The Linoleum Symbol of a New and Coming Faith

5.1 / Half-Century

The Linoleum Symbol of a New and Coming Faith

By Jessica Brier September 11, 2013

Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together. It will combine architecture, sculpture, and painting in a single form, and will one day rise towards the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith. —Walter Gropius, “Bauhaus Manifesto,” 19191

At first glance, the ideals of the Bauhaus and the cultish inspiration drawn from the “slant step”—a mysterious object purchased for fifty cents from a second-hand store in 1965—couldn’t be more clearly at odds. But there is something about the utter failure of the slant step as a utilitarian object, and therefore its whole-hearted adoption as a talismanic art object—one that embodied the spirit of an underground, artistic avant-garde—that is perfectly in keeping with the Bauhaus ideal of marrying fine art and design into a utopian whole. Then again, the slant step is also just funny.

Exhibition catalogue cover (detail) for The Slant Step Show, 1966.

A small wooden object resembling a footstool or tiny chair, with a straight back and a riser on a 45-degree angle, covered with green linoleum, the slant step was a tacky object without an obvious purpose. The artist William T. Wiley discovered and named this oddity in 1965 at the Mt. Carmel Salvage Shop in Mill Valley, California, not far from his home at the time:

According to Bruce Nauman, Wiley spent a lot of time simply looking at the thing by himself in the store, and eventually brought Nauman to see it. Wiley finally bought it for fifty cents and gave it to Nauman for Christmas. Nauman planned to take the step to a carpenter’s shop and have an edition of copies made, but he never did; he cast a mold of it, but most of the time it served as a footstool in his studio.2

Had the slant step been a more functional object, it would certainly not have caught Wiley’s attention.

The slant step was adopted as a sort of de-facto sculpture. For Wiley and Nauman—and eventually the group of artists who contributed to the Slant Step Show in 1966 at Berkeley Gallery—it represented the radical possibilities of where an artwork might begin and the kinds of subjects that were appropriate for art making.

Had the slant step been a more functional object, it would certainly not have caught Wiley’s attention and become emblematic of absurdist humor for him and Nauman. In their hands, the slant step transcended its status as a useless, unsightly oddity and became a found sculpture of unknown origin and intent onto which they might project their own artistic impulses. It was the object’s pedestrian nature and ambiguous functionality that made it intriguing. It even seemed possible that the slant step was an artist’s joke inserted into the world of regular objects. It looks more like a tiny chair than a stepladder, and of course the 45-degree slant renders the object impossible to step or sit on. Its nickname is an oxymoron. Nauman did recall using it to prop up his feet while working in his studio, a task he said it performed well.3

Today, the slant step presents a classic art historian’s problem: there is a truth (or at least there are certain facts) and a myth to be sorted out and pulled apart, but the shape of each is still undefined. This essay is as much of an attempt to separate fact from myth while still contending with the relationship between the two. After all, what’s most interesting about the slant step is how such a modest object has become so embedded in the telling and retelling of the story of Bay Area experimental practice that it has taken on totemic proportions.4

Anonymous. The original "slant step"; wood, linoleum, and rubber; 18.88 x 15 x 12.25 in. New York Society for the Preservation of the Slant Step.

Which came first? The Slant Step Show or the group of artists that rallied around the object that inspired it? The answer, it seems, is both. According to the recollection of Jim Melchert, who participated in the Slant Step Show and who taught at the University of California, Berkeley at that time, the cohesion of the show began with a large, loosely associated group of artists living and working in various corners of the Bay Area. At the core of this group was Wiley and his high-school buddies Robert Hudson, William Allen, and William Witherup—who was, unlike the others, a writer rather than a visual artist.5 Witherup held an interesting position in this group of avant-gardes, bridging the concerns and ideals of the Beat generation with those of the burgeoning Funk and California Conceptual movements. This group included artists connected through friendships and various school affiliations (primarily the University of California, Davis, where Wiley was a teacher and counted the young Bruce Nauman among his students, and UC Berkeley, where Melchert had studied and then taught).         

