By Constance Lewallen

Reprinted by permission from Chronicle of the University of California: A Journal of University History Number 6, Spring 2004, pp. 169–72.

From its earliest years the Berkeley Art Museum demonstrated a commitment to radical new art of the region. Assemblage was the dominant form of expression among Beat artists of the 1950s; Bay Area assemblage, dubbed Funk by Berkeley Art Museum director Peter Selz in his eponymous 1967 exhibition, was characterized by a combining of found objects and urban detritus in such a way as to suggest decay. With its sexual and political overtones, assemblage also served as an antidote to the consumerist and conformist fifties. Beat artists, who included Bruce Conner, Wally Hedrick, and Jay DeFeo, among others, stayed underground during the Eisenhower years, but the experimental literary and art movements of the Beat era laid the seeds of the cultural upheavals of the sixties and the emergence of a new avant-garde.

It was, however, the Vietnam War that defined the consciousness of the late 1960s and 1970s. In the waning years of the sixties, it sometimes seemed as if a whole generation was in battle against a morally bankrupt United States government and the corporate establishment it held responsible for the protracted military involvement in Vietnam, the first telegenic war. The fulcrum of protest against inequality at home and the war abroad was the University of California, Berkeley, the scene not only of countless antiwar demonstrations but also of the Free Speech Movement, the 1969 third-world student organization strike, which met with violent police action, and conflicts over People's Park.

Significantly, Berkeley's art museum was one of the major sites to recognize and bring to public view radical changes in the visual arts. Young Bay Area Conceptual artists, like their contemporaries in other parts of the world, were devising entirely new genres of artmaking-performance, video, installation earthworks-that emphasized process over result. If the war did not directly influence the new forms of artistic expression that emerged, it brought into focus attitudinal shifts and alternative life styles. The San Francisco Haight Ashbury neighborhood bordering Golden Gate Park became identified with the hippies and their youthful longings for harmony and freedom, as well as their sexual and drug experimentation. The well-publicized 1967 Summer of Love served as a clarion call to youth everywhere, and those with artistic aspirations moved to the Bay Area to attend one of its many art schools or universities.

At issue among vanguard artists was the nature of the art object as a commodity. Working in forms that were emphatically and deliberately noncommercial, these artists also gravitated toward the use of materials in their raw state to express their disgust with modern society's disregard for and destruction of nature through war and pollution. In response to this new zeitgeist, Berkeley Art Museum curators Brenda Richardson and Susan Rannells presented "The Eighties" in 1970, soon after the museum moved into its new building. Richardson and Rannells asked a group of artists to address in their works what the world would be like in the 1980s. They came up with an array of oddities, including Wayne E. Campbell's latex room titled Table the Problem; James Melchert's wishing well consisting of a sheet of Plexiglas covered with water drops and money suspended over the heads of viewers; and, emanating from a wooden box, William Wiley's faint, tape-recorded voice repeating over and over, "This is the eighties, this is the eighties."

Much of the art in the show looked as if it was still in progress, and some of it was. The artists agreed to spend time in the galleries, working, talking to visitors, and encouraging them to present their own ideas, artwork, poetry, or music in a designated "free space" marked by a neon sign. Depending on the day, one might see typewritten statements about the future tacked onto the wall, or latex sculptures representing deformed bodies, or a tombstone with images of flowers and the words "Rest Assured" etched into it. As one of the artists commented, "You kind of get the public to come in every day to see what's happening, instead of to come to see what has happened . . . that's what we need for the eighties."[1] The decision to blur the distinction between gallery and studio, spectator and artist (observer and participant), art and life came out of several long and freewheeling conversations among the artists[2] and foreshadowed an attitude that would become de rigueur as the decade progressed.

The most infamous piece in the show was Terry Fox's Defoliation, performed on opening night. To express his anger over the U.S. military's scorched earth policy in Vietnam, Fox used a flamethrower-the type used in Vietnam to cremate plants-to burn a section of star jasmine plantings on the Berkeley campus.[3]

"This was my first political work. I wanted to destroy the flowers in a very calculating way. By burning a perfect rectangle right in the middle, it would be like someone had destroyed them on purpose. The flowers were Chinese jasmine, planted five years ago, which were to bloom in two years. It was also a theatrical piece. Everyone likes to watch fires. It was making a beautiful roaring sound. But at a certain point, people realized what was going on-the landscape was being violated, flowers were being burnt. Suddenly, everyone was quiet. One woman cried for twenty minutes . . . . So, then, the next day, when these people came to have their lunch there, it was just a burned-out plot, you know. I mean, it was the same thing they were doing in Vietnam, but you burn some flowers that they like to sit near."[4]

Many of the artists who participated in "The Eighties"-Fox, Howard Fried, Paul Kos, Mel Henderson, Melchert, and others-became leaders of the avant-garde of the seventies that would break radically with the art of the past. Richardson continued to include Conceptualist work in her exhibition schedule, including, in 1973, a one-person exhibition by Fox. "The main installation and activities occurred behind a muslin curtain, so that unless viewers looked through the windows from an exterior balcony, only shadows were visible. Fox made a large drawing of a ribcage on the floor, and a channel that he filled with water from his mouth, one drop at a time."[5] Over a series of days, Fox performed other actions with simple objects and elemental substances.

