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California Kids: Frida and Diego Provide the Springboard for a Historical Exhibit 

Tuesday, Oct 14 2014
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In the monumental exhibit "Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California," one of the first works that greets visitors is Frida Kahlo's Frieda and Diego Rivera, a 1931 painting she made in San Francisco that depicts Kahlo and her husband standing in blissful togetherness. Toward the end of "Fertile Ground" looms an 11-foot-tall untitled canvas by San Francisco artist Margaret Kilgallen that also portrays a dark-haired couple in vertical embrace. Kilgallen, the partner of famed art raconteur Barry McGee, completed the acrylic work in 2000, and it's a fitting bookend to Frieda and Diego Rivera and to "Fertile Ground," which covers four distinct time periods of art centered in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area.

Kilgallen, who died of cancer in 2001 at age 33, was part of a collective of Mission District artists who found inspiration in the street — and in cheap Mission rents that let them focus on making art, not money. Without the Mission's climate of generosity and its cultural diversity, Kilgallen, McGee, and a wave of other artists in "Fertile Ground" might never have emerged as they did: with a striking originality that captivated both the art world and "regular" people who saw the artists' work on outside walls, public trains, and other non-commissioned spaces.

Across generations, McGee and Rivera, Kilgallen and Kahlo were soul mates. With his inspired paintings and murals that, in prominent public spaces, elevated the working class into positions of empathy and admiration, Rivera helped set in motion the artistic environment that coalesced in the Mission District's late 20th-century's street art scene. "Fertile Ground" — the first-ever collaboration between SFMOMA and the Oakland Museum of California — refrains from making overarching statements that cover all 80 years of art, instead homing in on minute details that make each exhibited time frame so "wow"-inducing.

Between 1930 and 1931, Rivera painted the fresco called Allegory of California inside San Francisco's Pacific Stock Exchange, so curators label the exhibit's first time period "Patronage, Public Art, and Allegory of California." The title's reference to "patronage" is an acknowledgment that much of the art on display at OMCA was funded by well-connected patrons like architect Timothy Pflueger (who commissioned Allegory of California, which is reproduced with precision here) and insurance magnate Albert M. Bender (who supported both Rivera and Kahlo and to whom Kahlo dedicated Frieda and Diego Rivera). The U.S. government also supported artists during the 1930s, when the U.S. economy was recovering from the Depression, and the exhibit's first section spotlights lesser-known works of unusual quality, including a pencil study for a frieze of athletes by African-American artist Sargent Johnson. The frieze itself, commissioned by the Works Progress Administration and the San Francisco Arts Commission, is on the southern wall of the football field at San Francisco's George Washington High School. Even in pencil form, the frieze's graceful figures evoke a classicism and a working-class aesthetic that put them in good company with Rivera's most revered figures, including those in The Flower Carrier, his iconic 1935 painting that also anchors the exhibit's opening section.

The exhibit's second and third sections are, like the other two, astounding for the depth and breadth of viewable artworks. The 1940s and '50s are condensed into a time frame that curators call "Postwar at the California School of Fine Arts," and it includes photos from a who's who of photographers who taught at the school (now the San Francisco Art Institute), including Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Dorothea Lange. Work from master painters who taught there are also included, and here's where it gets really interesting. Here, we get a Mark Rothko canvas from 1947 that — instead of the rectangular cloud-like layers that mark his best-known "multiforms" — is festooned with an array of amorphous colors. It's Rothko in transition to his mature self. It's Rothko before he was Rothko. We also get David Park in transition with his 1949 canvas Still Life — Non-Objective, one of the few abstract works that survived his purge of such art in favor of representational paintings. Then there's Park's music group, Studio 13 Jass Band, that featured Park on piano, Elmer Bischoff on piano, and a host of others, including — at one point — art student Jerry Garcia. The exhibit features audio recordings from the band that, unlike the Grateful Dead's best work (or Park's for that matter), fails to hold up. They're fun, though, and they add to the atmosphere at OMCA, where an actual sink helps mark the time period from the 1960s and '70s that revolved around the UC Davis Art Department.

It's easy to overlook Davis as a hub of inventive art, but hub it was after department chair Richard Nelson recruited Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arnenson, Roy De Forest, and other artists whose work would come to symbolize California cool, and who would teach generations of students who, themselves, would become prominent. Deborah Butterfield, for example, studied at Davis in the 1970s, and is now celebrated for horses made of found objects. To see a Butterfield horse in the same room as De Forest's Country Dog Gentlemen (an instantly recognizable work owned by SFMOMA), Thiebaud's Display Cakes, Arneson's California Artist (his satirical self-portrait sculpture, done two years after his controversial George Moscone bust), and an old, discolored sink used by Arneson in the UC Davis ceramics facility called TB-9 is to enter a realm that is perfect and otherworldly. That section alone is worth the price of admission.

But then we get the last time frame, which centers around art in the Mission District from the 1990s to today, when the district's gentrification is undermining any chance the scene will continue in a vibrant way. The end of that era is captured in a brief documentary where curators and artists discuss how wrenching it is to witness the Mission's metamorphosis. Also included are fliers that illuminate the neighborhood's tension, as in the "Mission Yuppie Eradication Project" handout that urges people to "vandalize yuppie cars ... Make the Mission District a Sport Utility Vehicle free zone. Not one yuppie vehicle should be safe. Take action now!" Each exhibit time period is contextualized with evidence of social events that collided with the artists' environment. Eighty years of art are smartly arranged in "Fertile Ground," with brief appearances by those outside the state (like Jackson Pollock) who had an influence here and whose work is a key part of SFMOMA's holdings.

California is a state but also a state of mind. Anything goes here, especially in the Bay Area. That spirit of incubation comes alive in "Fertile Ground," and you come away convinced that — even if San Francisco has irrevocably changed for visual artists — Oakland and other cities will give birth to the next David Park, the next Robert Arneson, and the next Margaret Kilgallen.


With its endless warren of shops that sell everything imaginable, Tehran's Grand Bazaar is one of the world's most unforgettable market places. During a 1976 tour of Iran, Andy Warhol wandered around there. Almost 40 years later, San Francisco's Southern Exposure gallery has a "pop-up bazaar" of Warholian dimensions that features the work of 12 Iranian-American artists from California. "Theory of Survival: Fabrications" is an art fair that's irresistibly clever. It's also highly political in strange and wonderful ways, as with Morehshin Allahyari's vinyl records that play audio of Iran's 2009-2010 protests, and with Gelare Khoshgozaran backgammon game made from replica pages of shredded U.S. government documents found by Iranians in the 1979-1981 embassy takeover. Organized by Taraneh Hemami, "Theory of Survival: Fabrications" is an essential exhibit for anyone with even a passing interest in Iran and Iran's position on the global stage.

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Jonathan Curiel

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