Raymond Saunders Returns

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Raymond Saunders. Untitled. 61.125” x 59.875”. Photo: Courtesy of Casemore Kirkeby

Award-winning contemporary artist Raymond Saunders has chosen two San Francisco galleries as sites for his first solo exhibition in more than a decade.

A major figure in contemporary art, Saunders graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from the California College of the Arts in 1961, where he went on to teach, and has been bicoastal and bicontinental for much of his career, living and working in New York, Oakland, and Paris. 

By 1980, Saunders had been awarded a Prix de Rome, Guggenheim Fellowship, and published his influential essay “Black is a Color,” which argued that the critical emphasis on a Black artist’s skin color was limiting, rather than liberating.

His new exhibition, 40 Years: Paris/Oakland, is co-presented by Casemore Kirkeby in Dogpatch, and Andrew Kreps Gallery South-of-Market. The show features several works from the artist’s studios in the titular cities, many on view for the first time in the United States. Saunders’ inability to precisely date many of the pieces speaks to his process: most of the paintings on view have been in the works, on and off, throughout the past four decades.

The works on view at Casemore Kirkeby are split between two rooms in the gallery. The first exhibits large-scale figurative and abstract paintings – sometimes within a single canvas – and resonates with frenetic energy. The second, smaller, space is dedicated to more delicate floral studies. The first room is gratifyingly unified by certain visual elements: the background of each canvas is a thick coat of black paint, on top of which disparate visual elements dance and collide, Saunders repeatedly returning to the same motifs. Nearly every image contains the chalk outline of a woman’s head in profile, one or more birds, and several pieces of fruit. 

Saunders incorporates contemporary imagery and references, too. A Flash Gordon comic strip and newspaper advertisements are pasted into one composition; a French traffic sign has been nailed to another canvas. In one piece, Saunders has scrawled a list of names: Ella, Monk, Nina, Train; a coded ode to seminal jazz artists. The incorporation of these influences, from the painting tradition to the daily paper, and Saunders’ frenetic, abstract style, make each canvas feel like an explosion of the artist’s consciousness.

This visual similarity of each painting, paired with the lack of titles, suggests that each painting is an extension of the last, a body of work greater than the sum of its parts. Observed as a 40-year production, the series becomes diaristic, a record of the artist’s daily practice of recording his consciousness through mark-making. This window into Saunders’ mind becomes a reflection pool for our own thoughts, not restricted to a single interpretation. “The reality of truth,” Saunders said in a 1994 interview, “is that there’s variability.”

Saunders’ influences are clear, from Dadaist collaging and the geometric abstraction of Modernism, to his contemporaries, such as Cy Twombly. His own style has been recognizably aped by other major figures, like Jean-Michel Basquiat. This roots Saunders in a tradition while also placing him within art history, a canonical recognition few artists live long enough to see themselves acquire. The feeling is one of a progenitor fully assuming his place in history and staking a claim in the present.

40 Years: Paris/Oakland is on view at Casemore Kirkeby, at the Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota Street, and Andrew Kreps Gallery, 657 Howard Street through June 12.