In 1966, Berkeley Gallery invited Witherup to mount an exhibition; Witherup convened Wiley, Hudson, and Allen, along with the larger circle of artists they associated with, including Melchert and Jerry Ballaine from Berkeley, as well as Bill Geiss, Bob Nelson, and Nauman, among others.6,7 After several meetings, a dominating idea had not surfaced, and Wiley became impatient with the slow progress of the project. He announced to the group that he and Bruce Nauman had discovered an object at a thrift shop that had become an inspiration to both of them and that could be used as a springboard for all of the artists included in the group to make new work.

The slant step was the physical embodiment of ideas that had been percolating for both Wiley and Nauman.

For Wiley and Nauman, the slant step was the physical embodiment of ideas that had been percolating for both of them—a catalyst and an excuse to do something new—and it played an important role in changing their relationship from one of teacher and student to one of peers. Both were interested in rethinking what an appropriate or interesting source for an artwork might be. Formally intriguing and conceptually perplexing, the slant step was a ridiculous provocation. It was banal, incidental, even silly, which made it that much more appealing to this group of artists interested in looking beyond heady theory or supposedly important subject matter. At the time, Wiley was particularly interested in the notion of the enigma, and the slant step was nothing if not enigmatic.8 Both Wiley and Nauman incorporated puns and wordplay into their work, and the slant step, with its absurd nickname, fit this bill as well.

When Wiley declared that the Berkeley Gallery show would take the slant step as its source of inspiration, or he would quit the project, some artists in the group complied and others dropped out, dismissing the idea.9 The artists who participated in the show were, in addition to Wiley: Dorothy Wiley (his wife), Jeanette Wiley, William Allan, William Witherup, Jack Fulton, Robert Hudson, James Balyeat, Robert Anderson, Charles Wiley, Gary Groves, Jerrold Ballaine, Robert Nelson, Jack Ogden, Jim Melchert, George Neubert, Dick Pervier, William Geis, Paul Heald, Jack Fulton, Dan Welch, and Louise Pryor.

William T. Wiley. Slant Step Becomes Rhino/Rhino Becomes Slant Step, 1966; plaster, acrylic, paint, and chain; 22 x 12 x 12 in. Collection of Bonnie Ruder and Ron Wagner.

The Slant Step Show included sculpture (such as Melchert’s wall-mounted earthenware Anti-Slant Step Wall Sculpture and Wiley’s altered plaster cast, Slant Step Becomes Rhino / Rhino Becomes Slant Step); drawings and paper ephemera (such as Witherup’s The Slant Chant); and an x-ray of the slant step—along with the exhibition’s titular object.10 Each participating artist was responsible for installing his or her own work, and each did so in a more or less traditional manner (such as using walls and pedestals, and spacing the works evenly throughout the galleries). However, on their way home from installation, the Marin artists in the show (including Wiley and Witherup) decided that they were unsatisfied with the way it was installed and went back to the gallery in the middle of the night to make changes.11 Jim Melchert recalls that the other artists who participated were not consulted about this, so they arrived at the opening to find everything in the show in a single pile. In Nauman’s words, “After the S.S. show was set up, some people sneaked back to the gallery late and night and took all the work and piled it in a corner. When the show opened and the artists saw the pile some liked it and some didn’t...[as a result,] people just came into the gallery and pawed through the stuff.”12

Critical reception to the show was nearly non-existent. According to the press release for Speaking Slant Step, a kind of retrospective exhibition about the slant step and its following (at the Richard L. Nelson Gallery at UC Davis, 2005–06), “The San Francisco Chronicle reported [about the original show] that there were ‘slant-steps made of bread, of colored plastic with electric lights inside, of wood and metal and silk and probably of chewing gum, too: it’s that kind of show.’”13 Objects of this description were created for the opening, many of which were consumed or discarded. According to Nauman, he lent the actual slant step to the exhibition, from which it was eventually stolen by Richard Serra.14 Serra took it back to New York City, where Frank Owen and Stephen Kaltenbach were living at the time. At some point, Owen took possession of it and lent it to Kaltenbach for a conceptual project, a collaboration with the artist Rosa Esman and the industrial designer Bill Plumb, which entailed commissioning Plumb to redesign the slant step “to emphasize consumer appeal.”15 

Formally intriguing and conceptually perplexing, the slant step was a ridiculous provocation.

