(Published on the KPBS arts blog, Culture Lust, May 10, 2010)
By Dave Hampton
The six-year span from 1959 to 1964 was a breakthrough period for new art in San Diego. During this time, the Art Center in La Jolla (now Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego) under director Don Brewer began to focus its exhibition program on contemporary art – a choice that threatened to alienate the organization’s conservative benefactors. The proto-museum opened a school with full time faculty of artists and launched a series of major annual exhibitions of current California painting and sculpture… all before the UCSD campus opened and Interstate 5 was complete.
This brief epoch was full of promise, as the Art Center drew some of the area’s best artists to La Jolla with teaching gigs, residencies and exhibition opportunities. For a little while, two lively art galleries, supported by the pool of Art Center talent, operated right next door to each other on La Jolla Boulevard, just south of Pearl St.
Between them, the Art Works Gallery and the i Gallery represented San Diego’s avant garde, and while each was connected to the scene at the Art Center, both short-lived enterprises reflected the legendary personalities of their owners: Lou Sander and Marlene Williams, two people who brought San Diego face-to-face with the new.
In June of 1962, Louis M. Sander opened the Art Works gallery on Adams Avenue with a show of oil paintings and drawings by Richard Allen Morris. The gallery then followed with a controversial show of mixed media “X Signs” by painter John Baldessari.
In a review of the Baldessari show, Dr. Armin Kietzmann, the San Diego Union’s art writer, reported that one of the pieces, “X Sign for a Crucifixion,” involved “waste materials, paint smears and a ragdoll nailed to a splintered post.” In defense of his work, Baldessari suggested that “brutal means evoke the Crucifixion more sincerely, perhaps, than a small golden cross worn round the neck.”
Baldessari is the most famous artist to have emerged from the San Diego mid-century art community. While teaching at Southwestern College (and later at UCSD) he explored conceptual art with his friends, Bob Matheny, Russell Baldwin and Richard Allen Morris, and fueled the growing movement on the West Coast.
The Morris and Baldessari shows established Art Work’s “rebel spirit” (Kietzmann’s term) and Sander’s outstanding eye for local talent. Sander himself was an enigmatic and colorful guy. “He was a little bit of an operator,” remembers painter Karen Kozlow, an Art Center student who later married Sander.
That’s a little bit of an understatement.
Sander juggled artists (and sometimes their wives or girlfriends); finances (sometimes his wives or girlfriend’s); and gallery shows that contributed to the modern art breakthrough in San Diego, with an avid interest in psychedelics.
“He had this wild side, but he was really, really a wonderful person” says Kozlow. “When I first met him I thought he was a big wig from New York and I was going to get very famous.”
Kozlow, who became romantically involved with Sander, helped finance the gallery’s move to La Jolla a year later. But Sander and Co. were still on Adams Avenue when Marlene Williams, the striking wife of painter Guy Williams, decided in June of 1963 to open the i Gallery on La Jolla Boulevard, not far from the Art Center where her husband was teaching.
“Marlene was a pistol!” remembers Kozlow. “She was smart and had marvelous taste and a good business sense.”
“She was very energetic and could operate in the art scene’s political milieu,” recalls painter Fred Holle. His fellow Art Center colleague Don Dudley says she “had ambitions to be something more than just Guy Williams’ wife.”
Marlene was ambitious. Her plan was to show the work of top-notch contemporary artists from New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles side by side with her own “stable” of local hotshots. In retrospect, her 32-artist opening show was the most significant contemporary art exhibition put on by a commercial gallery in San Diego at the time.
Along with local painters, Williams presented now-iconic 20th Century artists like Sam Francis, Richard Diebenkorn, Louise Nevelson, and Peter Voulkos together for the first time in San Diego.
By the time he moved in next door to the i Gallery, Lou Sander also represented a solid group of local painters, including Kozlow, Fred Holle and Sheldon Kirby from the Art Center, Cliff McReynolds and the German-born Fred Hocks (a respected elder statesman of modern art in San Diego). When Kozlow won an award at the Third Art Center Annual of California Painting and Sculpture for her painting “Cradled Light,” Lou Sander accepted it on behalf of his gallery. She “was the first woman artist given an award” in the prestigious series of annuals.
