Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without illustrations, in Resource Library on February 14, 2008 with the permission of the author and the Richard L. Nelson Gallery. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Nelson Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address
You See: The Early Years of the UC Davis Studio Art Faculty
by Renny Pritikin
Between 1959 and 1962 Richard L. Nelson brought together a legendary faculty built around the participation of Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri, Wayne Thiebaud, and William T. Wiley. You See: The Early Years of the UC Davis Studio Art Faculty includes work from the collection of the campus gallery named in Nelson's honor in 1976.
How did it happen that a relatively obscure, rural California University, best known for its veterinary, medical and agriculture programs, was able to pull together a major roster of artists and teachers? Seymour Howard, art studio and history emeritus faculty member at Davis who taught there starting in 1958, has an incisive observation. He suggests that Sacramento was the capital and agricultural center of California, the eighth largest economy in the world. Latent and emerging geopolitical and financial powers were at play at that time, forces that ultimately resulted in the national emergence of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the Presidency. Clearly the Davis anarchist art impulse shared few values with Nixon's Republicanism and the conservative drive of Reaganism, yet perhaps these two developments were parallel and mirror-image reactions to the same cultural pressures. In hindsight we can see that potent, enormous storms can emerge even from, or particularly in, rural locations, if the right temperature, pressure and energy come together, as they did at UC in those improbable years.
Such an improvised machine's inherent centrifugal forces eventually caused parts to start flying free; in 1973 Wiley became the first to depart. A decade later De Forest left. By 1992 only Thiebaud remained, and at age 86 he still teaches two classes a year on an emeritus basis in 2007.
What did the Davis experience mean for these artists? How did it work? The particular nature of the Bay Area arts ecology in the postwar era, and then the specifics of the Davis experience can offer us some clues about why history was made in the Central Valley in the early sixties.
History is not as neat as we sometimes need it to be. Alliances and influences shift and are reconfigured in a constant human whirlwind of association. However, we can observe that there were three points of view among progressive artists of the Bay Area in the early 1950s. At the San Francisco Art Institute, (then called the California School of the Arts), Abstract Expressionism was the dominant painting form being taught, a lingering result, like background radiation from the Big Bang, of the teachings of Mark Rothko and Clifford Still exploding there in the late 40s. Frank Lobdell carried forward that tradition. A second group, defectors from the AE camp, came to be known as the Bay Area Figurative Abstractionists, including David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn, (who later returned to abstraction with his Ocean Park series). They were also associated with Nathan Olivera in the East Bay. Olivera's followers and peers included Paul Wonner, William Theo Brown and Roland Peterson (who soon would be a major faculty member at Davis). Manuel Neri was part of this group, though the only sculptor among painters. The third group were the Beats -- Joan Brown, Wally Hedrick, Jay DeFeo, Jess, Bruce Conner et al, working in a variety of mediums, especially assemblage. The Davis campus and its faculty members, just an hour's drive east of this Bay Area ferment, were very much a part of this complex scene, including friendships with those practicing abstraction, figurative abstraction and Beat forms.
The origins of the term funk, which was applied to the Davis faculty style, (often incongruously, as with Thiebaud), can be traced to the small galleries connected to the Beat scene. For instance, San Francisco Art Institute students of Bischoff and Diebenkorn started the seminal Six Gallery in San Francisco's North Beach. It was the kind of place that often presented African-American jazz players. To the jazz players funk meant music that was open, without rules; visual artists extended the meaning to the use of new methods and materials. Funk referred to assemblage but never gained traction until applied to the Davis faculty and soon became the shorthand by which they were identified. This was solidified when Peter Selz curated the landmark Funk exhibition at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, in 1967.
In hindsight not all the artists included in that exhibition were equally appropriate to the theme, but for our purposes here, it is important to note the regional nature of the curatorial notion: thirteen of the twenty-six artists were tied to the San Francisco Art Institute, and five were from UC Davis. (David Gilhooley was included in place of Theibaud). Selz defined funky by listing such concepts as, "organic, sensual, ribald, new, fantasy, personal, new materials." He went on to describe the work's qualities with another list of traits: "open-ended, experimental, [interested in] zen, [utilized] word play, crude, collaborative, [used] humor and wit, primitive, [embraced] anti-tastefulness and [mocked] propriety."
