Arts Listings

Don Clausen: A Life in Art

By Valerie Gladstone Special to the Planet
Wednesday February 11, 2009 - 06:56:00 PM
Whitgul is one of the Clausen paintings on exhibition at Alta Galleria.
Whitgul is one of the Clausen paintings on exhibition at Alta Galleria.

When Don Clausen looks out over the hills from his house in Piedmont, he sees the countryside where he came of age and realized his dream of becoming an artist. Though his life has not been easy, he conveys a sense of contentment only afforded individuals who have lived their passions. “I always search for new ways of seeing things,” he says. “I’m an incurable experimenter. I live for art.”  

Vigorous and ruggedly handsome at 78, he spends every day in front of a canvas or putting together assemblages or collages, creating breathtaking works that continue to be snapped up by collectors all over the country, many of who have been following him for many years. “The more you gaze at his paintings,” says collector Lisa Snow, “the more you see. The last one I bought could be a huge portal. As soon as I saw it, I wanted to leap right into what looks like an alternative universe.”  

In his luminous abstractions, Clausen employs every color of the rainbow, the strong lines forming geometric shapes that appear to fly through space. Nothing is weighed down in his paintings; it’s as if images came to him from outer space or other realms. He turns the physical world into dabs and streaks of color that convey an engulfing sense of motion. 

Whether abstract or representational, his works convey enormous energy and vitality, like masterpieces by Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning. They also are distinctive for their sculptural quality, a result of his thickly layering the paint and then slicing down to the canvas with a palette knife or section of a venetian blind; his choice of tools is as eclectic as his subject matter. “I’ll paint with anything,” he says. “I like sticks because I can carve into the paint with them.” 

Few artists demonstrate Clausen’s versatility, proved by his genius for shifting from one artistic form to another. He shows outstanding talent for portraiture, conveying a profound sense of his subjects’ characters, through sensitive detail, such as the tilt of a head, expression of the mouth or smile lines. For models, he sometimes uses photos from women’s magazines or finds pictures of some of his heroes, like singer Ella Fitzgerald and comedian Lenny Bruce. He usually titles them ‘Tak’ and then their names. Tak means thank you in Danish. Clausen is of Danish background. 

Collector Rebecca Rhine bought two of the Tak paintings. “I’ve known Don for over 30 years and seen his incredible development,” she says. “What I love about his works is how tactile they are and so full of movement. I bought Tak John Singer Sergeant (2003) and Tak Lennie Bruce (2006) They are very different, the former more abstract in brilliant colors—reddish orange and browns like lava. The Lennie Bruce looks like waves crashing to shore.” 

A great admirer of Rembrandt and Vermeer, Clausen has learned how to evoke a psychological state from studying those masters. He also paints landscapes and cityscapes, particularly splendid is a golden-brown San Francisco that he did of the city long ago. He has spent a lot of time studying the broad horizons of French painter Vlaminck. “Everything is abstract more or less,” he says, “as it’s fundamentally composed of shapes and lines.” 

The geometry of his work particularly appeals to collector Mike Bacon. “It’s as if he sees life through a crystal,” he says. “There are all these line and shadings. His paintings are alive and ever changing. They greatly appeal to my emotions.”  

Over the years, Clausen has transformed his spacious three-story studio—two floors are underground—into an oasis, where he neatly stores past work, and carefully prepares his canvases, brushes, palette knives and assorted self-designed tools. For such a brusque man, he is surprisingly orderly, one of the many secrets of his success. But he is definitely not without an engaging sense of humor. Wandering among his paintings, one comes across an impressive collection of memorabilia, including photos of his family members—he married three times and has two children by each wife—stuffed toys that once belonged to his grandchildren, old fashioned alarm clocks, a big picture of Donald Duck—perhaps his namesake—and a well-worn, king size chair, clearly marked, “Artist’s Chair” and on the seat the words, “Golden Hands.” He sits there often to contemplate works in progress. 

Clausen began expressing himself artistically as a child in elementary school in San Francisco, carving sculptures out of bars of Ivory soap. He taught himself to draw and by the time he was in his late teens, he was so good that his friends asked him to do pictures of their girlfriends. In his 20s, he briefly prepared for dentistry at Sacramento Junior College, later transferring to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. To make ends meet, he made children’s toys and sold paintings on the streets of Berkeley. But eventually, he began exhibiting at galleries and word of his beautiful and exciting work quickly spread. 

His son Eric, who is an accomplished iron sculptor, learned a great deal growing up around his him. “He never stopped working,” he says. “He would be painting when I woke up in the morning and when I came home from school. And after dinner, he would go back again, maybe real late, going out for a beer. Day and night like that for years. And there were artists all around. I’d hear them talking, and my father critiquing his own and other people’s work. It’s a great way to learn about art.”  

Given this powerful influence, perhaps it’s not surprising that Eric decided to become an artist himself. For a while they even shared a studio. “I’d make something and then ask for his approval,” he says. “He never said anything was wrong. He taught me nothing in life is perfect. I’ve never seen anyone who so completely lives and breathes art.” 

Don Clausen: Current Work  

Through March 5 at Alta Galleria, 2980 College Ave. Suite #4. 414-4485.