, and I hope they are.”
Atkinson and McReynolds confirm that there is talk of a new wing at the museum, but it’s too early to provide details. “There’s no secret agenda here. Just stating the obvious,” Atkinson says. “You can only build up so high in the park.” Despite the large amount of collected art in San Diego, Atkinson still has heard no discussion of a regional museum. “I don’t know of any municipality in the region,” he offers, “that’s going to say we want to build a museum dedicated to Southern California painting. Maybe Joan Irvine will...”
At the historical society Jennifer Luksic says that every donation is evaluated case by case. “We try not to take restrictive gifts. Anytime a person says, TU give this, but you have to — ’ basically that’s restricting the public. If they say, ‘I’m going to give this to you, but I want it on display forever,’ two things happen there. One is the public has to look at it forever, and that’s a restriction. And second, that doesn’t help us do our job. If it’s not in the right condition to be put on display forever, it would be better for the painting to be put in storage, [but because] we’ve got a restriction on it, we can’t do our job. We try not to take any restrictions. If this is a gift, it is a complete gift, copyright, ownership, everything. That way we can determine whether it can go on display, when and where, because it’s very costly to store collections.”
What does she think of those who are wary of giving artwork because they feel the historical society may get rid of it?
Luksic says that they first ask people about their intention to donate a particular work. She describes two classes of gifts — an object will go into the collection or it can be used for educational purposes; in other words, it won’t follow the rigorous standards of preservation. It’s rare that they sell something unless the donor has stipulated it can be sold. “My approach is, you don’t accession [a piece] if you think you intend to deaccession it. I prefer not to take it on the front end. I don’t like deaccessioning. The whole point of why people donate to you is that they feel these things are like their children.” She rejects the notion that donations are taken only to be resold later. “The money is not an issue with us.” What is an issue, she reiterates, is their commitment to keeping and exhibiting what they already have.
In a society that tends more and more to devalue the public ownership of its material culture, preserving art for the people falls to those who can afford it. The privilege, though, comes with a paradox. Sharon Cutri emphasized the buying habits of Joan Irvine Smith as “very ironical.” She is the one developer who has made money off both building housing developments in Orange County and then turning the profits into new profits by purchasing works for her Irvine Museum. In effect, she has bought up—and raised the ante on — the California Impressionists who painted what she, in part, helped to destroy. I’m not sure that San Diego has the deep-pocket equivalent to what one art dealer called “Joan I-Own-California.” But, if we follow Orange County’s lead, our “paintable” landscapes will fall to the developers quicker than we can blink.
Another certainty. In San Diego’s art scene, museums are the haunted woods and the curators are the bogeymen. Damned if they do or don’t, their juggling act between popular taste and regional identity vexes nearly everyone. One man told me he was appalled that five Georgia O’Keeffe paintings have been on “permanent” view at the museum for years, yet not one piece by a regional artist is on display. And, he scoffed, “those O’Keeffes are not her best works!” Timothy Field of the San Diego Art Institute wondered why the museum has set itself up as a global entity. What was so wrong with its pre-blockbuster status? What happens, he asked, to all the money that these big-top shows generate? Should the proceeds support more regional exhibitions? At what point does our museum’s ledger (and this is true for every major museum in America) get so bloated on its blockbuster mentality that it exists only to feed that 300-pound gorilla? Will the fortunes of the regional artist be any different in 1999 now that Rea and Lela Axline have bequeathed $30 million to the Museum of Art’s endowment?
Museums are institutions that both privatize and make public the vagaries of art and taste. As museums internationalize themselves with large, popular shows, the influx of acquisitions makes their exhibitions more selective. The more they own, the less they show. And yet, if museums don’t show with any regularity what collectors have donated, are those works and their history necessarily lost? Is a region’s past also lost?