These qualities as described by Selz did not emerge from a vacuum. Contemporary movements such as Fluxus and Arte Povera shared similar democratic values emphasizing accessible content and humble art materials as well as a rhetoric critical of art's role in culture. George Maciunas in his 1963 Fluxus manifesto called on artists to "purge the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art....Promote living art, anti-art, promote non-art reality to be grasped by all peoples not only critics...and professionals." The Tate Modern curator of a 2001 Arte Povera retrospective described the Povera aesthetic as, "creating works of immense physical presence as well as small-scale, ephemeral gestures. They employed materials both ancient and modern, man-made and 'raw,'....They explored the context of art-making itself, and the space of the gallery, reflecting on the relationship between art and life...." The late Joan Brown, the major Bay Area painter, in discussing the Rat Bastard Protective Society (herself, Jay De Feo, Manuel Neri and Wally Hedrick), reflected both of the above lines of thinking, including the claim to both political and personal liberation. "Uppermost in the minds of people like Conner, myself and others...was the idea of shocking ourselves....We made things that were a kind of revelation to each of us because of the baseness, cheapness and crudity of the materials and techniques each of us employed in making the...sculptures....Being drawn to ephemeral materials...because the final art object defied accepted tastes in an outrageous manner. The best funky things were those containing elements that poked fun at sex, religion, pets, patriotism and politics."
It should be noted that as in touch with an international moment as they were, the Bay Area artists were also being noticed nationally. In 1971 four of the five artists in You See were included in the Whitney Biennial. (Thiebaud was the exception).
The Davis scene was decidedly one of artists trained regionally. In 1975 six of the total of eleven UC Davis studio art faculty were tied to the San Francisco Art Institute by having studied or taught there. In fact all five of the You See artists studied or taught or both at one of the Bay Area art schools: Wiley (MA and BFA from SFAI); De Forest (BA and MFA San Francisco State and SFAI); Neri (SFAI); Arneson (BA CCAC, MFA Mills, both in Oakland); with Thiebaud being as always slightly exceptional (BA and MFA Sacramento State University).
When students and faculty are questioned about why the Davis phenomenon occurred at this time, several consistent themes emerge from their responses. Often Richard Nelson is credited with a benevolent wisdom in putting the faculty together. He had a knack for locating just the right artists, who exhibited great talent, were at the beginning stage of a long career, and were teachers. "All committed artists -- hard at it in the studio -- also committed to teaching," says Wiley. Similarly, Seymour Howard states, "The faculty were pros and they weren't fooling around." Nelson understood that his faculty needed someone to run interference for them with campus administration, to relieve them, as much as possible, from the odious University committees, meetings and tasks that can eventually wear down the heart of even the most gifted artist. He felt that their studio work -- as role models -- was primary, their classroom teaching was a close second, and administration was a distant third. Thiebaud shares the anecdote that Nelson literally advised him to throw away unopened any invitations he received from the university to serve on committees or attend meetings.
Another theme that many alumni and teachers recall as being crucial was that all the artists were roughly the same age, all starting out their teaching careers at the same time. (Thiebaud was more experienced from several years at Sacramento City College, and a bit older). There was thus a feeling of all being in it together and figuring it out-both teaching and career, simultaneously. Furthermore, the department was new and not particularly bound by decades of tradition, so they felt free to make things up without being told "how it should be done." Again, Nelson deserves credit for fostering this atmosphere. Nelson also was ambitious, not so much for himself but for his vision of building a great department. Thiebaud recalls Nelson recruiting him with promised access to art materials at UC, way beyond what Thiebaud's small community college gig could offer: "See that tree trunk out there? Imagine a roll of new canvas that thick."
Also mentioned is the nature of the times. As Wiley submitted to me, "it was happening everywhere else, why not Davis?" What he refers to of course was the era of experimentation in every aspect of American culture that is known as the 60s but that really ran from 1965 to 1975. By all accounts the art department was not sheltered from the social excesses of the era sufficiently discussed elsewhere. The result was a rollicking attitude that called for, as noted painter and alumnus Michael Tompkins recalls, a dual attitude that taught students to work hard but not to ever be pretentious. "We were warned against taking ourselves too seriously and attempting grandiose objectives. Philosophical and ontological questions were considered in our purview only if by accident of process. Primary physical or aesthetic experiences were supposed to be our tools. The highest compliment from Manuel Neri would sound something like, "I really like that dumb shape," implying that it came from a non-strategized, authentic experience or process. Any whiff of pretense or making what looked like Art (with a capital A) was frowned on."
