Exhibit Harks Back to 1950s San Francisco

The art at 'Dilexi: The Early Years,' is very much of its time, but timeless in its appeal. This work is ‘Preface,’ by Leo Vallador, c.1953-55 (oil on canvas, 33 x 41 inches, copyright 2019 Estate of Leo Valledor, courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

It was a time before international art fairs attracted movie stars and before the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had the word 'modern' in its name. Yet San Francisco was hopping with so many artists and movements that no one had named them yet.

And at the heart of it, bringing in a degree of professionalism (like actually keeping to posted hours) was the Dilexi Gallery, originally in North Beach, a place that showed the most outrageous of the young talented Bay Area artists, while also showing more mature artists from both Northern and Southern California.

Artists who are today legends – Jay DeFeo and her husband Wally Hedrick, the conceptual and 'land' artist Robert Morris (who was an abstract expressionist painter back when he showed at Dilexi), the ‘Bay Area Figurative’ school sculptor Manuel Neri – all showed at, hung around, and drank beer at Dilexi.

Don’t you wish you did too?

It’s not clear that modern home developer Joe Eichler ever dropped by.

Though interested in art (Eichler Homes employees were encouraged to attend a talk about art by artist Matt Kahn, who worked for Joe on model homes), Joe would more likely be found on a golf course or at a Democratic Party fundraiser.

Roy De Forest’s ‘Concerning White Elephants,’ is from 1960. (Oil, acrylic, PVA, wood, 47 1/2 x 26 x 5 1/4 inches, signed and titled verso. Copyright 2019 Estate of Roy De Forest / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

But Eichler’s architect, Bob Anshen, certainly knew the place, as he was a frequent denizen of art parties in North Beach, Sausalito, and other such locales.

You won’t run into Anshen at ‘Dilexi: The Early Years,’ a compact yet somehow expansive exhibit at Brian Gross Fine Art in San Francisco, where the Design District meets Potrero Hill. But you’ll see work from an art scene that was just somewhat off kilter.

'Dilexi: The Early Years' is up through July 27 and is free. It’s too late to hear from gallery founder Jim Newman, who spoke during the opening reception.

The exhibit was assembled by independent curator Lauren Whitcomb, who has been working with the Dilexi Gallery archive.

“It’s about 50 years since [the gallery] closed in 1970, so it’s a good time to look again at this very important Bay Area gallery,” the gallery’s assistant director, Greg Flood, said. “It was the first professional gallery to show a lot of the underground work in the Bay Area. But it also showed the work of established artists too.”

According to the gallery:

“Within a few months of opening, Dilexi shows were regularly reviewed in the San Francisco newspapers, and soon grew to a national reputation through regular coverage by then San Francisco based Artforum. The impact on the careers of many of the artists who showed at Dilexi was immediate and lasting, elevating many of them to the national reputations that they enjoy today.”

The exhibit is part of a Dilexi celebration, the Dilexi Multi-Venue Retrospective, that is also happening at San Francisco’s Crown Point Press and at four Los Angeles galleries.

Love Feel
Wally Hedrick’s ‘Love Feel,’ from 1957. (Oil on canvas, 59 inches diameter. Copyright 2019 Estate of Wally Hedrick, courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

At a time when New York artists were defining American art as the art of the day, Californians were not always in synch. Figurative artists in the Bay Area rejected abstraction. Spiritual concerns loomed high for many artists.

Jay DeFeo, seen here with, among other things, a beautifully painted still life that she pretends is a landscape, was so obsessive a worker one of her paintings grew too big for the apartment in which it was being painted.

Hedrick’s work, seen here with two deeply painted, shaped paintings, created art that could suggest aids to prayer or meditation – or fear.

Among the other works in this very varied exhibit are two lovely works by Roy De Forest, best known today for his West Coast Funk paintings, many of which feature wide-eyed dogs painted pontillist fashion, with dabs of paint jabbing up from the canvas like spears.

His construction, ‘Concerning White Elephants,’ still bears the Dilexi label on its reverse.

His other piece, a small painting, is particularly charming, with what seems to be Asian lettering, a bird, a starburst, and the tail of a dog jogging past a picket fence.

Joan Brown, a Bay Area Figural painter, is seen through several pieces, including two small paintings of women – one washing the floor, the other merely reclining.

‘Untitled (Woman washing floor),’ by Joan Brown, is circa 1958. (Oil on canvas, 19 x 18 inches. Copyright 2019 Estate of Joan Brown, courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

It’s interesting to see how the work of some of these artists changed so greatly since their earlier years. Check out the two small-ish canvasses shown here by Leo Vallador, an artist who today is represented by Brian Gross.

Vallador’s work these days includes shaped canvases with areas of contrasting flat color. Here, he shows one work all in ochre, the paint slathered on as though it is the skin of an animal, and another work of evocative design suggesting both a figure and a landscape, and perhaps a struggle.

If you visit the exhibit, check out the Brian Gross Gallery’s back room, where there are always fine works on display by, among others, Roy De Forest and Robert Arneson. The gallery is in one of the artier little corners of the city, with two adjacent galleries, Catharine Clark and Hosfelt, showing very good, sometimes exciting stuff.

A block away are two other serious art venues, Jack Fischer, and Patricia Sweetow galleries. If you’re making an afternoon of it, a walk of a few blocks will lead to even more – and to Anchor Brewing, if you have worked up a thirst.

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