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Museums coproduce show about collaboration in California art

on September 19, 2014

Had Ralph Stackpole and his fellow muralists looked down as they frescoed the walls of the Coit Tower, they would have had a bird’s eye view of the Maritime Strike that raged on the streets of San Francisco below. Had they looked even closer, they might have spotted Dorothea Lange, weaving through the crowd with her camera, capturing a rally speaker straining into a microphone against an empty sky.

Earlier that year, the muralists themselves gathered in protest, picketing the very tower they were commissioned to paint, on behalf of their friend Diego Rivera, whose mural at the Rockefeller Center in New York had just been destroyed at the hands of workers because he said he would rather have it vanish than remove its Communist subtext. Several of the Coit murals were subsequently amended, incorporating overtones of both Marxism and censorship.

This is just one instance in which the relationships between artists, time, place, and history become inexorably intertwined. Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California, the forthcoming exhibition at the Oakland Museum, focuses on both the personal relationships and historical forces that allowed art movements like these to grow and flourish against a specific backdrop, from the labor unrest in the 1930s to the gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission District today.

The show, which opens September 20, is a first time collaboration between the Oakland Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), drawing work from both collections. Pieces from SFMOMA are supplemented with film clips, scrapbooks, and ephemera from Oakland’s collection, like Ansel Adam’s exposure record book, which was used by fellow photographer Imogen Cunningham, and shown under prints from both artists, with F stop and aperture settings scribbled in ink.

“The stories of this show could be told much better with combined collections than either museum could have done on its own,” said Drew Johnson, the Oakland Museum’s Director of Photography and Visual Culture, who had the initial vision for the show. “The nice thing is that we had access to work at SFMOMA from artists like Jackson Pollock and Diego Rivera, who were enormously involved in influencing, both directly and indirectly, so many of the artists in California.”

When SFMOMA closed for expansion construction in June 2013, the museum’s painting and sculpture curator Janet Bishop was tasked with overseeing projects that could be done off-site, to take advantage of the collection rather than putting all 30,000 of the museum’s objects into storage. Bishop and her colleagues began to think about the ways they could share SFMOMA’s holdings with their peer institutions in the Bay Area, creating a host of traveling installations called SFMOMA On the Go.

For the collaboration with the Oakland Museum, Bishop and her fellow curators, Caitlin Haskel and Peter Samis, were immediately drawn to a suite of studies for Diego Rivera’s mural, Allegory of California, a commissioned work for the Pacific Stock Exchange, which depicts the rich resources and industry of the state overflowing in the arms of a strong, serene earth goddess, whose face is a rendering of the California tennis champion Helen Wills Moody.

The idea of presenting the story of the mural through the historical collections of the Oakland Museum was a starting point for the organization of the show, Bishop said. The exhibit is divided into four definitive movements in California art: the arrival of Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the early ’30s; the postwar birth of Abstract Expressionism at the California School of Fine Arts in the ’40s; the unrefined experimentation at UC Davis’ studio program in the ’60s and ’70s; and finally the Mission Scene, which began in the ’90s and continues today.

“The show focuses on Northern California, in these four movements that provided fertile ground for real game changes in 20th-century art,” Johnson said. “It’s all about the conditions that generate new art forms, and the creative communities that push artists towards greater achievement than they would have on their own.”

Classic museum retrospectives often portray the stereotype of the solitary artist, working in isolation from the outside world, said Bishop. But Fertile Ground draws special attention to artists in local communities, who were closely influenced by one another, both in work and friendship.

Johnson pointed specifically to the group of UC Davis students and faculty members who make up the third section of the show. These artists were forerunners of a movement that has come to be known as “funk art,” which embraces drug culture, humor, and a sense of irreverence that took the art scene, particularly ceramics, into a radically new direction. Pieces like Robert Arneson’s California Artist, a ceramic self-portrait depicting his figure in a jean jacket with an exposed belly looking smugly through sunglasses with a lopsided grin, exemplify this period of expressive freedom.

“At Davis, everyone worked together and everyone stole from each other,” Johnson said, “and everyone got better.”

Robert Arneson was so taken with Pollock, after his visit to the California School of Fine Arts, that he made more than 80 pieces inspired by the maverick painter, including Wolf Head, a giant bronze rendering of an abstracted wolf, sitting atop Pollock’s furrowed crown. The piece, which sits in the center of the third gallery in Fertile Ground, is paired with Arneson’s mantra, printed on the museum wall: “You gotta goof off in art, you gotta play.”

To illustrate these complex interpersonal networks in each community, the two museums commissioned artist Amanda Eicher to draw webs that appear in the beginning of each of the four chapters. Her playful illustrations feature lines connecting the names of painters, sculptors, photographers, curators, and benefactors, a who-knew-who map for each movement.

“It’s good for people to think that artists aren’t working in a vacuum,” said Lauren Kroiz, a UC Berkeley art history professor who specializes in 20th-century regionalism, which emphasizes the context of when and where works of art were created, rather than focusing purely on aesthetics. “The organization that OMCA chose is interesting in that it helps us see new groupings of artists.”

The last section of Fertile Ground creates what Bishop refers to as a “living history,” categorizing a wide range of work in the Mission District of San Francisco. “These artists might not necessarily say that they are part of the movement,” Kroiz said. “These people aren’t issuing manifestos together, but most of them are friends and coworkers.”

Alicia McCarthy, one of the artists commissioned to do a Fertile Ground piece that will ultimately become part of the Oakland Museum’s permanent collection, likened the grouping of artists in the show to “the biggest wedding invite list,” explaining that she always likes to include friends in her solo shows, especially the ones that don’t get as many opportunities to exhibit their work.

“The challenge of this thing has been resisting historicizing the present,” said René de Guzman, OMCA’s Senior Curator of Art, whose focus is on the Mission Scene. “The artists had a incredible role in bringing this part of the show together.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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