The Slant Step Show has had a ripple effect in the Bay Area art world as the myth of its influence has gelled over time with continued circulation. Joy Bertinuson organized Flatlanders on the Slant in the summer of 2012 as a guest curator at the Nelson Gallery, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Slant Step Show and showcasing work made about it over five decades. That same year, UC Davis announced its acquisition of the original object, which has had a circuitous (and somewhat mysterious) journey around the United States before making its way back to the Bay Area. After Owen came to possess it, he took it all over the country, using it as a teaching aid (such as a life-drawing model). However, Nauman remembered that the slant step at one point was brought back to the Bay Area from Philadelphia, and Nauman brought it to Bill Yates’s house in Bolinas, where he left it.16 These accounts of the slant step’s path don’t quite add up, which is telling. What is certain is that the slant step had many different lives in and around art making throughout the past several decades.

Stephen Kaltenbach. Slantstep 2, 1969; fiberglass and rubber. Courtesy of the Artist.

Key to understanding the slant step and its significance in the mid-1960s is the fact that the artists who participated in the Slant Step Show were working far outside the mainstream of Bay Area art practice, as it was being taught at local art schools and exhibited at museums and established galleries at the time. Much alternative art practice in the 1960s was a reaction against the dominance of the Bay Area Figurative School, a loose style typified by the work of Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Paul Wonner, and David Park, among others.17

The Bay Area Figurative School painter Manuel Neri described the burgeoning notion of material experimentation in the later 1950s and early 1960s this way:

The whole funk idea was to look into new ideas and new materials. Schools satisfied no one…We treated everything equally—painting, drawing, sculpture, everything was important. The same thing with junk. A lot of people used house paint. No one worried much if some of it fell off...18

Neri’s assessment of the changing tides of that moment reflect the influence of artists—including Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Joan Brown, Bruce Conner, Jess, and Wallace Berman—now identified with the Beat generation. These artists revolutionized Bay Area art practice by taking its progression beyond the pendulum-like swing between abstraction and figuration, which was the tendency of innovation for their teachers and their teachers’ teachers. These artists ignored barriers between mediums, rejecting the idea that one was simply a painter or a sculptor, instead embracing a sense that an artist is free to experiment with the properties of any medium. What’s more, nontraditional materials became essential to artistic experimentation.19 The approach to making art was opened through the experimentation of these artists in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Although the Slant Step Show was a quirky experiment, it has come to represent an important crossroads of many artistic practices in the Bay Area. The exhibition brought together artists working in the vein of Funk (including Wiley) and abstract sculpture (including Weiss, Ballaine, Hudson, and Melchert, who is also associated with 1970s Conceptualism) and writers like Witherup. Kaltenbach adds another art style to this list: “[The slant step’s] uselessness and careful but humble construction and its naïve sincerity put it into Arte Povera, which may not have been named yet.”20

These artists brought themselves together; the slant step was simply a strange provocation and a solution to the problem of having too many cooks in the kitchen. But the slant step and the Slant Step Show happened at a crucial moment in the Bay Area:

The styles and movements that began to proliferate in the early 1960s…marked a watershed, a fundamental change in sensibility. By the end of the 1970s…contemporary art no longer functioned primarily as a critique of culture that remained fundamentally estranged from it, as it had in the 1940s and 1950s. It had become a firmly established branch of contemporary culture…21

The slant step by no means broke down divisions and alliances between and among artists (Kaltenbach recalls not attending the Slant Step Show because he no longer wanted to associate with Funk and was trying to make a clean break into Minimalism).22 Still, though it was in some way random, the introduction of the slant step into the local art community by Wiley, one of the Bay Area’s most influential teachers in the mid-1960s, helped it become a symbol of this experimental moment.

Phil Weidman (pictured), Steve Jongeward, and Nancy Gotthart. Slant Step as Headgear, 1968.

