Images from an Unauthorized Autobiography
By Virginia Butterfield
He lives on a quiet hillside in La Jolla, an architect-turned-artist who calls his modular glass-and-steel house on a street of traditional homes "the neighborhood savings and loan." Shrouded by foliage, it doesn’t declare its unique character until the top of the brick drive, when suddenly its purple, red, green and yellow façade announces a new sort of artistic vision inside. And sure enough, the man who greets us—all 6 feet of warmth, enthusiasm and genial energy—matches the image.
Russell Forester swings open two enormous bronze doors —originally elevator doors from the old Bank of America building in downtown San Diego. "I bought them for $30 when they were trashing the building," the 77-year-old artist says as he leads the way into a living area 20 feet high—one of the few you’ll ever see with a painting mounted on the ceiling.
"Yours?" I ask.
"No," he says, "it’s by John Baldessari. It’s about clouds, so I thought it belonged up there."
On one wall is an enormous three-part painting by Forester himself, featuring the gauze overlay that has become a part of his style. Block letters spell out various attributes, words or deeds that annoy—or even infuriate—the artist: hysterical patriots ... greed ... insider trading ... drive-by shootings ... vcr manuals. "Most of my gripes," he explains. A wooden kitchen chair is nailed to the painting. Why the chair? "I always think of an empty chair as somebody missing. It means loneliness."
Why the one-dollar bills stuck to the canvas? Forester fiddles with a switch on the side of the frame, and music issues forth—"The Best Things in Life Are Free." At the same moment tiny lights begin to twinkle through holes in the canvas and half a dozen detached mannikin hands begin to twirl. It’s art in motion.
"Would you like to see where I keep all these things I work with?" he asks, leading the way to a garage full of what looks like junk. "I traded some paintings for those mannikin parts," he says, waving toward a box on the floor. From a heap of discarded computer parts, he picks up a circuit board to admire. "People make such beautiful things and don’t even know it," he sighs.
Dozens of circuit boards cover several refrigerator-size sculptures accented with assorted odd items such as a crushed Pepsi can, a hairbrush, a mousetrap, a bottle of Tabasco, clothespins and miniature plumbing fixtures. Like the art in the living room, at the touch of a button everything comes alive—parts gyrate, lights flash, and music adds a lyrical (sometimes satirical) touch.
Counters and walls are littered with tools. Forester proclaims himself a jack of all trades, fascinated with how things work. "I have a peculiar mind. When I first took up art, I used to ask myself, ‘My God, what is the artist trying to tell me?’ Now I say, ‘My God, how does he do that?’"
I pause in wonder at how the man before me does what he does. Released from the obligation to read a message into Forester’s work, I can now simply enjoy the show. And what a show it is. Paintings, sculptures, drawings, installations—his studio houses hundreds of works. Small wonder that Tom Patchett, owner of Track 16, a major gallery in Santa Monica showing Forester’s work through May 24, was overwhelmed by his first view of all this.
Patchett had been repeatedly approached to preview the artist’s work by Dene Oliver, a San Diego developer and art collector who owns several of Forester’s paintings. But the gallery owner was always too busy. When the opening of the renovated La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art finally brought Patchett to San Diego, Oliver "kidnapped" him and drove him to Forester’s home
In a foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Patchett writes: "It wasn’t until we made a brief stop at Forester’s home—a true work of art, designed and built by Russell and his wife, Marie Christine—that I began to get an idea of the scope of Forester’s work. I entered and was still gawking at the high ceilings and marveling at the symmetry of the interior when I began to notice the paintings and drawings adorning the wall. ‘There are quite a few more?’ I asked.
"‘Oh, about 30 years’ worth.’
"I came back again—and again—and again—each time seeing another trove of treasures that amazed me—and, happily, amazed Russell as well, as I watched him looking at what he had not seen in years, rediscovering with genuine satisfaction the depth and the meaning of his own art. I have had no greater pleasure than to have shared that journey with him, and to be able to offer Russell Forester this exhibition. To me, Forester is a giant, as a human being and an artist—a humble but brilliant man, an artist without guile, possessing a deft hand, a discerning eye, a point of view, an incredible work ethic, a wellspring of passion."
HE CAME BACK every two weeks," remembers Forester, "digging in drawers and closets. I framed 150 pieces for him, and he chose 315 altogether. I was flabbergasted. It’s very unusual for a basically unknown artist to get a show of this kind."
