Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Death of Discourse


New York City, October 21, 2014—

UPWARDS OF A THOUSAND people, I'd say, jammed themselves into a small triangular patch separating the automobile access to the Lincoln Center from Broadway, which itself was at a standstill with taxicabs, emergency vehicles, and police cruisers. It was a little before seven p.m., and the opening performance of a run of John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer was set to begin in a little over an hour.

The opera is based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, by the PLO, during which an American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered in his wheelchair. Set to a libretto by Alice Goodman, the opera, conceived by the director Peter Sellars, premiered in Brussels in 1991, and has been produced a number of times since, often to protests, largely from Jewish groups.

The history and content of both the opera and its protests are well covered on Wikipedia; I won't recapitulate that here. I saw the opera in San Francisco in 1992 and wasn't eager to see it again last night; we're here only two days, en route to Italy. But we did walk past the demonstration on our way to a restaurant we've long wanted to sample, and I talked briefly to a lone dissident from the general mood of what seemed to me a restrained but noisy crowd of protestors.

He was young, well dressed, good-looking, earnest, and very much aware of danger. He wore a yarmulke, and held a hand-lettered sign above his head, apparently prepared in some haste; I never could quite comprehend it, though STOP THE HYSTERIA was bold enough to read at some distance."What hysteria does he mean," my friend wondered; "let's go find out," I replied.

The poor fellow was being harangued by two or three men who were asking him how he could shame his own people, denying the evils of the PLO and Arabs in general, when the Nazis had murdered six million Jews in the Holocaust; how he could permit the Metropolitan Opera to produce an anti-Semitic opera. 

He countered that he agreed about the PLO but that it was wrong to generalize about the Palestinians, not to mention the Arabs, and that the opera was not anti-Semitic. "Have you seen the opera?" he asked, reasonably enough I thought. His hecklers said they would never see such a thing, reflecting the general attitude of the crowd was that it was anti-Semitic propaganda masquerading as "art".

A young woman was listening to all this, reporter's pad in hand, taking notes, trying to interview the man with the sign. I talked to her briefly, then told the man I agreed with him, as far as I can tell, and asked him if he felt himself in danger. He was aware of it, he replied.

I asked if he thought the protest was organized, either by a single group or a coalition, and if so who he thought it might be. 

Look, he said, I don't know anything about that, probably a lot of groups are represented here, probably some groups I even belong to myself. But it's important to counter this kind of hysteria with truth and reason.

I asked if he'd seen the opera. Not  yet, he answered; I'm going later in the run. I have no opinion of the opera until I've seen it myself. I don't believe it has a political agenda.

At just that moment one of his earlier hecklers returned, approached him from behind, gave him a kick in the backside, then sidled away. I turned to see where Lindsey and my friend had got to and rejoined them, and the next thing I knew the poor fellow was being led away by a couple of uniformed cops, still holding his placard aloft, telling them he was going willingly, he was not resisting, he only wanted to express his opinions freely and peacefully.

He should be silenced, a man in front of me said. Let the police take care of it, his friend replied, with a smile.

Someone had set up a public-address system; a soprano wailed through The Star-Spangled Banner, and a recorded instrumental version of the Israeli national anthem followed. We felt our dinner reservation approaching, and walked on up Broadway.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Out and back

NO ONE MORE AWARE than I how badly this blog's been neglected lately. Please excuse this neglect, and prepare for more. I've been away, and I'm about to set out again.

There was a time when I posted fairly detailed notes on such travels, sending them as group e-mail "dispatches" to a list of readers that ultimately grew to over a hundred — too big for the e-mail managers of that day, whereupon I began this blog, a little over nine years ago. There have been over six hundred posts since then, on topics related to travel, books, music, art, theater, politics — whatever I've felt like writing about.

I write these things mostly to find out what I think about things. I don't know why I want to know what I think about things: it's probably simply a habit, formed a long time ago, when something (or more likely some one) led me to believe it was one's duty to examine meaning.

