‘Fauna & Flora’: an inside look

ArtsWatch's Bob Hicks tells the stories behind his new book about the artist Beth Van Hoesen

Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna & Flora, a new art book with images by the California artist Beth Van Hoesen (1926-2010) and essays by Bob Hicks, has just been published by Pomegranate, the Portland-based international publishing house that also has European headquarters in England. The Portland Art Museum holds the largest collection anywhere of Van Hoesen’s prints, and she was represented in Portland for many years by the legendary Fountain Gallery. The book, available this month, includes dozens of full-color reproductions of Van Hoesen’s prints of plants and animals. Hicks, a writer and editor for Oregon ArtsWatch, talks for ArtsWatch readers about the book project and Van Hoesen’s life and art.

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No artist is an island, entire of herself. Timothy Berry, the San Francisco painter and fine printer who was a friend and collaborator with the printmaker Beth Van Hoesen, once told me he thought of Van Hoesen and her artist husband, Mark Adams, as being “out of time” – eccentrics who, while living and working in the midst of the revolutionary ferment of the mid-20th century Bay Area art world, considered themselves inheritors and practitioners of a much deeper art history uncluttered by the revisions and excesses of contemporary life.

beth-van-hoesen-fauna-flora-42Looking at Van Hoesen’s art, as I’ve been doing for the past five years through a series of projects, it’s easy to understand what Berry means. My involvement with Van Hoesen and her circle began in 2009 when I reviewed a large exhibition of her prints at the Portland Art Museum, which two years earlier had been given the largest collection of her printed works anywhere: a print each from about 650 of her editions. In my new book, Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna & Flora (Pomegranate, 2014, 144 pages, $40), you can look at print after print that seem tied more closely to the long traditions of pre-modernist European art than to the work of the groundbreaking contemporary California artists she knew well and socialized with often: people like Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Arneson, Imogen Cunningham, Roy DeForest, Elmer Bischoff, and her longtime drawing-group companions Wayne Thiebaud and Theophilus Brown.*

Dürer and Audubon and the masterful Hudson River School painter Martin Johnson Heade come to mind as artists she might have considered her true contemporaries, not so much for their specific styles or achievements as for their subject matter and devotion to meticulous realistic technique. While the big ideas of abstract expressionism and the California counterrevolution of funk and raw, freewheeling representation exploded around her, Van Hoesen was enraptured by the microcosm of everyday life: flowers, fruits and vegetables, animals both wild and domestic, bodies and faces, dolls and babies, domestic scenes. In her devotion to the everyday she might have been working under the influence of Vermeer and De Hooch – great painters, but hardly the stuff of mainstream American art in the mid and late 20th century.

"Flamingo Sleeping," 1988, Edition of 30. Aquatint and drypoint with roulette, 13.25 x 11.5 inches. All images © E. Mark Adams and Beth Van Hoesen Adams Trust. Courtesy Pomegranate Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.

“Flamingo Sleeping,” 1988, Edition of 30. Aquatint and drypoint with roulette, 13.25 x 11.5 inches.

Yet, in today’s sprawling art-world mosaic of theoretical and stylistic approaches, her work exudes a crystalline charm and appeal. The prints of animals and plants in Fauna & Flora are for the most part warm and intimate: close observations and contemplations of living things. Her hares, mice, bobcats, manatees, lilies, daisies, and orchids tend to be isolated in their frames – despite their traditional subject matter, her prints and drawings and occasional watercolors reveal a keen understanding of contemporary theories of space – and, in their isolation, fully realized. They are also frankly approachable and pleasurable to people on the street, which nudges her in one sense toward Rockwell/Wyeth territory: her art is so broadly recognizable that her actual achievements are sometimes underappreciated. (Jeff Koons and other contemporary stars overlay their accessibility with irony, a veneer that Van Hoesen’s work notably lacks.)

