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Artistic circles in the Fillmore

Jay DeFeo’s “The Rose” being removed from the Painterland apartments in 1965.

By GARY KAMIYA
San Francisco Chronicle

The most famous event in the history of avant-garde literary San Francisco was Allen Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery at 3119 Fillmore Street on Oct. 7, 1955. That frenzied reading, the subsequent publication by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books of “Howl and Other Poems,” and the arrests and obscenity trial that followed launched Ginsberg’s career, put City Lights on the map and made the Beat movement nationally famous.

The site of the Six Gallery is one of San Francisco’s literary shrines. But few people realize that an unremarkable-appearing apartment building just eight blocks up the hill at 2322 Fillmore Street was the quasi-communal home of many of the city’s cutting-edge artists and writers from around 1950 to 1965. 

The Painterland era came to an end on Nov. 9, 1965, when Jay DeFeo’s “The Rose” was removed by forklift from the building and shipped to the Pasadena Art Museum. One cutting-edge artistic circle faded away, but another one sprang up at almost exactly the same time and place. A few young people were living in an apartment on 2111 Pine Street, just a few blocks away from Painterland. They called themselves the Family Dog.

Read more: “Painterland: the forgotten apartments of San Francisco’s avant-garde

Surrealism in the neighborhood

Part-time neighborhood resident Pepo Pichler and one of his plastic sculptures.

ART | JEROME TARSHIS

In this year’s Venice Biennale, the world’s preeminent art fair, a kind of 21st century surrealism is said to be the dominant artistic tendency. One of the most admired exhibitions of our time is “Surrealism Beyond Borders,” now packing them in at Tate Modern in London after months as a smash hit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The point of the show is that surrealism happened in places very far from its first home in Paris and much more recently than the years between the wars.

Although I hesitate to say that everything new begins in San Francisco and then spreads to the larger world, here I consider myself to be on firmer ground. Fifty years ago, not far from Fillmore Street, there was a gallery that anticipated much of what now seems to be the present moment in Venice and elsewhere.

The Upper Market Street Gallery, which began its existence at 2229 Market Street, would later find a new home and a new name on Bush Street near Divisadero. It was founded in 1971 by an interior designer recently arrived from New York, Ron Jehu, together with some artist friends. Although much of the art and many of the artists can be thought of as decidedly marginal in one way or another, Jehu himself had a blue-chip practice. 

Among the jobs he did were decorating the presidential suite of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and sourcing furniture for the White House. The Upper Market Street Gallery, on the other hand, was a scene of the greatest informality. Jehu’s Weimaraner, Casey, tended to leap at me in the most frenzied way, and the artists and assorted visitors to the gallery were themselves a fairly spontaneous lot. The gallery showed far more women artists than was usual at the time and was an epicenter of gender strangeness. It was the kind of place where members of the Cockettes, an acid-drag musical group by now legendary but then an everyday presence in San Francisco, would fit right in. The latter-day surrealism aspect was also there. 

In the case of Steven Arnold, one of Jehu’s artists, the connection was more direct. By sheer chance Arnold, a morally serious man who was at the same time a gifted if ambivalent self-promoter, came to the attention of Salvador Dali, one of the European surrealists of the 1930s and himself no shrinking violet when it came to getting publicity. After they met at a film showing at the Whitney Museum in New York, Dali took Arnold up as a protege and in 1974 invited him to Spain to help design the private museum that was to become Dali’s monument in his native Catalonia.

After its beginnings on Market Street, the gallery moved South of Market and then, renamed the Ron Jehu Gallery, later the Jehu-Wong Gallery, settled into Jehu’s longtime office space at 2719 Bush Street, between Divisadero and Baker. Jehu closed the gallery in the 1980s and died in 2007. His former business partner Wylie Wong, still alive and healthy, has become a private dealer in Asian art.

Today my connection with Ron Jehu’s galleries is for the most part a matter of pleasant memories. But one of his artists, Pepo Pichler, an Austrian who moved to San Francisco in the 1970s, continues to be a part-time resident of the neighborhood. He became and remains a friend whose art I still enjoy.

A recent series of sculptures, made of recycled plastic, addresses one of the most vexing problems of our time: Plastic will last pretty much forever. Pichler’s plastic sculpture is a solution that doesn’t promise to save the oceans, but it does make an ironic point: Plastic would be merely one more difficulty of our troubled times if we thought of it as waste. If we think of it as art, its durability is a plus rather than a minus.

Since 1992 Pichler has divided his time between San Francisco and the part of Austria where he grew up. For much of the year he and his wife, Anita Mardikian, live in Schloss Schmelzhofen, a renovated castle of 70-odd rooms, with outbuildings that include Pichler’s studio.

