The Life and Art in Cinema
of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon
and Frank Stauffacher

One of the many accomplishments of experimental filmmaker and photographer Frank Stauffacher (1917-1955) was the film society Art in Cinema (AIC). In the course of eight years and eleven series, from 1946 to 1954, Art in Cinema filled the void—and in doing so created an audience—for regular screenings of experimental and avant-garde cinema in the Bay Area. (BAMPFA's own long-running Alternative Visions series is indebted to his vision.) On Friday nights, film lovers, filmmakers, and artists gathered at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA) for Stauffacher's legendary film screenings. In 1946, when he was almost thirty years old, Stauffacher was introduced to Barbara Solomon, a dancer and art student, and a San Francisco native. The two soon became a prominent couple in the Bay Area art world, traveling across the country and to and around Europe, hosting the numerous film screenings of what Barbara Stauffacher Solomon has described as San Francisco's "postwar party."1

The original cover of Art in Cinema: A Symposium on the Avantgarde Film, edited by Frank Stauffacher (1947), with film notes about and by filmmakers and listing of films shown in AIC Series One.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon's Art Wall, titled Land(e)scape 2018, has been on display in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive lobby since August 2018. For those who haven't had a chance yet to see it, there's still time: it is up until March 3. The Art Wall is one of Stauffacher Solomon's latest Supergraphics designs; its hard edges and fluorescent hue of red are a product of Swiss modernist design as well as of West Coast Pop. A video of the making of the Art Wall is available on the BAMPFA Youtube channel.2

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon and her daughter Nellie King Solomon during the Art Wall installation at BAMPFA.

On Sunday, January 27, BAMPFA will welcome Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, who turned ninety last year, to speak about Frank Stauffacher's films and the Art in Cinema years. The afternoon screening, part of our ongoing Out of the Vault series, features two films from the BAMPFA collection. Fortuitously, thanks to a recent digitization project made possible by the State Library-funded initiative California Revealed, the BAMPFA Film Library and Study Center is in the process of making accessible many of the graphically stunning documents of its Art in Cinema paper collection, including film series programs, enriched with Frank Stauffacher's own film notes; graphics; audience evaluations; press releases; newspaper articles; and correspondence, some of it written by Stauffacher Solomon. A few of these newly digitized documents are presented here.

The Sunday film program opens with Mother's Day (1948), directed by James Broughton, with Frank Stauffacher's cinematography. It is followed by three films by Stauffacher himself: Sausalito (1948), which features Solomon, is described in the original Art in Cinema program announcement as the "unfamiliar visual and aural sensations of a familiar locale." Zigzag (1948) is depicted in Stauffacher's notes as "merely a caprice . . . no serious effort has been made to build definite rhythmic developments" (and yet we read in Stauffacher Solomon's memoir that Frank had to sell his beloved green Packard to pay for the film's soundtrack). Based on a poetic description of San Francisco by Robert Louis Stevenson, Notes on the Port of Saint Francis (1951), which earned the director the Robert J. Flaherty Award for best documentary of 1952, will conclude the program. On the occasion of the first Art in Cinema screening in 1952, Stauffacher wrote of his film: "Shunning the well known and easily photographed scenic delights of San Francisco, this documentary records some of the city's definite but elusive atmospheric flavor. It is a sketchbook, but each sketch is finished."

Stills from James Broughton's Mother's Day (1948), and Frank Stauffacher's Notes on the Port of Saint Francis (1951) and Zigzag (1948).

Frank Stauffacher's film notes for Sausalito, Zigzag, and Notes on the Port of Saint Francis from the AIC mimeographed program handouts.

While the Library's treasure trove of AIC program announcements, handouts, and related documents exudes Stauffacher's love of what he called "art in cinema" and his commitment to showcasing renowned (yet little seen) filmmakers, it also attests to how his Art in Cinema screenings encouraged a number of local artists to begin making films. For each program, Stauffacher assembled a stunning variety of films featuring artists from all walks of life and expertise: jazz and classical musicians, painters and photographers, UC Berkeley students and filmmakers. Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Jordan Belson, and Vincente Minnelli all had their work screened, in some cases making an appearance in person.3 The audience ranged from cinephiles, artists on the GI Bill, and socialites, to Beat poets, architects, and Berkeley professors. The Art in Cinema society assembled on Friday nights at the San Francisco Museum of Art in an unprecedented atmosphere of creativity and dialogue, barely one year after the end of WWII.

The program announcement for Series One (1946).

