I moved to the Bay Area in 1980, after spending a year of re-orientation in New York. I had experienced most of my youth in Europe and felt out of touch. It was a pre-internet world, but also a pre-CNN era when cultural perspectives were separated. New York, Paris, London and the Italian cities felt very distinct. New friends in New York cautioned against the West, suggesting I keep my San Francisco visit short. I would find California a cultural backwater where the inhabitants smoked pot around the clock (the non-intellectual drug) while examining their bodies, themselves and, ha ha, their auras. The prejudice was stern and entrenched: if there was a California Bohemia it produced weak poetry, clumsy craft and derivative painting. No names of artists were cited, just sniggers about beads, ferns and macramé—a dismissive disinterest, for sure. Things would slow down, and, if I dared to stay, so would my brain.
Thirty-seven years later I haven’t left. Over the last decades, a community of artists, writers and performers has revealed itself to me and to a steady stream of other transplants. They (we) have joined in, and, I realize in retrospect, have become emissaries for the different forms of painting, sculpture, performance and social practice that unfold here. And living here involved, until recently, the absorption of a predominately oral history (aside from writings by Connie Lewallen and a few others) that defines the Bay Area. It has been a region where the primary audience for poetry, performers and artists was themselves. With little expectation of critical or financial reward, their experiments developed in a more controlled atmosphere, one might argue, with its own values and integrity. Facing Asia, the community has absorbed, albeit in a measured way, the talents and influence of Ruth Asawa, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Martin Wong, Al Wong and Carlos Villa. With fewer participants, painters knew performers who knew poets. Painter Joan Brown taught students at UC Berkeley to value their convictions over their sources or mastery of traditional techniques. Her students’ works never looked like hers. Howard Fried’s and Terry Fox’s conceptual works were witnessed by very few people and conceptual art quietly disseminated through the art schools, especially the San Francisco Art Institute, UC’s Berkeley and Davis, CCAC (now CCA) and San Francisco State. Lynn Hershman’s exploration through performance of identity as a machine-like construction presaged digitally-based art and social media art. Luckily, she documented and recorded it, as few were there to see it or knew about it at the time. Given little attention until recently, her practice remained outside even the peripheral notice of the East Coast and Europe.
Therefore, for me the most surprising recent development, aside from San Francisco rapidly transforming into an expensive and congested city (and unfriendly real estate market for artists and galleries), has been the marked international interest in San Francisco and the story of Bay Area culture. Museums, and even art fairs, are noticeably more fluent in the work of post-war San Francisco artists like Bruce Conner, Richard Diebenkorn, Jess, and Jay DeFeo. From abroad, our gallery has recently been introduced to knowledgeable followers of Terry Fox, Howard Fried, Paul Kos and especially Lynn Hershman doing scholarly research or features for the top art journals. Their work is being taught and traveling through the web.
Have the emissaries (transplants like me to the Bay Area) and the many artists and art professionals who left for the cultural capitals spread the word? Or has the Bay Area’s stake in digital culture entitled it to a bigger piece of the contemporary art pie? And do curators, historians and collectors of art elsewhere finally see value in California’s home-grown cultural produce? Or, in a world that has an endless appetite for more of everything, is it a matter of supply? California is as far West as you can go before you leave Western Culture.
I wonder if, with ready access for almost everyone to a wide range information, a global cultural perspective comes too easily. I hear more often that artists and their support communities want to return to that, a community, and the kinds of work that flourish in a smaller, even provincial, atmosphere.
ED GILBERT is the owner-director of Anglim Gilbert Gallery, formerly Gallery Paule Anglim.