Populist or not, her artworks rarely veer into sentimentality – her eye’s too keen for that – and on close observation they reveal a sensibility balanced delicately between the scientist’s and the humanist’s. They are anatomically precise, and at their best they exude a verisimilitude of the spirit, an essential isness of the living thing. While theories and ambitions roiled around her, Van Hoesen quietly but never timidly followed her own way: to truly look at small and ordinary things, consider their essence deeply, and report back visually on what she discovered, somehow fusing her own sensibility with her subjects’ along the way.

"Peony," 1976. Edition of 40.  Aquatint, engraving, etching, and drypoint with roulette. 17 3/8 x 14 1/8 inches.

“Peony,” 1976. Edition of 40. Aquatint, engraving, etching, and drypoint with roulette. 17 3/8 x 14 1/8 inches.

As with most art books, the quality of the images in Fauna & Flora is primary – the essays provide background and context for the pictures, which are the true point – and this selection of works on two of Van Hoesen’s favorite topics illustrates her appeal as an artist: they’re familiar and quiet and pleasurable at a glance, and their impact deepens as you spend more time with them. I confess to a few favorites in the book: the elegant 1988 print Flamingo Sleeping, so tucked and tufted into itself that it looks at first glance like one of her flowers; the splendid waving tendrils of 1995’s San Francisco Dahlias; a blush-pink Peony from 1976, so strawberry-fresh on its thick stem that every time I look at it I think first of an ice cream cone; 1981’s cocky rooster Boris; a few others.

Van Hoesen was born in Boise and lived for a time as a child in Walla Walla, but she was a San Franciscan through and through, and being a San Franciscan in the mid-20th century meant you were connected to cultural and political currents no matter what. She lived and worked in the city for more than 50 years, most of it in an old firehouse home and studio near Castro Street that she and Adams bought for a pittance in 1959. And although she stood stubbornly apart from things, she was hardly unaware of the cultural swirl going on around her. She was friends with many of the art renegades of her time, including Diebenkorn and her onetime teacher, David Park, who famously trashed all of his abstract paintings and declared a new, contemporary realism. She simply chose, on the whole, not to participate.

"Boris," 1981. Edition of 100. Studio Proof 1/11. Aquatint, etching, and drypoint with roulette, inked à la poupée, hand colored with watercolor, 15.25 x 17.75 inches.

“Boris,” 1981. Edition of 100. Studio Proof 1/11. Aquatint, etching, and drypoint with roulette, inked à la poupée, hand colored with watercolor, 15.25 x 17.75 inches.

I met her only once, in January of 2010, when she was living in an extended-care home. She would die later that year, aged 84, and when I talked with her both her body and mind were on a downward slope. Her memory was loose; she showed only flashes of the sharp intellect that both her artwork and her writings about it had exhibited in her prime. But she still had a big spirit, and she still knew how to laugh. She was companionable.

By this point it was difficult getting specifics from her. Her memory simply wasn’t working that way anymore. At one point I asked her about the night she and Adams and some friends went out to a nightclub at 710 Montgomery Street called the Black Cat Bar, which had a long history of catering to San Francisco’s bohemian side before the club was shut down in 1964. William Saroyan and John Steinbeck drank there. Part of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is set in the bar. Beats and homosexuals, poets and writers gay or straight hung out there. Ginsberg once called it “the best gay bar in America.” And Van Hoesen visited. Once.

“A group of us just went out and decided to be hippies for a night,” she told me. “I wore long black stockings, which I wore constantly. What else? We wore berets. We sat on old mattresses on the second floor. That’s what we did.”

Still, she recalled, it was all sort of exotic, a bit like slumming. And unlike the regulars, she and her crowd didn’t quite fit: “Everybody was supposed to recite a poem. And we didn’t have a poem.”

She still remembered her bulldog approach to technique, which was almost excessively important to her in her flora and fauna prints and in everything else she did. I asked her about her series of prints of her friend Imogen Cunningham, the photographer. The exchange went like this:

BH: You experimented a lot with different color combinations in that series. Colors really seemed to change how she came across. How she seemed to feel about herself; the severity or softness of her face.