Art in Cinema was subscription based: spectators would commit to a number of weekly screenings for the duration of the series. In 1946, when Series One debuted, going out on a Friday night in San Francisco meant having options: picking a night at AIC over a concert or a play also meant choosing Maya Deren's Ritual in Transfigured Time over William Wyler's multi-Oscar winning The Best Years of Our Lives, Sidney Peterson and James Broughton's Potted Psalm over Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep, and Marcel Duchamp's Anaemic Cinema over Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. Amid the predominance of Hollywood and commercial films—1946 was a year of unprecedented high records for movie theater attendance—Stauffacher was perfecting his vision for his film society. By the late 1940s, Art in Cinema had become, along with New York's Cinema 16, the premier American showcase for new avant-garde film, introducing many films made in the Bay Area. It is interesting to note that, in addition to the San Francisco screenings, AIC presented nights of avant-garde films at Wheeler Hall, on the UC Berkeley campus, sponsored by University Extension and managed by George Leite, founder of the experimental literary magazine Circle Magazine. BAMPFA's Art in Cinema paper collection contains documents related to the UC Berkeley screenings between the years 1947 and 1951.

Program announcement for Art in Cinema Four (1948). James Broughton's Mother's Day and Frank Stauffacher's Zigzag open the series.

In her memoir Why? Why Not?,4 Barbara Stauffacher Solomon writes of her early years in San Francisco as a ballet and nightclub dancer at the Copacabana, and as an art student at the California School of Fine Arts, now San Francisco Art Institute. She first met Stauffacher at seventeen, after Dick Foster, a cinephile and friend of Frank's, saw her at SFMA in front of a Matisse painting, and invited her to a night screening at Art in Cinema. For their first date, Stauffacher picked her up in his green Packard, and they drove to the Clay Theatre on Fillmore Street to see Les Enfants du Paradis—and instantly became inseparable. At the time, Stauffacher was working as a commercial artist in San Francisco, and as Barbara relates, "he invited me everywhere and I thought he knew everybody and everything"5: he partied with Henry Miller and had the keys to Frank Lloyd Wright's house in Hillsborough. They were married November 1948 in Sausalito, and in 1950 they had a daughter, Chloe.

Frank Stauffacher and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon with their daughter Chloe. The still is from Christian Bruno's short film Visions Not Previously Seen: The Groundbreaking Design Work of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon (2018).

Although Solomon recalls hating parties, much of her first years with Stauffacher was spent in a whirlwind of travels, movie screenings, and parties as Art in Cinema took off as one of the cultural events of the Bay Area. In her article "Our Postwar Party," she describes the cosmopolitan community of artists, exiles, and travelers that made postwar San Francisco the ideal cradle for Art in Cinema, thanks to an alchemy of sorts, among its participants: "odd twists provided by this special breed of European exiles, survivors with sufficient connections, talent, money, will, or all four, to escape Hitler's Europe and flee into California's golden sunshine, to the magnet of Hollywood's money or San Francisco's craze for culture."6 It was from within these endless bursts of vitality, and the encounters of his ever expanding social circle, that Stauffacher conceived of a new way of making, watching, and writing the history of film and that Art in Cinema thrived for almost a decade. As Stauffacher Solomon describes:

Movies were Frank's passion. And Frank loved parties. Every Friday night he hosted his Art in Cinema party. Everyone wanted to see more movies. World War II had just ended. Most of the world was broken, but ex GI heroes in SF put on new suits to take their new dates to the movies. So did Frank. Except that Frank sat in the front row studying each frame and cut and camera angle.7

These exquisite events, for which "people worked hard all day long, just to party hard all night," were always packed and took place in a period described by Barbara as "'The Sixties' that began in the late 1940s in San Francisco."8

In the same years, Frank Stauffacher developed the desire to set aside commercial art and start making his own films. He bought a 16mm Bolex camera, tripod, lights, and editing equipment, and leased a studio at Montgomery and Gold. He quickly learned how to shoot films while working as the cinematographer for filmmaker and poet James Broughton on Mother's Day (1948) and Adventures of Jimmy (1950). Later on, by making films on his own, Stauffacher discovered that "the advantage of working outside the industry and its commercial pressures was precisely the opportunity to play with cinema, to make films just to see, and share, what the results might look like."9 For Scott MacDonald, who has written extensively on AIC, this attitude of playfulness and freedom accounted for "Stauffacher's commitment to presenting 'imperfect' films and [was] evident in his own filmmaking as well."10 His films—Zigzag, Sausalito, and Notes on the Port of Saint Francis—were screened at AIC respectively in Series Five (1948), Eight (1949), and Nine (1953).

