This lavishly illustrated brick-of-a-book is nothing less than a treasure trove overflowing with valuable information about the richest decade in the art history of Northern California, capturing the Abstract Expressionist and Beatnik 1950s in the same incongruous basket as the psychedelic 1960s. The ground zero of the book’s far-flung narrative is the 11-year history of Dilexi Gallery (1958 to 1969) and the subsequent spin-offs that emanated from re-christening itself as the Dilexi Foundation in 1969.
Jim Newman and Robert Alexander founded Dilexi Gallery in a second-floor space at 471 Broadway in San Francisco, moving a year later to a ground-floor storefront at 1858 Union when Alexander relinquished his co-director position. In 1965, it moved to another space at 631 Clay. From April of 1962 to June of 1963, Dilexi also operated a short-lived satellite operation in Los Angeles at 515 North La Cienega, just two blocks from where Artforum would later establish editorial offices after decamping from San Francisco in 1964. It is also worth mentioning that, starting in 1957, Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz opened the Ferus gallery at number 736 of that same storied boulevard (with Jim Newman as a silent partner), running it until Irving Blum took it over in 1962. Hopps and Newman had known each other since their student days at Stanford; both attained hipster-legend status for their joint effort (along with Craig Kauffman) in developing the famous “Merry-Go-Round” exhibition (titled Action I) held on Santa Monica pier in 1955. It featured the work of many San Francisco painters hung inside and outside of a canvas-covered carousel, representing a proto-Happening several years before Allan Kaprow coined the term in 1959. Also worthy of note is that, early on, Ferus and Dilexi often staged exhibitions of the same artists, such as John Altoon, Tony DeLap, Kauffman, Ed Moses and Hassel Smith.
The gallery’s name is said to derive from the Latin verb deligo, meaning “to select and to love.” Another possible derivation might point to dyslexia, reflecting an idea that art should resist or refuse to be pounded into shape by ideology (delivered and enforced by language), while making an extravagant spectacle of how that refusal might be manifest visually as a renegade practice. Of course, that same refusal eventually became another ideology, and in so doing, priced itself out of its own game, but that is a tale for another telling.
The book’s core is a collection of 48 monographic essays written by Whitcomb, supported by contextualizing essays by her and other contributors. These focus on the principal artists exhibited at Dilexi, each elegantly written and packed with information. Readers familiar with accounts of Northern California art penned by Peter Plagens, Thomas Albright, Rebecca Solnit and Susan Landauer may see some of these essays as traveling on well-marked paths, focusing as they do on the likes of Jeremy Anderson, Roy DeForest, Sid Gordin and Robert Morris — all of whom had multiple solo exhibitions at Dilexi. But in almost every case, Whitcomb’s treatments of those artists’ careers contribute valuable new insights. Other essays shed light on the work of artists that have thus far escaped art historical canonization, such as Joel Barletta and Leslie Kerr, both of whom had four solo exhibitions at Dilexi. The work of Jay DeFeo, Muriel Goodwin and Deborah Remington is also featured, representing the Dilexi’s welcoming attitude to female artists at a time when very few other galleries shared it. Granted, when measured by contemporary standards, three out of 48 may seem like a paltry percentage, but in the 1960s, it was nothing short of trailblazing. And let us not forget Kurt Schwitters, who exhibited under the Dilexi banner in 1960, cementing the link between pre-World War II Dada and post-war Beatnik-era collage and assemblage practices.
From its earliest days, Dilexi also hosted events that ranged from poetry readings to informal jazz performances. The most significant of these took place in 1965 when Charles Ross installed an environment used as a performance platform by Anna Halprin’s San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop. In 1969, Newman set his sights on new and larger horizons leading him to discard the gallery in the manner of a butterfly shedding a cocoon. This is where the “beyond” part of the book comes into play. That same year, he established the Dilexi Foundation, which functioned as a springboard and platform for some amazing collaborative projects designed (in the spirit of Marshall McLuhan’s techno-schizophrenic media theories) to reach far beyond the walls of any gallery. Ten of the foundation’s twelve projects were films commissioned by Newman, and all were presented as part of what was billed as The Dilexi Series. The earliest were experimental projects, such as Philip Makanna’s Empire of Things (1969) and Arlo Acton and Terry Riley’s Music with Balls (1969), both early hybrids of film and video made in collaboration with KQED. The parts of the book focusing on these aspects of the Dilexi legacy are supported with a short essay by film and media curator Steve Seid, plus some extracts from Gene Youngblood’s landmark 1970
study Expanded Cinema. Many film and music fans will be surprised to learn that Newman was also the producer of Sun Ra’s 1974 film Space is the Place (shot, in part, at Newman’s home), which would later be recognized as the founding document of Afrofuturism. The Dilexi Foundation also facilitated collaborations with William T. Wiley, Robert Nelson, Frank Zappa, Julian Beck’s Living Theater and Halprin protégé Yvonne Rainer, all of which the book thoroughly documents. In 1992, Newman teamed up with composer Charles Amirkanian to found Other Minds, which started as a series of new music events but soon morphed into a string of recording and publishing projects related to radio broadcasts and early internet distribution.
One way of re-imagining the Dilexi legacy is to note that, except for Manual Neri, none of the artists associated with the contemporary Bay Area Figurative movement had solo exhibitions of their work at the gallery. Newman undoubtedly deemed their work too conservative and backward-looking. But as Whitcomb indicates in an essay titled Dada and Surrealism and the Outgrowths of Funk, Dilexi also had a backward-looking aspect. Its program contained many aspects of pre-World War II Symbolism and Surrealism, several of which were subsequently re-christened as Funk in Peter Selz’s legendary 1967 exhibition of the same name at the University Art Museum in Berkeley. Of the 26 artists included in Selz’s exhibition, six were fully affiliated with Dilexi, while the work of several others would have made a good fit if circumstances were different. Likewise, a few Dilexi-affiliated artists not included in Selz’s exhibition (like Sid Gordin, Alvin Light, Ron Nagle and Fred Martin) could have been to good effect. What’s abundantly clear is the degree to which Dilexi’s offerings and those of the Dilexi Foundation exercised a decisive and far-reaching influence on our understanding of Northern California and other locales. For those of us privileged to do the international Biennial conga dance every couple of pre-pandemic years, we might
note that Dilexi’s long-standing influence continues to reverberate on a global scale. Evidence? There’s far too much to cite here, so one example will have to suffice: the Oakland-based sculptor Woody Othello, one of the few Northern California artists in the upcoming Whitney Biennial. If his work could time travel back to Dilexi circa 1967, it would fit right in, as would the work of hundreds of other artists of recent vintage.
# # #
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.