In October 1979, a couple hundred people climbed a creaky staircase in an Eighth Street warehouse to attend the opening-night party of a new art gallery, called Modernism. If the South of Market address seemed daunting to the downtown collecting crowd, the art was beyond the pale: a whole room of Erik Saxon's geometric abstractions, painted on a simple nine-square grid, that fit the local collecting fashion about as comfortably as a tuxedo on a hippie. In other words, it was an apt beginning for a gallery that has, over the past quarter century, consistently countered the parochial tendencies of a city with a history of hyping its own art without wholly trusting it.
Back then, you could have found a few Picassos at the San Francisco Museum of Art—still awkwardly housed above Herbst Theatre—and prints by Matisse or Jasper Johns at the John Berggruen Gallery, on Grant Avenue. Beyond that, art was largely a neighborhood affair: Whether at one of the city's few other galleries, in a corner coffee shop, or at the de Young Museum, you'd most often see halfhearted presentations of hometown favorites such as Bruce Conner and Robert Arneson.
Something was lacking in those days—a stylistic and geographic eclecticism, a sense of adventure, a taste for risk. Modernism brought all that to the Bay Area, not entirely in the grids of Erik Saxon, but certainly in the staggering range of art that followed in some 300 exhibitions, first on Eighth Street and then, beginning in 1986, on Market near Union Square.
A generous sampling of that past can be seen in the gallery's 25th-anniversary exhibition. Modernism gave Andy Warhol his first major Bay Area show, provided underground comix artist R. Crumb his first gallery exposure anywhere. Owner Martin Muller has shown James Hayward's solid white paintings, 100 layers in the making, as well as John Register's meticulous depictions of hauntingly empty diners. Clearly, in both interest and technique, these artists have little in common. Galleries tend to specialize. How did Muller bring so many genres together so successfully?