Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Trip North (September '07)

(A chronicle of our journey north to San Francisco, a day-long tour of the art scene there, and a further journey north to Napa, to the wedding of the daughter of some of our oldest friends)

Wednesday, September 5

We made an early start, around 7:30, to be sure that we'd reach Oakland in time for a studio appointment Ellie had made with one of the artists she works with, and made a quick stop at the market to buy a cup of coffee and a muffin to keep us going for the first leg of the 5 freeway. A thankfully uneventful drive, with a stop along the way at Anderson's Pea Soup for a less than inspiring salad at lunch time, and a long session with the Leonard Cohen songs from the movie, "I'm Your Man." And, on reaching Oakland, a good face-to-face session for Ellie with an artist with whom she had worked previously only on the telephone.

Crossing the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, we made the unfortunate mistake of merging two conflicting sets of driving instructions to the De Young Museum and ended up--for the first time, but not the last on this trip!--way off track in entirely the wrong park. The generally unflappable guide on our GPS navigation system got more and more confused as we blithely ignored her directions in the mistaken belief that we knew better than she did. A lesson for the future...! Do what you're told, when it comes to global navigation.

Wish we'd had more time at the magnificent new

De Young Museum, which we saw now for the first time--once we had eventually managed to locate it. Our erroneous route allowed us only an hour or so before closing time, but it proved enough to take a quick tour of a stunning exhibition of photographic work by Hiroshi Sugimoto

(this is from his outdoor movie screen series: the glow of the white screen results from the time exposure--the length of an entire film, ensuring that the screen would be entirely white.) Best known, perhaps, for the extraordinarily beautiful series of seascapes, each of which shows nothing but the surface of the sea, the horizon, and the sky, Sugimoto asks us to join him in playing with the ambiguities of perception in generally reductive or repetitive images--though I also loved the black and white pictures of figures from Mme Tussaud's waxworks, including the magnificently-scaled Henry VIII and his six wives.

We dashed far too hastily through the museum collection, but saw enough to want to make a return visit before too long. Notable was the Sachs collection of glass and ceramic work, and a fine selection of Bay Area painters and assemblage artists, including such notables as George Herms and Bruce Conner. Well worth the visit.

Trusting, this time, to our navigation guide, we found our hotel without further mishaps, and later made the long trek up over Nob Hill and down the other side to the Trattoria Contadina in North Beach. An excellent Italian meal. To judge by the signed pictures on the wall, it's a favorite of San Francisco notables, including numerous sports names from the 49ers and the Giants. We walked back the long way, to avoid the climb back up Nob Hill, passing through the ever-lively North Beach and the (by now nearly deserted) streets of Chinatown. A lovely evening in one of the world's great cities...

Thursday, September 6

... followed by a great day, Thursday, devoted mostly to contemporary art. We started out with a Starbucks breakfast, hand-carried to Union Square where the street artists were busy setting up their wares. At the SF Museum of Modern Art, we met up with Arminee Chahbazian, another of Ellie's artists, with whom we had planned to spend a gallery day, and gained press admission to the preview of the new Olafur Eliasson exhibition there. First stop, second floor, the site of Eliasson's frozen car--the body-less hulk of a BMW race car encased in an elaborate cave of ice, and a dramatic distillation of the role of our automobile culture in the planetary warming that now influences us all.

For my money, though, the better part of the Eliasson exhibition was on the fifth floor, where a number of installations allowed him to show the range of his work, principally with light and the effects of light on our perceptive faculties. A stained glass tunnel led into the show, a gleaming, multi-colored jewel of a space which, in reverse, neatly exchanged the bright approach for darkness on the return. An interactive installation allowed the viewer to step on creaky loose floorboards to send waves and ripples through a wall-sized image of otherwise tranquil water. Proceeding behind the wall, we find a pool of water that reveals how the installation works.

In another installation (above,) a near completely circular wall acts as the screen for the projection of a continuous spectrum of colored light, surrounding the viewer with a glorious, mind-bending glow. Another encloses us in a corridor of matte, dark stone, and another confronts us with a towering wall of delicately dried-out moss. In other works, Eliasson uses mirrors and glass to bedazzle us with views of ever-repeating images--often of ourselves--into infinity.

While Eliasson never preaches, he does succeed in confronting us very subtly with some of the major issues of our day, at the same time bringing us to recognize our personal role of responsibility. It's a stunningly ambitious exhibition, well worth the time of anyone living within reach of the Bay Area--and worth the trip north for those of us in Southern California.

