by Terri Cohn
When Jim Newman and his partner, the painter Bob Alexander, opened Dilexi Gallery above the Jazz Workshop on Broadway in 1958, they ushered in an era of cross-disciplinary art-making that resonates to this day. For proof, one need only consult Dilexi Gallery: the Early Years, an exceptional historical exhibition of innovators whose future stardom originated in that Beat-era moment.
Newman, a saxophonist, was drawn to San Francisco’s jazz and art scene from Los Angeles, where he earlier started the short-lived Syndell Studio gallery with Walter Hopps. San Francisco — with its burgeoning bohemian art, poetry and music scene, created by a community of artists who flourished in isolation from New York – served as a magnet and springboard for artists of all stripes; their exhibitions, performances, readings, and parties were mounted with little money or attention from the art world outside San Francisco. Newman created an exhibition program that showcased cutting-edge and established artists in a professional gallery space. It immediately attracted attention from local media and from national publications like Artforum, which was then based in San Francisco. As Rebecca Solnit describes it in Swinging in the Shadows, “Dilexi was a link between the underground and the mainstream for many artists, and it was crucial in establishing a thriving art community.”
Newman’s early success was in part due to being in the right place at the right time. Rents in San Francisco were cheap, and Newman, with money inherited from his family’s business, was able to make a go of it. Luck played a role, too: Newman first residence happened to be at 2322 Fillmore, the studio/home of many of the artists he showed early on at Dilexi.
Dilexi Gallery: The Early Years offers a window into this milieu by presenting seminal paintings, sculptures, and constructions by Wally Hedrick, Jay DeFeo, James Weeks, Craig Kauffman, Ed Moses, Sonia Gechtoff, James (Jim) Kelly, Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, John Altoon, Wallace Berman, Robert Morris, Leo Valledor, and Roy de Forest, all of whom were exhibited between 1958 and 1963. The exhibition’s focus on their early, experimental work offers an opportunity to reconsider the value of their respective oeuvres, their relationships to each other and their ongoing impact.
Manuel Neri’s Collage Painting No.1 (1958-59), for example, with its painted and pasted abstract shapes, anticipates his later gestural approach to applying paint to the plaster and marble surfaces of his figurative sculptures. By contrast, the gestural delicacy of Ed Moses’ Rafe Bone (1958) stands in sharp contrast to the geometric patterning seen in his late grid paintings. One of the most surprising works here is Robert Morris’ large abstract canvas, Untitled (c.1959). Its broad gestural brushwork carries the eye on a journey through the energetic composition. It is hard to fathom that this is the same artist who later became one of
the most influential minimalist, process, and installation artists in New York. Jay DeFeo’s small Landscape with Figure (1955) reveals her surrealist sensibilities and interest in enigmatic figurative references, qualities that remained constant throughout her career. However, it fails to anticipate her tour-de-force painting The Rose, which she began a few years later. Sonia Getchtoff, who moved to San Francisco from New York, was inspired to draw extensively with graphite, considering it a way to translate the power of her Clyfford Still-inspired abstract paintings to a more subtle medium.
Although many of these artists were not well known outside the art world, a good many influenced the generation of artists who followed. Los Angeles-based John Altoon, who died unexpectedly at 43, created humorous, sexually inflected paintings that inspired younger artists including Paul McCarthy and Laura Owens. Wallace Berman’s Untitled verifax collage (c.1965), created with an early prototype of the Xerox machine, became part of a broader experimental approach that employs the photographic image as an object and artifact of culture.
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A concurrent Dilexi-related exhibition, Fred Martin’s Beulah Land (1966), a series of 15 etchings, is on view at Crown Point Press. Martin, who was then director of exhibitions and taught at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), often visited 2322 Fillmore. He also showed regularly at Dilexi in its early years. Beulah Land, with its simple line drawings and pithy texts, offers insight into Martin’s talent as a visual storyteller. Printed and made into a book by Kathan Brown, founder of Crown Point Press, Beulah Land was one of the final exhibitions at Dilexi in 1967 during its tenure at 631 Clay Street.
Despite the corporate ethos now in force, Newman’s forward-thinking model continues to resonate. That his legacy is the subject of a summer-long tribute spread across four LA venues — Parker Gallery, Parrasch Heijen, The Landing and Marc Selwyn Fine Art —underscores even further, the enduring value of his vision and the artists who made it a reality.
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"Dilexi Gallery: the Early Years” @ Brian Gross Fine Art and “Fred Martin: Beulah Land" @ Crown Point Press, both to July 27, 2019.
About the author:
Terri Cohn is a writer, curator and fine art consultant. She works with artists at all career stages and advises artist’s estates. Her curatorial work over three decades has included exhibitions for museums and galleries in the Bay Area and beyond, and her writings have appeared in numerous publications including Art Practical, Performa, Public Art Review and Art in America.