Gone, baby, gone!
Looking back at the year in fine art
by Sura Wood
Ah, 2012, we hardly knew ye. It's hard to believe, but it's indeed that time again when we take stock and reflect on a waning year that has reached its expiration date. Looking back, there was a plentiful supply of interesting shows, such as the idiosyncratic career retrospective for Oakland-based graphic novelist and underground cartoonist Daniel Clowes, of Ghost World and Art School Confidential fame, who went respectable and nearly mainstream with a full-court press treatment at OMCA.
There were fewer blockbusters at area museums than in years gone by, and while there were missteps, there was an absence of dramatic peaks or howling failures. 2012 saw many notable small shows outside of or embedded in major institutions. The latter didn't get the press coverage their major sister exhibitions received; one had to look a little harder, and there were payoffs for those willing to invest the energy. The Legion of Honor's delightful showcase of works by Rene Bouche, a fashion illustrator and art director for French Vogue, whose ink and watercolors, accompanied by his acerbic text, drew a memorable portrait of a down but not entirely defeated post-WWII Paris, was a stellar find. Then, mild-mannered Arthur Tress, the Clark Kent of modern photography, rolled into town. Slightly built, bespectacled and openly gay, Tress looks as unthreatening as your neighborhood pharmacist, but beneath that harmless exterior lurks a heart of darkness. Aspects of his disturbing body of work even upset that children's night-terrors specialist, Maurice Sendak. Tress' San Francisco show was gentler, a snapshot of San Francisco and its unique strangeness circa 1964, before the "revolution" and the Summer of Love.
Carrying on the proud Bay Area tradition, it was another banner year for photography. Photography in Mexico at SFMOMA revealed our neighbor South of the Border as the home not only of homicidal drug cartels and brutal poverty, but of intense, remarkably muscular imagery in pictures by a dozen artists most Americans never heard of, but should want to get to know. The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-51, one of CJM's most stimulating shows to date, tracked the history of the League, a group of young, idealistic American, mostly Jewish photographers whose gritty urban, black & white vintage images bore witness to an all-but-vanished New York City. Walker Evans Photographs, a survey at the Cantor Arts Center, offered a broad perspective of Evans' development, but the Depression remains his greatest artistic subject. SFMOMA's Cindy Sherman retrospective was an expansive platform for the controversial photographer, a notorious chameleon with a fascination with gender and an electrifying gift for ingenious disguise and masquerade.
Read on for more highlights and lowlights of the year that was.
Worst decision of the year: The unceremonious "letting go" of curator Lynn Orr by FAMSF, which has been floundering internally since its director, John Buchanan, died at the end of 2011. Orr, a brilliant, gracious and widely respected curator of European art there for the last 29 years, will be missed. Her sudden departure was only the latest in a series of labor problems and stumbles. See below.
Most shameless act of nepotism this town has seen came last summer when a collection of photographs belonging to San Francisco high society fixture, budding collector and FAMSF board trustee Trevor Traina occupied several galleries at the de Young, where his mother, Dede Wilsey, is president of the Board. Wealth has its privileges.
Classiest venue: Pier 24, a contemporary cathedral for photography on the edge of San Francisco Bay.
Most daring move: SFCamerawork's relocation to a light-filled loft in the Mid-Market area.
Award for the biggest costume party of the year, a walk on the wild side, and a shout-out to grandmothers everywhere goes to Jean Paul Gaultier. Never has so much brash vulgarity, showmanship and gender-bending been gathered under one roof. One emerged from the de Young's overwhelming show, which mixed enough fashion metaphors to make the head spin, with gratitude for the designer's nurturing grandmother, not only for encouraging her grandson in his predilection for clothing, but also for her closet, where he unearthed the body-cinching corsets that set him on his career path to Madonna.
Greatest joy savored in less than 10 minutes: Black & white footage of Nureyev dancing in a bare rehearsal studio in his practice clothes was a touch of the divine.
Best vicarious experience: Perusing the large color photographs of CBS founder William Paley's opulent Fifth Avenue apartment, where his paintings dotted the walls like birds of paradise in a garden of earthy delights.
The Not Just for Kids Award: The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats. The artwork created by this children's book author and illustrator is mind-blowing for people of all ages. If you haven't seen it, go now.
Most illuminating perspective: Women at the Chinese Cultural Center. Transformation was key at this eye-opening show, in which straight and LBGT artists addressed feminism, gender and expressions – and repression – of diverse sexual identity in modern China. Who knew?
Milestone: What began as an informal printmaking workshop set up by Kathan Brown for her friends in the basement of her Berkeley home grew into Crown Point Press, the influential San Francisco etching studio and fine art-print publisher she founded celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn, Chuck Close, Nathan Oliveira, John Cage, Steve Reich and Sol LeWitt are among the 100 artists who have worked there.
Most exciting new talent: Not exactly straight outta South Central, though he grew up there, Mark Bradford breezed through San Francisco on his way to the top with a fresh and exhilarating survey, a mash-up of abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism and black culture filtered through a world view that's as loose-limbed and rangy as the gay, 6' 8" artist himself.
Best Bay Area Artist exhibitions: Jay DeFeo; The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler.
Best gallery shows: The Sphinx's Riddle: The Art of Leonor Fini at Weinstein Gallery; Tom Chambers: Entopic Kingdom at Modern Book.
Epic Fizzle: Nayland Blake's much-anticipated interactive exhibition at YBCA, FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX!, was BLAH!, a case of more hype than substance from the intriguing, unpredictable installation/performance artist who often focuses on sexual and racial identity.
Now you see it, now you don't: The Stuff that Dreams Are Made of: San Francisco and the Movies at the Old Mint. Squishy title and dangling preposition aside, this show, which vanished as quickly as it arrived, thrilled cinephiles, who love to see their scenic city immortalized on film. Those with a high threshold checked out the paintings by Kim Novak, who better not give up her day job just yet.