Not to be outdone by Williams’ big opening, Sander brought Ed Ruscha, Wayne Thiebaud, Billy Al Bengston and other major California artists to his La Jolla gallery for a west coast pop art show called “Six More Plus One.” After a couple of months in La Jolla, the mercurial Lou Sander changed the name of his gallery from Art Works to the Sander Gallery.
The two galleries only lasted for about a year – a short, but heady run.
“Oh, it was fun!” recalls Kozlow. “We had openings on the same night and the Jefferson Gallery joined in with us. We had a little La Jolla art scene! There was no animosity at all, we were just so glad to be trying to do art together and I liked Marlene, we were good friends.”
Shows from both galleries were reviewed in Artforum magazine, the upstart west coast art bible, which consecrated the La Jolla scene with its acknowledgment, even if the reviews themselves were lukewarm.
According to painter Don Dudley, John and Carol Baldessari were married at the i Gallery “in a wonderfully Dadaist ceremony/ performance.” For Richard Allen Morris’s solo show, proprietor Marlene Williams was photographed pushing the artist, her “product,” down La Jolla Boulevard in a shopping cart. Morris was close friends with Guy and Marlene Williams and after that couple left for Los Angeles, Lou Sander and Karen Kozlow “took over feeding Richard,” says Kozlow.
Late 1964 marked the end of an era. Major changes took place at the Art Center. The school closed and the program of juried annual exhibitions was discontinued as the institution evolved into the La Jolla Museum of Art.
Artists who had lent such vitality to the La Jolla scene: Holle, McClain, Dudley and Guy Williams, left San Diego permanently when their Art Center jobs ended abruptly. La Jolla Boulevard’s miniature gallery row collapsed.
The i Gallery closed first, in true period fashion. “It closed with a happening,” Kozlow says. “Aida Fries (wife of painter Bob Fries) was in a trunk in her belly dance outfit and John Baldessari’s wife Carol was sitting in a chair with a stack of pancakes on her lap. And then they opened the trunk and Aida got out and did belly dance. Those are the main things I remember.”
After closing their gallery, Sander and Kozlow (now married) lived in Pacific Beach. He took a day job to support them while they made films, staged poetry readings and held a variety of exhibitions. The most publicized of these was an unusual 1965 exhibition of nine artists’ work displayed in model units at the new Loma Riviera townhouse development called “New Art in Living Space.” John Baldessari, Richard Allen Morris, Karen Kozlow, Cliff McReynolds, Susan Long, Bob Fries and Ed Carillo were among the featured artists.
Later, Kozlow and Sander founded an artist’s retreat/commune east of Alpine where late-60’s art happenings met transcendental meditation. Sander had become an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church and their remote, five-acre Ulife Institute was described by artist Bob Matheny in 1968 as both an “informal artist’s cooperative” and a “non-sectarian church” set amongst “good oaks, clean air and handsome rock formations.” Kozlow and Sander’s marriage was also a bit rocky by then and shortly after their divorce the Pine Valley Fire of 1970 swept over the property, consuming all of Kozlow’s paintings.
Before the fire, Sander started working at the Post Office, where he was subsequently elected American Postal Workers Union Local President in 1975. He later married the artist Ellen Van Fleet and they moved to Sacramento.
Years after his gallery relationship with Sander, Richard Allen Morris was approached at his Spanish Village studio by an F.B.I. agent who questioned him about Sander. There was “no joking, no smiling” and the artist assumed it had to do with drugs. “I clammed up,” Morris remembers. The agent left his card.
Sander continued to represent artists and sell privately. His diverse interests took him around the world and he died in a puzzling airplane crash on a runway in Seoul, Korea in 1980. He had apparently changed his name to Ray Van Fleet.
Kozlow and Sander remained close after their divorce, and for years after the reports of his death, she had the feeling that he might still appear one day out of nowhere.
“That,” she says, “would be just like Lou.”