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Bufano's Lively Split Personality

By Thomas Albright
February 25, 1982

 

Benjamino Bufano holds a curious niche in the history of Bay Area art: widely beloved by people who, as they say, know what they like, somewhat less highly respected by the cognoscenti of the establishment.

The public affection always extended as much to Bufano's personality as to his art --- his humanitarianism and populism, his elfin clownishness and cantankerousness (as a member of the San Francisco Art Commission in the 1940s, he tried to set up a rival orchestra to the San Francisco Symphony, and lured Leopold Stokowski and Igor Stravinsky here to conduct pop concerts), as well as to a somewhat more dubious persona that he cultivated with such stories as having posed for the Indian's profile on the old buffalo nickel, or chopping off his trigger and sending it to President Wilson as a pacifist gesture in World War I.

Such high-profile behavior --- together with Bufano's very popularity at a time when it was considered almost a hallmark of "serious" art that it be widely disliked or misunderstood --- did not sit too well with the official art world while Bufano was alive. Alfred Frankenstein wrote in the Chronilce, shortly after Bufano died in 1970, that he "could never decide if he wanted to be a sculptor or a town character, [and] his performance in the second of these assignments often interfered with his performance in the first.

Something of a Bufano resurrection is now happening, with a sizable show in the lobby of the Ordway building in Oakland's Kaiser Center, and another collection of his work scheduled to open to the public shortly in the new Embarcadero West building on Fourth Street. The latter includes the Bufano mosaics that used to struggle against the gloom of the old Moar's cafeteria on Powell Street, which have returned here for a permanent home after repining for the past six years in a Modesto warehouse.

The Oakland show, sponsored by the Bufano Sculpture Park, a nonprofit group trying to enlist support for a Bufano museum, contains thirty-nine pieces that form a fairly good cross section of Bufano's work. There are monumental sculptures and miniature ones, in stone, wood and stainless steel, with and without inlays of mosaic. There are St. Francises and animals.

The earliest sculpture, a 1938 Penguin With Nursing Chick in wood combined with mosaic and stainless steel, is already the prototypical Bufano, in theme and in its streamlined, stripped-down forms. On the other hand, a 1946 piece represents a rare venture into total abstraction, a simple V-shape in gleaming stainless steel ---  although the title makes clear that Bufano thought of these up-reaching, winglike shapes as a representation of The Crufixion.

Even at this late date, when pluralism has weakened the temptation to asses virtually everything in terms of its impact on what we think of as art history, and without Bufano himself in the way, his art elicits mixed feelings. In his forms, as in his social philosophy, Bufano was very much an artist of his times --- basically, the 1930s. His themes were those of the antiwar and labor movements: peace, unity, brotherhood. His style was art Deco --- a melting pot of derivations from ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Assyrian and pre-Columbian art, together with borrowings from Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic, recast into the powerfully simplified forms passed on from Cubism by way of artists like Amádée Ozenfant and Fernand Léger.

Art Deco often has been seen as simply a debased, popularized dilution of avant-garde forms, Modernism with its cutting edge rounded off. But while the wild range of its borrowings frequently amounted to little more than a desperate escape into exoticism, there also was a sense in which its rampant eclecticism reflected a serious search for an international artistic language, a visual Esperanto. In this, it carried forward one of the central missions of the most rigorous apostles of Modern art, from Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian to the Bauhaus, which was to create models for a new social order based on reason and right relations.

The line is sometimes awfully thin between such idealism and simple sentimentality, and sentimentality was Bufano's most frequent pitfall. By the 1930s, it had become apparent that, if art were to have the broad impact that the earlier Modernists had sought, its message would have to be spelled out more explicitly than abstract arrangements of squares and rectangles.

Bufano often spelled out ideas all too clearly --- especially when he added little mosaic inserts to his sculptures. On the other hand, once in a while Bufano was able to make his mosaic inlays really work, as they do in the elaborately neo-Byzantine tree-of-life that adorns the skirt of monumental bronze of St. Francis from 1960, which is totally absorbed into the primitively form, awesome scale --- and an almost medieval feeling of unfeigned religiosity --- of the figure itself.

He was most consistent by far in his animals. Beyond all else, Bufano's art was a search for innocence, and, not unlike Franz Marc in his paintings before the First World War, he found in the simplicity and self-containment of the world of animals his most appropriate subjects and forms.

Bufano's animals, to be sure, are not icons symbolizing a pantheistic identification with the elemental energies of nature; even his bears and walruses are gentle, civil creatures whose natural habitat is the urbane setting of city parks and the entryways to civic buildings.

But there is a wonderful purity and composure to the best of these pieces. Their forms, stripped down to the barest essentials, mirror perfectly the innocence and serenity that Bufano sought to express. No one can fail to respond to a piece like Porcupine, a mere sphere of stone with a tapering head peering from beneath the ridge of a polished carapace, on a level of sheer, childlike wonder and delight.

This uncomplicated kind of response is not as highly valued by the art world as it is by the public. But it is certainly a legitimate one, honestly achieved.

If Bufano has been too indiscriminately praised by the populace, he also has been much underestimated by art officialdom. But he may well have preferred to remain widely loved than more narrowly respected, and perhaps his reputation will be better safeguarded that way. As the changing fashions of official art in recent years have made clear, the art establishment can be far more fickle in its tastes than the public

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Hennessey, Beverly. "Bufano's Lively Split Personality." On Art and Artist: Essays
     By Thomas Albright. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1989), pp. 104-105.


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