Looking for San Francisco artist circa 1990
December 4, 2019 11:47 PM   Subscribe

In 1990 I spent a few weeks in San Francisco (at the end of 3 months in Alaska). One day I met an artist on Telegraph Hill and ended up staying with him a few days somewhere in the Castro or Mission (street name was something like Birmingham or Portsmouth, but I've not been able to refind it).

He had a range of his own work (some vast paintings that were 'meant to look like a long-buried archaeological artifacts' - a heavy Robert Smithson feel to it in late retrospect; constructions -se link below; he also made films and introduced me to alt performance\theatre). I only have one art image from that time, but it gives an idea.

I also have an image of him exiting his double-width front door but don't think it appropriate to post that in case it still exists. Address was 540 some-street-i've-forgotten-the-name of, and door was like a Pollack painting - but more blue than lavender.

Oh and have just remembered, he was also an amazing harpsichord player and masseur.

I really just want to know who he was as had a profound effect on what I've done with life since.
posted by unearthed to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
We could use some more solid clues.

Why not edit the doorway picture to remove details that you think may be inappropriate and share that - that could be a big help.

What was the age and type of building? How much space did the artist have?

Do you recall any nearby stores, or what was visible from the windows?

What was the age of the artist?
posted by Glomar response at 7:50 AM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Could it have been William Mitchell? He did this for BART. The timing might be off, as Mitchell's SF stuff is from the 1980s and he would have been 65 in 1990.
posted by chavenet at 7:56 AM on December 5, 2019

Assuming the address number is actually 540 (and it seems likely that that's right, because you have a picture), you can download the list of all addresses in San Francisco from DataSF. In particular there are 136 addresses at 540 (whatever) street, which I've listed below according to the "neighborhood" that the system puts them in. Maybe something here rings a bell? I've bolded the Mission and Castro and some adjacent neighborhoods.

(Of course, having the address doesn't get you the answer but it would be a step in the right direction, at least.)

Bayview Hunters Point: Blanken, Griffith, Hudson
Bernal Heights: Barneveld, Bartlett, Silver
Castro/Upper Market: Alvarado, Capp, Elizabeth, Shotwell, Valencia

Chinatown: Grant, Greenwich, Lombard, Market
Excelsior: Brunswick, Cordova, Justin
Financial District/South Beach: California, Davis, Delancey, Kearny, Montgomery, Powell, Sutter
Glen Park: 27th, Clipper, Melrose
Golden Gate Park: Ashbury, Cole, Irving, Shrader
Haight Ashbury: Clayton, Fillmore, Haight, Page, Roosevelt, Scott, Waller
Hayes Valley: Baker, Hayes
Inner Richmond: 06th, 07th, 15th, Balboa, Clement, Lake
Inner Sunset: Belvedere, Magellan, Rivera
Lakeshore: Arballo, Crestlake
Lincoln Park: 38th, 42nd, 43rd
Lone Mountain/USF: 02nd, 04th, Arguello, Parker, Spruce
McLaren Park: Dwight
Mission: Arkansas
Mission Bay: Mission Bay, Texas, Wisconsin
Nob Hill: Bush, Jones, Leavenworth, Ofarrell, Stockton
Noe Valley: 28th, 29th, 30th, Castro, Hill, Liberty, Noe
North Beach: Broadway, Filbert, Green, Jackson, Pacific, Union, Vallejo, Washington
Oceanview/Merced/Ingleside: Darien, Miramar, Wildwood
Outer Mission: Arlington, Circular, Laidley
Outer Richmond: 10th, 19th, 20th, 21st, 30th, 34th, 36th, 40th, 45th, Funston
Portola: Alemany
Potrero Hill: Alabama, De Haro, Hampshire, Mississippi, Potrero
Presidio: Presidio
Russian Hill: Francisco, North Point
Seacliff: 24th, 26th, 27th, 28th, El Camino Del Mar
South of Market: 09th, 10th, Howard
Tenderloin: Natoma
Twin Peaks: Douglass, Oak Park
Visitacion Valley: Argonaut
West of Twin Peaks: Junipero Serra, Ortega, Ramsell, San Juan, Urbano, Victoria
Western Addition: Broderick, Fell, Laguna, Oak, Turk, Van Ness
posted by madcaptenor at 8:14 AM on December 5, 2019 [7 favorites]

I am certain there are people in San Francisco who could identify this artist based on the one image. But I'm not sure who. Did he sell his works commercially? If so you could try the local galleries.

