The undisturbed quiet we experienced in our few moments looking at the lack of pretension, and quality of taste, at the Wirtz Gallery, was a welcomed relief from the bustling street below. The diversity of works we saw in a single visit included a shot of a glamorous woman collapsed beside a moving subway under a hazy aquamarine glow, a series of canvases streaked with abstract black and gray in Mark Katano's current exhibition, Angels' Share, and a model of what seemed to be a verklempt baby bear, but maybe we're just projecting now. The Stephen Wirtz Gallery was the first of its kind in San Francisco. The husband-and-wife couple behind the gallery met in Berkeley when Connie Wirtz was an artist and Steven Wirtz (as we shall call his younger self) studied politics. He says, “Connie taught me how to see.”
We sat down with Stephen Wirtz in his office overlooking a sunny part of Geary that was once heavily populated with galleries
. Out of custom we asked Wirtz, co-founder of the gallery with his wife Connie, to spell his name. “When we moved to San Francisco Connie named the gallery Stephen Wirtz so there was somebody who was the front person, but my name is spelled with a “v”, but she didn't like the graphic. So for many years I didn't really even identify with the gallery because it wasn't my name.” Wirtz added, “I go by the “ph” now because it’s the name of the gallery. In other words, the gallery took over my name. Connie liked the fact that the p came down and the h came up, whereas with v it went straight across.”
But their history in art goes back to before the name change; they started a Berkeley art-deco gallery, expanded to photographs, and eventually what it is today. Wirtz says, “Historically, we showed paintings, sculpture and photography on an equal footing. It had been done by Stieglitz and some others much earlier, but at the time virtually no one was doing it, and we did it in 1977.”
Wirtz, who has an avuncular twinkle in his eye and a passion for his business that gives no impression of old age (though he would only tell me that he and Connie had been married “since before you were born,") says that his background as a special education teacher helps him introduce others to art. “When people ask why art is abstract I tell them — you know when you have a song and somebody sings the words and that’s the narrative representation, behind them there’s the music, and that’s abstract. I understand people’s fears a little bit, and I can help them, if they’re interested. But nobody comes now.”
Today the gallery is spacious and flooded with natural light. It is made up of several smaller enclaves which can give the impression of choking viewers with visual images or of honoring the art itself with wide swaths of wall and hardwood surfaces from which to view it. The gallery’s current exhibit features the work of Marc Katano, a San Francisco artist whose work has shown at the Stephen Wirtz since the 1970s. The gallery has a proud history of supporting local artists. “We used to do a lot more work with international artists, but over the years we decided we were only going to work with people in the region. We came to be more relational than business-oriented.” The couple call their decision to open their gallery in San Francisco rather than a more art-centric city, “A life choice, rather than a business choice.”
The closing of the gallery is, conversely, a business rather than life choice. Examining and purchasing art has changed in America. “At art fairs everyone gets together and socializes and eats. They ask not, 'What is this?' but, 'Who owns this?' On the internet and the auction houses, and even museums, there is a commodification of art.” The Wirtzs' concept of art rejects that model.
“A gallery is a theater. And at a certain point, people weren't going into our theater anymore in regularity, and we weren't seeming to make the choice to do those other things. We wanted an art experience, not an information experience.” Wirtz, sitting at a desk almost invisible under piles of books, upended prints, and wooden sculptures, sighs. “It just — not to be overly dramatic — it kind of loses it’s soul.”
Now, 35 years of soul preservation later, Connie and Stephen/Steven are packing up and moving on. Wirtz says, “There’s two doors, one door that’s going to close this place, and then there’s a space, and then there’s going to be a door that opens to someplace else. Someplace probably in the arts, somehow, because that’s what we know and that’s what we care about. But there’s two doors, and right now it’s hard to see through two doors.”
While demand for fine art attached to famous names has skyrocketed, galleries like The Stephen Wirtz, which its owner says represents “the middle,” may be at risk.
“The middle has always been kind of the farm team, it's the area where people grow and are supported and expectations are moderate, but nothings moderate now. Everything is now. There was a time in when 'the middle' was a vibrant part of American life. It was possible and lively and it was what we imagined America to be. And right now the middle is under duress in the arts. Beyond the arts, I don’t know.”
So what can San Franciscans do to preserve art that is at once accessible and cutting edge? “Of course, they could buy art” Wirtz booms across his desk, scattering a few papers. “That would be a thought.”He adds that most galleries are open to all people for free every Tuesday through Saturday. “You can just come on in, no charge.” The miracle of galleries is that even in their hoity-toity grandeur, their tendency to guest star ostentatiously on shows set in New York and starring vacuous young women, their openings and free viewing policies allow people from every socioeconomic level to enjoy current, cutting-edge art.
Galleries are known for their openings, and it's heartbreaking that another one is closing. It is a loss to the neighborhood, a loss to San Francisco, and a loss to the world of art.
Inside the Stephen Wirtz Gallery the white walls — once covered in massive photographs, paintings, and prints — are mostly bare. In place of dynamic pieces works there is a new style of multi-media: an assortment of half-opened cardboard boxes scattered beneath the photography, bundles of wooden planks leaning against a statue, and giant piles of framed artworks wrapped in bubble-wrap and packing tape. Unfortunately, this is not part of a new installation — after 35 years, the Stephen Wirtz Gallery is closing its doors.