by Paul J. Karlstrom
Given its relative youth, the San Francisco Bay Area can justifiably boast a remarkable art history going back to the Gold Rush. In fact, it could be argued that San Francisco was the first instantaneously emerging modern city. Among the leading contributors to this historical phenomenon were two far-sighted and ambitious organizations, the San Francisco Art Association and, ironically from today’s perspective, the Bohemian Club. Through their combined efforts, a specifically local culture was in place by 1874, offering walls for hanging paintings and ample floor space to install sculpture. Against all odds, even at that early date there was sufficient artistic production to more than fill the rooms with works by serious professional artists—many who hailed from New York and even Europe—who sought venues to meet with colleagues and discuss art on the “far side” of America. For a time the two organizations even shared downtown San Francisco quarters. Before the turn of the 19th century, most of the leading artists in the West were members of the Bohemian Club or the Art Association, and often both. The Bohemian Club continued to operate as a male-exclusive club, built a collection, and exhibited members’ work on a regular basis. The Art Association took off in two directions: an art academy (formerly California School of Fine Arts, now San Francisco Art Institute [SFAI]) and a museum (now San Francisco Museum of Modern Art [SFMOMA]).
Although not as early, the San Francisco ballet and opera were also among the first of their kind in the entire country, not just the Wild West. And the determination of the new city to make a civic statement is reflected in the built environment with two super-ambitious architectural symbols erected in the 1870s: the grand Palace Hotel and Wade’s Opera House, at the time the third largest in the country. Even more surprising is that shortly after the discovery of gold, productions of Shakespeare plays and other theatrical entertainments were offered at mining camps by numerous travelling companies. Far from being a cultural backwater, the Bay Area quickly became a richly variegated artistic terrain with visual artists plying their trade much as did their counterparts on the Eastern seaboard. And from these energetic and determined beginnings, distinctive locally flavored traditions were being created. This is what concerns us here: despite the lack of institutions, galleries, collectors, and other “requisite” conditions for a robust art environment, a vigorous artist-centered and ultimately counter-culture creative community emerged. One member of the habitually dismissive New York critical establishment even described San Francisco in the 1930s as on the “cutting edge” of modern art.
This rich artistic legacy surrounds the population of young artists who for generations have been drawn here by the reputation of the art schools, notably SFAI and California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC, now CCA) and by the nationally and even internationally known artists who teach there and at the local universities. Prominent among the artists and styles that have come to define the legacy, and arising at about the same time, are the lauded Bay Area figurative school (Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Elmer Bischoff) and its supposed opposite, the San Francisco abstract expressionist movement (Frank Lobdell, Hassel Smith, and, for a short but crucial time, Clyfford Still). Susan Landauer, in her pioneering and entirely unapologetic study of West Coast gestural painting, “The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism” (California and Laguna Art Museum, 1996), presents her subject on its own terms, not as a pallid imitation of the contemporaneous New York School. The familiar teeter-tottering between non-objectivity and figuration has been one prominent feature of the modernist divide, a perceived opposition that remains a hallmark of contemporary painting. The figurative side of this historic pairing is provided by Caroline A. Jones in her “Bay Area Figurative Art, 1950–1965″ (California and SFMOMA, 1990).
It is remarkable how many Bay Area artists have been drawn into the abstract versus representational wrestling match—a confrontation that seems to retain currency for a still vital pictorial expressionism. For many painters this dichotomy continues to provide a potent dialogue, a fruitful and rewarding way to think about the ever-changing interaction between traditional picture-making and the many lessons learned from modernism. Among the representatives of this approach, one who seems especially committed to that fundamental quest is Palo Alto artist Sandy Ostrau, whose impressive exhibition “Improvisations” remains on view at Thomas Reynolds Gallery in San Francisco through September.
I first encountered the unpretentious but seductively charming paintings of Sandy Ostrau two years ago at a fundraising luncheon at the Sharon Heights Golf and Country Club in Menlo Park, California. A popular part of the elaborately produced event was a meet-the-artist component in which painters set up easels and demonstrated their techniques to friends and supporters of Art in Action, an enlightened and successful art-in-schools program. There may have been half-a-dozen participating artists, most of whose works were variations of the plein-air landscape style (another important California art tradition). As I recall, many were satisfying depictions of attractive scenery and charming pastoral settings. However, the level of individual ambition seemed to cluster around the historically dated conviction that the best art is that which most convincingly reproduces the appearance of things. Ostrau’s paintings stood out among these works in that she had obviously distanced herself from those objectives and strategies. She readily acknowledges her Society of Six plein-air predecessors, such as Louis Siegreist and Selden Gile. But above all, she is eager to proclaim her admiration for Bay Area figuration, notably from the brushes of Nathan Oliveira (as in her “City Dweller”), Bischoff, and Diebenkorn. In a recent interview conducted by John Seed in The “Huffington Post”, she proudly proclaims her rediscovery of these Bay Area artists after an absence from Palo Alto. In addition to the usual suspects, she also mentions Kim Frohsin and Raimonds Staprans. The considerable appeal of the work of these two artists is skillfully achieved through a knowing subtlety and control of means.
