Books about art are good, but only second-best

September 8, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Sometimes it seems like there will never be enough time to read all the good books, watch all the great movies, listen to all the music and study all the art history that we want to. In an effort to help, I have two art history survey books to recommend and a specific suggestion to make.

The books are "The Story of Painting: The Essential Guide to the History of Western Art" by Sister Wendy Beckett and "The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History From Prehistoric to Post-Modern" by Carol Strickland.

The first book, hardbound, with beautiful illustrations, is $40, published by Dorling Kindersley in 1994. It's useful by itself or as a companion to Sister Beckett's TV series devoted to art history. Beckett is a cloistered nun who lives in a Carmelite monastery in Norfolk. She covers 800 years of Western painting in 390 pages.

"Mona Lisa," a trade paperback, also is full of excellent illustrations and is a little more affordable at $22.50. In it, 25,000 years of art have been condensed into 208 pages. However, my suggestion, heretical as it may be to book-lovers, is this: Don't read about art. If at all possible, go see it. Books make a wonderful accompaniment to the study and appreciation of art, but when it comes to paintings looking is the best way of learning. With this thought in mind, I went to see the new exhibit at Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum, "Northern California Art Since 1945." Jan Driesbach of the museum staff gave the walk-through talk in the modern art gallery.

"In a room of 1,800-square-feet we can't show everything ... or say everything there is to say about California art but (the exhibit) reflects diversity and zeroes in on the San Francisco and Sacramento area," said Driesbach.

Naturally, the exhibit also includes artists from UC Davis including Wayne Thiebaud, Roland Petersen and David Gilhooly. The Gilhooly plexiglas piece, "Fire and Ice," is the first thing visitors see when entering the gallery. A stunning departure from his work in ceramics, this 1987 piece is a vibrant layered cityscape. The city explodes in the lower left corner, shooting fiery bolts into sky.

The exhibit features three Thiebauds: two will be familiar to regular Crocker visitors. Those two are the thick, luscious "Boston Cremes" and "Pies, Pies, Pies." But the new cityscape, "Street and Shadow," which Thiebaud donated to the Crocker, adds a new dimension to the collection.

"We've had Thiebaud's still lives and a portrait but until now none of his cityscapes," said Driesbach. The cityscape features an unnaturally steep San Francisco street with parked cars and apartment buildings. An almost cartoon-style dog is crossing the street. The painting has changed over the years. Thiebaud recently added a bold yellow arrow directing traffic on one of the side streets.

"He makes changes and alterations in his paintings up to the last minute," said Driesbach.

The work of another UCD artist, Roland Petersen, also is on display. It is the 1967 "An American Picnic with 21 Figures."

"The paint is probably dry now," said Driesbach, commenting on his thick layering technique. "This is a good complement to Thiebaud and David Park," she added. "They shared ideas, they saw each others works."

"An American Picnic" will be recognizable to anyone who has attended a Picnic Day celebration at the Davis campus. Although the figures are generalized and the scenery is indistinct it looks to me like a scene from the Quad on a white-hot day. Green Central Valley landscape fills the background. The small David Park work is a gem. It is the "Back of Nude," a wash on paper, done in 1960s. Park died at age 49 of cancer. He was one of the leading figures of the Bay Area figurative movement that emerged after World War II when returning veterans enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute.

"There was virtually no art market in San Francisco then, artists were painting for themselves," said Driesbach. The movement was marked by heightened, intense use of color and slightly abstract qualities.

In Park's nude, a non-specific woman faces away from the canvas, her hand on her hip. It's a lovely piece.

Works by Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Greg Kondos also are in the exhibit. And be sure to look at the two splendid watercolors by Joseph Raffael. Raffael, who now lives in the south of France, used to teach at Sac State.

When you finish touring your local art museum, sit down with a book about art. You'll find it's much more interesting after seeing the real thing.

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