Combing through the Collection: Showcasing the Unexpected in the Art of California Galleries

by , February 2018

Installation view of Between Two Worlds: Art of California, featuring from left to right: Norman Zammitt, Blue Burning, 1982; Larry Bell, Untitled, 1969; and John McCracken, Right Down, 1967; photo: Don Ross

“I think a lot of California artists are really weird — but of course I’m biased,” says Nancy Lim, assistant curator of Painting and Sculpture.

Calling them “weird” might sound like a slight, but Lim clearly means it as high praise. Thanks to her curatorial focus on SFMOMA’s home state, the Los Angeles native spends countless hours ruminating on California artists in our collection — artists, she says, who “create fantastical, bizarre, gorgeous things.”

Between Two Worlds, the galleries’ current rotation, features a mix of familiar and lesser-known works, tied together by uniquely Californian themes. “It is essential that we think in more revisionist ways than we might have in the past,” says Janet Bishop, Thomas Weisel Family Curator of Painting and Sculpture. “It is exciting to be able to expand the stories we tell by displaying work by artists who may not have become household names or achieved great market success, but made really interesting work nonetheless.”

In fact, two works in the show — Donald Dudley’s Rainbow Series (1964) and Norman Zammitt’s Blue Burning (1982) — have never been displayed at the museum before, despite entering the collection decades ago. They fit perfectly in a gallery focusing on Southern California — in particular, the influence of smog on artists’ experimentations with color, light, and perception.

These works represent a sampling of what Lim has uncovered in her ambitious (and admittedly long-term) quest to fully account for all works by California artists in the SFMOMA collection. To this end, she constantly takes note of California artists she’s interested in showing, along with any unfamiliar names she encounters in her research. (For the purposes of this endeavor, SFMOMA defines California artists as those who have been active in the state during their careers.) Next in her process, Lim searches the SFMOMA database to see if we own any works by these artists. However, not all database records have representative digitized images. To offer a sense of scale: She is delving into a museum collection that dates back to 1935 and contains almost 37,000 artworks.

This bit of visual mystery requires tracking works down in storage, sometimes deep storage (the art nerd’s ultimate pursuit!). And with the help of our dedicated preparators and collection managers, she has been able to do so. Such was the case with Dudley’s Rainbow Series: Without an image of the artwork on file, Lim had no clue what to expect when she arrived at the museum’s Collections Center to view it. What she discovered was a striking early painting that is stylistically distinct from much of the artist’s body of work.

There are many elements in Rainbow Series that appealed to Lim: “The saturation of the paint — it almost looks stained into the canvas. And sitting on top of that is the rainbow, which adds a pretty powerful graphic element visible from many feet back as you’re walking towards this gallery. There are also a lot of references to other artists embedded in here, from Milton Avery to Tom Wesselmann, which you can see in the flatness of the figures that are entwined and laying on a backdrop of flat ground, of flat land in a desert,” she enumerates. “And of course, the intense red.”

Don Dudley, Rainbow Series, 1964; collection SFMOMA, gift of Sharon Dudley; © Estate of Donald Dudley; photo: Katherine Du Tiel

Lim considers the red sky a hallmark of the Los Angeles sunset, thought to be the result of pollutants in the air scattering short wavelengths. When examining the work up close, you can observe the crimson fading to peachy-pink in what resembles fine particulate, like a haze of paint.

By contrast, Lim stumbled upon Zammitt’s Blue Burning simply by walking through the storage racks. “I remember thinking, ‘That is an incredible painting, and I wonder who it is.’ But I wasn’t able to get close enough to see any information written on the plastic sheeting that was covering it. So, I let it go,” she recalls. Later on, she happened to search for Norman Zammitt in the database, which resulted in another artwork record without an image. When she returned to storage for the big reveal, she found the very same painting that had previously caught her eye.

