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