We were generously treated for lunch at the SF MOMA cafeteria by our artist friend, and went on to find the Catharine Clark Gallery, where I was hoping to see some new works by Masami Teraoka (the artist for my next catalogue text) and have the chance to talk to Katy, who produced the very complete book on Teraoka's work, "Ascending Chaos." Delighted to discover that our friend from Los Angeles, Sandow Birk, was there, putting the finishing touches on the installation of "The Depravities of War,"

his powerful new series of huge woodcuts on the Iraq war. Katy, quite naturally, was busy with the installation and preparations for the opening, and she had only one new piece of Teraoka's--which she was nice enough to have an aide unpack from its crate, despite the crush of business to be attended to. Still, a useful stop.

The rest of the afternoon and early evening were devoted to the gallery tour. It happened to be opening day for the new season, and aside from the outlying galleries we visited in the afternoon, the galleries in the downtown area were crammed with visitors. Encouraging, really, to find such crowds seeming genuinely interested in finding out what artists are doing. I have to say, though, that the shows proved something of an anticlimax after the Eliasson extravaganza. And there were a lot of them--dozens of galleries, scores of artists. I reached a point where I simply could see nothing any more.

Leaving the galleries a bit before closing time, we said our fond goodbyes to Arminee and found our way back to the hotel. Not too ambitious for a long walk to dinner, we chose the Mexican restaurant adjacent to the hotel and enjoyed an excellent light dinner--accompanied by two equally excellent margaritas. And so to bed...

Friday, September 7

This morning we repeated our Starbucks breakfast trick--but this time in our hotel room--and packed for a reasonably early departure for Marin County, where Ellie had another studio appointment. Always a treat, to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge--though I can't cross a bridge in the Bay Area without thoroughly convincing myself that a major earthquake is about to strike. Still, we did make it all the way across without serious incident, and made our way north to San Anslemo and Ellie's artist, whose studio is a tiny shed in a lovely back yard filled with flowers and fruits and vegetables. I sat on a bench amongst them all whilst Ellie and her artist did their work, and engrossed myself in the previous day's New York Times crossword puzzle--my major addiction, and the way I invariably choose to pass the time when waiting, whether at the airport, in the doctor's office... or here, in this lovely garden, where I should be all rights have been meditating on the beauty of it all. Ah, well!

We got back on the freeway for what we had vainly hoped would be an easy trip to the art gallery at Sonoma State University, where Masami Teraoka has a current show and where much of his new work, I had discovered, was to be seen in prime circumstances--i.e., hung on a gallery wall with gallery lighting. Alas, the trip proved less simple than we had imagined. Again, we should have followed directions. Instead, I spotted a sign to Sonoma and left the 101 freeway--thinking, of course, that Sonoma State University would be in Sonoma. Far from it. Far, far from it, as we learned when we reached Sonoma and stopped by a friendly motorcycle cop to ask where the university might be. He looked at us with pity. "It's a long way," he said.

As indeed it proved to be. We backtracked for miles, missed another turn for a shortcut that the cop had recommended, and found ourselves back on the 101 north. Eventually we did find SSU, by which time I was hungry--and more than that, angry!!! We stopped for a brief, restorative Middle Eastern lunch at a nearby shopping mall, and ventured on to the campus to find the gallery. As it turned out, it was an important stop for me. There was a good deal of work I had seen only in book form before, and of course you have no idea of the scale of a painting, nor of the texture of its surface when you look at a reproduction in a book. In fact, you get little idea of anything. It's like reading a novel for its "content." So... good to see the work first-hand. Essential, really, if I'm to write about it with anything like authenticity. More of Masami later, though, as I get into the writing.

Miraculously, we managed to find Napa without further disorientation, and settled in to the Napa River Inn, where we had booked for two nights ready for the wedding. It was just a few blocks' walk from there to the restaurant where we had been invited to the pre-wedding dinner. We have known our friends, Morrie and Evy Warshawski, since the late 1960s, when Morrie was first an undergraduate then a graduate student of mine at the University of Southern California, in English and Comparative Literature. Later, both he and Evy worked with me on a multi-disciplinary program in the arts that I directed, and they have remained close friends ever since--even though we have not seen them as often as we would have liked. They moved on from Southern California to multiple stopovers throughout the country, pursuing their wonderful careers in the field of arts administration. We have known their two daughters since they were born, and it was their youngest, Maura, who was to be married the following day.

Greeting new arrivals at the door, Evy offered us a blank stare: Who are these people? (Did I say it had been years since we last saw her?) But once she figured it out, it was a joy to see the pleasure in her face as she welcomed us. Morrie, too, and the two girls when we met them. It was a truly wonderful reunion.

Dinner, then, with the families--the Warshawski family, extensive on both sides, and their soon-to-be-in-laws. It was a thoroughly convivial gathering, with good food, much Napa wine, and loud conversation. We were happy to walk through nearly silent streets on the way back to our hotel, and to get to bed in fairly decent time.