Yesterday we drove home from a four-day tour to Ashland, Oregon, where we've been in the habit of seeing plays put on by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Comments on those plays have formed a number of posts to this blog over the years, all the way back to July 2005; and apparently there are those among you who are interested in these comments: I notice someone from Oregon City has just looked in on last March's remarks about three plays we saw earlier.

This year we decided against seeing the entire season, for two reasons: I've been growing increasingly impatient with re-interpretations of Shakespeare — Troilus and Cressida was the last straw — and we've been unenthusiastic about too many of the new plays by new playwrights. It hurts to say that; one always wants to retain curiosity and enthusiasm for the work of one's own time: but now that I'm in my eightieth year I find too often the "new" is merely the latest revelation of ignorance of yesterday's "new."

So we saw three plays last March: The Cocoanuts; The Tempest; The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window; and enjoyed all of them. We stayed away from Ashland through the summer, and returned last week toward the end of the season for a final threesome: Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, and the most promising of this year's new plays, The Great Society.

I'll give you the most negative report first: Richard III was damaged almost beyond repair by the new "sound system" the festival administration has installed in its outdoors Allen Elizabethan Theatre, which attempts to reproduce Shakespeare's Globe Theater. We sat at almost the exact center of the audience, just under the edge of the balcony, seats 11 and 13 in row L, twelve rows back from the apron. Many, perhaps all the actors wore body microphones. The sound was carefully managed, I'm sure, but much of the time spoken lines drifted to us as much (or more) from the clusters of loudspeakers high above the stage as from the actors themselves. You could put this to good use in a production designed to take advantage of it — the ghost of Hamlet's father could take on new and terrifyingly disembodied presence, for example — but until this sort of thing is familiar enough to be ignored completely it will always be, for me, at best, a technical gimmick, distracting from the performance. It's as if Richard were to muse on the winter of his discontent through a megaphone.

Another distraction: the choice of the deaf actor Howie Seago, who is also mute, to play Hastings. His lines were spoken by Omoze Idehenre and signed, in American Sign Language, by Seago. I can understand the desire to extend theatrical boundaries, to widen the community of actors; but sometimes this works better — Seago was useful, interesting, and sympathetic as the ghost of Hamlet's father, but quite a distraction inRichard III .

These problems were particularly unfortunate because otherwise there was much about the production, and its performance, and James Bundy's direction, that seemed both effective and faithful to the text. I was taken aback by the amount of humor Bundy found, but it was made faithful to Richard's persona by the powerful yet subtle acting of Dan Donohue in the title role.

The women in the cast were particularly strong - Idehenre as Mistress Shore, Kate Hurster as Lady Anne, Robin Goodrin Nordli as Queen Elizabeth, Franchelle Stewart Dorn as a magnificent Queen Margaret, and Judtih-Marie Bergan as the Duchess of York. An extremely interesting play could be devised keeping their lines, trimming other roles, and thus presenting the familiar psychological drama from a completely different perspective.
Shakespeare's comedies, to my mind, suffer less from extreme directorial departure than do his tragedies. (By their very nature, the Histories are another matter altogether: they're successful either as literal representations of the time they treat, or when brought forward to underline parallels between their events and those of the present day.)

The Comedy of Errors was set in 1930s Harlem and played by a cast of black actors (with a couple of minor exceptions), and I thought the result worked perfectly, enlarging a white audience's understanding of the black American experience of that era while maintaining Shakespeare's goofy rewrite of commedia dell'arte and Plautus. The actors were superb, clowning much of the time yet finding moments of pathos and edginess when appropriate, playing with asides to the audience, sight gags, pratfalls and the like, yet projecting real character and preserving the sentimental magic of the inevitable recognition scene at the close. The whole play went by very quickly, without an intermission; I could happily have sat through another performance as an encore.
Speaking of Shakesperian Histories, Robert Schenkan's The Great Society continued the pageant opened a couple of seasons ago with the same playwright's All The Way. The subject, of course, is the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, his access to office following the assassination of J.F. Kennedy in 1963 and his triumphal passage of the Civil Rights Act forming the first play, his inability to continue the social reforms he envisioned and his entanglement in the Vietnam War the new one. The Great Society is long and detailed, but dramatic and fascinating. It is pageant, I think, not play, because it is the historical events that seize the audience, not the personae of those who shape or succumb to them. Jack Willis was superb in the lead role, and he was supported by a fine set of actors in such roles as Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Hubert Humphrey. The deliberate attempt to make a contemporary American counterpart to such plays as Henry VI is audacious, no question about it: but it has been successful. This is important theater, restating the essential purpose of theater, to tell a community's stories to the community, lest the historical lessons otherwise be lost and forgotten.

