Thoughts on a hot, committed, bizarre, sensuous, ugly, and ungainly form of art

5.1 / Half-Century

Thoughts on a hot, committed, bizarre, sensuous, ugly, and ungainly form of art

By Roula Seikaly September 11, 2013

Do you know or care what funk is?1

Too messy to be minimalist, too representational to be abstract expressionist, and...too “California” to be considered serious art

In the introduction to the catalogue for the 1967 exhibition, Funk, the curator Peter Selz writes that the term funk was “borrowed from jazz: since the Twenties, Funk was jargon for the unsophisticated deep-down New Orleans blues played by marching bands, the blues that give you that happy/sad feeling…Funk art is hot rather than cool; it is committed rather than disengaged; it is bizarre rather than formal; it is sensuous; and frequently it is quite ugly and ungainly.”2 Using evocative imagery, Selz creates a quasi-definition of Funk, a developing idea of the form through juxtapositions. Harold Paris, an artist and writer with whom Selz collaborated on the exhibition, suggested that artists were not “consciously creating funk art. Among funk artists, there is little interchange of ideas, nor is there any great desire to talk about their work… When anyone asks what funk is, the answer is ‘when you see it, you know it.’”3 When interviewed by the biographer Paul J. Karlstrom, Selz was asked again to define Funk art. He demurred, choosing to say Funk was “a bohemian kind of art.”4 With or without a precise definition, Selz and his collaborators were attuned to the profound shift that had taken place in Bay Area art production, one that moved away from the figural movement of the 1950s and toward an examination of materials, modes of production, and the role of the institution in the production of meaning.

Described by the artist John Coplans as “bizarre, naïve, and vulgar,” the art that came to be known as Funk fell neatly out of the prescribed stylistic and aesthetic categories to which art of the time was assigned.5 Too messy to be minimalist, too representational to be abstract expressionist, and—for some who adhered to the centricity of New York styles—too “California” to be considered serious art, the work ultimately exhibited in Funk reflected the deeply held personal, political, and spiritual beliefs of its makers. For Funk’s artists, Funk was a response to forces at work in the world: notably, the intransigence of the Cold War, the us-versus-them mentality (with which we are all too familiar in 2013), and the all-but-inescapable effect of Madison Avenue and wholesale consumerism. Both the socio-political atmosphere in the United States and the perception that creative practice was being co-opted spurred many artists to consider the implications of living in an increasingly disposable environment and how that climate impacted their choice of materials. In describing the mission of the Rat Bastard Protection Association—a group formed in 1959 that included Manuel Neri, Joan Brown, Wally Hedrick, Wallace Berman, Jess, and George Herms—as a haven for those who were “making things with the detritus of society,” Bruce Conner offered the best description of what the assemblage artists at work in San Francisco committed to: the use of materials discarded by a society that valued capitalism, consumption, and war-mongering over peaceful coexistence.6 To that state of affairs, and the cool, theoretical remoteness of first Abstract Expressionism and then Minimalism, Funk artists uttered a collective “fuck you” and went about cultivating both the community and the context in which their work would best be seen.7

Who is the funkiest person you can think of (fictional or otherwise)?

James Melchert. Silvery Heart, 1963; glazed earthenware. 14 x 14 x 10 in.

The number of Funk artists varied across the years, depending on who was living in which apartment or house in the Fillmore neighborhood where they congregated. Most well-known is Bruce Conner, who moved to San Francisco with his wife, the artist Jean Sandstedt, in 1957. Conner’s assemblage pieces, which began with painting but quickly moved beyond just canvas to incorporate discarded materials including nylon, wire, and twine, embody the artist’s disillusionment with the world at large. Wally Hedrick, whose occupations included artist, activist, and gallerist, was praised by the historian Rebecca Solnit as “a man ahead of his time” for experimenting with kinetic sculpture and the appropriation of controversial imagery such as the American flag, well in advance of the much more prominent artist Jasper Johns.8 Jay DeFeo, whose acclaimed 2012 retrospective reinforced the artist’s centrality to contemporary art in the postwar period, was, along with Joan Brown, one of the few women to emerge from the Funk collective. And finally, Wallace Berman, the poet and editor of Semina magazine, was regarded by his peers as the father of Funk but was left out of the 1967 exhibition at UC Berkeley Art Museum (BAM/PFA), much to the vocal dismay of his friends and supporters. Along with the poet Robert Duncan and his partner, the artist Jess, these artists formed the loose core whose aesthetic and political opinions fueled Funk art at its peak of production. And when the exhibition opened at BAM/PFA, these artists were also among its most passionate critics.

