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A Glimpse at San Diego’s Modernist Past

Above: I Gallery proprietor Marlene Williams pushes her "product," painter Richard Allen Morris, down La Jolla Blvd.

The six-year span from 1959 to 1964 was a breakthrough period for modern art in San Diego.

During this time, the Art Center in La Jolla (now MCASD) under director Don Brewer began to focus its exhibition program on contemporary art - a choice that many feared would alienate the organization's conservative benefactors.

The proto-museum opened a school with full-time faculty members and launched a series of major annual exhibitions of current California painting and sculpture... all before the UCSD campus opened and the completion of Interstate 5.

This brief epoch was full of promise, as the Art Center drew some of the area’s best artists to La Jolla with teaching gigs, residencies and exhibition opportunities. For a little while, two modern art galleries, supported by the pool of Art Center talent, operated right next door to each other on La Jolla Blvd., just south of Pearl St.

Between them, the Art Works Gallery and the i Gallery represented San Diego’s avant garde, and while each was connected to the scene at the Art Center, both short-lived enterprises reflected the legendary personalities of their owners: Lou Sander and Marlene Williams, two people who brought San Diego face-to-face with the new.

In June of 1962, Louis M. Sander opened the Art Works gallery on Adams Ave. with a show of oil paintings and drawings by Richard Allen Morris. The gallery then followed with a controversial show of mixed media “X Signs” by painter John Baldessari.

In a review of the Baldessari show, Dr. Armin Kietzmann, the San Diego Union’s art writer, reported that one of the pieces, “X Sign for a Crucifixion,” involved “waste materials, paint smears and a ragdoll nailed to a splintered post.” In defense of his work, Baldessari suggested that “brutal means evoke the Crucifixion more sincerely, perhaps, than a small golden cross worn round the neck.”

Baldessari is the most famous artist to have emerged from the San Diego mid-century art community. While teaching at Southwestern College (and later at UCSD) he explored conceptual art with his friends, Bob Matheny, Russell Baldwin and Richard Allen Morris, and fueled the growing movement on the West Coast.

The Morris and Baldessari shows established Art Work's “rebel spirit” (Kietzmann's term) and Sander’s outstanding eye for local talent.

Sander himself was an enigmatic and colorful guy.

“He was a little bit of an operator,” remembers painter Karen Kozlow, an Art Center student who later married Sander.

That’s an understatement. Sander juggled artists (and sometimes their wives or girlfriends), finances (sometimes his wives or girlfriend’s), and gallery shows that contributed to the modern art breakthrough in San Diego, all the while with an avid interest in psychedelics.

“He had this wild side, but he was really, really a wonderful person” says Kozlow. “When I first met him I thought he was a big wig from New York and I was going to get very famous.”

Kozlow, who became romantically involved with Sander, helped finance the gallery’s move to La Jolla Blvd. a year later.

But Sander and Co. were still on Adams Avenue when Marlene Williams, the striking wife of painter Guy Williams, decided in June of 1963 to open the i Gallery on La Jolla Blvd., not far from the Art Center where her husband was teaching.

“Marlene was a pistol!” remembers Kozlow. “She was smart and had marvelous taste and a good business sense.”

“She was very energetic and could operate in the art scene's political milieu," recalls painter Fred Holle.

Fellow Art Center colleague Don Dudley says she “had ambitions to be something more than just Guy Williams’ wife.”

Marlene was ambitious. Her plan was to show the work of top-notch contemporary artists from New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles side by side with her own “stable” of local hotshots. In retrospect, her 32-artist opening show was the most significant contemporary art exhibition put on by a commercial gallery in San Diego at the time.

Along with San Diego painters Richard Allen Morris, John Baldessari and Conrad Woods, Williams presented Guy Williams, Don Dudley and Mac McClain from the Art Center, as well as now-iconic 20th Century artists like Sam Francis, Richard Diebenkorn, Louise Nevelson, Peter Voulkos, Dennis Hopper (yes, that Dennis Hopper, Lemon Grove’s own) and many more.

By the time he moved next door to the i Gallery, Lou Sander also represented a powerhouse of local painters, including Fred Holle and Sheldon Kirby from the Art Center, Cliff McReynolds and the German-born Fred Hocks (a respected elder statesman of modern art in San Diego).