 BVH: I remember changing it from the dark to a lighter color. And then lighter, and lighter. (laughs) She was quite light, you know, her face. In actual palette.

BH: If you look at the black and white one, it’s almost fierce. It’s so sharp.

 BVH: Yeah.

BH: It’s like, hawklike. And then, truly, as it becomes lighter, you home in on something closer to a pastel …

 BVH: Yeah!

BH: … she seemed to fill in and soften. It seemed to me, almost become …

 BVH: She became another person! (laughs delightedly)

BH: Yes! She did! Which was very interesting. And that was mostly in the colors that you chose.

 BVH: Yeah!

BH: Which was very, very different from the Imogen in the famous Twinka photograph [by Judy Dater; 1974], where she’s out in the woods kind of like a pixie …

 BVH: … and she’s looking around a tree … I didn’t do that. Oh, that photograph is very good.

BH: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. But, the image that you have is … she seems much more aware of herself.

 BVH: She was hard to do.

Hard, but not impossible. Van Hoesen typically kept at it and kept at it, until she got precisely the effect she wanted. Tim Berry sometimes lamented that excessive compulsion; he felt she often overworked her prints, going past the point where they still had looseness and freedom. I’ve seen several drawings and prints from the 1940s and ’50s that are more spry, more saucy, more lively and irreverent than her mature work. But she was devoted to veracity as she saw it, and that meant finishing things to a hard point. Her work is what it is, and what she wanted it to be.

"San Francisco Dahlias," 1995. Edition of 57. Artist's Proof 5/6. Lithograph, screen print, 24 x 32 5/8 inches

“San Francisco Dahlias,” 1995. Edition of 57. Artist’s Proof 5/6. Lithograph, screen print, 24 x 32 5/8 inches

Despite her independence she was no island, but a part of the stream – a devoted individualist in the context of a real community to which she belonged. She had friends, many friends, inside and out of the art world. She made prints and drawings and watercolors of the hippies and radicals and hangers-on in and around Castro and the Haight. She had sharp opinions about artists and art trends, and among her followers she inspired devotion. “Women really wanted to protect her,” Berry noted. “She had groupies.” In her life as in her art, she seemed an intriguing combination of courage and … not timidity so much as self-effacement. It takes courage to create image after image of ordinary plants and animals in the face of an art world that, especially at the time, found such subjects unimportant – and to insist fiercely that, indeed, they are important.

Diana Crane Citret** was a photographer and artists’ model who became close friends with Beth and Mark, and who was a favorite model for the life-drawing group that met at the firehouse once a week for years. “People talked about how Beth could be difficult, could be hard on people. But she never was with me,” Citret told me. “She was very gentle, and fun.” And, sometimes, almost perversely self-deprecating. Citret described the atmosphere at the weekly drawing sessions, which generally lasted about four hours: “Beth used to come down an hour after the others had started. You could smell her perfume. It was nice perfume. And she’d say, ‘Oh, I’m not really very important to this group,’ and Mark would say, ‘Yes, you are. You’re important.’” It became almost a comedy routine between them. In an audiotape interview that Citret made with Adams and Van Hoesen in 1999, they repeated the exchange, adding a reference to the irascible group member Gordon Cook. Adams assured Van Hoesen of her importance to the drawing group: “Even Gordon didn’t talk quit as dirty when you were there.” “Oh, that was good!” she replied, laughing.

All of these quirks and friendships and influences became a part of Van Hoesen’s personality and her art. She, in turn, became a vital part of the energetic California scene, if more sideways and less celebrated than stars such as Diebenkorn, Arneson, Thiebaud, and DeForest. An art scene that can stretch from the subversive radicalism of an Arneson to the neotraditionalism of a Van Hoesen is a rugged and healthy scene, indeed.