Selz was far from the funkiest person that Connor and company would ever meet

Given the nature of bohemian life in San Francisco during the ’50s and ’60s, it was unusual to find a curator with Peter Selz’s academic background visiting artists’ studios. Born in Munich in 1919, Selz was first exposed to visual art through his grandfather, who took him to museums and galleries to supplement his primary education. Selz’s pursuit of an arts career continued when he immigrated to the United States in 1936. After a short stint at Columbia University and service in the Army during World War II, Selz enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he earned a PhD. His dissertation, which analyzed German Expressionism within a broad socio-political context, was among the first written in the United States that did not focus on style or connoisseurship. Selz moved between the East and West Coasts, first accepting a teaching position at Pomona College in Los Angeles and then returning to New York and a position at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). He was eventually lured back to California in 1965, this time to the Bay Area, with the promise that he would be the founding director and curator at BAM/PFA. Selz was far from the funkiest person that Connor and company would ever meet, but his desire to work with contemporary artists made participation in Funk appealing to the artists he invited.

The more, the funkier!

Funk opened in 1967 and featured the work of Bruce Conner, Arlo Acton, Bob Anderson, Jeremy Anderson, Robert Arneson, Mowry Baden, Jerrold Ballaine, Sue Bitney, Joan Brown, Roy De Forest, William Geis, David Gilhooly, Mel Henderson, Robert Hudson, Jean Linder, James Melchert, William Morehouse, Manuel Neri, Harold Paris, Don Potts, Kenneth Price, Peter Saul, Peter Voulkos, William T. Wiley, and Franklin Williams. Installed in the university’s Powerhouse Gallery (the current location of BAM/PFA, designed by Mario Ciampi, did not open until November 1970), the exhibition included diverse manifestations of the Funk aesthetic. Where Connor’s Snore (1960) best demonstrated the potential of cast-off materials as viable artistic media, and Baden’s interactive Delivery Suite (1965) challenged visitors’ sensory and physical perceptions, Brown’s monumental Fur Rat (1962) constituted both a menacing link between figural sculpture and Funk and a pointed commentary on consumerism. From the installation photographs, we can see that the sculptures included in Funk were arranged to maximize the audience’s encounter with them. Visitors were encouraged to get close, to take in the smell and sight of detritus now reconfigured as fine art.

David Gilhooly. Cynthia Camel Trophy, 1966; white earthenware and glaze; 50 in. high. Courtesy of the Artist.

During its early April to mid-May run, Funk was attended by more than forty thousand visitors. Selz pointed to this statistic as an indication that the art-appreciation set approved of his unconventional methods of exhibition making. Funk arrived close on the heels of Selz’s first and equally successful exhibition in Berkeley, Directions in Kinetic Sculpture (1966), and he was confident that the museum’s programming was meeting its mandate to serve the academic community and advance dialogue about trends in contemporary art. Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, the critic William Wilson endorsed Selz’s work, stating that the curator had “put his finger into the midst of a significant, if goopy, West Coast movement,” and that his explanation of Funk in the catalogue essay was spot-on.9 Wilson also added an important critical point, stating that the objects move beyond shock or revulsion and offer “subtle allusions” to consumerism, materiality, and artistic process. For Wilson, this made the exhibition a notable success.

How do you think funk art, and your funk art in particular, relates to other art—past, present, and/or future? Or doesn’t it?

Selz and Funk also had numerous detractors, including the artists whose work was exhibited. During a symposium held as part of the public programming for Funk, Bruce Conner and several other artists interrupted Selz in the midst of discussion. Their dissatisfaction stemmed from what they understood as Selz’s wholesale application of the term Funk to their work when classification was the last form of institutional sanction they sought. Conner and the others registered their complaints through disruptive actions, including throwing items into the audience and playing a bugle. Selz was unaware that the artists would act out during the presentation, and when the symposium was irretrievably disrupted, he cut the proceedings short.10

His hope was earnest but perhaps naïve, as the movement had already expired from the point of view of the artists whose work Funk featured.

Writing for Artforum, James Monte echoed much of the frustration the artists expressed, arguing that Selz had been in search of a “school” he could discover well before he arrived in the Bay Area, perhaps to cement his standing as a star curator.11 Further, Monte posits that by the time the exhibition opened, the time for Funk had come and gone. If the output of a single artist (Bruce Conner, for example) is considered, Monte’s assertion makes sense. Conner’s last assemblage piece was produced in 1964, at which point he dedicated himself full-time to working in film. Though many of the artists included in Funk continued to produce work similar to what was featured in the exhibition, others moved on, as Conner did, to take up other formal and material concerns.