As a filmmaker and main curator, Stauffacher had full control of the fundamental mission of Art in Cinema, handling relationships with filmmakers and guests, writing program notes, and overseeing the film projection. For each series he created a program announcement composed of a short note for each film, as well as a program handout to be distributed at each of the screenings. The program announcement was sent as a newsletter to current and potential subscribers, in a foldable format, often enriched by remarkable graphics by Frank Stauffacher's brother Jack. As part of the AIC document collection at BAMPFA, the program notes convey a sense of the evolution of Art in Cinema; the programs progressively expanded from charting a history of alternative film, in Series One, into providing a space where American film artists could present their newest work. Moreover, the subtle idea at the heart of Stauffacher's genius was the creation of a consistent audience for experimental and avant-garde cinema, driven by his strong belief that film as an art form had not been fully explored in America. In the first program announcement, when Series One made its appearance in 1946, Stauffacher clearly stated Art in Cinema's intent:

A series of avant-garde films in modern art forms—surrealist, non objective, abstract, fantastic—are to be shown at the San Francisco Museum of Art in a ten week showing. It is the first attempt of its kind in San Francisco. The series will include many films that have had a very limited public showing in America. Each film has been chosen for its artistic merit, with emphasis on films made in the modern art tradition.

With each series, Art in Cinema would grow in self-esteem, shifting from presenting itself as "a first attempt" in Series One to boasting of being "the first major non-commercial outlet for the examination of the contemporary experimental film" at the outset of Series Four, and with Series Seven stating it would "continue the reputation that San Francisco ha[d], not only in the East, but abroad, as a unique experimental film centre." All the while, Stauffacher strove to present film as an art form in the most comprehensive way, creating occasions to show his audience connections with the other artistic fields, for instance music and painting.

Indeed, the immediate success of Art in Cinema was a function of Stauffacher's skill as an artist-exhibitor, and of his wide network of friendships and professional relationships in the art world at large. The documents from the AIC collection, particularly the abundant written correspondence Stauffacher entered into with filmmakers whose work he knew and screened, reveal that normal distribution channels were not available to film artists. This circumstance pushed him to make contacts directly with filmmakers, many of whom had little or no experience distributing or exhibiting their work. His main institutional source for films was the New York Museum of Modern Art Film Library. Nevertheless, Art in Cinema went on to become a well-oiled machine. Starting from the presentation of the first series in 1946, subscription forms were attached to the mailed program announcement, encouraging the audience to chose, by subscribing to the series, to commit to a new way of going to the movies, radically different from the more casual pull toward commercial movie theaters. Other than private citizens, the array of institutions that received the series announcements and appear in the documents pertaining to subscriptions is varied: the International Film Bureau in Chicago, Harvard University, the Cinematheque Française in Paris, Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, daliel's Bookstore in Berkeley, and the Rhode Island School of Design, to name a few. Other documents in the Art in Cinema paper collection include handwritten notes by Henry Miller and by Luis Buñuel on Un Chien Andalou, further proof of Stauffacher's ability to mine cinematic treasure and cultivate personal relationships well before social media.

Subscription order blank for Art in Cinema, Series One.

The popularity of each program was gauged by audience evaluations, a fascinating part of the AIC paper collection. Evaluations positioned each spectator as a central hinge to the Art in Cinema mechanism, allowing Stauffacher to inquire as to which films the audience valued most as well as their preference or inclination for future series. This interactive approach toward the AIC audience mirrored Stauffacher's vision of movies and moviegoing, which pushed him to screen films—as he declared in the program announcement for Series One—that required "more of an effort of participation on the part of the audience than the Hollywood fantasies, before which an audience sits passively and uncreatively." Indeed, when interpellated, spectators displayed their enthusiasm—"Good coverage of diverse types of experimental films. Thank the good Christ for Art in Cinema"—and shared ideas for future series, in some cases veering far from his original intent—"How about a Garbo series?"; "Why not more early Chaplin work?" One of the more frequent requests would be to not have the programs on Fridays, "for the benefit of symphony goers"; "Did not attend, unfortunately, opera instead!" Some, taxed by excessive cinephilia, would simply note: "I've got film fatigue."

Although at times harsh, constructive criticism was not infrequent. As a patron wrote evaluating Series One, "It is felt that documentary films, humorous cartoons, and sequences from early commercial movies, while interesting and entertaining, are out of place in a series of this sort." Others would even go so far as to criticize the notes themselves—"I think they should be less pretentious and more didactic. . . . Too much eulogy; too little explanation"—or the venue and sound or image quality: "Present gallery very uncomfortable, crowded, bad acoustically"; "Music too loud!" In the 1948 Series Four program notes, Stauffacher responded: "With this Art in Cinema series we are pleased to announce the installation of professional projection equipment and large screen in the new central rotunda auditorium. . . . It is due to the enthusiastic public support of this work that Art in Cinema has become the first major non-commercial outlet for the examination of the contemporary experimental film."

