Bay Watch: A Snapshot of the Visual Arts in the Bay Area

Portrait of Constance Lewallen, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

My husband, Bill Berkson, and I always considered ourselves New Yorkers, although we lived in the Bay Area most of our adult lives—he even longer than me. Our first involvement with the Rail was when Bill was interviewed by David Levi-Strauss for the May 2006 issue. He was interviewed in the Rail again in June 2015 by Jarrett Earnest and was guest critic for the September 2012 issue, in which he described his approach to art criticism. Bill passed away in June 2016; I wish to dedicate this section to him.

I have observed the art scene over the many years I have lived in the Bay Area, most of the time as curator at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Following is a very brief overview of its modern history. In the postwar years, a group of artists that included Richard Diebenkorn and David Park developed a style that became known as Bay Area Figurative Abstraction. A blending of figuration with abstract expressionism, it gained a modest national reputation. This overlapped with the Beat period which blossomed in San Francisco with the arrival of many of its main participants—including Allen Ginsberg, who sparked the scene with his legendary 1955 reading of Howl at the Six Gallery. The movement, centered in North Beach, brought together poets—Michael McClure, David Meltzer, Philip Whalen—with such artists as Jay DeFeo and Bruce Conner.

In 1967, the Funk exhibition was presented at UC Berkeley’s Powerhouse Gallery, which until 1970 served as the university’s exhibition venue. It included, among others, William Wiley and Joan Brown, who contributed a sculpture of wood, chicken wire, plaster, and string covered with raccoon fur from an old fur coat. Fur Rat was emblematic of the overall aesthetic, or more accurately anti-aesthetic, of these artists. Although most objected to the rubric “funk,” the name stuck. Several—Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri, et al.—made sculpture from clay, which, following the lead of sculptor Peter Voulkos, began to shed its marginalization as a craft material. Like the Figurative Abstractionists, the Funk artists, some of whom had gallery shows in New York, were known to some degree beyond the region.

Barry McGee, Untitled, 2016. 78 x 66 inches. Courtesy the artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

Just a few years later, a group of young artists who were centered around Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art (founded in 1970) and the San Francisco Art Institute began exploring the new genres of installation, video, and performance, along with likeminded artists worldwide. New York based Avalanche magazine, which served as the house organ for Conceptual art, covered the activities of these artists on an equal footing with those elsewhere—in the early issues there were interviews with Bruce Nauman, who had only recently moved from San Francisco to Southern California, Terry Fox, Howard Fried, and Stephen Laub. And many of these artists were included in landmark international exhibitions featuring Post-minimal and Conceptual art such as Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (1969) and Documenta 5 (1972). It appeared at last that the area had escaped its provincial classification. Nonetheless, Bay Area Conceptual artists continued to be identified by region.

In the 1970s, psychedelic art flourished in Haight-Ashbury, and location again described a group of artists—Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, and others—dubbed the Mission School that emerged in the 1990s and gleaned a certain national audience. These artists often made art in the streets, as well as in traditional exhibition spaces that reflected the influence of graffiti and cartoon art. It’s true that a few Bay Area artists who were associated with mainstream movements are major figures—Wayne Thiebaud for his painterly version of Pop Art and Robert Bechtle, who is considered a primary proponent of Photorealism­­.

Traditionally, artists have been drawn to the area for the many schools that offered art education: the San Francisco Art Institute, California College of the Arts, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and others—and this is still true. In some cases, they stayed here because they secured teaching jobs and/or because they appreciated the area’s progressive politics (center of the Free Speech and anti-war movements) and cultural experimentation. Moreover, there were over a dozen alternative venues that gave young artists a way to launch a career. And, until the tech boom of recent years, it was a relatively inexpensive, pleasant place to live. A lot has changed since then, not the least of which is that it has become unaffordable for most artists. I have watched with dismay as new graduates flee to either New York or Los Angeles—or even Berlin. Although on the West Coast the relatively small Bay Area has been eclipsed by Los Angeles, there have recently been some encouraging developments: the reopening of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which had been closed for several years while undergoing a major expansion; the new UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive building is in a more accessible location; the establishment of the multi-gallery Minnesota Street Project and nearby Dogpatch galleries; and the many nonprofit venues, old and new, and small artist-run spaces that have sprung up on both sides of the Bay.

Now that the art world is global—everyone has access to what artists are doing everywhere—in my view there is no longer a Bay Area art. But is there anything distinctive about the art scene here? Does it reflect its history? What is its future? I have asked a range of artists, curators, and art writers for their thoughts.