Critics Page

Jim Melchert

I think Ron (R.B.) Kitaj got it right when he likened the Bay Area to a watering hole for migratory birds. Many artists turn up here, get the nourishment they need, and move on. I was one who moved here from the Midwest as the 1960s were about to unfold, and though I left a few times I couldn’t stay away. Most artists who come here for their schooling move on to places where they find greater support for their art making. When you think of the fledglings who tested their wings here, say, Bruce Nauman, Mary Heilmann, Charles Simonds, Elizabeth Murray, Dennis Oppenheim, Shirin Neshat, among others, you realize there had to have been more diversity in what they’d fed on than you’d expect to find in so isolated a place.

The culture in the Bay Area underwent many changes in the ‘60s and ‘70s, making it an inviting place to check out, if only for the music and the rock bands. Many visitors were major artists who’d been invited to teach for a term or two at one of our many colleges and universities. At UC Berkeley alone we had Kitaj, David Hockney, Arnaldo Pomodoro, Robert Morris, and Eduardo Paolozzi conducting classes. As a fellow faculty member, all I had to do to get Mark Rothko to join me and some friends for lunch was invite him. And given that the Pacific Archives at the new Berkeley Art Museum had ties with the Cinemateche in Paris, I once found myself seated across from Jean-Luc Godard at a luncheon. I remember comparing martini recipes with Fritz Lang who had just taken a course in bartending.  

There were also the artists that Kathan Brown was having flown in to do etchings at her Crown Point Press in the City, what we in the East Bay call San Francisco. There were several of Kathan’s artists who I particularly wanted to meet and who willingly met a group of us for dinner at my house. A conversation with Mel Bochner one evening made me realize how much more skilled New York artists are at analytical discourse. Certainly in the ‘60s there was a tendency for verbal communication to be suspect here. Our public panel discussions tended to be diversions rather than forums for debating a perspective. We had critics writing for our newspapers, but they mostly stated opinions. John Coplans did indeed start ARTFORUM here, but he soon moved it to L.A. where there was more art news to get excited about.

Nevertheless, the 1960s introduced many of the changes that made the 1970s such a progressive decade for artists. They realized that the institutions in their cities weren’t doing enough to support them or to accommodate their investigations of new genres and new pursuits in art making. The civil rights movement spurred Mexican American artists in the Bay Area to create a gallery in San Francisco where they could celebrate the very work that the museums seemed indifferent to. The Galeria de la Raza transformed a storefront in the Mission District when it opened in 1970 the year before Alanna Heiss founded PS1 in Long Island City. Alternative Spaces, as these artist-run galleries were first called, were a phenomenon that spread in cities throughout the country.

Artists had rediscovered how much could be gained from designing their own group efforts. The ceramics studio that UC Berkeley had brought Peter Voulkos up from L.A. to build and teach classes in was altogether different from what the administration had in mind. He made it a free space that was open at all hours for anyone serious about clay. I had come to study with him, as had Steve de Staebler, Ron Nagle, and later Marilyn Levine, but working alongside us were major movers and shakers in clay sculpture: John Mason, Henry Takemoto, and Mike Frimkess. They’d been lured up from L.A. with the offer of free clay and firing. Viola Frey, Bob Arneson, and in time Annabeth Rosen were breaking new ground in other studios. It would take years before the East Coast would notice what the Bay Area had made happen with clay, but it did happen.

If there were one event that could stand for the spirit of those years, I’d say it occurred in the fall of 1964 when Terry Riley gathered up his musician friends including—Steve Reich and Jon Gibson—who were in town. Together they performed Riley’s In C at the Tape Music Center in San Francisco. The simple score in the work continues to intrigue and engage players in ever increasing numbers.

I remember the summer when Brian O’Doherty came to Berkeley. I asked him for his impression of the place. He said the only thing that surprised him was that we speak English. That, too, is something we do.


Jim Melchert

JIM MELCHERT, though long retired from teaching and administrating, continues to ask questions of clay at his studio in Oakland.