It is shortsighted to dismiss Selz’s interest in Funk and its makers as a means to a professional end. By numerous accounts, Selz move from New York to San Francisco was spurred by a genuine desire to found a museum on the West Coast that was worthy of attention.12 Furthermore, Selz’s interest in what he described as a “genuine regional art movement” was supported by similar interest and connections with emerging artists during his time at MoMA and Pomona College, where he was the director and curator of the college’s small art gallery. However, Monte hit on something when he wrote that the importance of Funk had been established well before Selz arrived in San Francisco.

A look at two recent reconsiderations of the Funk era emphasizes the importance of the artist-run galleries to the production and reception of Funk art. The first was a feature in Receipt of Delivery (a weekly series on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Open Space blog that highlighted Bay Area exhibition mailers from the museum’s research library); the second was Beat by the Bay, an exhibition at Ever Gold Gallery, curated by the artist and alternative art historian John Held, Jr. Tracing the impact of artist-run galleries in San Francisco through the 1950s and ’60s, Held’s exhibition demonstrates that the galleries associated with Funk art—King Ubu Gallery, Six Gallery, East and West, Spatsa, Batman, and Dilexi Galleries—were founded and programmed as spaces for experimentation and perhaps impermanence. Moreover, the galleries attracted transplants from the East Coast—Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, whose writing defined the Beat Generation—and whose association with Funk artists nurtured critical and artistic dialogue.

In the introduction of the Funk catalogue, Selz states earnestly his hope that the exhibition will not “freeze or inhibit the free further development of Funk.”13 His hope was earnest but perhaps naïve, as the movement had already expired from the point of view of the artists whose work Funk featured. While assemblage as an artistic pursuit was not abandoned completely, the major institutional statement about the movement and its artists had been made in 1961 with the exhibition The Art of Assemblage, which, as it turns out, Selz pitched to his future MoMA employers during an interview. In the end, Selz’s argument for a viable, possibly unique Bay Area art movement arrived too late, if the intended outcome was a new chapter in American art history. With Kynaston McShine’s groundbreaking Primary Structures opening at the Jewish Museum in 1966, and the anointing of Minimalism as the art movement of the 1960s, time had run out for both Funk and Funk. What had staying power was the mildly derogatory label of Funk, which came to be associated primarily with the UC Davis artists Robert Arneson, William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest, and their students, notably David Gilhooly, and became a reductive shortcut and national signpost for the art of Northern California for decades.

Notes

  1. The section titles for this article are drawn from Peter Selz’s preparatory survey for the participating artists in the 1967 exhibition, Funk, from the UC Berkeley Art Museum archives.
  2. Peter Selz, Funk (Berkeley: University of California, 1967), 3.
  3. Harold Paris, “Sweet Land of Funk,” Art in America 55 (March 1967): 94–98.
  4. Paul J. Karlstrom, Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art (Berkeley: University of California, 2012), 128.
  5. John Coplans, Assemblage in California (Irvine: University of California, 1968), 8.
  6. Peter Selz, Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond (Berkeley: University of California, 2006), 89.
  7. Given the physical proximity the artists maintained in living situations, shared studio space, and group exhibitions, Harold Paris’s assertion that there was no overlap or discussion of Funk is improbable.
  8. Rebecca Solnit, Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era (San Francisco: City Lights, 1990), 48.
  9. William Wilson, “Exhibition of 58 Works Presented at UC Berkeley,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 30, 1967.
  10. Kevin Hatch, Looking for Bruce Conner (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 238.
  11. James Monte, “‘Making It’ with Funk,” Artforum 5 (Summer 1967): 56–59.
  12. Paul J. Karlstrom notes that Selz was enticed to move to Berkeley with a promised one million dollars per year for acquisitions, the acquisition of Hans Hofmann’s art collection, and a deal with Peggy Guggenheim to present her collection and construct a study center bearing her name. (Those plans were abandoned when Ronald Reagan was elected governor in 1966. Reagan promptly fired the UC president and Selz supporter Clark Kerr.) These factors certainly contributed to Selz’s relocation and interest in the new museum on the Berkeley campus. Karlstrom, 138–142.
  13. Selz, Funk, 2.

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