Saturday, September 8--the Wedding Day

We took advantage of breakfast served in our room, and lazed around for a good while before taking off for a day in Napa's wine country. The wedding was scheduled for late afternoon, so we had plenty of time for the drive up to Calistoga, where we wandered round the farmers' market--and Ellie found some craftsman jewelry to buy. Then a leisurely stroll up and down the main street of Calistoga, remembering the last time we had been here, many years before--and struggling to remember when that might have been. Was it before or after this or that? Our memories failed to agree on the details of time, but we did summon a clear memory of an excellent meal.

Too early, though, for lunch. We headed south again along the Silverado Trail not intending, at first, to do the winery visits. We changed our minds, though, when we passed the Rutherford Ranch vineyards,

and stopped by for a taste--which led, of course, to the purchase of a few bottles to bring home. Crossing over to St. Helena, we found ourselves passing Grgich Hills, one of my favorite Napa wineries, and couldn't resist that second stop--and those few more bottles.

We found a pleasant bakery in St. Helena for a lunch-time sandwich and were back in Napa in time for some down time and a shower before the wedding. Then off to the Opera House--where Evy directs the slate of programs for the city, and where the wedding was to be held.
The chupah--the awning under which the Jewish marriage traditionally takes place--was set up on the stage, and the principals processed from the rear down the central aisle and up the steps to where the officiant stood to greet them. A lovely, simple, non-religious service, in which the bride and groom exchanged a few private words before taking the vows, and the celebrant found a few apt words to create the social context for the personal event. At the end, after the exchange of vows, another Jewish tradition: the breaking of the glass under the new husband's foot as the sign of the end of the old life and the beginning of the new one.

After the ceremony, we partied. Again--who would have guessed it?--a generous flow of Napa wines, a sumptuous banquet prepared by a local restauranteur (or should I say --restauranteuse? A corn chowder--a favorite of the bride's--followed by filet mignon and not-overcooked young vegetables, both a considerable achievement for so large a gathering. The cake, prepared by another local food establishment, was also excellent--very light, encrusted with cream and pistachios. And of course champagne. And dancing... A great evening of community and celebration. Ellie and I came away much delighted with the whole event. And were further delighted...

Sunday, September 9...

to be able to spend some time with our old friends. We were up early-ish, ready for the long drive south, and off to Morrie & Evy's home just a few blocks distant, expecting to find a houseful of family and friends staying over. What a pleasure, then, to find the house quiet, the two of them alone over the breakfast table, with ample time to sit with them, enjoy the treat of lox and bagel and a cup of coffee, and talk over old times. A good catch-up, with mostly much merriment and good memories. After breakfast, Morrie showed me his upstairs office--a veritable cockpit from which he conducts his nationwide advisory services to arts programs--and we talked about writing, blogging, and the demands of work. He's missing his own creative writing, I think, and I encouraged him to think about a blog as a useful form of discipline. Who knows, he might even get one started? It's something that I'd love to read.

Fond farewells, then, and inevitably a few missed directions before we found ourselves on I-680, then 101 south, with only a quick lunch break (at "Scrambl-z"!) and a long haul down to Pismo Beach, where Ellie had wisely organized a stopover for the night, to make the journey more pleasant. Okay hotel. And a two-mile walk along the beach, so different from our own down in Laguna--a wide stretch of fine sand and a long, shallow reach out to the breakers. And birds. Gulls, of course, and pigeons, crowded together in big, feathered islands on the beach. And pelicans! I have never seen so many gathered in one place, never so many taking off in flights and wheeling out to sea in flocks to fish, or following the shoreline in long single file. Inspiring sight.

We enjoyed a last vacation dinner, and got back to the hotel in time to watch a few minutes of Bill Clinton with Larry King. Then, just getting off to sleep, the bloody spa immediately outside our room--we had enjoyed a soak a few hours earlier--refused to shut down and leave us in peace for the night. After two calls to the front desk in the attempt to quiet it down, I eventually jerked the plug on it and we both got to sleep.

On Monday, September 10...

... we took a quick walk out on the pier and found a Starbucks for a cup of coffee before hitting the road again and heading home.


carly said...

P: Welcome back. Always love to hear about SF. I lived there back in the wonderfully wild Sixties when I was a rock musician. i pity anyone who didn't experience SF in the Sixties. Notwithstanding the war, it was so great to be alive.
Glad you're back safely.

khengsiong said...

Wow... that's a long post. Perhaps you should have broken it up into several shorter ones.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your story.

Mala@traveling-stories-magazine said...

I liked the detailed description of the exhibits. Eliasson's circular wall screen looks psychedelic. When I am in Marin County, my favorite thing to do is look up art in the galleries in Sausalito. Mala Mukunda