Dada at Vroman’s


(Published on the KPBS arts blog, Culture Lust, December 14, 2009)
By Dave Hampton

In the curious pantheon of obscure, local mid-century art venues, a place called Vroman’s holds a lofty position. It wasn’t a gallery. It wasn’t a museum. Vroman’s was a bookstore that gave many of the young lions of San Diego painting a chance to exhibit when most of the commercial galleries (and there weren’t many – we’re talking late 1950s) wouldn’t go near them.

Located in the old Southern Hotel building, the store was owned by a Pasadena chain of the same name. The San Diego branch at 1153 Sixth Avenue was an elegant place where businessmen and artists crossed paths. There was a basement full of paperbacks and an ‘L’ shaped mezzanine with art supplies and enough room to hang “modest” art shows.

In 1958, new manager John Storm became an unintended champion of local modernist painters and sculptors. A robust man, Storm also authored eight books, including a novel about the artist Suzanne Valadon, who was the mother of Maurice Utrillo.

Storm felt that American art was becoming “increasingly important” and decided to promote this idea at a local level. In July of 1958, Storm agreed to let artist Guy Williams exhibit abstract paintings on the mezzanine. The show was a success, several pieces sold, and Williams began to suggest future shows.

Richard Allen Morris c. 1959

For one of San Diego’s most respected painters, Richard Allen Morris, who has been celebrated in Europe and New York of late, Vroman’s remains significant for a couple of reasons. Morris had one of his first solo exhibitions there, called “Dada Comes to San Diego,” and it’s the place where his 50-year career in downtown bookstores began.

“I had no idea I would earn money to sustain my painting through books,” Morris observed recently. He subsequently worked at the Bargain Bookstore, the Lanning Bookshop, and Wahrenbrock’s, the last of the downtown independents, which closed earlier this year.

Morris eventually took over for Williams and began to work on the art exhibits. “The job came out of the blue; Guy approached me and I said, ‘sure’! He mentioned to John that I needed a gig, so I gladly waltzed right into that.”

The series of exhibitions focused on youthful artists that were progressive, even shocking, by San Diego post-war standards. They included Fred Holle, Sheldon Kirby, Don Dudley, James Hubbell, Ray Trail, Fred Hocks, Conrad Woods and Malcolm McClain. Although not household names, this lot helped put the word ‘contemporary’ in the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.

The Enigma of Dada, a mixed media work by Richard Allen Morris

A year after Guy Williams’ inaugural show, Morris presented a bold and humorous collection of his own works on the mezzanine: art-referential constructions such as “The Action Painter of Dada Place” and “A Cool Old Painter” that involved art studio debris, cigarettes and a running record player and a self-portrait of Rembrandt decorated with sun glasses. The young artist’s show was radical for San Diego in 1959, even though its concept (Dada) was forty years old!

Keep in mind that San Diego was still primarily a Navy and aerospace town in the late 1950s and very conservative toward art. Jews were actually prevented from living in La Jolla at the time. How many art-minded San Diegans in 1959 were ready to trade the landscape above the hearth for Morris’s “Mercury In Flight” (a rocking chair hung upside down)? How many would make that choice now?

Although painter Fred Holle thinks he “actually sold a couple of pieces” at Vroman’s, Richard Allen Morris was doubtful when asked about sales from the mezzanine shows. “That’s kind of sad because I don’t remember, while I was there, that I ever sold one thing! Whether there were sales or not John Storm stood behind it. He wasn’t worried about the sales… he was worried about the exposure for these people – for these artists.”

Malcolm McClain exhibition at Vroman’s, 1961

Don Dudley was another dynamic painter who also worked at Vroman’s and showed there in March of 1959. Dudley remembers that Storm “…was a pleasure to be around. He was literate and sophisticated. Had I been given the choice he would have been my father.”

How Storm managed to pull all this off is uncertain, considering San Diego’s attitude toward contemporary art, but he was known as an astute businessman and a “veteran bookman.” Dudley offers this frank explanation: “(Storm) was a friend to most of the artists I knew; he offered the walls because he was bored with managing someone else’s business.”

Storm died suddenly of heart problems on December 21st, 1959. He wasn’t even 50 years old. The momentum generated by Storm kept the art shows going for a couple of years, but Vroman’s closed its San Diego store in 1962.

We could have done with a handful of John Storms.