3.14 / Review

State of Mind : New California Art circa 1970

By Terri Cohn May 2, 2012

Thumbnail: Bonnie Sherk. Sitting Still II, November 1970, from the Sitting Still series (still); performance, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Research Library and Archives. Photo: Campbell/Chamois Moon.

Entering the lower level of the Berkeley Art Museum to view State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970, I was instantly transported into a historic moment as I encountered Paul Kos’s The Sound of Ice Melting (1970/2011), a wonderful early play on audience participatory artwork. Absurdist, Buddhist, and Arte Povera in attitude and reference, Kos’s piece in this instance was also informed by Ella Fitzgerald’s melodic voice wafting from the nearby museum café, which set a romantic tone for my quiet, mid-afternoon visit.

Walking toward the stairs that lead to the museum’s main level, Tom Marioni’s Process Print (1969), together with Terry Fox’s match and smoke piece, Untitled (1970-71), on a wall opposite, create a natural segue into an expanded consideration of the actions-based art of several key Conceptual artists. John Knight’s I Assumed (1972)—a set of fifty text works on index cards—introduces language-based Conceptual art, and these first glimpses of the exhibition are rounded out by John Baldessari’s Throwing Three Balls Into the Air to get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-six Attempts) (1973). Baldessari’s artist’s book demonstrates his systems-based attempts to create an “arbitrary order” while simultaneously acknowledging that all systems of ordering are arbitrary. In this introductory spatial arrangement, State of Mind presents actions, language, and systems as the three main branches of Conceptual art by simply showing, rather than telling, viewers these roots of California Conceptualist practice during the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Performance and the central positioning of the artist are vital aspects of ’70s Conceptual art and are represented in this gallery by key artists and works like T.R. Uthco’s (Doug Hall, Jody Proctor, and Diane Andrews Hall) 8 Gestures (1970/2011). A sense of humor, which Hall describes as “performances for the camera,” emerges in the work almost like a series of sketches. Richard Jackson’s Moon Piece (1970)—a minimalist photographic series of lines in black space—introduces ideas about chance in art making, a heritage generally linked to John Cage. Of particular significance here is Alexis Smith’s Charlie Chan Piece (1973), which brings gender play into the mix. Such pieces reinforce the value assigned to the artist or the participant as subject during this period.

However, the rest of the exhibition is in tension with the synergistic “state of mind” clearly depicted in the museum’s first gallery. Because of the fact that Conceptual art is idea based rather than media based, much of the work on view is photographic and video documentation of performances—documentation that necessarily falls short of the actual, collective experience of viewers at the time. The complexity of representing this allied sensibility is reinforced by the fact that the exhibition sets out to illuminate the elements that made California Conceptualism distinctive from its counterpart on the East Coast: the focus on “collectivity, ephemerality, body-oriented performance, the merging of art and life, political commentary, and social interaction”—ideas

Paul_McCarthy_-_May_1_1971

Paul McCarthy. May 1, 1971 (detail), 1971; twenty-five projected slides. Courtesy of the Artist and Hauser and Wirth.

William_Wegman_-_A_Basic_Guide_to_Lettering

William Wegman. A Basic Guide to Lettering, 1972; two black-and-white photographs; 11 x 14 in. each. Courtesy of the Artist and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles.

that have continued to influence artists over the past forty years. This meta-narrative is met by the exhibition but at a cost, and the immediacy of much of the original work is difficult for an uninitiated viewer to grasp.1

As a result, some of the works that suffer the most are those focused on location, such as Paul McCarthy’s May 1, 1971 (1971) and Douglas Huebler’s Location Piece #6, Los Angeles, March 1969 (1969). While these artists were interested in what defined urban spaces, their ability to communicate to viewers diminishes by proximity to such deliberate pieces as Kos’s video Roping Boar’s Tusk (1971) and William Wegman’s photographic diptych A Basic Guide to Lettering (1972). The insertion of human subject matter into Kos’s video and Wegman’s photographs—which were performed specifically for the camera—creates a sense of immediacy and inserts a welcome comedic sidebar into the artists’ play with spatial perception. However, there are some projects that can be readily appreciated in their documentary form, such as Bonnie Sherk’s Portable Parks and Sitting Still series (both 1970), which were performed and documented at unique locations including the former James Lick Freeway that crossed over Market Street and the lion house at the San Francisco Zoo.

One of the most significant aspects of Conceptual art practice was the exploration of the liminal space where art and life meet, and some of the most powerful works representing this practice are those where the artist has worked with his or her body as primary medium.2 Again, the explorations range from such personal/political pieces as Terry Fox’s Pisces (1971), a response to his struggle with Hodgkin’s disease, to Eleanor Antin’s Carving: A Traditional Sculpture (1972), a thirty-day weight-loss documentation. The often gendered difference in such a body-oriented performance space becomes evident when comparing endurance works. One such study in contrasts is Chris Burden’s play with danger and death (Shoot, 1971) and Linda Montano’s sustained art/life works, such as her three-hour-long Lying: Dead Chicken, Live Angel (Chicken Bed) (1972) and her 1973 three-day performance in which she handcuffed herself to artist Tom Marioni. Barbara T. Smith’s Feed Me (1973/2009) operates in the interval between these two extremes—danger and violence opposed to attenuated stillness. For this performance, Smith allowed visitors to enter a space where she left herself open to any interaction with them, effectively shifting responsibility for behavior onto the audience or performance. Conversely, Suzanne Lacy, whose work includes perpetual concern with spectacles of violence against women and animals, engages with a level of activism that earned her the debatable distinction of being labeled a “feminist” rather than a Conceptual artist.

For this curator and art historian, who has had a long-time appreciation for the ground-breaking work and achievements of these artists, it is difficult to admit that this ambitious exhibition ultimately cannot fully capture the imagination and vibrancy of the art and the creative milieu cultivated during the early ’70s. However, rather than a curatorial shortcoming, this contradiction points out that as much as we can appreciate what these artists have accomplished, it is fundamentally difficult to digest a surfeit of performance documentation in an exhibition context. Nevertheless, in combination with the intelligent catalogue written in part by the exhibition’s curators, Constance Lewallan of the Berkeley Art Museum and Karen Moss of the Orange County Museum of Art, the works in State of Mind provide tangible insights into the actual state of mind of California Conceptualists,circa 1970.3

 

State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970 is on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum through June 17, 2012.

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NOTES:

1. State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970

 2. State of Mind also explores such works as Lynn Hershman’s The Dante Hotel (1973-74) and Allen Ruppersberg’s Al’s Grand Hotel (1971), which deal in significantly different ways with the role of a viewer in relationship to the art (voyeur vs. participant). Mel Henderson’s Attica (1972) and Martha Rosler’s series Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (1967-72) provide harsh and ironic commentary on our ongoing wars abroad and at home. 

3. State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970 (2011) features additional essays by Julia Bryan-Wilson and Anne Rorimer.

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