BY ALEXANDER FRIED
IF WHAT you look for in art is sweetness and comfort, stay away from the corner of the De Young Museum that contains the big, month-long exhibit by Art Members of the San Francisco Art Association.
To go to the exhibition is like entering an explosion of flying paint, strong pictorial feelings and twisted, grotesque sculptural imagery.
Aside from the violent impact of many abstractions, the works that do offer a recognizable version of the human figure are heavy in gloom.
The prime example of pessimism is the sculptural tidbit by Bruce Conner, call the “The Child.”
Conner’s little figure is very much like a decayed, mummified corpse. It sits strapped to a highchair. It is swathed in a web of torn old nylon stockings. Its mouth is open and its eyes are blind in a silent cry of horror. Undoubtably the sculptor has formed the figure very cleverly. Yet its net expression is simply awful – like something a ghoul would steal from the graveyard.
Why do so many modern artists in this country think so intently in terms of gloom?
Don’t tell me it’s because of the threat of H-bombs. In earlier centuries, disease and early death were more menacing every day to the average man than the prospects of disaster we can observe about us today.
Yet the artists of those centuries often lightened their serious thoughts with cheerfulness. And a person today doesn’t have to be a Pollyanna to find some balm and pleasantness amid the familiar age-old human tragedy.
Are our gloomier modern artists upset because they find themselves living so much apart from the routine mass life around them?
Does it disgruntle them that the world doesn't admire and buy their work as readily as they’d like? Are they simply sticking out their tongues at the surrounding landscape of pretty commercial illustrations?
Oddly enough, in the Art Association exhibit, it is the figurative works that tend more to gloom than the abstractions. Many of the latter paintings have so much flame of color and energy that they look quite exhilarating, not oppressive.
In regard to Conner’s “Child,” the artist surely could easily out-argue any optimistic, lyrical gallery-goer who would say such an anti-beautiful thing couldn’t possibly be art.
To defend his work, he could point to the revered Rembrandt portrayals of hanging slabs of gory meat, or to Goya’s horrors of war, or to the cruel Renaissance scenes of Crucifixion and martyrdom. For good measure me might cite stabbings in great operas, to say nothing of TV and movie murders galore.
The optimistic, lyrical visitor can come back with a simple reply:
He can ask – in a paraphrase of Shakespeare’s sonnet – why should be “love that which he receives so gladly,” or why should he “receive with pleasure his annoy?”
Whereupon he can turn his back on the grisly Conner object, and look at any of the nearly 200 other items in the Art Association show.