Monday, September 15, 2014

String quartet: En balançant; Screen; Vie lactée

Score: En Balançant
En balançant, for two pairs of bowed instruments (first half of the score)
Score: Screen
Screen, for four to six bowed instruments
Score: Vie lactée
Vie lactée, for any four bowed instruments (first half of the score)
I HAVE WRITTEN ONLY one string quartet. ("So far," I suppose I should add; but I think it unlikely I will ever compose another, unless it is a re-notation of this one.) But even a simple statement like this is misleading, for my String Quartet is in three movements, each of which was originally written to stand alone, and was conceived for a different kind of instrumental configuration. The three movements were only gathered into a single unit a few years later, when I needed a string quartet: and the performance I heard on that occasion so pleased me that I now find it difficult to think of the three movements as separate entities.

Throughout the late 1960s I was concentrating on the quartet idiom of instrumental concert music. Conventionally this idiom has reached its apex in the string quartet, as it developed from Haydn through (at that time) Bařtók, Cage, and Feldman. What fascinated me, in the quartet, was the ability and the necessity of each of the four musicians to remain independent, focussed on his own material, but aware of each of the other three and of the evolving product of their simultaneous work.

As you see, the music is written out in "graphic notation," which was en vague in the 1960s. I was not particularly concerned with pitches at the time I composed them: I was thinking of representing the sounds of the music as elements in a spatial analogue of the psychoacoustical dimensions in which music is heard, freeing the music from the constraints of conventional melody and harmony as they are attached to a system of pitches, allowing them to become present as the musicians more or less intuitively are led to produce them.

As already noted, Screen was the first of these three movements to be composed. The title refers to the idea that the piece could be performed simultaneously with other compositions, and heard by the audience as a sort of acoustical screen through which the other music would be filtered. Although I intended the piece to succeed if standing alone, I did in fact combine it with other pieces; it appears as an aural ingredient in the early From calls and singing for chamber orchestra and in the opera The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even and with the Variations for harp with optional chimes in another chamber piece, Voie lactée.Screen was thought of as a string quartet, but I was drawn to the string sextet configuration as well, and from the beginning intended it to work for any four to six bowed instruments. The other two movements, though, were quite specifically written for four and only four instruments, though the specific instrumentation is not determined. (On the performance whose recording is linked to this post the three movements are played on violin, viola, cello, and contrabass.)

The titles of the outer movements refer to passages in Marcel Duchamp's great painting on glass, La mariée mise à nu par ces célibataires, même, which — together with the verbal notes Duchamp assembled to accompany the painting — form the subject of the opera alluded to earlier. En balançant describes the physical state of an important part of Duchamp's upper panel, which represents the Bride as a "pendue femelle"; Vie lactée was my unintentional pun on the voie lactée (Milky Way) which spreads across the top of his painting, representing the Bride's aura.

While Screen is quite free, its ten pathways playable in any order, left to right or reversed; the outer movements are more directed. They are to be played in sequence, left to right only. En balançant presents only two pathways, and is meant to be played as a canon, the second pair entering whenever they desire. The balancing act is meant to be performed by each pair, and by the pair of pairs.