I’m not sure that museums are the sole entity responsible for a region’s cultural preservation. While I agree that San Diego’s art venues should show more of our local treasure, it is difficult for museums to adequately represent the work they have and continue to acquire. One hundred years ago a museum was more like a gallery, collecting and showing the best of the local work. In fact, San Diego museums once showed the California Impressionists on a regular basis, before so much new art demanded to be seen. Today, though, the desire to collect world-art treasures along with the phenomenal productivity of good art in the 20th Century are fueling more, not less, interest. The accumulation of quality work, which one television tour of the Guggenheim has revealed, makes the traditional art museum look like Imelda Marcos’s closet. Consider the oceanic Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which, according to some, takes at least a week to see. A library may hold and circulate all the books, but a museum can neither hold nor show all of its art.
Nowadays people travel so effortlessly and read so widely that their tastes outpace what museums offer. In addition, the proliferation of galleries, public artwork and public art programs, artist’s studio tours, art on the Internet — which are all ubiquitous and free — make up an open, accessible network of venues where art reaches an audience far vaster than it does within the museum walls. When one considers what museums and collectors have preserved — and argue about showing — their selections do not begin to encompass what painters and patrons find valuable and literally can find with a bit of get-up-and-go.
Nor is it practical to think that building a home for regional art will give San Diego its artistic terra firma. Consider that even the regional art museum would eventually become an institution, would be unable to show all of its holdings, and, in the age of nuilti-culturalism, would be susceptible to arguments about which of several San Diego histories it should emphasize. There is no purity, no perfect solution. Granted, San Diego’s tradition of representational art is underappreciated by our institutions. But asking institutions to fix the problem is like asking the government to fix poverty or educate its citizens. They play a role in the great mix, and nothing more.
And yet something deeper remains, a psychology of place that San Diego still can’t shake. This psychology goes beyond what is California about San Diego art. It runs to what is San Diego about San Diego’s images of itself. Nature, independence over competition, freedom from the academic and curatorial hierarchies— these are the traits that drive representational painters in California. But in San Diego there’s an additional level to contend with, a sort of guilt in paradise. It’s almost as though we feel it’s wrong to complain about anything because as San Diegans we’ve grown used to natural beauty and independence, to escape and glorious vistas. We’re naturally protective of what is undespoiled in this locale because we believe it is also in ourselves. San Diego’s sensibility seems rooted in this protectiveness for the province. Consequently, if we build a regional museum, if we permanently honor our painters and their ongoing vision of the locale, if we become as self-conscious of what we’ve collected as we know New Yorkers and San Franciscans are with their art legacies, then — voilà — we risk becoming more like those places whose worldliness we’ve escaped and dispelled. Once the province succeeds in becoming part of the kingdom, the province’s conflicted identity will evaporate. And the province will finally have grown up.
Is that it? Is that what we do and what we don’t want?
Aaron St. John, Tom Voss, Marjorie Taylor, Daryl Millard, Ken Roberts, Donald Freymuth, Christa Thurber — seven Impressionists and members of the California Art Club, San Diego chapter, are setting up easels on sandstone ridges along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard in O.B. They call it a “paint-out,” and today they’ll plein-air paint the coastline, together and alone. A blustery January noon, the sky a flannel gray, and five of the artists have spaced them selves 50 feet apart while two secure vantages above them. Seven French easels, wing-nut-screwed into place, stand like rickety Trojan horses — four spindly legs support a pyramidal rack on which the canvas is held; a palette shelf sticks out waist-high for the oils, whose curled tubes are stuffed in a tiny drawer. The overcast persists — no breaking-through light as yet — and the sea is roiling 40 feet below the edge, in eddies and vengeful pools. The tide surges, slap-S-P-R-A-Y-ing the rock. Surfers, farther out, wait for waves.
The hardest part is choosing the spot, Tom Voss tells me. “Sometimes you’re halfway through a painting before you realize you’ve set up in the wrong spot.” Unlike the others, Voss has to leave in less than an hour, so he’s quickly sketching the horizon line on a canvas “preprepared” with a textured primer. Some of his cohorts will paint until sundown, hoping to capture if not the one then an accumulation of moments before them.
