In 1970, when she began the series that would become The Linens, Ciel Bergman was Cheryl Bowers, a former nurse who had just entered art school in San Francisco as a 30-something divorcee and single mother of two. On view for the first time ever, the group of 40 or so unstretched and outsized paintings, now at the Center for Contemporary Art's Tank Garage exhibition space, is largely intact and mostly organized chronologically, spanning the seven-year period during which they were made.

Decades ago, Bergman wrote, "What drives my vision is a need to locate a genetically felt devotional space in which a simultaneous multiplicity of disparate realities co-exist." Art-speaky to the max, for sure, but here's the thing: To Bergman, it seems, the theory, the tangle of theories behind a painting, was just as important as the painting itself.

Along with curator Angie Rizzo, Bergman had been planning the show for many months when she rather suddenly succumbed to cancer in early 2017. Rizzo persevered with the exhibition's development despite Bergman's death, and she doesn't shy away from how difficult that was. "Ciel's death is part of this story; it's 100 percent part of the show. When she died, this show stopped being collaborative. I became a historian," Rizzo told SFR over the phone. "It was especially hard since none of us—including Ciel herself—knew she was sick when we started planning the show."

The first thing you'll notice about The Linens is their hugeness, with many easily spanning 10 or even 13 feet across. Rizzo ingeniously devised a way to mount them so that a gap of several inches exists between the painting and the wall. Instead of appearing dimensionless or rigid as unframed, unstretched raw linen is wont to do when forced onto a wall, they're free to ripple against it. This arrangement makes pieces voluminous, commanding and weirdly delicate, given their size.

The earliest paintings, earth-colored and compositionally reserved, make use of a soak-stain technique, introduced by Helen Frankenthaler in the 1950s. It's an intensely physical process by which paint is diluted and poured across a flat cloth surface, resulting in pleasingly unpredictable areas of alternately washed-out and concentrated color. In his essay for the show's catalog (other contributors include Rizzo and LA-based art critic Peter Frank), CCA Executive Director Stuart Ashman muses that Bergman's work aligns with that of Transcendental School artists—think early 20th-century Taos-based painters like Agnes Lawrence Pelton and Raymond Jonson, whose seemingly trippy abstractions were deceptively well-planned, designed to optically and even spiritually challenge their viewers. Ashman's assessment feels right, even if, at least in earlier works, there's a hesitancy (or perhaps simply a disinterest) in depicting crisp or recognizable forms.

In Bergman's groovily named "Santa Fe Spiritual Guide Map for Modern Western Man," painted in 1972, an expanse of adobe-colored linen at first seems entirely empty of marks. Up close, though, things start to appear, like a sharp-edged tiny cross in the bottom, for example, or a random spray of black, like a smattering of dark freckles, in the middle left.

Toward the end of the series we see Bergman's hand become more assertive, at least from a mark-making perspective. The titular kidney-shaped beans in "Snow and Red Hair Jammers Insult Quiet Beans" (that title!) indeed seem quiet, nonchalantly floating across a cerulean background, with empty thought bubbles hovering above them. Skinny red lines zip around the picture, and overlaying all of it are evenly spaced, snow-white dots, which obstruct, but also collude with, the image's oddball vibe.

Was Bergman a feminist? "The feminist movement was tailor-made for Ciel," critic Frank, who knew Bergman for decades, says via email. "It didn't liberate her, but allowed her to liberate herself, and to keep liberating herself, one attitude at a time, for the rest of her life."

For Rizzo, the show couldn't come at a better time. I told her 2018 feels (so far, hopefully) like the year of the woman. "Oh totally," she said, "this body of work feels absolutely relevant right now. But at it's essence the story of an artist tktk. These paintings were foundational for Ciel. They became the basis for what she did in her work and in her art; those, for her, were sort of the same, really." When considered against CCA's last big show—the heavy, masculine-feeling metal sculpture of Tom Joyce—Bergman's work occurs not as tender per se, but markedly gentler: easier to be with, maybe.

The Linens stopped in 1977, the same year Bergman neé Bowers was hired as a full-time faculty member at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she taught for nearly two decades. At 50, she legally changed her name in honor of her Swedish grandmother, a ballsy move for an established artist and art professor.

One of her great heroes was that marvelous trickster Marcel Duchamp, whose feminine alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, pops up in the titles of multiple paintings; Bergman certainly would have been familiar with Duchamp's assertion that "art is a game between all people of all periods." Before we think of linen as an artist's material, we think of it as a domestic material, appropriate for tablecloths and bedsheets, along with other things that get laundered, neatly folded and put away. A stack of clean sheets, for example, suggests purity—but also housework, as an act not just of making things clean, but of maintaining order. What's implied here though, by linen; or, more specifically, by the linens as a plural entity, the body or group as Bergman imagined them?

I like to think Bergman relished the implication, the very oppositeness of tidily folded linens against her own linens, which are stained, marked-up—maybe utterly feminine, in some sort of essential way: raw, strange and full of power.

Ciel Bergman: The Linens:
5 pm Friday Feb. 9. Free.
Center for Contemporary Arts,
1050 Old Pecos Trail,