During the colder months they live in an apartment on Divisadero, picking up the threads of what used to be a year-round life. The neighborhood has changed since the early 1970s, but residents like Pepo Pichler can remind us of a time when it attracted some of America’s most innovative artists and galleries.

Photographer of the Fillmore

IT TOOK A FEW YEARS for David Johnson’s photographs of Fillmore Street during its jazz heyday as the Harlem of the West to be appreciated. Quite a few.

But it happened half a century later with the premiere of the highly acclaimed public television documentary in 1999, called simply “The Fillmore,” and the book that followed. And it’s continuing still, with an exhibition of 65 photographs from Johnson’s vast archive — now in the collection of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley — at San Francisco’s majestic City Hall.

A reception on May 25 from 5 to 7 p.m. launches “David Johnson: In the Zone (1945-1965).” The photographer, now 95, will be on the scene, as he has been for most of the last century. The exhibition continues through January 6, 2023.

EARLIER: “David Johnson in the New Fillmore

Neri first exhibited on Fillmore

Manuel Neri (left), with roommate and fellow artist Henry Villierme, during their student days.

ART | JEROME TARSHIS

Manuel Neri, one of America’s leading figurative sculptors, died a couple of months ago. It was no great surprise: He was 91 years old and had been in poor health for a long time. But I felt a particular twinge, because when I moved to San Francisco, in 1968, I found Neri to be an easy, welcoming presence.

Neri was exhibiting at Ruth Braunstein’s Quay Gallery, one of the most respected in the city. Three years earlier he had been appointed to the art faculty of UC Davis, where his colleagues were such Northern California superstars as William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest, Robert Arneson and Wayne Thiebaud. As a relatively major Bay Area artist, he had definitely arrived.

His earliest work had been in cheap and almost pointedly unpretentious materials: cardboard, newspaper, cloth and plaster. As his career and reputation grew, he moved on to bronze and marble, which are considered noble materials. Eventually he bought a studio in Carrara, around the corner from Michelangelo’s house, where he could work with marble from quarries that dated back to ancient Roman times.

Today his work is in the permanent collections of major museums in the United States and elsewhere in the western world. But his career had humble beginnings, and his earliest exhibitions were in the resolutely noncommercial galleries that made Fillmore Street a major center of artistic innovation during the 1950s and ’60s. When Bruce Conner founded his deliberately odd artists’ group, the Rat Bastards Protective Association, sometime in late 1957 or early 1958, Neri was one of its first members.

He lived on Fillmore Street for a short time. In 1959, when the painter Bill Brown separated from his wife, fellow painter Joan Brown, and moved out of their studio at 2322 Fillmore, the legendary Painterland, Neri moved in with her. But they soon relocated to North Beach, where they eventually married.

It was almost an accident that he became an artist at all. He was born in Sanger, an agricultural community, in 1930. He and his parents, immigrants from Mexico, found themselves employed as migrant farm workers after two of his father’s business ventures failed. In 1939, after his father’s death, his mother got a good job in Oakland and the family was back on its feet.

He decided to become an engineer and enrolled for preliminary courses at City College of San Francisco in 1950. Hoping for an easy A — or at least that’s the story he told — he took a course in ceramics and found himself fascinated by the possibilities of art. Although he went on to study engineering at Berkeley, his eyes had been opened to other possibilities. In 1952 he transferred to California College of Arts and Crafts. In 1957, after military service in Korea, he enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute. 

Neri’s first exhibition, while he was still a student, was a two-person show at the Six Gallery, at 3119 Fillmore, in 1956. In 1959 he had a one-person exhibition at the Spatsa Gallery, on Filbert Street off Fillmore, followed by another in 1960 at the Dilexi Gallery, then located at 1858 Union Street, between Octavia and Laguna.

From the beginning of his career, Neri was in the right places and attracted the right kind of notice. Reviewing his very first sculpture show, Alfred Frankenstein, then the art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, spoke favorably of the work and also discussed the philosophy that seemed to inform the Six Gallery in general and this show in particular: “The group that runs this institution commits itself to exhibiting not only the successes and matured achievements but the half-steps, blunders and fumblings by the way.” Frankenstein had mixed feelings about that. “This emphasis on process, on the doing rather than the thing done, is displayed in an extreme form in the 6 Gallery’s current show. The whole thing is both fascinating and a little appalling.” 

More than 60 years later, I am happy to add that even when Neri was working in marble and his sculpture was both carefully composed and informed by long study of the European figurative tradition, he managed to retain something of the air of youthful spontaneity that characterized so much art made on Fillmore Street in the 1950s.