Don Freymuth, who surfs this spot and has painted here before, finds his main focus, a rocky spit of land under which the relentless swells have hollowed a grotto. “This is a key spot in San Diego,” he says. “It’s very dramatic when the water —” and the spray spatters ka-WHOOSH, 20 feet high. “That’ll be my secondary focus.” Freymuth arranges a chromatic palette, three color areas of grays, tints, and darks. Then he “pre-mixes” them with a diamond-blade spatula knife. Pointing to each color group, he says, “there’s my cools, the water. There’s the land. There’s some water and land. It’s mostly tonal today with the grays.” The wind kicks up and his paperboard palette flaps loudly like a propeller. Below us, a surfer toes the slickered rock, then baby-steps onto a mossy green ledge.
Daryl Millard, a seasoned plein-air pro from Australia, quickly sketches shapes on his primed canvas. His colors are neatly cubicled in a plastic box. “A lot of painters take a while to figure out their setups. But I’m ready to go anywhere, on my bike or in my van.” Aaron St. John, sporting a straw hat with an upturned brim that’s rawhide-cinched under his chin, is more methodical. After long gazing, he’s chosen a view where breakers run on to, then gleam off of, the rock’s surface. “See how much darker it is there than in the dry area?” He points with his brush like a conductor. “It’s got a slick feel to it which I’ll try to reproduce.” He begins “blocking” in the basic forms. “If you don’t take enough time at the beginning, then you spend all your time at the end trying to fix it.” Tall Ken Roberts with a tall easel to match says he’s looking first for “masses and patterns of the sky, the ocean, and the cliffs. I get my general colors for those, then fill in the detail.”
The grayness is far more interesting than I’d noticed. Back beside Tom Voss, he says that San Diego’s skies sometimes possess “a little bit of every color in them, but then certain colors (will) dominate. So on a gray sky like today you mix colors that will knock each other out. This color”—a blue-gray— “will knock this color”—a less-blue-gray — “down to a pure gray. Then I bring in another color [a touch of brown] to make it a warm gray.”
In a white wool sweater, Marjorie Taylor is painting quickly. She likes the contrast “between the darks of the cliffs and the lighter color of the water and also that little bit of green you can see from the ice plant.” She paints right on the canvas, wants to “get away from drawing,” a technique too niggling for those skilled in landscape. "When I paint I want to look at the big shapes.” Twenty minutes later, after I’ve made another round, she tells me that considering the ocean and the time of day, the tide is changing. “The waves are going to be different, and so partway through I may decide to shift something. You take your choice; every second there’s a different painting.”
Christa Thurber, new to the plein-air trade, is on the ridge top, closer to the parking area. The wind is stronger here, I say, but she doesn’t mind it. Even though it’s a misty day, she sees a “blue that dominates, yet there’s also a clear light green in the water. The first thing that goes through my mind is which colors express the mood I’m seeing.” Then she wonders whether the “golden sunset light” will appear. "Should I not count on that today?” How much will she adjust? “The day changes, and you can capture many hours of the day together. Sometimes a glimmer of light comes, and you hold that in your mind.” When she highlights the painting at the end, she’ll remember that light and put it in.
Don Freymuth says now he’s trying to anchor the eye between his two focal points, the grotto and the water spray on the rock. He’s color-sketched several bands of browns, blues, and greens along with the rock shapes: The fore-, middle-, and backgrounds are stacked and hazily clear. “Right now,” he says, “you’re going to see what I see when I squint. But first I’m getting all the structure. That’s the thing about the California Impressionists versus the French Impressionists. The French eliminate form. But the California Impressionists’ legacy,” his voice rises with excitement and dare, “is not to have the form evaporate in some mist.”
I suddenly sec (and remark) that his form is being built with paint.
