I Left My Epiphany in San Francisco

Notes from All Over. On March 23, I flew to San Francisco to rendezvous with Francis for the second half of his spring break. I have always considered “Bagdad-by-the-Bay,” as my friend the late Herb Caen, greatest of American city columnists, nicknamed the place, to be my second city. Because my mother lived most of her postwar life there, my brother and I became regular school-vacation visitors 40-odd years ago; he in fact moved there after college and the Army and lives there still, as does our sister.

No city “shows” better on a beautiful day than San Francisco. In this particular, nothing has changed: the views remain incomparable and seductive. But downtown, the city is quite transformed atmospherically. Boom times. Fifteen years ago, 20 perhaps, San Francisco harbored visions of becoming the financial capital of this side of the Pacific Rim; but it lost out to Los Angeles. What Wells Fargo and Bank of America could not bring about, however, dot-com has, with a key push from Charles Schwab Corporation. Montgomery Street, the center of the business action, seethes and teems; you can feel the hum. It must have been like this during the 19th century Gold Rush that built the city, one imagines: all this excitement, energy, greed.

The pleasant, leisurely pace of years past-San Francisco has always maintained a good, profitable line in anachronism and nostalgia, the cable car bells still play counterpoint to the foghorns-has been quite swallowed up in the bully frenzy of the present. Not that anyone minds. Today’s money and action are too good. At work, wherever one turns there is that compulsion to squeeze every iota of time and space for the last drop of financial possibility. The real estate operators are having a field day. Crime and corruption are two of the three great enemies of civilized urban existence, and the third is realty, at least when it is-as so often-merely the licit cousin of the first two. For example, as noted in our own paper of record, there’s a scheme afoot to hand a chunk of the Presidio, the old Army base on whose golf course I was allowed to play in the early 50’s (thanks to my mother’s friendship with the commanding general, Albert Wedemeyer), to George Lucas for a film facility. What The Times failed to note was that the Presidio golf course itself has already been licensed out: to the Arnold Palmer Golf Company, the Industrial Light & Magic of golf, in a deal that still has knowledgeable folks muttering.

But who’s complaining? San Francisco is where it’s at, folks. Los Angeles? Los Angeles is nowhere, as anyone who watched The Night of the Living Dead , a.k.a. The Academy Awards, where L.A. puts its house industry on display, could quickly divine. San Francisco stands for Smart, Los Angeles for Dumb: both are awash in money, but these days everyone seems to be, so one has to look for other distinctions and gradings.

You might say the L.A.X.-S.F.O. dichotomy is a West Coast extrapolation of the distinction a stroller beside the Charles River would sense between M.I.T. and Harvard. One of the great subjects for future historians of our era will be the interesting irony that the takeover of our loftiest cultural institutions at levels high and low, elite and popular, by values centered on publicity and the box office, the so-called “dumbing down of America,” has largely been engineered by Harvard graduates. People who were supposed to have been taught better, or so they’ve told us all these years. But that’s a subject for another day.

Today, to turn a corner in San Francisco is to confront an epiphany. Francis and I encountered one such at the city’s spanking new Museum of Modern Art. This is a major retrospective of the work of Sol LeWitt, an artist at whose work I now realize I haven’t, until now, looked closely or appreciatively enough. Organized by Gary Garrels, the show will be coming to the Whitney this November. Although I can’t imagine it will look as well on Madison Avenue as it does south of Market Street, or that its transformative impact will be as great, I urge you not to miss it.

I will leave it to my colleague Hilton Kramer to do the LeWitt show his own justice when the time comes, but I have to say this: The cumulative effect of the exhibition, which centers on a number of huge, room-filling wall paintings, struck this beholder as very similar in feeling and effect to the great decorative cycles of Western painting. This is as close, I found myself thinking time and again, as postwar art is going to get to the Sistine ceiling or the great Baroque and post-Baroque schemes, religious and secular, which built on Michelangelo’s model: from the Gesu to Wurzburg. It celebrates and incarnates the sensibility of the postmodern age with an artistic power I would not have thought possible in an era I regard as generally unworthy of celebration and incapable of monumentalization on this scale, and of this quality. Doubtless the Whitney, which has long since abandoned art for vaudeville-it cannot be long before the joint’s current director, one Mr. Anderson, appears at one of his minor-celebrity-studded openings in a chicken suit-will find a way to compromise LeWitt’s achievement, but this may be beyond even the Whitney’s endlessly renewing capacity to confer mediocrity on whatever it harbors (or to invent it where none exists). I sure as hell hope so.

From San Francisco, Francis and I headed north, to Portland, to visit my No. 1 son Jeffrey, his wife Laura and my two elder grandchildren, Anna and Cooper. Portland was a revelation. This is a city that must have doubled in size in the almost 15 years since I last visited, but has managed the growth with uncommon grace. It has what I value so about where I now live in Brooklyn: The sky is always widely present, there are a lot of good bridges and the jerks are, generally, somewhere else. Speaking of which, while I was there, the Portland Oregonian (issue of March 26) carried as intelligent a critique of the current Whitney Biennial (by Randy Gragg) as I have read anywhere. Best of all, though one is always aware of the presence of blue in Portland, one is not hammered second-by-second by the clamorous ubiquity of green-as in “the green stuff.” Portland is prosperous, no doubt of that, but it remains pleasant, in a way managed by few places that have been touched by Irrational Exuberance’s fairy wand. A good place for small and quiet pleasures, for “Grandpoop” to pop his buttons with pride as Anna and a partner dispatch a cello-piano passage from Bach with panache and technique sufficient to win them “the Halfway to Haydn” award at the Waldorf School’s talent show.

We spent two days in Portland, then Francis and I drove into deep country, on Oregon’s spectacular south coast, to play golf at Bandon Dunes-but that’s a story for another time and place. A remote part of the world, but then again, thanks to the Net, “remote” is a word that has lost its meaning. Maybe it’s a good thing never (if one can’t resist) to be cut off from The New York Times or Page Six, or maybe it’s a bad thing-I personally go this way and that-but connectivity is a fact from which it is no longer possible to escape. And thus it was that I learned, over a modem hooked up to a hotel-room phone, that my favorite novelist Anthony Powell had given up the ghost.

I’ve read A Dance to the Music of Time right through, all 12 novels, four times, and I intend to do so again at least once before I finally get to meet Powell in the sky or elsewhere. Powell’s a part of me; his passing leaves me feeling diminished. On the wall of the loft hang the drawings the late Marc Boxer made for the covers of the paperback edition of Music of Time. When I returned to Brooklyn, I went and took a look at them, all those characters I know so well, the infamous Widmerpool, Mrs. Erdleigh, Sillery and the rest, and I found myself hoping that if there’s a special corner of eternity reserved for novelists, playwrights and poets, it’s a place in which they’re brought together with their creations: so that Shakespeare can be seen having a chinwag with Hamlet, and Dickens and Proust, arm in arm, taking a turn with Pickwick and Charlus, and Anthony Powell giving ear to Pamela Flitton. Then I went to the window and looked out at this miracle city, in which so much has gone so right, and where so much continues to go wrong, and was awfully glad to be back home.