As I might have imagined from seeing his work, Neri in person had nothing of the presence of a major art world figure, although by the late 1960s he was well on his way to becoming one. I would look at him, he would look at me, and it felt like a naked soul looking at a naked soul.

EARLIER: “For a time, Fillmore was home to a circle of artists

Sunrise at Alta Plaza

Photograph by Robert Starkey

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

While most of his neighbors are still asleep, Robert Starkey can be found roaming Alta Plaza Park, searching for new angles to photograph the dawn.

“Walking to Alta Plaza to photograph the sunrise I get exercise, connection with nature, the unconditional love of dogs — and a feeling of accomplishment,” he says. He shares his photographs of the sunrise on Flickr with those who slept through it.

The sunrise photography project began in January after Starkey moved from Sonoma County back to San Francisco. It was occasioned by the darkest period of his life. 

“My entire body collapsed with Stage 4 bone cancer,” he says. “I was in hospitals, nursing homes and care facilities for a year and a half, and lost everything.” When he finally recovered, he was offered a place to live in a friend’s home near Alta Plaza.

“One of the most important aspects of my healing is to find purpose in each day,” he says. Shooting the sunrise and sharing the photographs helps provide that purpose.

Photograph by Robert Starkey

Photography has been a lifelong passion for the committed globetrotter. Sunrise at Alta Plaza is only the latest of his photographic obsessions. His work in series began in earnest when he moved to the Oakmont community in Sonoma County. 

“I found myself in the middle of 12,000 acres of protected land, with wildlife everywhere to photograph,” he says. “Also at Oakmont there is a polo field, where I found I could photograph beautiful sunrises.”

Now he is inspired by the sunrise at Alta Plaza.

“This morning it was clear, with beautiful blue skies when I left home,” he says. “But about the time I got to the park, the fog had rolled in and the temperature dropped about 20 degrees.” Still, he managed a few great photos of the fog-infused sunrise before heading back home to warm up.

“I keep thinking I’ll run out of new perspectives,” Starkey says, “but that hasn’t happened yet.”

Photograph by Robert Starkey

MORE: Robert Starkey’s photographs on Flickr

Farewell to the Artists Inn

The Artists Inn at 2231 Pine Street, near Fillmore.

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

Even during the first weeks of the virus lockdown in early April, the Artists Inn at 2231 Pine Street was at full occupancy, brimming with love and laughter. But it was a bittersweet time.

Beloved owner Denise Shields had recently returned from her second home in Mexico with an ache that turned out to be pancreatic cancer. The cozy little blue house half a block from Fillmore, behind a white picket fence, quickly filled with her two sons, Will and Jason, daughter-in-law Lily and five granddaughters. Will’s partner Elisabeth was home in San Diego awaiting the birth of grandchild No. 6. “We’re sort of hoping for a boy,” Denise said during a brief break from a family Parcheesi game, “but we’ll be delighted with any healthy baby.”

Two months later, on June 6, the family welcomed a sixth granddaughter into the world. Three days after that, Denise died.

Now the Artists Inn, in one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, is ending an era as a center of warmth and hospitality for guests from around the globe. Following the death of their mother on June 9, Denise’s sons reluctantly decided to permanently close the four-room inn. They will host a garage sale — masked and socially distanced — from August 14 to 16.

(more…)

Frank Lloyd Wright tiles created here

FLW

ARCHITECT Aaron Green, who lived in a neighborhood apartment overlooking Lafayette Park for many years, helped Frank Lloyd Wright establish a San Francisco office in 1951 at 319 Grant Avenue.

Green’s mother-in-law, Jeannette Pauson Haber, lived at 2510 Jackson Street, on Alta Plaza Park, with her sister, Rose Pauson, who was a former client of Wright’s. In 1940 she had built the Pauson House in Arizona, which had been destroyed by fire in 1943. 

Rose was a painter, and Jeannette a ceramicist. When Wright decided to create red tiles, inscribed with his initials, to be affixed to a select number of his buildings, he asked Jeannette to fabricate them. Wright provided a drawing of what he wanted; Jeannette formed the tiles; Aaron Green inscribed the initials — FLLW — into each one; and Jeannette produced the “Taliesin red” glazed surface that Wright specified. 

Among the Bay Area buildings that Wright designated as worthy of bearing the tiles were the V.C. Morris shop on Maiden Lane — his only building in San Francisco and a precursor to the circular Guggenheim Museum in New York — and the Marin County Civic Center, which was completed by Aaron Green after Wright’s death.

— From Frank Lloyd Wright and San Francisco, by Paul V. Turner, published by Yale University Press.

Honoring Japantown’s founders

The new Zen garden at Cottage Row and Sutter Street.

NEARLY FOUR YEARS after it was first proposed, a new garden honoring the founders of Japantown will be dedicated this weekend at the foot of Cottage Row, near Fillmore and Sutter.

