Remembering Susan Landauer, a Curator Who Championed California Art

SAN FRANCISCO — Susan Landauer, renowned curator and a preeminent historian of California art, passed away from lung cancer at her Oakland, California home on December 19 at age 62.

“No other scholar has contributed as much to the study of California art. She quickly took up the mantle as the leading historian of West Coast art and ran with it. Her fresh ideas and critical insights will live on,” said Michael Duncan, critic and independent curator, as well as former editor at Art in America, in an email to Hyperallergic.

Landauer’s 1996 book The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism is considered a groundbreaking chronicle of this vibrant and vital period of Bay Area culture in the 1950s and ’60s. Her other publications are similarly lauded, such as the books that accompanied her shows on art world mavericks like Roy De Forest and Franklin Williams.

Prior to Landauer’s shows on their work, De Forest and Williams received very little recognition outside of their Bay Area milieu. At most, people knew about their 1960s and 1970s work from their inclusion in Peter Selz’s Funk exhibition and ceramist Clayton Bailey’s Nut show. Williams, in fact, had not participated in a major exhibition for 20 years prior to his collaboration with Landauer.

“She was a real person,” Williams shared by email. He worked closely with Landauer as she prepared Eye Fruit, a solo exhibition of his work at the Museum of Sonoma County. “She was really kind and gentle. And tough as hell. Working with her was revealing. We pulled things out of each other that I think she was shocked about sharing and that I was shocked about sharing. It got to be personal and quite lovely. I’ll be missing her, really.”

Installation view of Eye Fruit: The Art of Franklin William (2017), curated by Susan Landauer, at the Museum of Sonoma County (image courtesy the Museum of Sonoma County)

Landauer grew up in California and was permanently tuned to the region’s most offbeat wavelength. Friends, family, and colleagues recall her tenacious spirit and unwavering support for the creativity that flourishes among artists who flock to the Golden State.

Susan Anderson, independent curator and art historian, shared by email, “Susan was the foremost scholar of California art. Her brilliance was responsible not only for moving the scholarship on California art forward in a significant way, but also for improving and refining the dialogue. Her highly creative and impeccable scholarship, and deep insights will be irreplaceable.”

As an artist herself, Landauer felt a deep kinship with artists from California. Duncan believes her passion for California art is a kind of corrective to the larger narrative of American art history, stating, “Art history’s neglect of California art fueled a desire to advocate for the underdog. She had an extraordinarily fresh eye and was open to all art that sparked her interests.”

In addition to outsider icons like Williams and De Forest, she championed the work of Oakland-based painter Hung Liu, Los Angeles pop artist Llyn Foulkes, Hassel Smith, and so many others.

Installation view of Todd Schorr: American Surreal (2009), curated by Susan Landauer, at the San Jose Museum of Art (image courtesy the San Jose Museum of Art)

Carl Landauer, Susan’s husband, said on the phone, “She wouldn’t go for the artists that everyone was going for. A lot of museums, in her view, wanted to be McMOMAs and Guggen-Burgers. She was a deeply committed historian with her own eye. She had a tuning fork for an artist’s work. Artist after artist would say that she got their work, completely, and that they learned a lot about their own work from collaborating with her. She really enhanced the profile of California art and those individual artists.”

Susan Landauer’s mission to capture the diversity of California art began in earnest during her graduate studies at Yale. She’d done her undergrad in art history at UC Berkeley, starting with a focus in Chinese and Japanese art before moving to Western subjects, and then went New Haven for a PhD.

At Yale, she determined to focus her dissertation on the art of her home back West. The decision was a bit controversial as the department questioned whether California art could merit such rigorous investigation. She swayed her colleagues by gaining the support of Howard Lamar, a historian of the American West who would briefly serve as the president of Yale in the 1990s.

Installation view, Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest (2017), curated by Susan Landauer, at the Oakland Museum of California (image courtesy the Oakland Museum of California)

Art critic Peter Frank stated by email, “Susan was a proud Californian, and also part of the last generation of artists and historians to be told that San Francisco and Los Angeles were at best outposts of New York, and at worst too frivolous to host distinctive and burgeoning art scenes of their own. She had grown up seeing otherwise.”

Following her dissertation, and the treatise it spawned, Landauer moved back to California (with Carl, whom she met while he also worked on a PhD at Yale). She built a career as an independent curator bringing the stories of California artists of the past and present to museums in Northern and Southern California. Over the years, she held the posts of assistant curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and chief curator at the San Jose Museum of Art.

“Susan’s work on Bay Area Abstract Expressionism alone would suffice as a great legacy, and it’s certainly what she’ll be primarily remembered for,” said Frank, “but her work with other (however related) idioms of California art, especially in terms of interrelation, was also profound, and her support for women artists (especially but not only out here) and artists of color further enhances her critical and historical record.”

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