In Remembrance: Susan (Klein) Landauer ’92PhD Died on December 19 2020

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Art historian and museum curator Susan (Klein) Landauer passed away on December 19, 2020, at the age of 62 from lung cancer in her home in Oakland, California. A pioneering champion of the history of California art, Susan spent ten years as the chief curator of the San Jose Museum of Art and authored numerous books, catalogs, and essays on California artists and movements. Art in America contributing editor Michael Duncan stated after her passing: “No other scholar has contributed as much to the study of California art.”

Susan was born in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1982, where she studied Chinese and Japanese art and received her department’s 1982 Citation for Outstanding Achievement among Undergraduates. At Yale, she turned to American art and wrote her dissertation on the school of Abstract Expressionism that emerged in San Francisco, the basis of her first book, The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism, which argued that the Bay Area movement was no mere spin-off of the New York School but simultaneous and, if anything, having more stylistic coherence. At Yale, in Jules Prown’s seminar on material culture, where students were asked to choose an object for observation and engagement, Susan chose a Lakota “ghost shirt”—tragically believed to provide invincibility against bullets—and, confronted with the shirt in the Peabody Museum, she was reduced to tears.

In 1986, Susan married Carl Landauer ’84PhD (history), whom she met at Yale, and moved to Oakland in 1991. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Susan worked as an independent curator, including on her exhibition on San Francisco abstract expressionism for the Laguna Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She also curated a retrospective of Bay Area figurative painter Elmer Bischoff for the Oakland Museum, accompanied by a book. In 1996, Susan was an assistant curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Living in Venice Beach, she became close to the surviving Venice Beach Beat artists and poets and, as a result, was ordained into the Temple of Man, which was initiated by Beat poet Bob Alexander.

She was a cofounder of the innovative San Francisco Center for the Book from 1996 to 1999. In addition to working on the Poets Pulling Prints series with printing broadsides accompanied by the poets reading their work, Susan curated The Pages of Sin in 1996 on Beat poets and their book arts and Flashback in 1997 on the psychedelic book arts of the 1960s along with posters, comic book art, and printed LSD blotter paper.

From 1999 to 2009, Susan was chief curator of the San Jose Museum of Art. The museum gave her an enormous opportunity to produce creative exhibitions, including Susan’s initiation of a “Conversation Gallery” for small, almost pop-up, shows, and the idea of “Random Encounters,” with work from a single artist that would appear in various places in the museum so that artists who had never had an exhibition could add a museum exhibition to their résumés. With the support of the museum’s collections committee, Susan was able to greatly enhance the museum’s holdings, especially with works of California artists. For example, she visited Funk artist William T. Wiley’s studio before he began his “punball” machines, when he simply had five vintage pinball machines in the studio, and the museum pre-purchased one of those works with the idea still percolating in his head. As a way of promoting the museum’s collection, Susan conceived of and edited Selections: The San Jose Museum of Art Permanent Collection. During a visit to the museum, New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman was extremely impressed by the art in the catalog but was surprised that most of the artists were unfamiliar to him.

Among the many exhibitions Susan curated in San Jose were The Lighter Side of Bay Area Figuration; Tino Rodriguez: The Darkening Garden/El Jardin AnocherDream Games: The Art of Robert Schwartz; Robert McChesney: Mid-Century Modernist; Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement; Tragic Kingdom: The Art of Camille Rose Garcia; Line on the Loose: A Memorial Exhibition for Hassel Smith; and Todd Schorr: American Surreal. After San Jose, Susan became an independent curator, curating exhibitions on the work of Roy De Forest for the Oakland Museum, with a book on De Forest, and on the work of Franklin Williams and that of Bernice Bing. 

Susan’s vision was to focus primarily on California art within a local, national, and international perspective. She is acknowledged for raising the profile of unknown artists. Former San Francisco Chronicle critic Charles Desmarais stated, “Susan was an important scholar working on significant art, who did not care a bit that the artists she embraced were not in fashion—until she changed that.” 

Among books Susan authored or coauthored and other publications are: Obata’s YosemiteThe San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism; California ImpressionistsThe Lighter Side of Bay Area Figuration; Elmer Bischoff: The Ethics of PaintDream Games: The Art of Robert Schwartz; The Not-So-Still Life: A Century of California Painting and SculptureTragic Kingdom: The Art of Camille Rose GarciaTodd Schorr: American SurrealJohn Paul Jones: The Pursuit of Beauty’s Perfect ProofHassel Smith: Paintings, 1937–1997Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest; and Eye Fruit: The Art of Franklin Williams. She contributed essays to Clifford Still; Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series; and Women of Abstract Expressionism.

Susan is survived by her adoring husband Carl and her siblings Lynn Klein, Doran Berg, and Martin Klein, as well as many close friends who loved her for her spirit and her deeply caring nature.

Submitted by the family.

Additional tributes appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, on Hyperallergic, and the website for the San Francisco Center for the Book.

4 remembrances

  • Barbara   NINA Council
    Barbara NINA Council, 9:37pm March 05 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    She was my girl Susan, my daughters best friend since age 15. I remember them well at lost teenagers. So many years, so much closeness, so many experiences. It is so difficult to accept that our Susan is really gone, but she is not gone, her memories are with me forever as one of my kids. I loved her, she loved me and we shared many thoughts and experiences in this difficult life. She will be so missed by all. Bless our Susan

  • Jeremy Stone
    Jeremy Stone, 10:23pm March 05 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I was lucky enough to be introduced to Susan by colleagues while she was the chief curator at the San Jose Museum of Art. She was one of the fastest, brightest, smartest, warmest and most generous colleagues and individuals that I have crossed paths with in the art world. Her work ethic, can we say a few words about that? It was as if she knew she would not have the full time that she needed to accomplish all that she wanted on earth.

    This is the most worthy obituary for Susan that I have seen and I am grateful for the fullness of the exhibitions and books listed that she organized, curated and authored. Formidable. Impressive. Pedal to the metal. A very hard act to follow. It is tragic that we have lost her.

  • Linda Fairchild
    Linda Fairchild, 2:46pm March 07 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Such an extraordinary and loving scholar and friend to so many. This is such a beautiful obituary. I am eternally grateful for the depth and detail as her work was so far-reaching and advanced.

    As a new contemporary art dealer in San Francisco in 2002, I could not have achieved what I did without her support and unfailing belief in me.

    She is the wind beneath my sails and always will be.

  • Mr. Robert  Moore
    Mr. Robert Moore, 1:15am April 17 2023 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Susan and I were in grade 6th grade together when she said she wanted to learn the French language so she could talk with friends and other kids from France that she knew. I thought that was very ambitious at the time. little did I know of her academic prowess. Her mom was a professional designer decorator, and Susan grew up with artistic talent around her. She was smart and insightful as I began to know her in junior high school. I feel lucky to have know her and her family. After high school I lost track of her. Sad she has passed away so young. Rob Moore

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