That list of street addresses from madcaptenor is great. I took a quick look on Google Street View for the Bernal/Castro/Potrero/Mission addresses and 540 Alvarado stood out as having a double door (the garage). Possibly also 540 Shotwell. You might want to spend 30 minutes going through them all though, maybe one will ring a bell.
posted by Nelson at 8:29 AM on December 5, 2019

540 Arlington also has a double door for the garage.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:59 AM on December 5, 2019

You way want to try to reach out to V. Vale at RE/SEARCH. His contact info is at the top of this page: researchpubs.com/about. Since the '70s, he's been involved in the arts, counterculture, underground, etc in San Francisco and may have a lead as to the identity of the artist based on your post. Good luck!
posted by montbrarian at 9:38 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

The late David Beck?
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:42 AM on December 5, 2019

Another person who might be able to help is Alan Bamberger - he has been involved in the SF art scene forever and knows everyone. I think you can find contact details on his website.
posted by pilot pirx at 10:09 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

front doors

The building was an old warehouse, had a ground level with two or three floors above. Access was an old-fashioned cage freight lift in centre of building.

One time we walked to a nearby theatre and watched a live performance, very avant garden and all new to me at the time.

Studio was in apartment and apartment area was quite large, probably 25m x 30m.

He was 60-ish I'd say

I used to walk down hill (directly?) onto Market Street. Memory is a funny thing as I feel sure it was on the south side of Market St.

The idea of the street being an English city name now feels more like a sense impression of something familiar so that might not be helpful.

via chavenet's BART link I found this - "william Mitchell a british artist who" - Maybe, the works looks sort of similar, but I can't recall any sense of British-ness about him, but he would have been there a while by then.

Wow - Nelson what a list - thank you. Yes I'll go through and consider them on the weekend.

not David Beck

and thanks to montbrarian and pilot pirx - I'll follow up with those two sites.
posted by unearthed at 11:34 AM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

The memory that it's a warehouse greatly narrows down buildings. Unfortunately also makes the search harder, since those kinds of buildings often go through renovations. Also those doors are very distinctive. 540 Alabama Street has some doors in a very similar style but not the exact door framing and certainly not the paint.

Of course even if you find the exact address that's only halfway to a name. The SF Public Library can probably get you the rest of the way though.
posted by Nelson at 2:05 PM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Following up on Nelson and madcaptenor's excellent investigations — I went through all the bolded "540" addresses on Street View and it looks like it's definitely 540 Alabama St. The door Nelson highlights looks new, but all the other doors in the building resemble your distinctive door.

More critically — it looks like that address has been an artist live-work community since 1972, called Developing Environments. Various articles reference the freight elevator and DIY nature of the space which matches your description, and state that a lot of the same folks have been living there for 40 years or so. I bet contacting them with your photo of the art might get you the answer you're looking for.
posted by sparkling at 8:46 PM on December 5, 2019 [14 favorites]

It's Ronald Chase! If you look on his early paintings page you'll see the piece you have a picture of. It looks like he still lives in the 540 Alabama St. building and his site has his contact info.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:26 PM on December 5, 2019 [15 favorites]

(And there's a city called Birmingham in Alabama, I wonder if that's how you ended up with that association.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:40 PM on December 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

WOW everybody, I'll come back and look at this in a couple of days as our net has crashed, so now on very little bandwidth, but just amazing.
posted by unearthed at 11:43 PM on December 5, 2019

This has got to be my most favorite askmetafilter thread ever. Amazing!
posted by gt2 at 5:52 AM on December 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thanks again everyone and especially Nelson, madcaptenor and LobsterMitten. In the course of this post I've also been able to reacquaint myself (virtually) with the parts of San Francisco I visited in 1990. It's funny what sticks in memory and what falls out! I really thought when I left 540 Alabama in the mornings that I just walked a couple of blocks and there I was on Market, so wrong I was, I've taken streetview down 17th and the intersection with Guerrero looks very familiar. Even the shape of Alabama St; I recalled it as a cul-de-sac to the east.

Nowadays I'd have a trail of images to look back on and follow the trail back, then it was a few pics a day as I already had maybe 15 rolls to process from the Alaska stage of the trip and I had spent almost everything - when I flew out of SF I had us$11 in my pocket and zero other funds.

Ronald I can recall now; great to know his work has kept advancing. I learned a lot there and looking now at Ronald's work, the very name of the complex and the work of some of the many other artists there I can see what a formative experience it was.

And LobsterMitten re Alabama\Birmingham yes I think I mixed a few places and people associations up in my head at the time and they got fixed there.

and finally monbrarian, that link to V.Vale's newsletter led me right back round to the English Village I hail from as I noticed a ref to Punk Globe that a childhood friend writes for.
posted by unearthed at 8:42 PM on December 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

I thought I was just being the Annoying Data Guy when I put together that list of addresses. I honestly didn't think it would actually be helpful!
posted by madcaptenor at 8:00 AM on December 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

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