Ostrau’s work on display in Menlo Park was distinguished by a sense of their creator’s personal vision and evident grasp of the principles of modernist art. The best examples were the most reductive in composition and detail, minimalist works that were more about the “structure” than the look of nature. I was greatly attracted to the abstract qualities she was beginning to explore within the plein-air framework. (It did not come as a surprise, in light of the give and take of the abstract in the French/Russian artist Nicolas de Staël, that Ostrau also includes him on her list of favorites that otherwise overwhelmingly features Californians.)
Building upon that foundation, Ostrau next did a series of landscapes that push still further toward pure abstraction, plein-air representation all but abandoned. As the landscape flattens, shapes and color become the content, the subject. Typical of this series is “Natural Spaces”, a beautiful work with a coral/peach-colored sandy beach dominating the composition. A narrow bar of dark blue sea at the top is surmounted by a somewhat wider horizontal band indicating blue sky, a suggested landscape in an otherwise abstract pictorial formulation. Despite its references to the natural world, this painting is structurally a minimalist arrangement divided and defined by three horizontal lines. The seeming ease and proficiency with which Ostrau moves back and forth in individual paintings between stylistic poles (it always comes down to a matter of degree) contributes to a personal modernist tribute to the Bay Area legacy of which she is one of the heirs.
Now Ostrau has carried her evolving treatment still further, introducing the figure more solidly integrated in an otherwise abstract pictorial formulation. In “Beach Pair”, the human presence, two seated sunbathers indicated entirely by thick pigment, energizes the composition of an otherwise flat, minimalist surface. Figuration embraces its presumed opposite in what I can only describe as an authoritative and resolute integration of visual forms in “Seated Figure, Abstract”. In works like these and “Reclining Nude, Abstract”, Ostrau pushes her imagery in an expressionistic direction unusual in her work. For me, some of the strongest images are the jazz musicians, the large (48 x 60 in.) Trio being one especially impressive example. In “The Huffington Post” interview Ostrau acknowledges the salubrious connection that exists for her between jazz music and abstract painting: “I feel like the modernity of jazz goes perfectly with my interest in abstraction.” One is reminded that the “performance” of jazz and the simultaneous creation (also performative) of abstract expressionist imagery, along with the reading of poetry, was in general not only a natural development of avant-garde artistic collaboration of the late 1940s and 1950s but also a hallmark of San Francisco’s North Beach scene.
It so happens that concurrently on view at the de Young Museum (closing September 29 before traveling to the Palm Springs Art Museum) is a spectacular display of the direct source of much subsequent Bay Area painting. “Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953–1966″ boasts one superb example after another of the organic relationship between figuration and abstraction and what one tells about the other. These works not only inspired but provided models for those who wanted to explore similar painterly territory. Ostrau’s most successful integration of figures in fully abstract settings, as in “Cooling Off”, owes a great debt to her careful study of Diebenkorn’s methods. One may well ask if this artist is at a point in her career where her work can carry the historical burden of her famous California predecessors. My answer would be that she is a painter who has chosen to address a fundamental modernist question. But she has done so with an awareness of the practical value of the history to which she is an heir and a dedication to her practice that allows for her own voice to emerge within that framework. Despite her focus on the act of painting and examples provided by that history, she is not an imitator. Ostrau’s marks are her own—as is her contemporary painterly vision.
Obituaries for painting have appeared often enough over recent decades, and there are some who view conceptualism as the significant development in California art over the previous half century. Perhaps what this exhibition and, in a broader sense, Ostrau’s career commitment, have to offer the viewer is a reminder that she and artists like her provide eloquent examples of the ongoing validity of their medium. For this we can be grateful as we look ahead to the next iteration of Sandy Ostrau’s artistic journey in search of even greater expressive potency drawing on her acknowledged California legacy.
-Written by Paul J. Karlstrom
Former West Coast Regional Director of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art
© August 2013