“Form is paint,” he says. “I work lean to fat. I start off with a turpentine tone and go over that with my oils. They’ll stand and they’ll take.” indeed. His painting appears as though it’s coming out from the canvas as much as it is receding via perspective into the canvas. Freymuth shows me his half-inch-wide brush and tells me it’s the “edges” between forms, water and rock, that he’s trying to get. “It’s because I’m drawing with this brush. I’m sculpting.”
At the end of the plein-air line, Daryl Millard also instructs while he paints. "The real aspect of plein-air painting is to capture it quickly with emotion, without going through detail. That’s what the early California Impressionists really had. They had half the tools we have today and did twice as good a job. This is better than taking a snapshot. I can always delete what I don’t want.”
By now I’ve been hustling for an hour between the seven artists whose paintings are becoming distinct by personality more than by vantage. In fact, the depictions are similar: The sea is roiling and heroic, the rocks defensive and aloof. Each painter is also capturing the skirmish between water and rock protruding into the other’s space, although at Ocean Beach (or at any ocean beach, for that matter) it’s obvious who’s winning. And yet each artist is rendering a different “reality.” Aaron St. John says he’s not copying the scene at all. He’s painting it. “If I find that something relates better, then I’ll move it slightly. It’s a constant shifting: Do I want it exactly as it is or do I want to shift it?” Is that fair? I ask. “It’s preferred,” he says. “If not, why not use a camera?”
The systematic artist in Ken Roberts says he must take a break, walk away from it, think it out, step back in, work it out some more. Yet his technique may achieve something mystical, despite his fastidiousness. “If you learn to make the masses and shapes correctly and get the lights and darks just right, it makes a painting by itself.”
There’s something else all of them are getting, whether it’s the crestless wave in the inlet or the breaking swells farther out. It feels sinister, coming-at-us and lying-in-wait. St. John terms it the “energy” of the sea against the “solidity” of the rock. Freymuth says that energy is “very primal.” He is animated by its gift and takes a minute to chide the contemporary style of Photo-Realist painting, technique that displaces content. “This is really painting,” he says, knifing on loops of white paint, dragging thick to thin. His struggle now, he says, is to balance the water’s turbulence and the stationary arch of the grotto. “If I have the action stick here [in the arch], it’s not going to be as interesting. I’ve got to underplay it and I’ve got to be truthful to what’s there without getting bogged down in detail.”
I hustle to a small promontory to regard the six painters (Voss has left). All seem to be impassively working, and yet their leaning-in to the easel has an intensity, an avidity, that embodies the task. It’s the concentrated energy of creation. They are like riders, in mid-journey, stopping to feed their horses. Easel partners artist. Each is beautifully alone, at work, in love with work, activating what we will meditate upon later with a quiet eye. Around them surfers shiver, tourists ogle, seagulls pose. The painters lean in again, faces unyielding, pressing back the wind.
I mention to Daryl Millard, who announces he’ll be done in a few minutes, that the light he’s painted looks like a sunset with its yellows and oranges. He says he’s exaggerated the color a bit and reminds me that that’s how the Impressionists would oppose colors to make something vibrate. But he’s still going to “adjust the sky,” and he does so, tenderly, tailing on more yellow, the brush as light as a feather.
I do one more loop. Ken Roberts says he’s trying to play down the wave action in the water, but then it’s hard because the ocean wants to “speak for itself.” Christa Thurber says, “It’s not really pretty today, it’s realistic.” Don Freymuth is “happy” with his depiction. “The quality of the light — I think I got it. Remember, these aren’t postcards. What they are is moods and poems as opposed to advertisements." Aaron St. John says, “the way I work” it comes together, “at the very end” of the afternoon. I wish I could be here to see it.
Back with Daryl Millard, he tells me he’s finished.
“How’d you know to stop?” I ask.
“I saw you coming,” he laughs. Surely no one has pestered him and the others as much as I have today. What does he think of it? “I don’t know," he says, packing up. “It looks all right at the moment. It’ll change, though, when I get it home.”
By change, he means better or worse?
No. Changed by a different light.