Vie lactée is even more conventional, requiring the quartet finally to play in tight ensemble, free as to the specific pitches and the relative loudness and tempo but determined by attentiveness to the score. The three movements therefore represent a sort of catalogue of quartet possibilities, ranging from the equipoise of the opening movement, through the loose lyricism of the second, to the coherent expression of the third.

I have heard a number of performances of the quartet (though many more of Screen), and I've been pleased with all of them. My favorite, though, both for its performance and for its instrumentation, is the one linked to this post. It was in fact the first performance, played in 1971 I think. I no longer have a program from the performance, which probably took place in the Berkeley concert hall 1750 Arch; and I'm not even certain of the personnel. I know the late Nathan Rubin played violin; I think Ron Erickson played viola, Tressa Adams cello, and Jedediah Denman contrabass. Perhaps someone reading this will know.

I listen to this recording every night as I fall asleep, and am surprised at how often its sounds fall together in configurations that seem new to me. This was of course the intent: to provide notation that would allow musical sounds to develop, combine, separate, adopt changed configurations, and exist completely free from anyone's ego-expressive intent. Perhaps falling asleep to the music explains my fairly rich dream life.

You can listen to it too: just click on the titles under the score pages. Let me know if it puts you pleasantly to sleep.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

That second sonata

Profiting from an early rise, while we still have unlimited bandwidth, I've uploaded sound files to my second piano sonata, Sonata compositio ut explicatio, to my website, and you can hear the whole piece now by streaming it.

It's an undertaking, for the sonata is an hour long. I've written about it here before, and won't add anything more here.

The three movements are available separately, but of course I'd prefer you listen to the whole thing, perhaps as background music…

First movement (32:15)
Second movement (5:21)
Third movement (20:04)

You're welcome.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Top Ten

A friend posts, on Facebook — yes, I spend some time there every day —
[A friend] tagged me, asking for a list of ten books that have stayed with me in some way, so here goes, off the top of my head, right this minute:

Paul Klee, Pedagogical Sketchbook
Lou Harrison, Lou Harrison's Music Primer
Vergil, Georgics
N.O. Brown, Closing Time
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State
Benedict Anderson, Language and Power
Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam
Lawrence Weschler, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin
Edward Gorey, The Raging Tide, or the Black Doll's Imbroglio

"Rules: Don't take more than a few minutes and do not think too hard. They don't have to be the "right" books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Then tag 5 friends including me so I can see your list. Don't make fun of me. No particular order." So, on to:
and then, of course, he leads a list of five Facebook friends with me.

After nodding at three of his choices and agreeing with their worth I gave the matter a little thought, more than a few minutes, because it's in my nature to disregard direct instructions. So many books came to mind: Montaigne first, curiously; then Robert Nathan's One More Spring, of all things; Crime and Punishment, Shakespeare… would it be fair to consider the Encyclopedia Brittanica one of ten books? Even Brittanica Jr., which meant so much to me in my childhood?

Finnegans Wake. Tender Buttons. How restrict myself to only one Henry James novel, or one Austen? What about Tristram Shandy? Gulliver's Travels? The Great Gatsby?
How could I exclude Mallarmé, or the Tintin books, or Chekhov, or Turgenev? Pirandello?

Look at the relatively recent reading: Manzoni, Herman Bang, Harry Mulisch, Sebald, Walter Benjamin, Geert Mak, Woolf, Lady Murasaki, Vittorini, Levi, Patrick Leigh Fermor…

No, I'm sorry, Daniel; this is not a matter for the top of my head. Or, rather, this is the way the top of my head seems always to work — perhaps simply because, at my age, I have the leisure to take my time getting to the top.

In the end I think I've been honest: these are the — well, yes, eleven — books that have stayed with me in some way, over rather a long span. There's not a title here that hasn't been staying with me for at least twenty-five years, maybe thirty; and two or three of them made their first impression close to seventy years ago.