The slant step was arguably a kind of logo that helped artists to self-identify as part of an avant-garde circle, however loose and unarticulated.23 The Slant Step Show, and the book that followed in 1969, gave a permanent brand to that circle of loosely associated individuals. This brand was characterized by an attraction to absurdist, often self-deprecating humor that is arguably a defining characteristic of Bay Area Conceptualism. Notably, this was one of the first artist-organized exhibitions of its time. Artist-organized exhibitions and happenings, often in non-art or alternative spaces, were an important hallmark of alternative practices. The Slant Step Show arguably paved the way for Peter Selz’s Funk exhibition in 1967 at the University Gallery at UC Berkeley, which included both Melchert’s Anti-Slant Step Wall Sculpture and Wiley’s Slant Step Becomes Rhino / Rhino Becomes Slant Step. The slant step is, in Frank Owen’s words,

...so characteristic about an attitude that Bay Area artists had—well, compared to New York—at the time. In New York, it was driven by ideologies and by theory and a handful of powerful critics—Clement Greenberg and some others. Out in the Bay Area, artists would just as soon go trout fishing or tune up their motorcycles or play baseball as make art. You couldn’t afford to be an ideologue.24

It is fitting, then, that an object—rather than an ideology—became the inspiration for alternative practices in the Bay Area among this group of artists. By serving no obvious purpose, the slant step was able to be many things to many people. And just as the Bauhaus upheld that an Eames chair and an Albers painting were of the same value, the slant step was elevated to the status of art precisely because it sat so precariously between the worlds of art and design, neither of which it quite fit into. The Slant Step Show was the event that turned this castoff object into a mascot for the offbeat alternative to everything else, which continues to define Bay Area creative practice.

Download "Letter from Peter Saul," August 19, 1968, from The Slant Step Book, p. 28-29.

Notes

  1. Charles W. Haxthausen, “Walter Gropius and Lyonel Feininger: Bauhaus Manifesto, 1919,” Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity, ed. Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 64–66.
  2. Thomas Albright, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–1980: An Illustrated History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 127.
  3. Thomas Weaver, “A Certain Slant,” interview with Frank Owen, University of Vermont, 2011, http://alumni.uvm.edu/vq/summer2010/slant.asp. Accessed May 15, 2013.
  4. As I will go on to show, Wiley and Nauman certainly played a part in crafting the object’s mythology, often embellishing facts to bolster its mystery.
  5. From a telephone conversation between the author and Jim Melchert, May 26, 2013.
  6. Berkeley Gallery, originally located on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, was an artist-run cooperative space that relocated to San Francisco not long before the Slant Step Show. Melchert recalls that Berkeley Gallery generally featured the work of its members, but it sometimes invited non-members to mount exhibitions there.
  7. These artists generally convened casually with their partners, spouses, and children on Sunday afternoons for outdoor picnics. One of their semi-regular meetings was co-opted as a discussion for a collaborative exhibition.
  8. Conversation with Jim Melchert.
  9. Conversation with Jim Melchert.
  10. Although he did not participate in the show, Nauman had built two molds for what he called a “modernized Slant Step” and began to make a movie with William Allen in 1966 on how to build a slant step, which was never completed. Phil Weidman and Frank Owen, “Bruce Nauman Interview,” Slant Step Book (Sacramento: The Art Company, 1969), 7.
  11. Conversation with Jim Melchert.
  12. Weidman and Owen, 8.
  13. Press release, Speaking Slant Step, Richard L. Nelson Gallery, University of California, Davis, October 6, 2005–January 6, 2006.
  14. Weidman and Owen, 7.
  15. From an email to the author from Stephen Kaltenbach, June 8, 2013.
  16. Weidman and Owen, 8.
  17. Notably, Bay Area Figurative painting arose in the mid-1950s as a reaction to—though not strictly a rejection of—Abstract Expressionism. Albright, 57–79.
  18. Albright, 72.
  19. Neri’s reference to the use of house paint no doubt had in mind DeFeo’s epic masterpiece The Rose, completed in 1964.
  20. Email from Stephen Kaltenbach.
  21. Albright, 111.
  22. Email from Stephen Kaltenbach.
  23. This exhibition, among several others of that time, began to give shape and character to alternative practices in the Bay Area, illustrating the ways California art practice was distinct from that of New York, and further distinguishing what characterized Bay Area art from that of Los Angeles.
  24. Weaver, Ibid.

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