Blue Burning certainly is an arresting work. The 14-foot-wide canvas is wrapped in geometrically precise horizontal bands of intense color, the height of each one determined by logarithm. “Initially, I had thought that all of this was airbrushed or applied by some kind of machine, but I was talking with his widow who corrected that misperception and said that it was all done by hand,” she says. “It’s really impossible to tell.”

Norman Zammitt, Blue Burning, 1982; collection SFMOMA, gift of Judge and Mrs. William J. Lasarow; © Estate of Norman Zammitt

In the neighboring gallery, visitors will encounter the improvisational work of Santa Cruz–based painter Richard Mayhew.

“He always works from memory,” says Lim. “He never uses preparatory sketches or photographs. He puts paint on the canvas and starts attacking the canvas with a brush, and keeps brushing out and out until the painting is done.”

Richard Mayhew, Pamela’s Aura, 2004; the Pamela J. Joyner and Alfred J. Giuffrida Collection; © Richard Mayhew

The works by Mayhew come to SFMOMA from the San Francisco–based arts patron Pamela Joyner, known for her expansive collection of African and African diaspora artists, and her efforts to reframe art history to recognize and contextualize these artists within the greater canon. Mayhew painted Pamela’s Aura (2004) as a birthday present commissioned by Joyner’s husband, its sweeps of coral and pink an ode to her favorite colors. “You end up getting this beautiful cascade of those colors that’s more abstract than the other two Mayhew paintings on view,” Lim says.

Centered on the theme “The Decorative Impulse,” the final gallery features artworks that look almost hallucinatory, including dense, imagery-laden pieces by Lari Pittman and Elliott Hundley. Here, Lim explores the personal and political, something she aims to do in each rotation of the California galleries. Where environmental anxiety is subtly underscored in the “smog gallery,” gender and identity politics feature prominently in this one. “The primary story I’m trying to tell is [about] styles and materials that were once considered unsuitable for high art,” she says.

During her research, she read about Pittman’s experience as an art student at UCLA in the early 1970s, when one of his professors called his paintings “faggy.” Meanwhile, she learned that an art critic in the mid-1960s had used the word “fruity” to describe the colors in an early, minimalist Judy Chicago sculpture.

“It’s amazing that this was valid critical language at the time — that critics and professors felt a reflexive need to denounce anything that seemed even vaguely feminine or gay,” she says. She felt compelled to include the anecdotes in her gallery introduction so that visitors could situate themselves in these biographical and historical contexts. (The Pittman work on view was created in 2008, while the Chicago works were made at different points in the ’70s.)

Lim also made a point of filling the gallery with works that heavily feature pink, a color historically thought of as effeminate and lowbrow, she notes. Almost every work in the room has some shade of it. “These artists embrace it and take incredible pleasure in putting it in your face — I wanted to make sure that people really see that as soon as they walk into this gallery.”

Installation view of Between Two Worlds: Art of California, featuring from background to foreground: Judy Chicago, Rejection Quintet, 1974; Judy Chicago, Georgia O’Keeffe Plate #1, 1979; photo: Don Ross

Chicago’s Rejection Quintet series pairs first-person narratives of artistic transformation with colored pencil drawings of vulva-like imagery in vibrant pastel hues taking on the shapes of caves, flowers, and butterflies.

In the text portion of Female Rejection Drawing (1974), where petal-like forms peel away in a dizzying spiral, she asks a resonant rhetorical question: “Does anyone really understand what it means to have to suppress your femaleness in order to be able to express your artistness — or what it does to you?” The traced horizontal lines and handwritten cursive almost call to mind a composition notebook, or diary.

Judy Chicago, Female Rejection Drawing, from the Rejection Quintet, 1974; collection SFMOMA, gift of Tracy O’Kates; © Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

“It is like a diary. She’s so vulnerable and open, and I think that kind of earnestness is really moving.” Lim says. “And it’s also tonally very different from almost anything else that we have in the museum.”

Between Two Worlds is on view through March 4.

Julia Askenase

Julia Askenase

Julia Askenase is the Senior Associate, Research & Content - Public Engagement.
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