When the Bay Area Burst Forth With Art

Elmer Bischoff, Orange Sweater, 1955; oil on canvas; 48 1/2 x 57 in. (123.19 x 144.78 cm); Collection SFMOMA, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Mark Schorer; © Estate of Elmer Bischoff; photo: Ben Blackwell

One of the great roomfuls of art anywhere can be seen through April 12 at the Oakland Museum of California, ranging from classics all local art lovers know, to works that are unknown but compelling. Moreover, ‘Fertile Ground’ tells a tale and tells it well.

“This show is about how the art came to be as much as it is about the art itself,” Drew Johnson, an Oakland Museum curator, said at the press preview.

This is another in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s exhibits on the road, taking place while the museum gets expanded and rebuilt. It’s a collaboration with Oakland, only 11 minutes apart by BART, as noted by Janet Bishop, SFMOMA’s curator of painting and sculpture.

Rather than exploring the entirety of Bay Area art from the Depression of the ‘30s to the gentrification wars in the Mission today, the show focuses on several hot moments when everything came together to produce something special – the right artists, a hot scene, clever patrons.

The mostly-leftwing artists and Bohemians of the 1930s made up one of these moments. Others include the post-World War II days at San Francisco’s California School of Fine Arts and the burgeoning scene in the 1960s at UC Davis, of all places.

Newsreels, historic flyers and brochures, and odd objects give the sense of a history exhibit. But the art on the walls stays on center stage.

David Park, Rehearsal, c. 1949 - 1950. Oil on canvas, 46 x 35.75 in. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of the Anonymous Donor Program of the American Federation of Arts. Courtesy of Hackett | Mill, representative of the Estate of David Park; © Estate of David Park.

We’ve got drawings by Sargent Johnson of athletes for a George Washington High mural project in the 1930s; a great colored drawing of a mountain man by Ray Boynton, known for his murals at Mills College, and images by and of Benny Bufano.

There are any number of panels by artists who are better known for their murals, including at Coit Tower. These works should be hauled out of storage more often. It’s nostalgic to see images of North Beach when there were still plenty of empty lots.

And of course there are the classics from artists associated with the School of Fine Arts, spindly abstracts by Clyfford Still, the compelling Bay Area Figurative paintings by David Park – even a rare, early abstract by Park, one of the few he didn’t dump in the Berkeley dump when he dumped abstraction.

It’s a fine canvas too.

Some of the concept shows SFMOMA has helped mount during its temporary closure have been, well, a bit of a conceptual stretch, including a look at the spiritual in art at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, or the recent ‘Gorgeous’ at the Asian Museum. Attractive, but a stretch.

But ‘Fertile Ground’ plays it straight and delivers.

Dorothy Winslade, Storm Over Coit Tower, circa 1934. Oil on canvas, 22 x 26 in. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Harold R. (Bart) Wilson, Jr.

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