It began as a celebration of the creation of Japantown in 1906 after the earthquake and fire. Cottage Row was occupied primarily by the first, or Issei, generation of Japanese-Americans in the early 20th century, making it an apt location. But some neighbors objected, and the garden became the topic of contentious community meetings.

The idea prevailed. On August 19, master Japanese gardener Shigeru Namba began arranging a truckload of stones according to traditional Zen principles intended to inspire peace and tranquility.

The garden will be dedicated on September 21 at 6:30 p.m., with neighbors invited to attach multicolored origami cranes — a symbol of peace — to bamboo sticks in the garden.

EARLIER: “Zen garden back on again

Brown Bag broke all the rules

Michael May took the owner’s ideas and turned them into windows.

FLASHBACK | JO MANCUSO

The windows at the Brown Bag, the quirky office supply store long on the corner at 2000 Fillmore Street, were the topic of an item in Image magazine in 1991:

This is the store that breaks all the rules. Its Fillmore Street windows are really shadow boxes, maybe 4 feet square but only about 6 inches deep, so the displays look more like collages. The employees, all collectors of various kinds, bring their own stuff in to use as props. The store itself, which is supposed to be a stationery shop, sells dishes and tiny plastic eyeballs.

“We don’t want to be commercial,” says owner Dawn Christensen. “There’s nothing I won’t buy.” She is considering a “national mammogram week” window this spring using greeting cards with voluptuous Victorian women.

Employee Michael May takes Christensen’s ideas and turns them into windows. A scissors window. A cowboy window. A magnet window. A recent gold window included crowns, swans, pencils, dice, stamp holders and doilies. “It’s a far cry from forming men’s suits,” says May, a former men’s retail display worker.

“We don’t just pull merchandise from the store — we buy things for the windows and then sell them,” says Christensen.

A window sometimes has a hidden message, she says, but “the people who would be offended don’t get it.”

EARLIER: “Practical supplies and wildly impractical baubles

From the ashes of St. Paul’s

Grand Central Market at 2435 California Street shortly after it opened in June 1941.

ARCHITECTURE | BRIDGET MALEY

Since it opened in June 1941, touted as the city’s “newest drive-in market,” the Grand Central Market, now Mollie Stone’s, at 2435 California Street, has been a bustling neighborhood grocery.

The News Call Bulletin declared that “a program of entertainment would signalize its opening.” A photograph appearing with the article showed a gleaming white building with a black tile base and a Streamline Moderne blade sign. There were two entrances on California Street and one facing west toward the parking lot, for customers who took advantage of the readily available parking. This modern grocery was inserted into a block that had once housed a stately Episcopal church.

The south side of the 2400 block of California Street looked drastically different in 1915 when it was mapped by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. At the southwest corner of California and Fillmore Streets was a drugstore with apartments above it. Several other businesses, including a Japanese laundry, were west of the drug store along California Street. Mid-block there were several small single family dwellings and the imposing St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. At the southeast corner of California and Steiner were two additional small-scale store buildings.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

St. Paul’s, designed by the architect Samuel Newsom, was a small ecclesiastical building with a steeply pitched main gable and a red stone facade. The church, which was completed in 1896, burned in 1933, and several adjacent residences, also owned by the Episcopal Church, were damaged by the fire. The church was not rebuilt and the land then became available for commercial development.

The architect of the Grand Central Market was Albert W. Burgren, who was at the twilight of his career when he designed this modern grocery. Burgren, who was born in San Francisco in 1876 to Swedish parents, began a prolific partnership with T. Paterson Ross in 1900 that lasted until 1913. Their projects included a number of hotels and apartment buildings built after the 1906 earthquake, as well as the iconic Sing Fat Building in Chinatown. After his split with Ross, Burgren opened his own office, but continued some collaborative work until Ross was severely injured in 1922 at a construction site. Burgren served in Europe during World War I, returning to San Francisco and working mostly in commercial architecture until his death in 1951 after a long and prolific career.

The Grand Central Market included a meat counter run by the Petrini family, which also had counters at the Lick Super, Sunset Market and Manor Market. Petrini’s was established in 1935 by Frank Petrini, who immigrated from Lucca, Italy, at the age of 12, and was known to have the best meats in Northern California. Petrini’s advertisements are remembered for their inspiring quotes, which also appeared on walls and signs throughout the stores. The quotes were published in a collection in 1992 titled The Proverbs of Frank Petrini: Food for Thought.

The Grand Central Market became Mollie Stone’s in 1998, one of nine stores across the Bay Area. When the new owners remodeled the building, Mollie Stone’s kept the Grand Central blade sign, with some modifications.