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An extraordinary collection of San Francisco avant-garde art is hanging in a Norwegian school. Why not here?

Wednesday, Mar 22 2006
One-third of a century ago, painter Arthur Monroe and his longtime patron, Reidar Wennesland, gathered up what then may have been the largest collection of Beat generation art and hung it on the walls of the American Salvage Co. warehouse on the S.F. waterfront for a farewell show. After a month of sparse attendance at the exhibition, they packed the hundreds of pieces and shipped them off. Not to a major museum, but to a preparatory school on the southern tip of Norway.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Long before the Beats were big, San Francisco physician Wennesland became a patron of the visual side of this artistic movement. Wennesland, a Norwegian-born medical doctor whose fancy for cutting-edge artwork made him the most important patron of 1950s and 1960s San Francisco avant-garde painters, had hoped to display his massive personal collection in the Bay Area. Monroe recalls helping Wennesland show the collection to officials at the San Jose Museum, the museum at Santa Clara University, UC Berkeley, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, offering to give the collection away in exchange for an agreement that it be put on display. The museums didn't want it.

So instead, Wennesland gave part of the collection to Kristiansand Cathedral School in his hometown on Norway's southern coast, and the rest to that town's Agder University College. In these two schools, the greatest, most complete collection of Beat generation art outside California still hangs on the walls in classrooms, hallways, the cafeteria, the staff room. And there it has remained, invisible to Californians since 1971.

That's too bad. But what's worse is the fact that almost nobody in California, even people versed in the lore of the Beat generation, is aware of the history of that movement's remarkable patron, and the unparalleled collection of Beat visual art he amassed during that cultural movement's heyday. That swath of ignorance could be partially wiped away with a visiting exhibition of the Wennesland collection to San Francisco. Last year, Monroe attempted to raise interest in such an exhibition, without success. He's currently assembling artifacts and recordings chronicling Wennesland's life. The archive will join the collection of paintings in Norway.

If this city is ever to appreciate the aesthetic side of the cultural movement that made us famous, Reidar Wennesland needs the San Francisco civic champion he never had 35 years ago.

I'm sitting next to a stack of papers in Arthur Monroe's wood-stove-heated warehouse studio, watching the video Dr. Wennesland — An Icon Among the Beats, a documentary made in Norway.

"That's one by Michael Bowen in the stairwell. That collage is by Jess. There's a George Herms. And there's Jay DeFeo's The Wise and Foolish Virgins," says Monroe, pointing out respected Beat artworks long absent from America.

We're watching images of the inside of Kristiansand Cathedral School, where huge abstract paintings loom above scrums of students. The students are living amid a unique artistic time capsule in which works of artists both famous and not combine to illustrate the totality of visual arts created in San Francisco, which other collections focusing on major Beat works do not.

The scene looks every bit like the inside of a big-city museum, only the crowds don't act like museumgoers, with eyes glued to the walls. Instead they dawdle and chat, scurry to class, and eat their lunches, mostly blithe to the encyclopedic monument of art history surrounding them, occasionally glancing over at an image or two in the manner of people accustomed to living around art.

Wennesland, who was born in 1908 in Kristiansand, first gained his fascination for cutting-edge art while working as an assistant to a physician who treated the expressionist painter Edvard Munch. Wennesland couldn't afford a Munch, but he began collecting abstract prints by other artists, then sculptures, before his fascination was interrupted by World War II, during which the doctor participated in the anti-Nazi underground. After the war Wennesland migrated to San Francisco, where, after teaching for a while at Stanford University, he opened a private practice on Stockton Street in North Beach. He fell in with a circle of disdainfully experimental artists and poets to whom Herb Caen applied the pejorative term "beatnik."

A brilliant man who knew firsthand the dangers of totalitarianism, Wennesland settled into life in McCarthy-era San Francisco as an anti-establishmentarian bohemian eccentric, collecting artwork and exotic animals with similar fervor. A typical medical consultation with Wennesland would involve 15 minutes of examination and an hour of discussion about the world of ideas.

Wennesland began giving medical treatment in exchange for paintings, drawings, collages, and sculptures. He allowed artists to live in rooms in his Potrero Hill houses, with rent paid in artwork. He paid artists' bills for supplies, food, whatever, and these loans, too, were repaid in artwork.

"All of us were just struggling to get by in those days," Monroe recalls. "So his help was very important."

By the end of the 1960s, Wennesland's three Potrero Hill cottages were overflowing with gigantic collages and paintings, sculptures, and other works.

Though this was the greatest collection of its kind in or outside the city, it was largely unknown.

"They are the kinds of works that are too new to be history and, in the frequently shortsighted, fascistic and fashionable context of the contemporary scene, too old to be In," wrote San Francisco Chronicle art critic Thomas Albright in 1970, after it had been announced that Wennesland had given up on U.S. museums and the works would be crated and shipped to Norway. "Nonetheless, they form a major artistic testament to an extremely important era in the Bay Area's creative life."

Despite Albright's appeal, Wennesland and his collection became largely forgotten here, outside a tiny circle of curators who've had reason to hear about the Kristiansand archive. In Norway, meanwhile, the role of the prep school in rescuing part of America's Beat heritage has become part of that country's patriotic folklore. There, Wennesland's collection of San Francisco art is the subject of books, articles, and a movie. So it's unlikely the collection will ever be repatriated on a permanent basis.

There's a lot of inertia working against the idea of a visiting show, too.

Civic museums such as those in San Francisco thrive on the Monets of the world, not on collections that perhaps deserve to be famous but aren't.

In San Francisco's civic museums, "a lot of money is spent on acquiring works of art from elsewhere, and a lot of what's gone on in the Bay Area has been ignored," laments Steve Dickson, director of the Poetry Center and American Poetry Archive, which recently put on an exhibit that included Beat generation artifacts at the California Historical Society.

Adds curator Michael Duncan, who recently put together a retrospective of Beat artifacts at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, "Their work was away from the commercial art world, and for them it was more about their own community, and their own lyrical impulses. That was what the Beat movement was all about before it was co-opted by Levi's and the Gap. I think students now are hungry for this sort of directness. It's sort of antithetical to the postmodern, self-reflective art that gets crammed down our throats by institutions such as SFMOMA, L.A.'s MOMA, and New York's MOMA."

That's as good a reason as any to gather the political will and financial wherewithal to produce a visiting exhibition of the Wennesland collection somewhere in San Francisco.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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