Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Richard Diebenkorn (1953)

Berkeley #3 by Richard Diebenkorn, 1953

I was fortunate to see a preview last week of the new Richard Diebenkorn exhibit being held now through September 29, 2013 at the de Young Museum here in San Francisco. The exhibit focuses on what they term his Berkeley Years, namely 1953 through 1966 when the Portland, Oregon born artist returned to the Bay Area (he had grown up in in San Francisco) when he moved his family from Albuquerque, New Mexico to 2837 Webster Street in Southeast Berkeley, California. It was a period during which he created a remarkable number of works, especially considering the amount of time he spent teaching during much of this era. Additionally, he had almost yearly gallery shows and Life magazine profiled him both in 1954 and 1957.

Berkeley #22 by Richard Diebenkorn, 1954

What I found most remarkable about this show, in addition to the sheer volume of works collected and put on display, were his earlier paintings which represented his reaction to the New York school of abstract expressionism. Diebenkorn is most well known for his figurative work, a style he transitioned to during his years in Berkeley. But a solid third of what is on display could be termed abstract expressionist and most folks would not challenge such a claim.

Berkeley #44 by Richard Diebenkorn, 1955

Diebenkorn certainly was influenced by the 10th Street crowd for sure, particularly Rothko and de Kooning both of whom share a similar color palette with the younger West Coaster - and he had met and befriended Kline some time near the beginning of this period - but a strong argument has long been made by art critics that his greatest influence even at this stage were the landscapes that surrounded him be it in Albuquerque or Berkeley. 

Richard Diebenkorn, c.1952

It is always exciting to see an artist in transition which is a big part of the appeal of what the de Young has put together. There are also other connections for me as well. When I first moved to San Francisco in the 1989, I spent a considerable amount of my first 3 years across the Bay in Berkeley and do feel that the colors of the area had to have some influence on his work. Diebenkorn was also a dyed-in-the-wool jazz fan, albeit of the traditional New Orleans variety that had begun experiencing a revival as the unfortunately named Dixieland, parallel to the ascension of modern jazz. Almost needless to say, I highly recommend a visit to the de Young if you are in the San Francisco Bay Area or plan to be some time in the coming months.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Harry Babasin & The Jazzpickers (1958)

I thought that I would put up a quick post this afternoon. Truth be told, I have a bit of a backlog of entries at the moment. There are quite a few in the hopper, but I've been sidelined with some minor health issues and I should really be staying away from the computer. But I hate seeing the weeks fly-by without new posts, so here is most of the February 3, 1958 episode of ABC-TV's Stars of Jazz television program hosted by singer, pianist, and songwriter Bobby Troup (yes, he of Route 66 song and Emergency TV fame). Bobby's guests that week included bandleader turned manager Charlie Barnet, vocalist Pat Morrissey, and Harry Babasin. I believe I have mentioned this TV show before, but I will take this opportunity to point the curious reader to this wonderful blog which tackles the show in great detail.

Babasin, an unsung hero of jazz music on the West Coast of California, was initially a bassist who played with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker. He was also one of the first experimenters with the cello in jazz music. Of course my short shrift is not doing Harry justice and for a wealth of excellent information on Babasin and some of his more interesting musical activities of note, I highly recommend this page created by his son Von.

A final note. The guitarist in these clips is another talented obscurity by the name of Dempsey Wright, a fellow whose playing I have only recently been digging into. With 2 LPs of his own to his discographical credit, plus 3 appearances as a sideman, his recorded legacy is certainly less than proportionate to his chops. It's a shame, but thankfully we have these few more minutes of music to enjoy from someone else that may have been forever lost in the cracks of time. A special thank you to Babasin's son, Pierre, for making these clips available.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Zenith Radio Corporation Showroom Sculpture (1959)

Zenith Radio Coporation Showroom, Chicago, Illinois, c.1959

Recently, I visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC for the the first time. Now I don't know why, but I had rather low expectations for this particular museum - perhaps I just did not know what to expect. And while I was certainly impressed in general, I was nearly awestruck when I rounded a corner only to find myself face-to-face with Harry Bertoia's massive Zenith Radio Corporation Showroom Sculpture

Harry Bertoia and his creation, c.1959 

I have something of an affinity for the artist and designer Harry Bertoia, whom I mentioned almost in passing a few weeks ago. He was the first 20th Century modernist designer that I knew by name, having been introduced to his iconic wire mesh chairs by a good friend and room-mate in my early-twenties. Bertoia was an Italian-American who had come to this country from Northern Italy (via Canada) at a young age, studied alongside some of the legends of modern design, and even spent a few years during the 1940s living in my hometown of San Diego, California. His first gallery show in 1945 was held at the San Francisco Museum of Art. On top of all this, I genuinely enjoy his wide-array of work, from his monotypes to his furniture and of course his sculptures.

sculpture detail, photo by author

The 1950s were a productive time for Harry. He started off the decade by accepting a job with Knoll, a company headed up by Florence Knoll, a former classmate at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Supposedly Knoll gave him very little directive to start, but within a year Harry had designed is diamond chair, which may be his most well-known work. More gallery shows (including MOMA in New York) and art commissions, both public and private, followed in the subsequent years leading up to the piece in question. These commissions would continue into the late 1970s, although Bertoia would never again return to furniture design and became increasingly interested in his musical experiments that utilized his own sculptural creations.

sculpture detail, photo by author

According to the Smithsonian archives, Bertoia was very specific in what the elements represented in the piece he produced for the late-50s Zenith commission. From left, the largest structure represents the earth, followed by sight, sound, and what he termed electronic control. All were Bertoia's attempt to provide some physical representation of the forces behind the relatively new phenomena of television. Zenith had introduced its first television line in 1948, with color sets following in 1950, so by the end of the decade it was a major player in the ever-growing television market.

sculpture detail, photo by author

The sculpture itself has a sheer presence that photos can barely capture. The slow alternating pulsation of the lights gives the impression of some sort of bio-mechanical organism. Is the wall alive? Is it transmitting a signal from some distant satellite? For a generation immersed in science fiction pulp and soon to embrace Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, it must have made quite an impression at the time both on the Zenith executives as well as those that were fortunate enough to see the pieces in the original showroom.

As one may expect, the piece spent a significant amount of time neglected in storage. Fortunately, the Smithsonian spent a significant amount of time restoring the work, the story of which is told here.