Another aspect of Nelson's success was in the actual construction of the faculty. Several folks noted that Wiley as the youngest and most rambunctious and Thiebaud as the oldest and most staid created not so much a conflict as a spectrum, across which students could position themselves at their own comfort level. Aesthetically, students could also find just the right teacher for their personality: Wiley was wildly imaginative, combining painting, drawing, sculpture and performance; Arneson was a workaholic busy inventing a new ceramics métier, and had very demanding attitudes toward his students. (One former student recalled that Arneson encouraged her as she built a large ceramic piece, until he decided she had taken a wrong turn, at which point he promptly destroyed the piece.) Thiebaud wore a coat and tie every day and stood up for formal values, control and intellectual rigor. "I would have the students drawing an egg on a piece of paper using a #8H pencil, and Wiley would walk in, write the word ICE on the board, and walk out," recalls Thiebaud.  Wiley put it similarly: "Wayne teaching the basics -- me teaching any way I thought was the best way to communicate -- I think all the different perspectives made up an interesting range of ideas and opinions about art and how to make it -- so the students got a good mix of ideas and opinions.
The artists also shared ideas and themes that are not always apparent at first. While to Thiebaud such similarities are superficial, there are undeniable overlaps in depicting such quotidian subject matter as food. Arneson's famous piece, Smorgi Bob the Cook (1971), depicting the artist presiding over a porcelain ceramic feast, either pays homage to or is a parody of Thiebaud's trays of bakery treats, or both. Thiebaud reiterates that his work was a formal investigation of still life, while his understanding of his colleagues work was that their subject was the body, its instincts and empathies, its visceral possibilities. (Interestingly this helps account for how the department might have influenced the young Bruce Nauman's approach to much of his body-oriented work.)
This recent statement by Manuel Neri closely echoes Thiebaud's recollection. It would be misleading to argue that these five artists were the entire faculty There were as many as a dozen teachers at any one time, forming circles within circles; for example, there was a formalist group of artists that of course included Thiebaud and such notable figures as Cornelia Schulz. It is interesting to note that Schulz's most recent exhibition of abstract paintings at the Sweetow Gallery in San Francisco in 2006, after her retirement and long after the heyday of the Davis scene, still included two works with punning titles, Carryon and Bare Tracks, that attest to the mutual influences among the faculty, given Wiley's and Arneson's perennial word play. Parallel to such mutual influence is mutual competition; in a group of dynamic, creative people, seeing the success and innovation of a peer spurs one to match that success. As Seymour Howard shared with me, competition was a real factor if you understand it beyond its reductive sense of rivalry and more as the highest level of collegiality. "The more you see of him the more you become yourself," Howard said, freely paraphrasing Erik Erikson's description of George Bernard Shaw maturing as an artist and critic.
Any invented term like "funk" that ostensibly describes a range of activity is less than helpful in some instances. The label of Davis Funk school certainly leaves Wayne Thiebaud out. Thiebaud identified neither with Funk nor with Pop, but acknowledges benefiting from that latter public association. We usually define funk as a particular instance of the century-old anti-art movement born with dada and manifested in particular by the California assemblage and Beat movements. However, looked at with perhaps a finer instrument, there is a range of values displayed by these five artists. Arneson and De Forest are funny, playful, colorful and "robust" artists. Wiley and Neri are a little bit darker and more serious. Arneson, as he ages, gets very dark at the same time that his wit gets sharper. It is this wit that binds Thiebaud to the rest. Arneson's humor is often broad or laugh-out-loud funny, satirizing both himself and how California is perceived (i.e. in New York) with his empty-headed California Artist (1982) self-portrait for example. Thiebaud's wit is subtle and gentle, implying architectural or human stand-ins in his candy and cakes. Thiebaud, who often refers to himself as "just a sign painter," shares some of that Funk artist attitude of I-work-with-my-hands, I have working-class-roots pride. Other commonalities of content among You See artists include bricks, dogs, pilgrimages, maps, diagrams, sailing, mysticism, Asia, and most notably use of text.
Poetry was undergoing a populist revolution at the time, which saw the vocabulary available for poetry greatly expanded to include not just elevated language, but everyday language as well. Allen Ginsberg's Howl, published in San Francisco in 1955 of course, had led the way in this regard with its famous opening line, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..." Furthermore, it wasn't just everyday language but forms of language that were not always reputable: tall tales, lies, dirty talk, dialect, slang, and everything impolite and hybrid. Artists such as Jess, Bruce Conner and Wallace Berman were deeply influenced by the Beat poets, and galleries like King Ubu and the Six were co-founded by poets like Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. The funk artists were delighted to come on board with that notion of openness, and with their closeness to the poets of the time, came to incorporate text in their work to a large extent. Hence Wiley's inexorable narrative marginalia and Arneson's incorporation of names and titles right in the work, such as his bricks or King Minus's Tomb (1964). Likewise Thiebaud's illustration background played into his sympathy for the use of prices and words in his drawings and paintings. Just as the poets wanted real speech from the real world in their poems, these artists wanted real images from our lives -- from bricks to bakeries -- in their visual art.
