Ten Places to See the Work of California’s Greatest Visual Artists

Museums specializing in California art are expanding throughout the state.

PUBLISHED APR 27, 2022 7:00 P.M.
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From Past to Present: The range of California art in the museums listed below is represented by the Crocker Art Museum’s exterior: one half completed in 1872, the other added in 2010.

From Past to Present: The range of California art in the museums listed below is represented by the Crocker Art Museum’s exterior: one half completed in 1872, the other added in 2010.   Kit Leong   Shutterstock.com

Imagine one museum that contained the entire history of California art. It would commence with baskets, pictographs and weavings, the tintypes of pioneer photographers, the painted scrims done for movies such as the ones now on display at the Academy Museum. There would be Jess’s intricate collages and thickly impastoed canvases, Diebenkorn returning again and again to the slope and light of Ocean Park,  Enrique Chagoya and Sandow Birk making bitterly funny points about the contradictions that tend to tear the state apart. There would be Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Rat Fink, trembling with nerves, Ed Kienholz’s working-class dioramas, Betye Saar’s found-art assemblages, and so on and on to this year’s MFA students.

Museums specializing in California art are expanding throughout the state. The list below focuses more on regional museums, rather than the large museums of modern art … even though the latter have supershows of Golden State painters and sculptors. One example that comes to mind is SF MOMA’s recent retrospective of Berkeley artist David Park, the painter whose work was as serene as Matisse and as playful as Renoir.

1. Crocker Art Museum

Unmissable. This Sacramento treasure, walking distance from the river’s side, is the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi. And the 100,000-square-foot expansion in 2010 has given it more room to display its massive collection of California art.

The Crocker Museum is bifurcated. One side is a modern building with a collection that includes much work by the ever-vernal local Wayne Thiebaud. As Hitchcock said about his films, some art works are a slice of life, some a slice of cake. Here are Mel Ramos’ toasted marshmallow colored nudes, and Sandow Birk channeling the poses of Jacques-Louis David to tell the stories of 1960s revolution. The Crocker gives shelter to a very tough artist, whose popularity is rising as times get ever scarier: Moss Landing artist Irving Norman. His man-sized, horror-laden surrealist protest paintings teem with nude, quivering figures: subjects in the court of some dread money-god.

The other half of the Crocker demonstrates what the museum would have looked like 150 years ago, with canvases hung floor to ceiling, salon style. It’s often mediocre work–speculative paintings of wild animals, half-good landscapes, stiffly posed incidents of classical lore. In short, presented as a history lesson, is a lovingly assembled collection of what culture would have looked like in a rough-and-tumble city like Gilded Age Sacramento. And if one subscribes to the idea that what was really good about American art 150 or 200 years ago was furniture and architecture, you’ll see that, too, in this lavish mansion.


2. Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art

UC Davis was a hotbed for post-pop art, the lair of William Wiley and Wayne Thiebaud; in 2016, it finally got a museum commensurate with the school’s contributions to California art. On view for the first half of 2022, for instance, is “From Moment to Movement,” a show of protest art by professor Shiva Ahmadi, Dara Birnbaum, Kota Ezawa, Theaster Gates, Nalini Malani and Mikhael Subotzky. Coming in July is an exhibit titled “Young, Gifted and Black: The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection of Contemporary Art,” which puts the spotlight on an emerging generation of artists of African descent. And September will bring a showcase of UC Davis Professor Emeritus Roy De Forest’s work.


3. Di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art

Either this or the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Pennsylvania is the most beautifully situated museum in the country. Surrounded by the Carneros region vineyards, and echoing with the cries of peacocks, this is the former home of Rene di Rosa, with a metal barn-like gallery nearby. Di Rosa refused to label the exhibits, on the grounds that people study names and titles instead of looking at what's right in front of them.

He was at Davis learning viticulture at the same time the funk art era was exploding in the college town. Was there ever such an anti-careerist period in California art, an era that cared so absolutely little about how they were doing it in NYC? It was the time of Viola Frey’s ceramic giantesses, and Joan Brown’s Egyptian-flat figures, Robert Arneson’s mammoth cabezas; William T. Wiley’s dunce-capped avatar scrambling across scribbled Sunday funnies landscapes, and Robert Colescott taking a Zap comics aesthetic and weaponizing it against racist rhapsodies. These and other artists are represented here. In di Rosa’s words in big letters on the wall, here is a California collection that’s “Superbly parochial, wondrously provincial.” 


4. Oakland Museum of California

It’s a multipurpose museum, a center for history, zoology, and studies of the kind of social upheaval that comes to mind when you hear the word “Oakland.” The brilliant “What’s Going On” show of 2004 included an exhibit of the graffiti of U.S. soldiers about to ship out to Vietnam, taken from the walls of the abandoned Oakland Army Terminal. California artist Binh Danh printed photos on dead leaves. These were derived from pictures he found left behind in the Malaysian refugee camp where his Vietnamese parents had been interned, after they escaped the Communists.

This brutalist concrete structure, centered around a carp pond, has a little bit of everything, including an excellent collection of century-old arts and crafts. It has a dedicated gallery to California art with work by Gold Rush–era landscape painters, abstract expressionists, and pop, minimalist and outsider artists. In the collection is a canvas by Grafton Tyler Brown, reputedly California’s first African-American artist, who did a spellbinding landscape of Yosemite radiant in dawn light. Manuel Neri and Nathan Oliveira are represented here, as is the personal collection of Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange.