Are they in no particular order? No: they're in the order in which they occurred to me, in the course of the great sifting; and perhaps the last retrieved, of the eleven, were the first to make their impress…

Don't make fun of me.
R. H. Blyth: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics
John Cage: Silence
Christopher Alexander et al.: A Pattern Language
Wallace Stevens: Collected Poems
Francis Ponge: Le savon
W. A. Mozart: Letters
Georges Perec: W or the memory of childhood
Marcel Duchamp: Notes to the large glass
Homer: Iliad
Deems Taylor (ed.): A Treasury of Gilbert and Sullivan
Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farmer Boy
I've sent this on to five friends, of course, staying with Daniel's game. It'll be interesting to see if they join in…

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Requiem with oboe

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•Charles Shere: Requiem with Oboe.
Healdsburg: Ear Press, 2014
Full study score, 6x9, 48 pages
Available at Lulu.com, $9.99
FINALLY PUBLISHED: the full score to my short Requiem Mass, with the interpolation of two poems by Wallace Stevens, set for eight solo voices (or double chorus) with obbligato solo oboe.

I composed the music in 1985, shortly after the death of my mother, just short of her seventy-fifth birthday. You see her there at the left, probably about eight years old, one sock up, the other down, in an old snapshot taken I suppose in Shanghai where she spent her first twelve years, the third of nine children born to a high-school teacher from Sonoma county, in China to avoid a mother-in-law who was apparently giving him trouble. (The family returned to Berkeley as soon as she died.)

My mother admitted freely that she had a tin ear, and I never heard her play the violin, or any other instrument. Or sing, now that I think about it. She recited poetry, sometimes in German, but she was not what you'd call musical. My father was: though he never finished grammar school, he was an intelligent man and a constant reader, and fond of singing, and could play any instrument put in his hands (though I never put a bowed instrument there). But my mother, no.

In her middle years, when she'd returned to college to get a teaching credential, she most improbably signed up for a music-appreciation course. She had her own way of memorizing themes she was supposed to recognize at exam time: I remember her chanting
see the hor-ses run-ning up and down and up… and… down
to a frisky tune in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, for example. But she never really cottoned to the standard repertory. I can't recall her ever going to a concert. Dad did, once, when I was sick in bed, and couldn't get to a performance of the Santa Rosa Symphony; for some reason he went in my stead, and found it lengthy but occasionally rousing, and even brought me the program, autographed by the night's soloist; who, I don't recall. But my mother, no: she wasn't interested.

The only music I ever heard her approve was, for some reason, Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. I had an ancient recording, conducted by the composer himself, with Erica Stiedry-Wagner sprechtstimming the solo part, and she used to listen to it every now and then, with a determined look in her eye. She said she liked it because it didn't fight with itself, by which I think she meant the lines were clear. I wonder how many of the lay public would have agreed with her. I never thought to ask precisely what it was in the piece that interested her: now that I think about it, it may have been the poetry, written originally in French, translated for Schoenberg's purpose into German — both languages she'd studied, how thoroughly I never really knew, in school, in China.

At any rate, my Requiem. It was commissioned (though no money ever changed hands — a common procedure in those days, at least in my experience) by Christopher Fulkerson, a composer of determinedly modernist bent himself, for his chamber chorus Ariel. This was a vocal octet, the conventional SSAATTBB configuration, but comprising eight very good singers with experience with modernist music, good ears, quite clear diction, and supple phrasing. Chris was a good conductor, too, shaping the lines well, maintaining the pitch, balancing the dynamics, bringing out the poetic heart of the texts.

(A few months earlier, Chris had been instrumental — vocal, I mean — well, no, he didn't talk all that much, he was in fact instrumental — in the production of about a third of my Duchamp opera, at Mills College: he found and rehearsed the chorus, some of whom came from Ariel, and took a solo line himself, very nicely.)


Chris had asked for a piece for a cappella voices, but for some reason I wanted to add the oboe. I wanted an aural emblem of a creature from another dimension, to bring the listener out of the contemplation of dying that any Requiem necessarily involves, and take the listener instead to a dimension we do not yet know, and an oboe in its highest register seemed appropriate.

