This January, Ralph Borge, a monumental symbolic realist who was an influential teacher of artists in the Bay Area for 40 years, will be honored by a retrospective at the Hearst Art Gallery of St. Mary’s College of California. He passed away a year ago at 87, leaving behind a stunning collection of work that shows his vast range and command of media from melancholy figures to elegant landscapes and mysterious interiors filled with symbols of everyday life.
Borge was a Guggenheim fellowship recipient who taught at Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) for 40 years. He also exhibited at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
His influence on mid and late 20th century figurative art, especially that of Northern California, cannot be overstated. Through his four decades as a professor of drawing and painting at CCAC, he “served as a model for generations who have followed,” says Stephen Beal, its president. His style of symbolic realism ranged from social realism to surrealism at times, setting him apart in the Bay Area Figurative School of artists.
“It would take a few pencil strokes and words of advice from Ralph to make my drawings come to life,” recalls Jim Whiteaker, former Borge student, Hearst Exhibitions Designer, and curator of the exhibition, “I think of him every time I pick up a pencil or a brush.”
To support his thesis, Whiteaker has also assembled an impressive collection of works by CCAC alumni who studied with Borge: Don de Viveiros, Jack Ford, Richard Gayton, Pam Glover, Gerald Gooch, Fred Kling, Philip Linhares, chief curator of the Oakland Museum of California, Richard McLean, Jack Mendenhall, Kim Mendenhall, Vincent Perez, James Torlakson, and Jim Whiteaker. Paintings by Martha Borge, the artist’s widow and noted painter and teacher, are also in the exhibition.
For the first time, all fourteen of Borge’s symbolic realist paintings will be on view, along with portraits, landscapes, drawings, including the “lovers” series, and studies for many of the paintings on view. “Paradox,” perhaps Borge’s most famous work, was praised by a Time Magazine art critic in a 1962 review of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition. It depicts a nude black man and white woman puzzlingly placed in a wheat field with a tombstone turned scarecrow and a mirror without reflection. In “Autumn Journey” an elderly wool-coated woman in a tiny dinghy reflectively holds the guiding oars seemingly afloat on a sea of clouds sprinkled with fallen leaves.
As viewers explore Borge’s mastery of color, brushstroke, perspective, technical virtuosity, keen powers of observation, and unusual and re-occurring juxtaposition of elements — broken mirrors, fallen leaves, collapsing facades, masks, portraits, and water – his importance and uniqueness to 20th century Northern California art history and pedagogy can be immediately grasped.
The artist and his family moved to Point Reyes Station where he found inspiring beauty in California’s coastal landscape. Later in life, he created wonderfully dramatic paintings that are both realistic and subtly interpretive, with strong technique and subtle and sophisticated refinement of color. Several are shown in the exhibition.
The art collection at the college originated in the early part of the 20th century, with the first gallery opening in 1934. The present Hearst Art Gallery, built in 1977 with a grant from the Hearst Foundation, serves both the Saint Mary’s College community and the public. Exhibitions and events are enhanced by a wonderful group of volunteers who assist with all aspects of museum operations and members whose generous support makes many programs and publications possible.
OPENING DAY EVENTS : Sunday, January 17, 2-3 p.m. Panel discussion, moderated by Vincent Perez, with Philip Linhares, chief curator, Oakland Museum of California, Richard McLean, Jack Mendenhall, and Borge’s son, Jason. Reception following, from 3 to 5 p.m., with Martha Borge and many of the other artists in attendance. Musicians Julian Smedley and Michéle Borge, daughter of the artist, will perform during the reception.
Exhibition Hours: Wednesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Admission: $3 adult; children and students free; free parking
Web site: www.hearstartgallery.org
E-mail Nancy Ewart at email@example.com