The Eighties in 1970

5.1 / Half-Century

The Eighties in 1970

By Constance Lewallen September 11, 2013

This article originally appeared in The Exhibitionist, Issue 2 (Archive Books: June 2010).

Everyone likes to watch fires…but at a certain point people realized what was going on. Suddenly everyone was quiet. 

On the evening of March 16, 1970, the artist Terry Fox took a flamethrower to a bed of jasmine plants outside the Power Plant Gallery on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, the interim location of the University Art Museum.1 (The new Brutalist building on Bancroft Way opened six months later.) Fox said subsequently, “This was my first political work. By burning a perfect triangle right in the middle, it would look as though someone had destroyed [the plants] on purpose. It was also a theatrical piece. Everyone likes to watch fires…but at a certain point people realized what was going on. Suddenly everyone was quiet. One woman cried for twenty minutes. The next day when people came to have their lunch there, it was just a burned-out plot…It was the same thing they were doing in Vietnam…burning flowers [people] like to sit near.”2

Defoliation, as Fox titled his action, inaugurated the exhibition The Eighties, the brainstorm of two forward-looking young curators, Brenda Richardson and Susan Rannells. Their letter of invitation sent to nineteen artists and designers asked the recipients to make works that envisioned or responded to what the world might be like in the 1980s. The letter said, “It is the responsibility of every individual and every institution to promote an awareness of our present and future environmental conditions and the quality of life as it seems to be evolving. We hope that by taking this first step we can encourage an attitude whereby museums can remain a viable force within the society, rather than continuing toward ultimate self-obsolescence."3 The artists were given wide latitude; all media were welcome; collaboration was encouraged.

Terry Fox. Defoliation, 1970 (still); performance, Power Plant Gallery, University of California, Berkeley, March 16, 1970.

From the beginning, the curators regarded the planning process as integral to the exhibition. In the weeks leading up to the show, four free-wheeling meetings, fueled by beer and marijuana, took place at Richardson’s house with the aim of coming up with a concept all participants could agree upon (signaled by a thumbs-up or a crooked finger). By all accounts, these brainstorming sessions were lively and productive—informal settings where anyone could toss out any idea, however outrageous. They also brought together as equals two generations of artists. William Wiley, Manuel Neri, Jim Melchert, and Mel Henderson were relatively established, all teaching in local university art departments. Some of the younger artists, such as Stephen Laub, Terry Fox, Paul Kos, Howard Fried, John C. Fernie, and Robert Kinmont, were recent graduates or graduate students, meeting here for the first time. They would soon form the core of the nascent Bay Area Conceptual movement, which broke radically with the art of the past.

Artists participating in The Eighties gathered at the home of Brenda Richardson, March 4, 1970. Photos: Neil Houston.

The meeting on March 4, 1970, was tape recorded and transcribed in the catalogue. For the most part it revolved around the idea of having some kind of free space in the show for audience participation. Wiley thought the space should have a painting or an object in it, which people could remove or change. Laub suggested that a psychiatrist could be on hand to talk with people. The curators proposed that the artists might be in the gallery much of the time to talk with visitors or that a dialogue among artists should continue throughout the show. Someone else proposed that an organ be available for anyone to play; another said that there should be a sauna or a one-person, soundproof meditation center. Fox liked the idea of an invisible “room” made with electric circuitry that would cause a mild shock to anyone who entered. (That didn’t happen, but in Paul Kos’s piece, Space Allotment 1980s, visitors who stepped on the “wrong” square triggered an excruciatingly loud alarm.) Jim Melchert thought that artists might donate fifteen minutes of their time to exchange services with visitors.

The pre-show gatherings were utopian in spirit, but the exhibition confronted for the most part a dystopian future.

The curators had expected that artists would work together on installations, but this did not occur. As Stephen Laub wrote in a recent email to me, “We discussed some wild and totally improbable ideas, which stimulated collaborative feeling, but even though the idea exchanges were thrilling, we were also such a bunch of individualists that in the end we responded to the idea of an unknown future in our own ways. The pre-show gatherings were utopian in spirit, but the exhibition confronted for the most part a dystopian future.” But there was still a sense of camaraderie in the galleries as the artists worked side-by-side building their works. In the end, the exhibition did include a free space marked by a neon sign where, on different days, visitors might encounter typewritten statements about the future tacked onto the wall, latex sculptures representing deformed bodies, or even a tombstone etched with images of flowers and the words “Rest Assured.”