Nor did I set all the usual text of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. The scary Dies Irae has become a cliché, and anyway death doesn't seem scary to me, in any case shouldn't be dwelled on, I think, as a thing to fear, since after all it is inevitable. And of course the parts about a personal savior don't comply with my own view of things, so I couldn't represent myself as agreeing with certain other components of the Ordinary.

For those parts I substituted two poems by a favorite of mine, Wallace Stevens, who I had reason to believe my mother had also liked, though like so much else his poetry was something we'd never talked about. Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself, with its window on "a new knowledge of reality," gave me a chance to introduce the high keening oboe, and "Of Mere Being," whose "palm at the end of the mind" seemed to promise a symbolic destination of sorts, provide me, at any rate, with a more spiritual, less sentimental, unearthly alternative to conventional ideas of afterlife.

I wasn't around for the rehearsals of the Requiem: as I recall, I first heard it at its premiere, oddly given in the old Vorpal Gallery in San Francisco's North Beach. I thought it went pretty well. I wish I had a better recording of it: the voices in the live recording made, I don't know whether at rehearsal or performance, seem a little off-mike.

I don't have a program of that performance, and I don't know who the eight singers were — a pity. The high soprano, whose coloratura takes her up to a high E, was really spectacular; the two basses were properly sepulchral; everyone in between negotiated the lines splendidly. And Marilyn Coyne — the one name I do know, apart from Chris Fulkerson's — handled a difficult oboe part with grace, drama, and total musicality.

And, while I agree with the painter Jack Jefferson, who told me once, about reviews, that if you agree with the good ones you've got to buy the bad ones too, I can't help liking the review that showed up a couple of days later in the newspaper:
A Program of Modern Works By the Ariel Choral Group


... The night's outstanding item was the premiere of Charles Shere’s moving “Requiem With Oboe” (1985). ...

Shere’s Requiem both uses and shuns the traditional Latin text. Two of its four sections use the Roman Catholic liturgy — “Requiem aeterna” and “Hostias et preces.” But the larger part of the work employs two Wallace Stevens poems: “Not Ideas About the Thing, but the Thing Itself” and “Of Mere Being.”

Shere’s Requiem begins with a trope, “Requiem (mater) aeternam” — “mater” being an insert. Bits of the Latin text turn up briefly within the Stevens poems as well. To all this, Shere added snippets of oboe solos (played by Marilyn Coyne — mostly in the high register) as a kind of genteel wailing (the piece is dedicated to his late mother).

Shere set all this in a devoutly simple style. The idiom strongly leans on 14th and 15th century principles of counterpoint. What is heard is something of the motet manner, only updated into a freely atonal idiom.

What emerged was a softly lamenting cantata, liberated from violence or threats. There is, for instance, no hint of the Last Judgment. Shere has produced a work of tenderness roughly comparable to the Faure Requiem in mood.
Heuwell Tircuit, San Francisco Chronicle
You can get a copy of the score from Lulu.com for a measly ten dollars plus postage. (Of course the postage is a little exorbitant: be careful the sale site doesn't default to a next-day delivery!) I think you might even be able to download the score as an e-book, though I'm not sure about that. If you don't read music, buy a copy for your local library. If you sing in a chorus, or know someone who does, give it a look. It's not my favorite of my pieces, but I like it. I wouldn't mind hearing it again, maybe even sung by a full chorus. Besides, I've been thinking a lot about my mother lately…
RequiemExcerpt.jpg

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Friday, August 08, 2014

Terry St. John: paintings

•Terry St. John: New and Recent Paintings and Drawings.
Dolby Chadwick Gallery, 210 Post Street, San Francisco
Exhibition continues through August 30
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Terry St. John: Thai Woman with Cup (2012), oil/canvas, 48x42 inches
WHAT A FINE PLEASURE to see these new and recent paintings by Terry St. John! For decades he has been a significant part of the Bay Area painting scene — a scene of international significance, profound, impressive, and vital. But he has been a quiet participant, working steadily in a community of neglected artists: I think of those three great underrated J's of the Bay Area abstract expressionism: Julius Hatofsky, Julius Wasserstein, and Jack Jefferson. I thought, too, looking at these new St. John paintings, of another J, certainly not underrated or neglected, the phenomenal Jay DeFeo.

