Everyone with a television set knows the look of California - the streets of San Francisco, redwoods, mists, the Bay, surfers, private eyes in shadows, San Clemente, Burbank, freeways and movie stars. A different set of images, equally persistent, haunts California's art.
We have seen her grand abstractions (by Clyfford Still, Sam Francis and the late John McLaughlin); our galleries have shown us her polished southern plastics, her goofy painted pots, her nightmares scavenged and assembled by Edward Kienholz and Bruce Connor, and the visions of Nirvana painted with such care by Bill Martin and Gage Taylor.
Now we have a chance to see these things together, and many more. "Painting and Sculpture: The Modern Era," which opens today at the National Collection of Fine Arts, is despite its size - there are 200 artists - a perculiarly coherent and memorable show.
It was organized by director Henry Hopkins of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and by Walter Hopps of the National Collection. Shows arranged by Hopps tend to have within them a suggestive thread of thought. Here the thread is found in the farthest galleries where the oldest paintings hang.
Begin there with four pictures. All of them are clues. Three are landscapes - "Brushy Hillside", 1904, by Gottardo Piazzoni; "Coastline," a C.S. Price seascape from the '20s; and "Los Angeles Landscape," which Stanton Macdonald - Wright painted in 1903, when he was just 13. The fourth work is by Arthur Mathews (1860 - 1945). It shows a naked Leda raped by a black swan.
These paintings weave a thread that leads the viewer through the labyrinth to come.
One line, the horizon, divides the Piazzoni. His picture seems a call to quiet meditation. It suggests the almost Oriental purity of perception prompted later by McLaughlin, and still later by dematerializing art of Robert Irwin, Peter Alexander, Jim Turrell and Michael Asher. In chockfull California there still are those who ponder emptiness and peace.
A dream of building freedom drove Californians west. Clayton Price (1874 - 1950) freely built his seascape of slabs of colored paint. He was associated with "The Oakland Six" (whose loyalties to strong color, landscape and free brushwork recall the shared concerns of the Canadian "Group of Seven.) Price's picture seems prophetic. Its freely brushed - on paint and sense of place predict the works of Diebenkorn, David Park and Elmer Bischoff. It also hints at Wayne Thiebaud, who uses gooey paint to make his solid foodscapes of hot dogs, slabs of pie.
Macdonald - Wright reminds us of the southern sun. California seems, in some ways, not one state, but two. His splendid little picture establishes the strong north - south division that continues through the show.
Mathews art is moody, genteel, academic. Academic painting never died in California, its meticulousness touches the visions of Bill Martin, the extraordinary accuracy of Paul Sarkisian, James Valerio and so - called McLean and Ralph Goings. That Arthur Mathews painting, with its ominous black shape violating Leda, also hints at something else.
A spirit of the frightening - Our Lady of the Horrors - haunts the California show. The spirit appear in Eugene Berman's "Nike" (1943), in Ricc Lebrun's screaming Magdalene (1950), and in the Valerio (she is the fat bonde being choked.) She is portrayed by Joan Brown. We feel her presence moving in Connor's veiled sculptures, and in the streaming blood annointing Kienholz's "John Doe," Robert Cremean carves her broken body. We feel her in the shock, the satire and grossness of much California art. "Body artist" Chris Burden somehow pays her homage when he wounds himself.
All these themes, and others, tend to interweave as one moves through this show.
To Frank Lloyd Wright it felt as if a giant hand, grabbing the East Coast, had picked up America so that everything not nailed down slid toward California. Much imported from outside, from Europe and the East, as well as from the Orient, has touched California's art. Surrealism flourished there in the 1930s, Lebrun and his followers seem disciples of Picasso, Mondrian's grids and primary colors are seen in James McCray's "Reticulation" 1945).
Perhaps the state, its sense of place of newness and its light, changed the art of Still, Francis and McLaughlin. With painters so original it is difficult to tell, but one leaves this show convinced that California shows in California's art. One feels plastic newness in these polished surfaces, and the grab - bag jumble of the state in these tough assemblages. The television California is apparent, too, in the bungalos of Bechtle, the customized automobile colors used by Billy Al Bengston, in the cartoon cowboy painted by Peter Saul. That nude by Mel Ramos hugs a ketchup bottle. Ed Ruscha's "Standard Station With 10c Western," with its high - speed diagonal, evokes the car as surely as Howard Hack's yellow - shaded office recalls the business world of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade.
Though there are 200 artists represented here, it is worth remembering this show is not complete. Washingtonians are familiar with the impressive pictures of Joseph White, Shelia Rose and Frederick Hammersley, all of whom worked in California, none of whom are represented. But then, neither is Walt Disney. "Painting and Sculpture in California: The Modern Era" will be on view all summer. It closes Sept. 11.