What happens when such iconoclastic and individualistic artists come together as a pedagogical unit? The functioning of groups of up to twelve people has been analyzed for decades by social scientists such as Robert Bales and B. Aubrey Fisher. They look at the baggage that the group members have going into meetings, how the meeting process occurs, and then the results of the meetings. Interestingly, the mutual task shapes how the group feels when it assembles. Other input factors include the personality mix among the members, the length of time the group has existed, and the extent to which the group follows a formal procedure for performing its task. How well communication occurs is the primary ingredient that shapes the process. Results are evaluated by how much is accomplished, how fast and how well; on the other hand how the individuals feel about the experience can be another way to perceive the experience. Thus over a period of at least eight years and as much as thirty years, these men or groups of them, in league with other colleagues, were able to subordinate their own attitudes and ideas about art and education to put the group task of pedagogy and institution-building first. The longer they went on, the more likely they would find success, but the more tension felt -- the more aesthetic differences are primary in making decisions -- the less likely they would feel satisfaction.
From statements such as Neri's and others, it is clear that a group solidarity emerged despite the passions and differences of the individuals. Thiebaud relates a story of Wiley storming out of a graduate admissions meeting muttering the phrase "...bunch of creeps..." because of disputes about decisions being made, but that was not so much upsetting as just part of the fun. They shared in the knowledge and excitement that they were building a great art department, were challenged by each other, and had gathered around them a brilliant student body that reflected their disparate talents, potentials and quirks.
Students who graduated in these years include Bruce Nauman, Stephen Kaltenbach, Deborah Butterfield, Jock Reynolds, David Gilhooley, Richard Shaw and many, many others.
So then, as was asked at the beginning, why Davis, why then? Pieces of the answer have to do with the cumulative effect of a postwar generation of teachers and role models from Rothko and Still to Park and Diebenkorn and their impact on their students and regional art history. It has to do with a visionary department founder, Richard L. Nelson, with an eye for talent and the awareness of what they needed to thrive both as artists and teachers. It has to do with a large regional university beginning to stretch its muscles and extend itself into the arts and humanities for the first time. It has to do with an American moment -- the Vietnam war era --when great wealth and massive alienation lived side by side. And it had to do with the coincidence of five iconoclasts gathering in one place, and a baby-boom generation of students being attracted to their magnetism. The reality that this group of artists and their students created a collective body of important postwar art cannot be overestimated as the overarching fact behind the department's success. Finally, the group identity of being part of the Davis scene solidified their and Davis's reputation, forging a renown that might otherwise have only been individual, a classic example, if you will, of a haul greater than the sum of id's parts.
1 Based on personal conversations with Howard, February and March 2007
2 Nancy Chambers MA thesis Origins of UC Davis Art Dept. 1975. UC Davis art history department. Some of the material in the following paragraphs is derived from Chambers' research.
3 Chambers, ibid
4 Tate Modern Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972
5 Anna Novakov on Funk in Norcal Painting 40-60s Nelson Gallery catalogue 1983
6 William T. Wiley personal letter to author 2/07. All subsequent Wiley quotes from this source.
7 Interview with author and Howard 2/07
8 Interview with author 2/07. All subsequent Thiebaud quotes from this source.
9 Author in conversation with Thiebaud, 2/22/07
10 e mail from Tompkins, 3/1/07
11 conversation with author and Thiebaud ibid
12 ibid Wiley personal letter to author, February 2007
13 Manuel Neri e mail note to author, 2006
14 Private conversations, author and Seymour Howard, February and March 2007
15 Private conversation, author and Wayne Thiebaud, February 2007
16 Chambers, ibid including much of the following paragraph as well
17 Small group communication entry, wikipedia
About Renny Pritikin, Director, Nelson Gallery
You See: The Early Years of the UC Davis Studio Art Faculty, was held September 27 through December 9, 2007 at the Richard L. Nelson Gallery. Between 1959 and 1962 Richard L. Nelson brought together a legendary faculty built around the participation of Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri, Wayne Thiebaud, and William T. Wiley. You See: The Early Years of the UC Davis Studio Art Faculty includes work from the collection of the campus gallery named in Nelson's honor in 1976. Mr. Pritikin's essay is one of three essays contained in the catalog for the exhibition.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above essay was reprinted, without illustrations, in Resource Library on February 14, 2008 with the permission of the author and the Richard L. Nelson Gallery. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Nelson Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address
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