Fox's show had a strong impact on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a young Korean-born student who created an extraordinary body of work while still at Berkeley.[6] Her video works, artist books, and performances reflected the influence of the Bay Area avant-garde, and also expressed Cha's own condition of cultural and linguistic displacement. After Cha's untimely death in 1982 at the age of 31, the Cha family established the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha archive at the Berkeley Art Museum, which served as the basis for the retrospective exhibition "The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951–1982)."[7]

In 1975 the museum presented nineteen performances over a nine-week period in the series Performance/Art/Artists/Performers, organized by guest curator Carlos Gutierrez-Solano. Among these were Splitting the Axis by Darryl Sapien and Michael Hinton, and performances by Richard Alpert and Linda Montano.[8] Throughout the decade, performances and installations by such leading Bay Area Conceptualists as Tom Marioni, Lynn Hershman, and Paul Cotten took place. (Cotton, dressed as Astral-Naught Rabb-Eye, had performed an unscheduled work at the opening of the museum, the first appearance of this character who made several subsequent appearances.)[9] In 1979, chief curator David Ross established regular weekend video screenings, the first program of its kind in a museum setting, featuring video pioneers Ant Farm, Juan Downey, William Wegman, The Kipper Kids, and Joan Jonas, among many others.

The museum's MATRIX series of moderately scaled individual exhibitions, established by director James Elliott and curated by Michael Auping (1978–1979), Constance Lewallen (1979–1987), Lawrence Rinder (1987–1997), and since 1998 by Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, has featured among its international roster local Conceptual artists of the first and succeeding generations. Jim Pomeroy, Kos, Marioni, Fried, Doug Hall, David Ireland, Nayland Blake, Lewis de Soto, Lutz Bacher, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Jim Campbell, among others, have participated in the program. Fried, Cha, and Kos were given large-scale exhibitions at the museum, in 1983, 2001, and 2003 respectively.

The exhibition program at the museum has always been broad based, reflecting the diverse interests of the campus and Bay Area community. Modern masters such as Franz Marc, Marsden Hartley, and Juan Gris have alternated with exhibitions of national and international avant-garde artists, including Eva Hesse, Dan Flavin, Richard Avedon, Neil Jenny, Jonothan Borofsky, Francesco Clemente, Elizabeth Murray, Rosemary Trockel, James Lee Byars, Jay DeFeo, Joan Brown, Komar and Melamid, Wolfgang Leib, Shirin Nashat, and Fred Wilson. Groundbreaking group shows-"Andre Buren, Irwin Nordman: Space as Support," "Anxious Visions: Surrealist Art," "The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty," "Made in U.S.A.: An Americanization in Modern Art, the '50s and '60s," "In a Different Light " (an examination of gay sensibilities in contemporary art), "The New Child: British Art and the Origins of Modern Childhood, 1730–1830"-by a succession of talented curators, including David Ross, Mark Rosenthal, Sidra Stich, museum director Jacquelynn Baas, Lawrence Rinder, and James Steward, have added depth to the overall program and contributed to its reputation for innovation and excellence.[10]


Constance Lewallen is senior curator for exhibitions at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

[1] Free, 1970, the unpaginated ring-bound catalog that documented the show.
[2] One of the three meetings, which took place on March 4, 1970, was tape recorded and documented in Free.
[3] While sources differ, it seems that this took place in Faculty Glade.
[4] Terry Fox, interview by Achille Bonita Oliva, in Domus, April 1973.
[5] Constance Lewallen, Articulations (Goldie Paley Gallery, Levy Gallery for the Arts in Philadelphia, Moore College of Art and Design, 1992), 16.
[6] Cha received four degrees from UC Berkeley: a B.A. (1973) in comparative literature, and a B.A. (1975), M.A. (1977), and M.F.A.(1978) in art practice. She was greatly influenced by professors James Melchert (sculpture/performance) and Bertrand Augst (film theory), and by screenings of foreign and experimental film at the Pacific Film Archive where she worked as an usher from 1974 to 1977.
[7] After opening at BAM/PFA in the fall of 2001, the exhibition toured to several museums in the U.S. and Europe and to Ssamzie Space in Seoul, South Korea, the first major presentation of Cha's work in her native country.
[8] Susanne Foley, Space Time Sound: Conceptual Art in the San Francisco Bay Area (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1980), 15, 16.
[9] Space Time Sound, 187.
[10] Current programming follows in this tradition, under the directorship of Kevin E. Consey, with a committed curatorial team that includes Lucinda Barnes, who joined the museum as the first senior curator for collections; Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson [1999–June 2005; Chris Gilbert, September 2005–present], Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator; and the author, Constance Lewallen, who is senior curator for exhibitions.

Posted by admin on December 22, 2014