WEBSITE: Orbits of Known and Unknown Objects: SFAI Histories / MATRIX 277

Since its inception at BAMPFA, the MATRIX exhibition series has been anchored by the following key characteristics: flexibility, spontaneity, and experimentation. When creating the series in 1978, then director Jim Elliott wrote: “We hope that MATRIX will from time to time operate as an informal space for experimentation; a place where invited artists can come and initiate new ideas that they might not otherwise consider in a more traditional formal museum context.” The experimental and flexible format of the series has produced some innovative and historically important exhibitions, such as Group Material’s AIDS Timeline for MATRIX 132 (1989–90), which grew into an artists’ book. For MATRIX 161 (1994), the project encompassed six billboards displaying Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work in various locations in Berkeley and Oakland, and MATRIX 229 (2009) assumed the form of a book by the design team Project Projects on the occasion of the series’ thirtieth anniversary. Orbits of Known and Unknown Objects: SFAI Histories / MATRIX 277 continues this spirit of experimentation outside the museum galleries, bringing together a network of individuals to produce an exhibition in the form of a website. In this way, it is the first of its kind within the series’ history.

At its core, the project is a response to the unprecedented moment in which we currently live, the contours of which are shaped by the coronavirus pandemic that has caused museums around the world to shutter their doors and pivot to online programming. The pandemic has had an untold impact on industries, institutions, businesses, schools, and organizations of all shapes and sizes in this country and beyond, which have had to find new ways to operate during this period of physical distancing and financial duress. One institution in particular that was acutely impacted by the pandemic is the legendary Bay Area art school the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), which came under threat of having to permanently close its doors on the cusp of its 150th anniversary. The school is now in the process of reenvisioning its future in the face of the very complicated situation we continue to navigate. MATRIX 277 explores and honors the rich history of SFAI while looking forward to its future. Furthermore, the project is a testament to how institutions can come together during moments of crisis and, through collaboration, find renewed inspiration and support.

The genesis of this project lies in a book that was initiated to commemorate the 150-year history of SFAI, organized by Becky Alexander and Jeff Gunderson, both librarians and archivists at SFAI, and Nina Zurier, an artist, SFAI alumna, and former BAMPFA and SFAI employee. Working in close collaboration with Bay Area design firm MacFadden & Thorpe, the organizers developed the inventive, playful shape for MATRIX 277’s concept and form.

The project’s title takes its inspiration from Bay Area artist, SFAI faculty member, and former student Clay Spohn’s Museum of Unknown and Little-Known Objects (1949), an exhibition that took place at SFAI—then known as the California School of Fine Arts—as part of a fundraiser party themed “the Unknown.” The exhibition consisted of junk Spohn had collected and transformed into artwork, and is often considered a progenitor of the Bay Area Funk movement. Spohn’s “museum” is further featured on the MATRIX 277 website under the entry “Paint Splatter.” The project title also importantly suggests that some of the featured items on the website are known artworks, while others may be lesser known objects that relate to the institution’s history.

The exhibition/website centers on a diverse range of about seventy-five primary objects that engage with or reflect on the history of the venerable art school. Using objects that relate to the institution as points of departure, the platform shines a light on the salient orbits of these objects, which encompass other artworks, people, videos, and places over the trajectory of the school’s history. The primary objects have been selected by Alexander, Gunderson, Zurier, and various invited contributors affiliated with SFAI (including Genine Lentine, April Martin, Rye Purvis, Sherwin Rio, and Christopher Adam Williams), who have then populated the entry with supporting images, links, and videos that relate to the given topic. The entries assume various formats: some are structured as slide shows, others chart connections between the primary objects and their orbiting objects, while still others are long-format essays. Moreover, many objects are artworks made by artists connected to the institution, either as teachers or students, or that have accrued meaningful status within the institution’s history (like “Bonesy”). Certain entries focus on the people and places within the institution, like Studio 9 and Studio 10, which functioned as laboratories for experimentation and innovation, or the meadow, where students and teachers have come together to grow food and contemplate the rejuvenating possibilities for plant and human life. The various “walls” of the exhibition are generated by clicking the reload icon located in the bottom-left corner of the website. Each time a viewer reloads the wall, a new configuration of objects appears. Ten walls have been loosely organized according to various thematic orbits, including Berkeley and SFAI connections, racial justice, the environment, foundational women, ghosts, experimentation, instruction, political activity, transformations, and diagrams. The website’s index page presents all the primary objects from the exhibition in one place.

Several of the objects featured are from BAMPFA’s collection, highlighting the long-standing links between the 151-year-old University of California (and, by extension, BAMPFA) and SFAI. For instance, in the entries entitled “French Paper Clip” and “Mansion,” we learn that, in 1893, the old Mark Hopkins mansion was donated to the University of California to be used by the San Francisco Art Association (the first incarnation of SFAI). Similarly, the entry for the “Coffee Gallery” begins with a photograph in BAMPFA’s collection that Imogen Cunningham took in The Coffee Gallery’s North Beach location, which features the under-recognized, Beat-era poet Bob Kaufman and the actress Linda Cherney. Cunningham was a beloved teacher in SFAI’s photography department for several decades. Additionally, the links listed below the entry direct the reader to information on Kaufman and Cunningham, such as Bill Woodberry’s film on Kaufman, And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead (2015).

Another way the project responds to the current moment is through its foregrounding of racial justice subjects, in addition to overlooked or minority voices, throughout the entries. For example, one entry features Mike Henderson’s painting Non Violence (1968), which depicts a murderous police officer with an arm band emblazoned with a swastika and a small peace symbol who violently slashes two Black men. Of this scene, the artist stated (as recounted in the entry): “I wanted to draw a parallel between what the cops were doing at that time and what the Nazis did to the Jews and others in Europe during [World War II]. Policemen may think they’re the ones fighting for peace, but peace is just a word that can be used by anybody. I was interested in that contradiction between ‘peace officers’ and their behavior.” Seen through today’s eyes, this painting serves as a powerful commentary on the renewed calls to reform the police as a result of the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, SFAI alumnus Casper Banjo, and so many others.

Taken as a whole, during this challenging time, this project is an important reminder for all of us to question what we bring into our orbits in the age of too much information, which is all too often received quickly and in a way that we cannot thoughtfully and coherently process. We each choose the objects and information (both virtually and IRL) that we bring into our personal orbits, and those have known and unknown effects on us. We must be more conscientious, selective, and mindful of what we invite into our orbits. We invite you to explore the website and the many known and unknown objects in SFAI’s orbit.

—Apsara DiQuinzio, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and Phyllis C. Wattis MATRIX Curator