Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The enduring influence of Gottardo Piazzoni (!)

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These are two of the most famous paintings in San Francisco’s art history. At top is The Land (1931-32, detail below, right), a five-panel semi-mural by Gottardo Piazzoni, a Swiss-born Italian painter whose family moved to California as a teenager. Below it is its counterpart The Sea (1931-32). Both are in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and on view at the de Young. FAMSF acquired them in 1999 after they were removed from San Francisco’s Main Library. (Long story short: When the library moved out of its Civic Center abode for a new building, the Asian Art Museum moved in. Suddenly a thoroughly Californian work by a Swiss-Italian-American didn’t much fit. Piazzoni completed four additional panels in 1945. Originally installed in 1975, they’re now in the state Treasurer’s building in Sacramento, a loan from the City of San Francisco.)

The Piazzonis have always been a particular San Francisco thing, well-known to several generations of visitors to the city’s library. Piazzoni had a specifically Californian pedigree: He was a student of California arts-and-crafts painter Arthur Frank Mathews. Later he studied under Jean-Leon Gerome in Paris (and was obviously influenced by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes) and he corresponded with Futurism founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, but he preferred the American West to European salons. When asked by a newspaperman to name his religion, Piazzoni replied, “I think it is California.” By the time Piazzoni came to paint The Land and The Sea, the commission was a big enough deal that Ansel Adams showed up to photograph the great man at work.

But except for the 2005 conservation of The Land and The Sea, Piazzoni has been mostly forgotten. That’s too bad: Every year or two I find a new way in which San Francisco’s post-war avant-garde painters found him important. In one way that shouldn’t be a surprise: In the first decades after World War II, when art magazines were published in black-and-white, the local meant more than it does now. Artists spent more time absorbing what was around them than they did what was selling in the market centers.

One of the painters who found something in Piazzoni was Clyfford Still, a guy who was famously loathe to admit any outside influence. (After telling writer/collector Betty Freeman that Rembrandt was a key figure for him, Still called her back to say, ‘Nevermind, he actually wasn’t, and don’t you dare write that he was.’)

Still seems to have been a little more generous to Piazzoni. From my 2011 Still profile:

Still left a final hint about how important landscape was to him. Until just a few years ago, a 1932 mural by a Italian-American regionalist named Gottardo Piazzoni hung in the San Francisco Public Library.  They were known as The Sea and The Land murals because they portrayed California’s two defining features. The five panels that make up The Land are classics of California painting: California’s golden hills fill the frames. The hills burnt by the sun and creased by water that had run down them for centuries. For years — including when Still was in San Francisco — they were considered immensely important civic art treasures.

Still was loathe to admit outside influences. They were myth-destroyers. Throughout his life and at every opportunity, he denied that he was influenced by Cezanne or Rembrandt or anyone else. But in a weak moment, when Still curator Walter Hopps were walking through the San Francisco Main Library, Still stopped in front of the Piazzoni murals and told Hopps that they meant a great deal to him, that they were a key to his art.

So a few weeks ago when I talked with Robert Bechtle for this episode of The Modern Art Notes Podcast, I was particularly eager to ask him if Piazzoni’s The Land and The Sea had been important to him. If that sounds a little weird — and it probably should because I’m pretty sure there’s no one who thinks about Piazzoni but me — check out Bechtle’s Nancy Sitting (1964), which seems imbued with a strong whiff of old California.

So I asked Bechtle if the Piazzonis had ever been important to him. Before he answered, he paused for a good three or four seconds. Then he had a great answer:

That’s interesting. I was aware of him back then, certainly. I think it was inadvertent, but yeah, I certainly own up to it.

I think in that painting… it certainly gets back to not wanting to be particularly dramatic, etc., so there’s a kind of middle-grade tonality to the entire painting. The references are very flat because I was using a medium that had enough beeswax in it to matte the color out. I was interested in a light-toned, very blonde painting that would never go all the way to black, even in the darkest dark. And that gives it a sort of Piazzoni look, that and the structure of it with those windows back there. I can see the connection there possibly as well. But I don’t think I was consciously thinking of Piazzoni at that point.

I’d bet my bottom pixel that it wasn’t just Still and Bechtle, that plenty of other San Francisco-based painters have found the Piazzonis of use. I’ll keep asking….

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  1. Malcolm Rains says:

    Russel Chatham admits to be influenced by Piazzoni’s paintings.

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