Not to be outdone by Williams’ success, Sander brought Ed Ruscha and other major California artists to his La Jolla gallery for a west coast pop art show called “Six More Plus One.” Sander also represented Los Angeles ceramic sculptor Kenneth Starbird. After a couple of months in La Jolla, the mercurial Lou Sander changed the name of his gallery from Art Works to the Sander Gallery.

The two galleries only lasted for about a year - a short, but heady run.

“Oh, it was fun!” recalls Kozlow. “We had openings on the same night and the Jefferson Gallery joined in with us. We had a little La Jolla art scene! There was no animosity at all, we were just so glad to be trying to do art together and I liked Marlene, we were good friends.”

Shows from both galleries were reviewed in ArtForum magazine, the upstart west coast art bible, which consecrated the La Jolla scene even if the reviews were at times lukewarm.

According to painter Don Dudley, John and Carol Baldessari were married at the i Gallery “in a wonderfully Dadaist ceremony/ performance.” For Richard Allen Morris’s solo show, proprietor Marlene Williams was photographed pushing the artist down La Jolla Blvd. in a shopping cart (see lead photo). Morris was close friends with Guy and Marlene Williams and after that couple left for Los Angeles, Lou Sander and Karen Kozlow “took over feeding Richard,” says Kozlow.

Late 1964 marked the end of an era. Major changes took place at the Art Center. The school closed and the program of annual exhibitions with guest judges was discontinued as the institution evolved into the La Jolla Museum of Art.

Artists who had lent such vitality to the La Jolla scene: Holle, McClain, Dudley and Guy Williams, left San Diego permanently when their Art Center jobs ended abruptly. Sheldon Kirby remained in town, but Rhoda Lopez, who taught ceramics, was the only faculty member to transition into the University of California Extension program that replaced the Art Center school. La Jolla Boulevard's miniature gallery row collapsed.

The i Gallery closed first, in true period fashion: “It closed with a happening," Kozlow says. "Aida Fries (wife of painter Bob Fries) was in a trunk in her belly dance outfit and John Baldessari’s wife Carol was sitting in a chair with a stack of pancakes on her lap. And then they opened the trunk and Aida got out and did belly dance. Those are the main things I remember!”

Marlene and Guy Williams had a volatile relationship and they both liked to drink, which brought out her temper. After they moved to L.A., she reportedly “got really mad at Guy” and destroyed some of his paintings.

“She (Marlene) said it was the best thing that ever happened to him, because it woke him up and put him in the right direction – she did it for his own sake,” remembers Kozlow.

The Williamses divorced and Marlene stayed in the of midst in the L.A. art scene, living near La Cienega and working at the David Stuart gallery. Eventually, constant smoking took a serious toll on her health and Kozlow thinks “she went south, I guess Mexico, for the sake of her breathing.”

After closing the gallery, Sander and Kozlow (now married) lived in Pacific Beach. He took a day job to support them while they made films, staged poetry readings and held a variety of exhibitions.

The most publicized of these was an unusual 1965 exhibition of nine artist's work displayed in model units at the new Loma Riviera townhouse development, called “New Art in Living Space.” John Baldessari, Richard Allen Morris, Karen Kozlow, and Cliff McReynolds were among the featured artists.

Later, Kozlow and Sander founded an artist’s retreat/commune east of Alpine where late-60’s art happenings met transcendental meditation. Sander had become an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church and their remote, five-acre Ulife Institute was described by artist Bob Matheny in a 1968 report as both an "informal artist's cooperative" and a "non-sectarian church" set amongst "good oaks, clean air and handsome rock formations." Kozlow and Sander’s marriage was also a bit rocky, and shortly after their divorce, the Pine Valley Fire of 1970 swept over the property, consuming all of Kozlow's paintings.

Before the fire, Sander began working at the Post Office, where he was subsequently elected American Postal Workers Union Local President in 1975. He later married the artist Ellen Van Fleet and they moved to Sacramento.

Years after his gallery relationship with Sander, Richard Allen Morris was approached at his Spanish Village studio by an F.B.I. agent who questioned him about Sander. There was "no joking, no smiling" and the artist assumed it had to do with drugs. "I clammed up," Morris remembers. The agent left his card.

Sander continued to represent artists and sell privately. His diverse interests took him around the world and he died in a puzzling airplane crash on a runway in Seoul, Korea in 1980. He had informally changed his name to Ray Van Fleet.

Kozlow and Sander remained close after their divorce, and for years after the reports of his death, she had the feeling that he might still appear one day out of nowhere.

"That," she says, "would be just like Lou."

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