5. Cantor Arts Center

Stanford University’s art museum is best known for its fine collections of Rodins, including the master sculptor’s “Gates of Hell” in the garden outside. But its recent expansion makes room for California artists including (from their permanent collection) Joan Brown’s “Family Portrait” and David Park’s “Jazz Musicians.”


6. Orange County Museum of Art

The Pasadena Museum of California Art closed a few years back, mostly because of zoning issues. OCMA is also closed right now, for a similar reason—there wasn’t much room to expand—but it has a vision for the future. When it reopens in October 2022, OCMA will be a huge new campus in Costa Mesa with 10,000 square feet of wall space, double the size of the previous location in Newport Beach.


7. Laguna Art Museum

We’ll always be grateful for stumbling into this museum during a visit to that resort town. It’s where we were introduced to the work of the late Oakland artist Hung Liu. She did immensely powerful figurative canvases–she’d been taught the art of doctrinaire western painting in China. She blurred her surfaces, with rain or tear streaks, over images of child street acrobats with forced smiles, or women slogging through daily tasks. As Auden said regarding Bruegel, about suffering she was never wrong. Writing about Liu makes her sound too sad, when there were in fact bursts of hope in her canvases, in butterflies or falcons in the margins. And her mural “Going Away, Coming Home” of cranes and calligraphed circles in Concourse B of the Oakland airport is a joyful thing to see. In 2022 the museum marked the passing of a California master with “Our Friend Wayne Thiebaud,” along with items from the permanent collection. These include seascapes from artists long ago, who realized that the south coast had all the light and beauty of the French Riviera without the high price tags.


8. Riverside Art Museum

This handsome building in Riverside’s Mission Inn district is currently hosting a show by the contemporary, East L.A.–raised artist Sonya Fe. The 60,000-square-foot Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art is scheduled to open next door in June. There’s certainly a tradition of actors as art collectors—Edward G. Robinson was a connoisseur of post-impressionism, and had a good enough eye to spot Frida Kahlo when most people were still referring to her as Mrs. Rivera, Who Also Does a Little Painting. (One of the great California works of art is Diego Rivera’s astonishing 1940 “Pan American Unity.” The mural, currently on free public display at the SFMOMA, depicts Robinson in his 1939 starring role in Confessions of a Nazi Spy.)

Cheech Marin perfected the role of amiable comedy stoner, doing for Chicano slang what Chico Marx did for Italian-American dialect. But in his spare time Marin amassed a terrific collection of work by Latino artists from California and Texas, which is now at last going to be seen by the public. Parts of it had been displayed at San Francisco’s DeYoung in 2006, enough to make you want to see more. Artists slated for the opening include Patssi Valdez, who tweaks Spanish colonial art, and two members of the Chicano collective Los Four: founder Gilbert “Magu” Luján and that limner of Echo Park and LA in flames, Carlos Almaraz.


9. Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art

The field of 20th-century California art is “woefully understudied,” says LA Times art critic Christopher Knight in his 2017 piece about the Gerald E. Buck Collection, which is the centerpiece of this UC Irvine art gallery. Buck was a Southern California oilman turned developer who once accepted a Van Dyke as payment for a job, Like J. Paul Getty, he got the collecting bug. This low-profile collector amassed a trove of 3,200 works of art, including pieces by Joan Brown, Hockney, Ruth Azawa, Ruscha and Diebenkorn—including that last named artist’s symphonically brown abstraction from nature, “Albuquerque.”

Opening in June 2022 is “Variations on Place: Southern California Impressionism in the Early 20th Century.” Area painters of 100 years ago correctly guessed that the pines, palms and mountains of this then-paradiscal area could be depicted in the style of Cezanne and Matisse.


10. Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University

The Southern California art scene continues to heat up as this six-year-old Orange County university’s gallery commences its expansion. An exhibit of the art of animator Chuck Jones and of figurative artist Bradford J. Salamon closes in May of 2022 as the museum moves into temporary quarters in the city of Orange. When reopened, the Hilbert Museum will continue its focus on “representational art.” (Chapman is sort of a Christian-aligned college in a conservative part of the world.) That said, the collection is eclectic, from the sweet, appealing mid-century work of Disney designer Mary Blair to plein-air pieces by Corona del Mar seascape artist Rex Brandt.


11. Et cetera...

Though it’s a bit dated, Artcyclopedia.com has a roster of other distinctly Californian museums, galleries and site-specific arts. Items include Niki de Saint Phalle’s serpentine “Queen Califia’s Magical Circle” sculpture garden in sunny Escondido, and a museum at Glendale’s Forest Lawn, aka “The Disneyland of the Dead.” This artsy necropolis, the last stop for dozens of big-name movie stars, featured a discreetly fig-leafed replica of Michelangelo’s David that keeps being replaced after it keels over and shatters. This happenstance is usually driven by earthquakes, but not always. Far steadier is an impressively cinematic cyclorama of the Crucifixion.

Forest Lawn’s well-curated on-campus museum forsakes the classical in favor of a quite intriguing show of treated photographs by Matthew Brandt, one which memorializes the toppled David, on view in the spring and summer of 2022.


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