Raymond Saunders Looks Back

The Oakland artist finally acquiesces to a retrospective, ‘40 Years: Paris/Oakland.’

In December of 1994, Oakland artist Raymond Saunders sat down for a two-hour interview with SFMOMA and explained why, at age 60 — when his paintings had been acclaimed for more than 30 years — he still refused to contemplate a retrospective of his work. “I’m not interested in the past being my present,” he said then, sitting down in a gallery that featured one of his largest paintings. “I don’t want to know who I am. I paint to try and access that.” 

So what does it mean that two San Francisco galleries have collaborated on a major retrospective that is showcasing 40 years of Saunders’ work? Approaching 90 years of age, has Saunders finally slowed down into a kind of semi-retirement where his past work is now his entire focus? Thankfully, the answer is no, as his Assistant Studio Manager Michele Berry tells SF Weekly that Saunders is still painting. 

Even so, the San Francisco retrospective, “40 Years: Paris/Oakland,” marks a new phase in Saunders’ life. For years, he had a summertime Paris studio, and the exhibits at Andrew Kreps Gallery and Casemore Kirkeby highlight paintings from that studio, starting from the 1990s, that have rarely been displayed. The exhibits also showcase works, starting from the 1980s, that have also been little exhibited, so walking through each room at Andrew Kreps Gallery and Casemore Kirkeby is to see art that has never received a proper public showing — until now.

Emblematic of the art there: Saunders’ eight-foot-wide mixed-media triptych at Casemore Kirkeby that has all manner of markings, numbers, images, and lines that emerge like oases from the roughly painted black background that’s omnipresent in Saunders’ art. These oases are always a key part of the Raymond Saunders experience, from noticing them to interpreting them, and the 1990 triptych doesn’t disappoint: In the lower left side is a Flash Gordon cartoon strip from 1943 where the strip’s hero joins people his foes call “treacherous natives,” while the upper left side features an image of an old galleon, and the middle and right sections feature squiggles, arrows, and other seemingly random shapes. What they mean is up to the viewer. That’s why Saunders titles much of his work, “Untitled.” And it’s why, in that same 1994 interview, Saunders said this about art-goers who encounter his work: “I don’t want them to know anything; there’s nothing to know. The art is the reality.”

All his life, Sanders has argued that his work shouldn’t be labeled as “Black art.” Yes, Sanders is a Black American, but he wrote a highly discussed essay in 1967 called Black Is a Color, which said that Black artists like himself weren’t there to “entertain” high society, shouldn’t be judged on how popular or commercially successful they were, and that activism wasn’t his mission but that he allowed himself “to hope that in the effort (of making art) some light, some love, some beauty may be shed upon the world, and perhaps some inequities put right.” 

This last approach is evident in Sanders’ work called Beauty in Darkness at Andrew Kreps Gallery, which features pre-Civil-Rights-era images that racially segregated Blacks from whites, including a brown sign that screams, over a black arrow pointing right, “No Colored Thru This Door.” Also on the painting, which Saunders made between 1993 and 1999: A “Bird Lives” scrawl, which pays homage to musician Charlie Parker; a mostly black-colored heart; an old magazine photo of whites surrounding a lynched Black man; a photo of Malcolm X below the quote, “I live as if I am already dead”; a literal paint brush covered in brown paint; and chalk-like images of nude Black women. Some of these images can be found in other Saunders paintings, as with Saunders’ 1977 standout work, Charlie Parker [formerly Bird], which SFMOMA has in its permanent collection. But that piece, which once stood prominently in one of the museum’s second-floor galleries, is now in storage, and who knows when it will return to its previously prominent position — or when SFMOMA might have a retrospective for Saunders, a Guggenheim fellow who is one of the Bay Area’s most important living artists. 

In the meantime, there is “40 Years: Paris/Oakland.” But the exhibit at Andrew Kreps ends on June 12 while the exhibit at Casemore Kirkeby ends June 26, so there is little remaining time to take in the San Francisco showings. Saunders, who rarely does interviews, considered an interview with SF Weekly but ultimately declined — which leaves his 1994 SFMOMA interview as an important record of his vision. A Pittsburgh native who had the same high-school art teacher as Andy Warhol, Saunders received formal art schooling at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Barnes Foundation before getting his MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts. Here’s what he said in 1994: “I’m an American. I’m Black. I’m a painter. So all those things enter into what it is that becomes what I present.”

That’s Saunders’ legacy: He makes art that externalizes his own feelings in that moment of making. And that’s all he asks of art-goers who see his work for the first time or have seen it over and over again: See in the art what you will. There’s always a hell of a lot to see in a Sanders work, which are like curated, collaged tsunamis of ideas, connections, thoughts, and things that Saunders might even classify as objet d’art, like the street signs, albums, and rolled-up paper that spring from his canvases. Even the in-between spaces in Saunders’ art, where nothing seems to be there but black paint, says a lot about Sanders’ idea of himself and the world at large. 

40 Years: Paris/Oakland
Through June 12 at Andrew Kreps (657 Howard) and June 26 at Casemore Kirkeby (1275 Minnesota), S.F. Free. casemorekirkeby.comandrewkreps.com.

Other Noteworthy Exhibits

  • What painter Ben Aronson does with light and cityscapes has to beseen in person. Jenkins Johnson Gallery regularly exhibits Aronson’s work for good reason: In minute detail, Aronson captures the impressionistic intimacy that a morning or afternoon sun has on buildings and skylines. A perfect example: Summer, Nob Hill, a new work where the blue sky and shadow-laden street complement the shapes and sightlines of apartments whose momentarily yellow colors are like those of spring flowers that have suddenly bloomed. “Ben Aronson: Sightlines.” Through July 2. Free. Jenkins Johnson Gallery, 1275 Minnesota, S.F.  415-677-0770; jenkinsjohnsongallery.com
  • The faces and limbs that connect in Kimia Ferdowsi Kline’s striking mixed-media artworks are a reality check, not a harmonic yin and yang. We see a forced coexistence, where anger, sadness, comfort, and reliance are the order of the day – and that’s why “Mother Tongue” and its series of artworks (made on papyrus) stand out: They’re telling stories of complicated relationships that can be both raw and rewarding. “Living ain’t easy,” more than one sage has said, and Kline’s exhibit offers visual insight into those exact words. “Kimia Ferdowsi Kline: Mother Tongue.” Through June 26. Free with appointment. Marrow Gallery, 548 Irving, S.F. 415-463-2055; marrowgallery.com
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