In an important way, Van Hoesen was out of time, which also puts her into multiple times, and of continuing interest in our own. She wasn’t avant-garde. As the Portland Art Museum’s chief curator, Bruce Guenther, puts it, “Beth and Mark were always sort of the center of their own universe, and on the fringe.” But it would be a mistake to think of her as the rear guard. She was her own guard, stubbornly sticking to what seemed real and important to her. In that sense – in simply not caring which way the winds were blowing, because the winds had nothing to do with her own conception of beauty – she was a genuine, if accidental, rebel.

And, my, she knew how to get to the heart of a plant or an animal.

 

"Brown Bear," 1985. Edition of 50. Aquatint, drypoint, and etching with roulette, inked à la poupée, hand colored with watercolor, 14 3/8 x 20 1/4 inches.

“Brown Bear,” 1985. Edition of 50. Aquatint, drypoint, and etching with roulette, inked à la poupée, hand colored with watercolor, 14 3/8 x 20 1/4 inches.

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* When I talked with Brown at his San Francisco apartment in the summer of 2010, he was 91 years old and still working regularly at his nearby studio. He died in February 2012, and I consider myself lucky to have spent some time with him while his mind and spirit were still vigorous. He had risen to national prominence in 1956 with a series of energetic, jazzy paintings of football players that was published in the pages of Life magazine. When we talked he’d recently had an exhibition of new abstract paintings, very different from the male figurative paintings for which he was best known. He laughed a lot.

He’d always drawn, he told me: “When I was 11 years old I drew a portrait of my father; it was charcoal. He was sleeping.” His father liked it, and without telling him, entered it in an art contest in Davenport, Iowa. Nor did he tell the contest sponsors that young Bill was 11 years old: the contest was for adult artists only. Grant Wood was the sole juror, and awarded Brown’s drawing third prize. Brown laughed: “That caused quite a commotion!”

Brown didn’t dwell on it a lot in conversation, but he’d been friends with a lot of famous people, from Picasso and Braque to Samuel Barber and William Inge. At one point in our conversation he got up from his chair and, with a twinkle, said, “I have some special pictures in my bathroom you might like to see.” We walked in, and the walls were cluttered with small, intimate mementoes from friends. Little sketches by composers Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith. A relaxed photo of writer Christopher Isherwood and his partner, the painter Don Bachardy. A small photo of one of Brown’s boxer paintings. A photograph of writer Isak Dinesen, “ten days before she died.” Another photo of Elaine de Kooning, “shortly before she died.” A notational sketch by Stravinsky from The Rake’s Progress. Several of them were signed, affectionately, to him.

 

** One of the pleasures of working on a project like this is getting to meet or work with the people who make up part of the story. I’m especially indebted to the generosity and openness of Citret; Berry; Philip Linhares, who was chief curator of art for the Oakland Museum of California; and Brown. And the team at Pomegranate, in particular my editor, Krystal Eldridge, and the book’s talented designer, Tristen Jackman, was first-rate.

Citret, with whom I talked at her home in Ketchum, Idaho, was open about her deep affection and admiration for Van Hoesen and Adams. She’d been an artists’ model in college and began doing it a little more, but soon she concentrated on modeling almost exclusively for Beth and Mark and the firehouse life-drawing group – it felt comfortable, she told me, like family. And she began to photograph the drawing sessions. You can see the body language at the drawing sessions in several of Citret’s photos: while some of the men almost strode into their work, Van Hoesen would sit, leaning over, hair falling forward, often with her sketchpad in her lap. “Nobody would talk while they were drawing,” Citret remembered. “Not a sound. You could hear the mail coming through the slot, or a pencil scratching on the paper. I never wanted to interfere with their work. I was there for them.” Nudity simply wasn’t an issue: “I think it just was what it was. The model was maybe just something more interesting to draw than an apple. I don’t think they really cared a lot whether I was naked or wearing clothes. They were exercising their drawing hands.”

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All images © E. Mark Adams and Beth Van Hoesen Adams Trust. Courtesy Pomegranate Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    “She was her own guard.” Thank you for those four little words for which any artist who follows his/her own independent path should be profoundly, deeply grateful.

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