News & Views from 465 California Street

Thomas Albright

Clint Reilly

My passion for Northern California art began not by viewing a painting but by reading a newspaperman’s book. Thomas Albright was the influential art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle when he passed away prematurely of lung cancer at 48 years old in 1984. Albright had been a legendary journalist who possessed a messianic conviction that the contributions of Bay Area artists were undervalued. At the time of his death, the hard-living and influential Albright was putting the final touches on a book he had been writing about contemporary Bay Area Art after World War II. The 350-page, coffee table-sized opus – “Art in The San Francisco Bay Area 1945 :: 1980″ – was published posthumously. TIME Magazine’s super-critic Robert Hughes wrote, “This is the best book on its subject and will remain so for years to come.” I was neither a friend of Albright’s nor knowledgeable about art. But after attending an event marking the publication, I immediately understood that Albright had focused much deserved attention on a generation of underexposed artists in Northern California who were neglected by the New York media.

From 1958 to 1966, Beat Artist Jay DeFeo labored over a painting that she layered until it weighed 2,300 pounds and was so large that the façade of her apartment building had to be removed in order to crane the painting onto a truck. Her painting titled “The Rose” was eventually hidden away behind a conference room wall at the San Francisco Art Institute. Jay DeFeo died of lung cancer in 1989 at 60 trying to resurrect The Rose from this humiliating tomb. In 2003, DeFeo’s famous work was the centerpiece of a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and is now in the permanent collection of the Whitney.

The charismatic Clyfford Still was one of the founding fathers of Abstract Expressionism. An austere figure, Still preached the theology of Abstract Expressionism to a generation of students at the San Francisco Art Institute between 1947 and 1950. A San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism was born, which ultimately attracted artists Frank Lobdell, Jack Jefferson, James Budd Dixon, Hassel Smith and many others. Today the city of Denver is building a museum exclusively dedicated to the internationally acclaimed work of Clyfford Still. And thanks to Albright and a subsequent book by Art historian Susan Landauer, now a curator at the San Jose Museum of Art, the national art world has rediscovered the significant contributions of San Francisco Abstract Expressionists.

David Park, Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff are central figures in Albright’s story. They rebelled against Clyfford Still and the moral dogmatism surrounding Abstract Expressionism and created a new school called Bay Area Figurative Art — a unique hybrid of abstract and figurative painting. David Park died prematurely at 49 years old in 1960. Park and Bischoff struggled to paint. Park worked the factories of Emeryville before teaching at UC Berkeley and Bischoff taught in Marysville. “The only way I was going to get out of Marysville was to paint my way out”, wrote Bischoff. Richard Diebenkorn was both an Abstract Expressionist and a Bay Area Figurative artist. Diebenkorn became an instant star from the 1950’s until his death in 1993. Today, Diebenkorn is an acknowledged 20th Century Master whose work is sought around the globe.

Wayne Thiebaud and Mel Ramos are renowned pop art icons. And other present-at-the-creation postwar artists like Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, James Weeks and Paul Wonner are now more appreciated than ever.

The famed columnist Herb Caen best summarized Albright, “He himself was an artist, one of the best writers I have ever read on any subject…..He was a work of newspaper art.” By going beyond day to day criticism and writing history, Albright himself made an irreplaceable contribution to Northern California culture.

Comments (1)

  • My uncle gave me an anthology of Albright’s works in the 80s when I was a kid determined to be a painter. …which I am.
    he is my fav of all time. His satires were fantastic. I remember every character…And I will never sell that book as I don’t keep many.
    I loved that somehow his parents found him in that telephone booth, as horrible as it must have been. I was a teenager and it seemed fitting at the time. Just at the time…not now.
    I’m so glad I found this posting. I wish he were alive to write about me. i care so little for what many critics have to say even if it’s good because mainly it’s BORING.

    Posted by: Lori-Ann Bellissimo | August 23rd, 2009 at 6:38 pm

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