Patchett calls Forester an "underknown" artist and counted well over 1,000 people at the March opening of "Images from an Unauthorized Autobiography"—with 160 arriving by bus from San Diego. The exhibition continues at Track 16 Gallery, a 7,000-square-foot space at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, a former industrial complex converted to art.
"Ninety-nine percent of the artists in this country don’t have exhibitions this big," says Forester. "Oh, if you’re Jasper Johns or Rauschenberg, but a great majority of artists in America never have had such a show."
What happens when 30 years of an artist’s work goes on sale to the public? Do the Foresters have second thoughts about parting with their treasures? Christine picked out 10 or 12 pieces that are special to her, but the rest definitely went on sale, with 18 pieces snapped up at the opening. An unprecedented number—according to Henry Hopkins, director of UCLA’s Armand Hammer Museum—in these days of a scaled-back market for the arts.
About parting with his art, Forester says: "You want to have your work for a little while, as a learning tool, but of course not forever. When I first started out, I had a terrible problem. If a painting was too new, I didn’t want to get rid of it."
He tells a story of a large painting for a local developer who was going on safari. "I said I’d have it ready when he came back. And by coincidence, the day I finished it, the day I laid down the brush, I went to the Pannikin to relax over a cup of coffee—and who was there? My client, just back from safari. He insisted we go right back to my house—I didn’t even get my coffee—looked at the painting, liked it, came back with a truck and four men and took that painting away, bang! I didn’t get to live with it for even five minutes."
The story ends in a twist. One of Forester’s techniques is to use unusual materials on his canvases. He bought an industrial sewing machine so he could stitch patterns into his designs. Sometimes he pulls fine threads through the canvases and ties them. And he glues strips of gauze over large sections of his paintings to add to the abstract effect. His client eventually found he didn’t have room to hang such an enormous painting in his house and donated it to Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. "I can just imagine people sitting in that waiting room, seeing the gauze and wondering which operating room it came out of," laughs Forester.
Great financial success would be a pleasant turn of events for Forester, who as a teenager took on the responsibility of supporting his younger brother when his mother, a single parent, died. After graduating from La Jolla High School, he worked as a draftsman for several architectural firms. But feeling short on formal education, he used the GI Bill to study for one year at the Chicago Institute of Design, a school strongly oriented toward the Bauhaus tradition. Except for that year in Chicago, and time spent overseas during World War II and again in the ’50s when he helped design Air Force bases in Spain, he has lived in La Jolla his entire life.
Forester acquired his architectural credentials "by the back-door route, passing exams and getting a license to practice without benefit of formal schooling," he says. He opened his own San Diego firm in the ’50s and was hired to design the first Jack-in-the-Box restaurants. Architecture was his primary source of support for the next 25 years.
But art was never far from his thoughts. In the ’60s, Forester turned to ink drawings, sculpture and a series of paintings with floating blocks of color. In the ’70s he added gauze to his paintings.
"I am trying to paint my environment. I live by the ocean—it isn’t nice golden brown or green, it’s very misty all the time. You just can’t believe how foggy it is at times, and in the fog the colors get very muted. They don’t become pastelly, they become really diffused, and they’re not easy to focus on." Gauze provided the veil he was looking for.
In 1976, Forester decided to abandon his architectural practice and become a full-time artist. What once was a weekend hobby became his everyday work.
Russell and his Swiss-born wife, Marie Christine, also an architect, designed their present home on the hillside in La Jolla long before they had any real notion it could exist. "It was 27 years ago, and we were just married," he says. "My architectural practice was not the world’s greatest money-maker. These rooms all first appeared on the backs of napkins—so we’d already had all our fights before we ever began. Christine said we should look for a site, and being more organized than I, she brought in lots from all over.
"But I made it hard. I said I would only live within a certain circle—I drew it on the map. It was serendipity that this lot became available." The living room backs up to a wall of tropical growth clustered around a man-made waterfall, and from the study, the Foresters have a sweeping view of La Jolla Cove.
The garage may be the center of Russell’s junk collections, but the living areas are dazzlingly arrayed with priceless objects —brilliantly colored blown glass, antique inkwells, Indian basketry, pottery, old wooden spoons, Swiss watches. And sometimes merely humorous objects. Like four strangely shaped Coke cans.
Forester laments the artists and architects of his past who have moved away from San Diego. "Once they get a little recognition, they head for the big cities where they think they’ll do better," he says. "There are 40,000 artists trying to get gallery walls in New York City, but I’ve had three or four shows in New York and Paris and Zurich. [He has a piece in the Guggenheim.] And I’m still here."
Once his work is so fully shown in the Los Angeles area, we hope he won’t change his mind.