A small, vibrant exhibit of oil paintings by Muldoon Elder at the Peninsula Museum of Art in Burlingame showcases only one of many talents of a major figure on the Bay Area arts scene.
Elder’s paintings on Belgian linen in “Geometric Obsessions & Abstractions” are fascinating. They include complex, engrossing images of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII in a diptych based on the Donizetti opera “Anna Bolena”; abstract landscapes; and whimsical characters such as “Startled Fool” and “Dying Minstrel.”
The works “explore the intricate language and movement of color and light,” says Elder, 78, who opened the Vorpal Gallery on Grove Street in The City in 1962 and operated it for 42 years until he closed it “to have more time and energy to paint and write.”
Elder, also art editor of the avant-garde literary magazine Genesis West, opened the New York City branch of the Vorpal in 1974. Among the artists he represented are two of the great print masters of the 20th century, Yozo Hamaguchi and M.C. Escher.
For more than four decades, Vorpal was not only a center for classical and modern art, but also the vanguard of the global discovery of Escher, the Dutch artist known for mathematically inspired woodcuts and lithographs.
When the first comprehensive retrospective of Escher's dazzling works opened in the Vorpal in 1972, 3,000 people waited in a five-block-long line, and Joan Baez serenaded the crowd on the street.
On the way to see Escher in Amsterdam, Elder learned that the artist was near death. Invited to visit, Elder said he didn't want to interrupt the family gathering, but Escher’s son told him, “You must come over right now, you're the one who made father famous!”
In its mission to support new and unusual artists, Vorpal was one of the few galleries exhibiting works by controversial San Francisco painter Bernice Bing in 1962.
It also served organizations such as the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program, which used the gallery’s upstairs room, with its pesky wooden columns in the center, for recitals.
Describing an eventful and varied career, Elder says, “There are many ways of looking at life and I have tried to avoid wearing the blinders that only allow a single path.” He adds, “If a painting is successful, it will be like a great poem: you can always return to it and it will never wear out.”
Elder’s paintings at the Peninsula show are for sale, priced between $30,000 and $3 million. The “Bolena” diptych, at $1.2 million, must be purchased as a set.
IF YOU GO
Geometric Obsessions & Abstractions: Paintings by Muldoon Elder
Where: Peninsula Museum of Art, 1777 California Drive, Burlingame
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; closes Nov. 24