Much of the art in the show looked as if it was still in progress, and some of it was. Wayne E. Campbell made a latex room titled Table the Problem. Melchert’s piece consisted of a sheet of Plexiglas covered with water drops and, later, money (put there by others) suspended over the heads of viewers “like a clear and flat wishing well.”4 One of the most elaborate installations was Fried’s Return of the Agrarian Society, made of seven ironing boards representing the seven continents and real vegetables dipped in phosphorescent paint, which glowed when a light turned off every twenty minutes. The vegetables were suspended on rods cantilevered off the boards in such a way that their projected shadows made a map of the world on the wall. Fernie made a formal garden of chrysanthemums. Laub constructed a wood and canvas tower that extended to a hole in the roof (a kind of proto–James Turrell sky room). Warner Jepson, anticipating a future in which direct experiences of nature would be rare, provided a blue space in which visitors could listen to bird sounds on headphones. Henderson planned a sixteen-screen projection showing farm workers, minority communities, and other groups who were beginning to organize, but his ambitions exceeded the available technology. Wiley, ever the optimist, contributed a watercolor depicting a slingshot in the form of a peace symbol and a wooden box from which his faint, tape-recorded voice repeated over and over, “This is the eighties, this is the eighties.”

The simple, spiral-bound catalogue was published after the show opened. In addition to the March 4 conversation (the comments are unattributed in the catalogue version), it contains black-and-white photographs taken at the planning meetings and the opening reception along with a few uncaptioned installation views.

Richardson remembers the show as “a real hodgepodge of concept and ‘object,’ and not the sort of work that’s really subject to critique as art…The experience of the social interaction and the dialogue was more the work of art than the installations themselves.”5 This was confirmed by what little press coverage the show received. Jean Jaszi wrote in Artweek, a newspaper-format critical publication widely read at that time throughout California, “First of all, let nobody think that The Eighties show has anything to do with the future. The show is now, period. It couldn’t relate to any other time except the present moment in Barrow Lane, the University of California at Berkeley, the Art Gallery.”6

It was a tumultuous time there, only a few years after the Free Speech Movement had closed down the campus and in the midst of strong anti-war sentiment and frequent protests and strikes. The mood was rebellious, authority was flouted, and the rage for change was almost palpable. So, yes, The Eighties was of its time. But, looking back, much of it has a strangely contemporary feel. The spirit of collaboration is echoed by current trends toward collective art making. The decision to elide the distinction between gallery and studio, art and life, spectator/observer and artist/participant is a value shared by artists today. The spirit of exchange emerged afresh in the 1990s under the rubric of Relational Aesthetics and still resonates, as evidenced by the 2008–9 exhibition theanyspacewhatever at the Guggenheim Museum. The planning for the two shows was similar. Seeking an alternative model for a group exhibition, curator Nancy Spector called a series of meetings with the ten invited artists beginning several years in advance of the opening, asking them to join her in developing the concept for the show and hoping to foster a spirit of collaboration, just as Richardson and Rannells had in 1970 (although in the latter case, the meetings were held weeks, not years, in advance).

Stephen Laub. Tower, 1970; canvas and wood; 3 x 3 x 27 in.

And, as with The Eighties, group decision making did not result in a great amount of collaboration, or in the production of critically acclaimed art. If The Eighties had a somewhat unfinished look, theanyspacewhatever, according to Spector, was “decidedly empty.”7 This is not to say that experimenting with new curatorial models is not worthwhile, even if at times the process trumps the result. It is heartening to see that the spirit of camaraderie and generosity evinced in 1970 still has resonance forty years later.

Download Jean Jaszi, "A Project for the Eighties," Artweek, Vol. 1, No. 13 (March 28, 1970).

Notes

  1. The museum is now called the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
  2. Terry Fox, interview by Willoughby Sharp, Arts Magazine, May 1970, 48.
  3. Letter to Wayne C. Campbell from Brenda Richardson and Susan Rannells, exhibition file, UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
  4. Free, exhibition catalogue, (UC Berkeley Art Museum, 1970), unpaginated.
  5. From an email to Lewallen from Brenda Richardson, March 19, 2010.
  6. Jean Jaszi, Artweek, March 28, 1970, 1.
  7. Nancy Spector, “theanyspacewhatever: After the Fact,”
 The Exhibitionist, no. 1, January 2010, 51.

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