An audience evaluation for Series Nine (1953).

Some responses to programs were less enthusiastic. In an interview by Brecht Andersch and Timoleon Wilkins, Stan Brakhage recalled attending one of the most impactful and turbulent screenings in the history of Stauffacher's film society: the October 23, 1953, premiere of The End, by the UC Berkeley graduate and Beat poet Christopher MacLaine. During the projection, Brakhage recounts, "there was a riot. . . . Chairs were thrown, and people screamed and carried on; they walked out, and came back, and screamed some more: 'Boo!' and 'Take it off the screen!'"11 One of the audience evaluations found in the AIC collection echoes Brakhage's story: "In regard to C. McLaine [sic] and his film The End, which should have stopped at the title, I feel as so many others that this can be considered only as an insult to us who form your audience. Fully a waste of time, in viewing such a piece of trash. It seems such a shame that the quality of your programs should be so degraded, by one work which is beyond being amateurial." A few years earlier, an equally heated reaction had been reserved for Sidney Peterson and James Broughton's Potted Psalm; it was met with boos and bewilderment at the November 1, 1946, AIC screening. Brakhage was there too: "There was a riot! And poor Jimmy Broughton, who wants people to love him more than anything else in the world, burst into tears and ran from the auditorium."12

Much more measured were the tones used by a series of local newspaper articles, also in the AIC paper collection, most of which are dated during and after the year 1951. On November 30, 1952, the San Francisco Examiner published the article "Unusual Films in Art Museums Series" by Herm Lenz: "A relatively small group of people have been enjoying themselves immensely Friday nights at the SF Museum of Art. They've been sitting in soft seats smugly enjoying what practically amounts to a private showing of some of the finest moving pictures made."13 An even more enthusiastic supporter of AIC was journalist Luther Nichols,14 who first wrote about it in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1951, at the outset of a new series: "To all concerned with the film as an art form, news that the San Francisco Museum of Art will resume its Art in Cinema programs this month is as welcome as a gust of wind to a sailboat,"15 and later declared: "More than ever the Bay Area is making a name for itself as a center for film-makers who believe in the cinema as an art medium and a social force—and for an audience that appreciates their views."16

Occasionally Art in Cinema, staying true to its name, featured films that intersected with other arts and media. The program announcement of Art in Cinema Series Nine in 1953 declared that "the Art in Cinema showings were established to present a more vigorous and liberated attitude towards the film medium." In 1950, the last show of Series Six included "A Short Program of Rejected Television Spots"; among the spots was one made by Stauffacher himself, who presented the material in the program notes by stating that each spot would "display a wonderful dynamic visual vitality that [was], unfortunately (and apparently) years ahead of its time." The following year, the premiere of the three films by James Broughton, in Series Seven (1951), featured poet, painter, and journalist Weldon Kees, who led a small instrumental group that provided musical background to the visuals, while Broughton read the poetic narration live. Similarly, in 1953, Art in Cinema invited a group of jazz musicians to improvise to visual stimuli projected on a screen. It was in 1954 that Frank Stauffacher presented his audience with yet another audacious experiment: a visit to classical Hollywood cinema.

Program notes for Series Seven. The April 20 screening of James Broughton's Adventures of Jimmy (photographed by Frank Stauffacher) is followed on April 27 by films by Harry Smith—"the premiere public showing of the first three-dimensional non-objective films to be made"—and a screening and lecture featuring guest Maya Deren's films.

The two-part series titled "Aspects of American Film: the Work of Fifteen Directors," organized for the spring and fall of 1954, in Series Ten and Eleven, marked the film society's final year. It gathered the work of fifteen US directors—D. W. Griffith, John Ford, Vincente Minnelli, Cecil B. De Mille, among others—parading "some of the most positive achievements in the American film—its established traditions and recent styles." As the series program notes state, Stauffacher intended to give life to a "unique cooperation of Hollywood and the West Coast's leading 'art film' society." In the course of the series, films were presented by the directors themselves, or by other directors and producers close to their work. Some of the written correspondence in the AIC collection from this time reveals the behind-the-scenes work of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon in keeping up good relationships, extending invitations to guest speakers, and finding the best prints for screenings. Solomon corresponded with John Ford, to request a print of his film Tobacco Road to be shown at AIC; Willard Van Dyke, who called her "Bobby" and made himself available to present his film in person; Vincente Minnelli, who suggested his two titles for the series, Meet Me in St. Louis and An American in Paris; and Fred Zinnemann, who agreed to a screening of High Noon.

Program announcement for Series Ten, Spring 1954.

Stauffacher's vision over the years led him to bring leading creative artists from Hollywood to an audience by then accustomed to experimental filmmakers, and not surprisingly, patrons questioned the director-focused series as diluting the purity of AIC with Hollywood mediocrity, to the point of boycotting the directors' programs. To this, Stauffacher would simply reply: "Those who think there are no good or experimental qualities in Hollywood pictures are the very ones who should see these directors and their work."17 This effort continued in the second half of 1954, with Series Eleven, the second part of "Aspects of the American Film: the Work of Fifteen Directors," which ranged from Gene Kelly to Mack Sennett. In the program notes, Stauffacher introduced "some of the most positive and consequential aspects of the American film," adding a caveat: "although it is difficult to say who is most responsible for a complicated business such as the motion picture, the director is, without a doubt, most responsible for its final creative core," echoing the contemporary auteur theory of Andrew Sarris.18 Stauffacher also declared that recognition of directors as "the artists of the film, generally out of sight behind the camera" had been "long overdue."

In 1954, Stauffacher learned that he had brain cancer, which would lead to his death on July 15, 1955. The New York Times obituary recognized Stauffacher as "one of America's leading authorities on the experimental motion picture and a noted 16mm producer."19 After Stauffacher's death, Barbara Solomon Stauffacher moved to Switzerland and studied graphic design at the Basel Art Institute. She returned to San Francisco and became a pioneer of Supergraphic design. Stauffacher Solomon's latest endeavor, her Art Wall, is not to be missed. But neither is this opportunity to hear her speak about Frank Stauffacher's films and his "labor of love"20 that was Art in Cinema. Once the Art in Cinema Friday night gatherings ceased, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon's life and career—recounted in the dazzling volume Why? Why Not?, a must-read memoir complete with her sketches, on sale at the BAMPFA bookstore—expanded in many other directions, as she made a name for herself worldwide as a graphic designer.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon beside an enamel exit sign at Lawrence Halprin's house at The Sea Ranch.

Margherita Ghetti
BAMPFA Film curatorial intern
PhD Candidate, UC Berkeley, Department of Italian Studies

This essay was written as part of our Out of the Vault project, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.


  1. Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, "Our Postwar Party," Zyzzyva 21, no.1 (2005). 

  2. Watch the making of the Art Wall: 

  3. It is possible to find letter exchanges written by Frank Stauffacher and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon to the many protagonists of Art in Cinema, in the volume Art in Cinema: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society, edited by Scott MacDonald. Moreover, Frank Stauffacher's book Art in Cinema: A Symposium on the Avantgarde Film contains programs notes for AIC Series One, and essays written by some of its guest filmmakers. The original edition dates back to 1947, and is part of the BAMPFA rare books collection. A reprint from 1968 is also available in the BAMPFA Film Library and Study Center. Many of the original documents from both books are in the BAMPFA Film Library and Study Center's Art in Cinema collection. 

  4. Why? Why Not? 80 Years of Art & Design in Pix & Prose, Juxtaposed, (San Francisco, Fun Fog Press, 2013).  

  5. Ibid., 31. 

  6. Stauffacher Solomon, "Our Postwar Party," 85. 

  7. Stauffacher Solomon, Why? Why Not?, 31. 

  8. Ibid.. 

  9. Scott MacDonald, "Art in Cinema: Creating an Audience for Experimental Film," in Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, ed. Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid (Berkeley: University of California Press/BAMPFA, 2010), 33. 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Stan Brakhage, in "Christopher Maclaine and the San Francisco Film Scene in the 1950s: An Interview with Stan Brakhage by Brecht Andersch and Timoleon Wilkins," in Radical Light, 56. 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Herm Lenz, "Unusual Films in Art Museums Series," San Francisco Examiner, November 30, 1952.  

  14. On April 25, 1954, Luther Nichols published the article "Dissertations on the Arts of Movie-Making" in the New York Times, defining AIC as "unusual and momentous," and praising "Aspects of the American Film: 15 Directors," which was screening around the time of his article.  

  15. San Francisco Chronicle, November, 1, 1951. 

  16. San Francisco Chronicle, September 23, 1951. 

  17. San Francisco Chronicle, October 17, 1954. 

  18. Film theorist Andrew Sarris was a leading proponent of the theory of film criticism in which the director is viewed as the major creative force in a motion picture. What Sarris would call "auteur theory" arose in France in the late 1940s, the years of AIC.  

  19. New York Times, July 28, 1955. 

  20. Macdonald, in Radical Light, 33.