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Revenge of the Victorians

The Van Bergen house on southwest corner of Fillmore and Jackson Streets in the 1880s.

NEIGHBORHOOD HISTORY | WOODY LaBOUNTY

In the 1930s, the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project put unemployed authors to work on guidebooks. The contributor to the architecture section of California: A Guide to the Golden State, had some opinions on the architectural tastes of the moneyed classes in the late 19th century:

“[W]ealth meant even larger buildings with more and more architectural elements. An epidemic of the Victorian pestilence in aggregated form seized California.”

The author saw a benefit in the city’s greatest disaster: “In San Francisco thousands of Victorian horrors were destroyed in the earthquake of 1906; but many remain, their lines sometimes a little softened by shrubs and vines, sometimes stark and bare in their shabby decay.”

Make up your own mind. This Saturday, May 4, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the public is invited into one of the city’s finest “Victorian horrors,” a magnificent survivor of the lamentable pestilence the WPA author abhorred, the Haas-Lilienthal House. San Francisco Heritage is opening the doors of its longtime headquarters to host a book sale.

Read more: “Victorian Comeback II

Farewell to one of Fillmore’s finest

David Johnson | Fillmore Street, circa late 1940s

DAVID JOHNSON, who took the most famous photograph ever taken on Fillmore Street, looking south from Fillmore and Post in the late 1940s, died on March 1 at age 97.

Johnson, a Florida native, first came through San Francisco on his way to serve in the navy during World War II. He returned after the war to become the first black student in a new photography program directed by Ansel Adams at what became the Art Institute. Adams encouraged Johnson to “photograph what you know,” which led him to Fillmore Street at a time when it was alive with jazz clubs and home to a vibrant black community.

Johnson’s photographs were rediscovered when KQED in 1998 began its award-winning documentary, “The Fillmore.” His work was featured in the book that followed, “Harlem of the West,” and in numerous exhibitions around the country.

MORE: David Johnson in the New Fillmore

David Johnson talks about his work at Marcus Books on Fillmore Street.

Calvary moved to Fillmore from Union Square

Calvary Presbyterian Church held its first service at Fillmore & Jackson in 1902.

By WOODY LABOUNTY
SF Heritage

The story: the imposing Calvary Presbyterian Church on the corner of Fillmore and Jackson streets — which seems like an ancient temple that has stood on its plot for time immemorial — was moved there from Union Square.

Let’s play detective and take a before-and-after look.

Read more: “One Million Bricks

On a clear day

Photograph by Karl G. Smith III

AT THE TOP of the Fillmore hill on a beautiful December day.

The murals at Jimbo’s

Harry Smith with one of his murals at Jimbo’s Bop City, circa 1950.

IT’S NOT EVERY DAY that a photo from the neighborhood is published in The New York Times. But today is that day. Alongside a review of Cosmic Scholar, a new biography of anthropologist/artist/filmmaker/mystic/music collector Harry Smith, is a photograph of Smith before one of the murals in the legendary Fillmore jazz club Jimbo’s Bop City.

Wikipedia confirmed: “The painter and filmmaker Harry Everett Smith painted the walls with abstract motifs and created a light show that ran to the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.” The entry added: “Admission was only $1, and musicians came in for free, but Jimbo Edwards always chose who he let in and who he did not: “We don’t allow no squares in Bop City. If you don’t understand what we doin’, then leave and don’t come back.”

MORE: The Art of Harry Smith at the Whitney

Joan Brown and the Fillmore scene

Joan Brown | The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim (1975)

ART | JEROME TARSHIS

JOAN BROWN,” a new exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, celebrates the colorful life and work of a deeply imaginative painter and independent spirit who got her start on Fillmore Street and went on to international acclaim. The expansive presentation of Brown’s work features 80 paintings and sculptures spanning the career of one of San Francisco’s most important artists.

Joan Brown’s involvement with the art scene along Fillmore Street began with exhibitions, while she was still an art student, first at the Six Gallery, at 3119 Fillmore, then at the Spatsa Gallery, on Filbert Street near Fillmore.

In 1958, Brown and her husband Bill Brown moved into the apartment building at 2322 Fillmore, where their next-door neighbors were the painters Wally Hedrick and Jay DeFeo. Famous as some of them are today, San Francisco artists of the 1950s had little hope of being exhibited by major galleries or museums. Bruce Conner once said that the art of that time was not made to last because nobody needed it to last. Brown herself has said, “It was important for that day, for that week, or for that moment.”

The seeming lack of any path to success encouraged a deliberate hostility to the art market and its institutions. Life at 2322 Fillmore was characterized by heavy drinking, resourceful parties and the view that making artwork was something like a meditative exercise, to be enjoyed in the present with little thought for the future.

Joan Brown had come a long way from her Catholic high school days. After a time, however, the hard partying became oppressive; quiet and privacy began to look good. In 1959, she separated from Bill Brown and moved to North Beach to live with the artist Manuel Neri, who became her second husband.

EARLIER: “Journal of a woman’s life — in paint

Photograph of Joan Brown by Jerry Burchard

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