St. John was born in Sacramento in 1934 but grew up in Berkeley — he was a schoolmate of mine at Garfield Junior High School in the late 1940s, though we weren't friends at the time. He came to painting only in his last year of college, when on seeing work a friend was doing, studying at the time with Richard Diebenkorn, he was struck by the clarity and presence of purpose the discipline offered. Frances Malcolm quotes him in her introductory essay in the catalogue to the current exhibition:
…above all else, I just wanted to paint paintings. Painting somehow gave me an opening to the future and a sense of hope… it was salutary.


St. John worked among other painters in his early days. He was a great friend of Lou Siegreist, the youngest and last surviving of the legendary Society of Six early modern Bay Area painters, and of his son Lundy; the three often painted en plein air in the local landscape, particularly the slopes of Mount Diablo. St. John worked for years at a day job, curating modern painting at the Oakland Museum. He taught, too, at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont.

In spite of his sociability, though, he has always impressed me as a kind of solitary — a man who knows and keeps his own place and counsel. You have the impression it is the solitary discipline of painting that holds and informs him, that defines his address to life and to context. Whether working in the landscape or in the studio, it's the sense of the passage of time, as Malcolm suggests, that energizes his work, leaves traces of light and shadow, develops the evolving colors, finds the balance of recessive depth, spatial organization, visual meaning.

I have loved his work for years, and am pleased to have a small landscape. But I was unprepared for the new and recent work now on view. I had lost touch with both him and his work in the last ten years. His painting has developed great strength, depth, complexity, and certainty. As can happen this late in life, he has found a great sense of assurance — these paintings are vibrant and full of energy, God knows; but they are serene, objective, composed, competent.

I like the way so much painting history, internationally and locally, is contained, even referred to, with knowledge and intelligence, on completely equal terms, without his work ever seeming the slightest bit derivative. Thai Woman with Cup, for example, is fully aware of Cubism; it makes me think of the CoBrA school too; its window recalls the Matisse behind Diebenkorn; the seated nude brings Elmer Bischoff to mind: but the complexity of the left third of the painting oddly balancing the cool window on the right is something new to me — and the red shoe!

The newest canvases here, from 2013. are exclusively paintings of the nude, mostly in interiors though occasionally ambiguously so, perhaps in tropical landscapes — for a number of years St. John was spending part of each year in Thailand. There are a few smaller landscapes, though, from not that long ago, showing the artist is loyal to the Bay Area, and that its views continue to ground the solidity and geometry of his vision, as well as the texture, color, and light.

WineHavenPtMolate2008.jpg
Wine Haven (Pt. Molate) (2008)
diablo2010.jpg
Diablo (2010)
womanwithgreenbottle2014.jpg
Woman with Green Bottle (2014)


I was asked, in the gallery, which painting I'd take home with me, if I could. (I couldn't afford any of them, of course; and in any case every one of them seems already to have been sold.) Woman with Green Bottle, I said. The strength and solidity of the others is here, but I like the comparative simplicity, the domesticity, the classical subtlety of its geometrical relationships, the relationship of bottle, drapery, and the painting on the wall. I like the sense of history. And most of all, I think, I like the humor pervading the entire vision. St. John seems to have arrived at a sense of unusually sure and engaged and bemused awareness of existence, and I'm glad for the opportunity he gives of sharing it.
Bay Area Expressionism
I leave him, and you, dear reader, with a quick survey of some of the painters I've mentioned above, to provide some context for this sumptuous show of a painter arrived at mastery:
Siegriest.png
Lou Siegriest
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Jack Jefferson
Hatofsky.png
Julius Hatofsky
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Julius Wasserstein