1 septembre 2004
san francisco magazine
Jonathon Keats
Dare You Look
how one man's ideas about art gave San Francisco a taste for risk - and about time.
Look at his inexplicably damaged children, often painted in a midnight monochrome, and you can't help but try to fill in the story, and take a degree of responsibility. Helnwein's work is what the art world likes to call "difficult, "often as an excuse to look the other way.
A vivid illustration of the gallery's achievement is Johnson's own exhibition of paintings by Gottfried Helnwein, on view through November 28 at the Legion of Honor.
Muller started showing Helnwein - an Austrian-born artist whose discomforting depictions of violated children have inspired public outcry and vandalism - 12 years ago, and has stood by him with almost annual exhibitions ever since.
Over that time, Helnwein has stripped his art of overt references to Nazi atrocites, rendering his horrors anonymous and evoking the blind spot in our society.
Look at his inexplicably damaged children, often painted in a midnight monochrome, and you can't help but try to fill in the story, and take a degree of responsibility.
Helnwein's work is what the art world likes to call "difficult, "often as an excuse to look the other way.
Modernism's 25th-Anniversary Exhibition
Sept 9 - Oct 30
Modernism Gallery
685 Market St., S.F.
Die Erweckung des Kindes (The Resurrection of the Child)
mixed media (oil and acrylic on canvas), 1997, 160 x 150 cm / 62 x 59''
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?
The answer to that question begins in 1971, when Muller left his home in Geneva for a semester in the Soviet Union, where he could immerse himself in Russian language and literature. Then 18, he planned to devote his life to Dostoyevsky. But one day he came across an unillustrated description of a picture painted in 1913 by a Russian artist then seldom shown in the West, and utterly suppressed behind the Iron Curtain. A simple black square on a white background, it was the masterpiece of Russian Supremacist Kasimir Malevich, and just reading the description wiped out every assumption young Muller had about art. Fifty-eight years later, it still carried the shock of the new.
Muller started seeking out work by Malevich and others in the Russian avant-garde—all suppressed in the Soviet Union and underpriced abroad. Along the way, he met a Greek magnate in Moscow who'd hoarded so many banned masterworks that any misstep in his bathroom could have had major art-history repercussions. Following Muller's move to the United States (where he planned to enter the art business) in 1975, he also met an exiled Russian prince whose network of friends gave Muller his first clientele, which facilitated his transition, by age 27, from independent scholar to private dealer to gallery owner.
Twenty-three major exhibitions of Russian avant-garde artists—including the first one on the West Coast, in 1980—have not only provided the gallery with a financial foundation but also grounded its curatorial mission. Consider Malevich's monochrome squares or circles on plain ground, several of which Modernism has shown over the years. These pictures are neither landscapes nor portraits; unlike even the most advanced work of the Impressionists and the Cubists, they have no outside subject. Rather than serving as a springboard for illusion, the paintings illustrate nothing but themselves, demonstrating that in art, the world of flesh and blood is no more substantial, no more "real," than pigment in its own right.
Erik Saxon's work is an extension of that insight, exploring the visual potential of the grid, which was historically used, and erased, by artists seeking to delineate a portrait's proportions. Hayward's work presses even further. Gradually layering the canvas with every color on his palette, carefully sanding down each coat, to achieve a luminous white surface, he shows us that emptiness is a paradox, that no slate is truly blank.
To Muller, the ideas behind an artist's work are as important as the execution. "In true art," he believes, "whether someone is a minimalist or a photo-realist, what matters at the end of the day is what he or she has to say. The rest is just a means of delivery."
So it seems only natural, in retrospect, that within several years of opening his gallery, he was showing Max Almy's videos, which shrewdly satirize campaign advertising in its own sound-bite vernacular, and Mel Ramos's Pop Art nudes, posed with all-American candy bars and cigarettes, slyly commenting on our skin-deep consumer culture. It's no surprise that on occasion Muller shows conceptual art, in which the idea is paramount and the work often dispenses with objects and images altogether.
Naturally, Modernism has shown work that hasn't withstood the test of time. Cork Marcheschi's neon light sculptures, for instance, are more datedly eighties than a Pink Floyd concert. But the anniversary survey shows that the majority of Muller's artists have grown along with his gallery.
"Modernism isn't one of those galleries that just provides a West Coast outpost for artists with New York representation," notes Robert Flynn Johnson, curator-in-charge of the Achenbach Foundation for the city's Fine Arts Museums. "Martin Muller has nurtured artists onto the national stage."
A vivid illustration of the gallery's achievement is Johnson's own exhibition of paintings by Gottfried Helnwein, on view through November 28 at the Legion of Honor. Muller started showing Helnwein—an Austrian-born artist whose discomforting depictions of violated children have inspired public outcry and vandalism—12 years ago, and has stood by him with almost annual exhibitions ever since. Over that time, Helnwein has stripped his art of overt references to Nazi atrocities, rendering his horrors anonymous and evoking the blind spot in our own society. Look at his inexplicably damaged children, often painted in a midnight monochrome, and you can't help but try to fill in the story, and take a degree of responsibility.
Helnwein's work is what the art world likes to call "difficult," often as an excuse to look the other way. Modernism brings to this city a different vision.•




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