LEONARD BREGER AT THE SANDRA LEE GALLERY
Beware of nonagenarians.
You know the art is good if the paintings on the wall seem more alive than the people looking at them.
The Sandra Lee Gallery, 251 Post Street, Suite 310, San Francisco, is currently presenting a marvelous, magical retrospective of paintings by Leonard Breger—a nonagenarian San Francisco painter about whom everyone says, “Why isn’t this man better known?” The paintings on display range from seriocomic portraits (a “naked” image of Gertrude Stein, who has one yellow breast, a “naked” image of Sigmund Freud, who has “Mom” in a heart on his arm) to beasties, to strange amalgamations of fascinating whatnots—all loving valentines to vehement imaginative freedom, which is in fact this artist’s true subject.
Leonard Breger was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1920. He has lived and taught in the San Francisco Bay Area for over fifty years. In the late 1950s, working with his students at Lick-Wilmerding High School, he was one of the originators of light-show performances. Though he has retired from classroom teaching, he continues to conduct Master-class Critique groups. And at ninety plus he continues to paint with as much enthusiasm as an over-active teenager in love with the possibility of Art.
The defining event for Breger occurred in 1965—one of those transformational Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me experiences which sometimes occur to people in mid-life. He was visiting the Altamira caves in Spain. A tour guide simulated firelight by gently moving his flashlight back and forth and up and down the walls of the cave. “Suddenly,” says Breger, “the bison came alive, prancing across the ceiling, breathing and snorting…I felt that I had been transported to that cave some thirty thousand years ago.” “I was,” he says, “overcome by the organic relationship between the shapes of the painted animals and the convolutions of the walls and ceilings. I was transported, and felt at-one with those pre-historic artists.”
Even before the trip to Spain, Breger had begun to question whether paintings “necessarily had to be encased flat in rectangles.” Altamira gave him a new conception. The cave artists “were not hampered by making any artificial and limiting presumption in design. The given shapes of walls and ceilings afforded, guided, and directed the shapes of their visual images. Why could not my shapes be dictated by the urgency of the images, the content of my paintings? It was a revelation, a challenge and a release.”
Breger’s revelation meant a complete break with the rectangle—with the painting as window or mirror. His paintings engage the surrounding space in an entirely different way. Painting on masonite which he is free to cut out in any way he chooses, his forms move all over the wall. They seem almost organic—flowers, plants—rather than paintings as such, and they thrust themselves at the eyes of the viewer with a kind of amorous aggression. You may not “like” them, you may not even “understand” them, but by God they are not to be denied. They are there in all their lunacy—what might be called their lunafructification.
The Sandra Lee Gallery exhibition has the added attraction of little pieces of paper hanging on the walls near the paintings. These pieces of paper have scrawled on them—like graffiti—some of Leonard Breger’s wisdom-wisecracks, Bregerean fortune cookies distributed at random. Remarks like “Tromp Loy”—Myrna’s brother?—“and I wish I could spell it”; “When I come to a fork in the road, I pick it up”; “You wish you had bought real estate many years ago—you will wish you had bought my art now”; “This [“Sentiment”] was generated over fifty years ago”; “Not ‘what is art’ but ‘what does art do?’”
Leonard Breger is an engaging and witty speaker, and he will give a talk at the gallery on Tuesday, November 16, 5:30-7:30. It will certainly be interesting, but the main thing is the paintings. You can see reproductions at the gallery’s web site—
but that’s a little like seeing reproductions of people. The paintings are the point. Plato would be surprised, amused, and perhaps a little shocked to see what is happening in the particular “cave” located at 251 Post Street, Suite 310, San Francisco. “At this advanced period of my life,” writes Breger, “I look back on the wealth of my experiences.”