Kauffman: Jazz and Abstract Painting
When referring to West Coast art, there’s been enough writing about sun, surf and cars. All those repeated stereotypes about L.A. art have so very little to do with the interests of Craig Kauffman—and the origins of his work. Like Tyler Green wrote in a superb post last year, the main thing that painters in Los Angeles were doing was a reaction against Abstract Expressionism, especially the works that were seen in San Francisco in the late 1950s. Bengston has stated about the Bay Area painters, “They all just kind of got stuck…in the mud.” Kauffman really made it clear: “…I was sort of reacting against what was going on there. I had gone to the San Francisco annual that year, and I really said ‘Oh, I’m just tired of all that mud stuff.” He didn’t like the heavy, thick painting and wanted to make clean paintings with very fine black lines and just a few color areas.
Ever since his high school days with friend Walter Hopps, Kauffman had also been interested in jazz, driving up as far as the Burma Lounge in Oakland to hear live concerts. Hopps and Kauffman, along with their friend Jim Newman had organized jazz concerts professionally—those gave rise for a plan to even build a concert hall. Kauffman drew the design, which owed a lot to his knowledge of architecture. Kauffman also designed the programs for the jazz performances. Concerts were in various locations in Los Angeles, including the Ebell Theater on Wilshire Blvd., and one in downtown. Kauffman, Hopps and Newman had gotten to know some of the jazz musicians, including Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan.
Jazz was a lifelong pursuit, and Kauffman’s interest is especially shown in his early abstract paintings. Take a look at the loose, lyrical and repeated line in the drawings and paintings from 1959—it’s all about improvisation within rhythm. And take a look at the bold use of color, soaring over that rhythm like a saxophone solo. Pulling the primary colors across with a palette knife, Kauffman shows the touch and skill of a jazz musician. I thought about it all this morning while listening to a cut Ruby, My Dear from an album recorded in 1957 with Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane.