Painters work recalls atypical Jewish upbringing during Depression

Arthur Krakower’s life is not an open book — it’s an open exhibition.

His large, colorful paintings hang on gallery walls a stone’s throw from AT&T Park in an equally colorful neighborhood. Heads are invariably turned, and patrons of the arts, bicycle messengers and even the odd French woman passing by in a cab find themselves walking through the front door, gazing up at Krakower’s work.

And if you find a short, silver-haired old gent with big glasses and a bigger smile chuckling next to you, that’s Krakower.

The Atherton resident has reason to be proud. After a successful business career and half a lifetime as a Sunday painter, he decided to head back to school at age 77. At age 80, he became the oldest person to ever earn a master’s from Oakland’s California College of the Arts. Now 85, he paints four hours a day in his garage studio, listening to Mahler, Dvorak or Johnny Cash, depending on his mood.

The dozens of large, colorful works scattered throughout the City Picture Frame Gallery are paint-on-canvas portals to Krakower’s distant past, growing up in a most unconventional Jewish family on Long Island during the 1920s and ’30s.

“My father was a gambler, into horses and nightclubs. That’s how we existed [through the Depression], thank God. A lot of the gamblers lived in Long Beach, don’t ask me why,” he says while sitting amid his paintings in the San Francisco gallery.

“In our house, it was like the Hatfields and the McCoys. The Krakowers were all smokers and drinkers and gamblers and my mother’s side, the Grodowitzes, were religious nonsmokers and nondrinkers. My father showed up late to my bar mitzvah. I’ll never forget that.”

The young Krakower grew up surrounded by a home life resembling a hasty mixing of “The Chosen” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” His father ran nightclubs and gambled for a living. His Aunt Jean was “a flapper who died at 30 from opium.” His Uncle Jack frequently crops up in Krakower’s paintings — with a different girlfriend each time.

And yet, on the other side, Krakower had a blind, Orthodox grandfather whom he led to shul every day.

“Seeing two worlds like that, it really added to my experiences,” he says.

“It wasn’t dull, let’s put it that way.”

Growing up in a household where half the family went to shul and the other half went to the track had a profound influence on Krakower’s life and artwork. His warm, brightly colored abstract paintings are based on “love and isolation.” Even in ostensibly happy recreations of beachside snapshots, there is a palpable sense of tension and distance between the family members grinning at the viewer.

“I saw the way my family isolated Aunt Jean. I saw the way they pulled away from her. She was so different,” recalls Krakower.

“My father, too. He was such a different kind of character. Not your typical Jewish man. That’s not good or bad but just different.”

Krakower walks about the gallery explaining the family stories behind many of his paintings. Uncle Jack crops up in an inordinate number of them — “Jack, you see, he really was a father to me,” explains the artist.

And even though there was obviously a close and caring relationship between Jack and Krakower, the isolation is still there, and nowhere more obviously than a beach portrait in which Jack and his girlfriend du jour are in one panel and a young Krakower is in another.

“We were in different worlds. He’s over there with his women and I’m in my own,” observes Krakower.

The artists smiles or winces at the memories as he takes a tour of his own work. Even the most innocuous beachside portrait can have a complex — and painful — backstory.

Finally, he stops before his favorite painting of all, a re-creation of another beachside snapshot portraying Uncle Jack, yet another girlfriend, Krakower’s mother and a youthful Krakower.

He stares for a long while, as if taking in the painting for the first time. And then he grins.

“I love this painting. I hope it doesn’t sell.”

Arthur Krakower’s work is on display through Friday, May 26 at the City Picture Frame Gallery, 524 Third St., S.F. Information: (415) 543-4105 or

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.