In the 70's, the boomer generation came of age. Students were marching all over the globe - against the war in Vietnam, protesting injustice at home, organizing for the brave new world they hoped to create.
All of this and more is reflected in the new exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Archive (BAM/PFA), “State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970,” which features 150 California artists and their radical contributions to art, developing a practice and a form of art that would be known as Conceptualism.
The story of California Conceptualism begins in the mid 1960s, when the state emerged as an incubator for social change and youth-oriented counterculture. California was full of newly established art schools along with the old, but scarcely traditional schools like the San Francisco Art Institute. The living was easy, jobs were plentiful and rents were cheap.
Curated by the Berkeley Art Museum and the Orange County Museum of Art, the show is part of "Pacific Standard Time," the huge LA-based exhibit about post-war California art. Organized thematically, the exhibition brings together artists whose works are not usually seen together to underscore their related interests and to provide a fresh perspective on the development of Conceptual art in California.
"The San Francisco Bay Area, the epicenter of the counterculture, had a particularly strong attraction for young artists," Lewallen and co-curator Karen Moss note in their introduction to the exhibit catalog.
If Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message,” was the mantra of the era, so was the artistic idea that process is more important than product. Performance was the name of the game and the more outrageous and the more transitory, the better.
The artists wanted to change how art was made, how it was displayed and even what materials were used by the use of non-traditional materials such as photography, performance and video as documentation.
These practices were often documented through the newly available use of video, several examples of which are on display throughout State of Mind.
Southern California artist Chris Burden, for instance, explored the body through performance—flirting with danger to experience what most wish to avoid—in a series of iconic performances he began while still a graduate student. For his most infamous performance, Shoot, a friend shot Burden in the arm with a .22 rifle—the artist’s response to the killing of student protesters at Kent State.
If they changed the forms of art, they also revised the content: the Vietnam War, the shootings at Kent State, racism, feminism and the gay rights movement became part of the mix. Art and politics were no longer separate entities.
Most of the art is not as subtle as in Michael Asher's untitled work from 1966-67, which is a column of cool air flowing down from the ceiling in a gallery hallway. This was so inconspicuous it had to be pointed out by one of the show’s curators.
Politics are on display in every gallery. The LA Chicano collective Asco dressed as parodies of popular figures — for instance, a Gothic Virgin Mary — to address ignored issues of gender and sexuality as well as the marginalization of Chicano artists in the LA gallery and museum world.
Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful" (1967-72) is a photomontage by Martha Rosler.
Issues of gender and sexuality permeate the show. Barbara T. Smith’s controversial performance piece “Feed Me,” is represented by performance documentation. In a simulated boudoir, Smith allowed visitors, one by one, to enter the space where she lay naked and to interact with her as they chose. Smith saw this as a method of self-transference, which others disagreed strongly.
But the multitude of feminist works in the show document how vibrant, diverse and wide ranging the movement was. There's not one photo of bra-burning in the whole show.
Paul Kos’s installation, “Sound of Ice Melting” — made by eight microphones connected to an amplifier recording the sound of melting ice blocks — is a perfect example of conceptual art being a record of creativity, rather than a static object to be displayed, in a gallery or otherwise.
Bas Jan Ader’s “In Search of the Miraculous (One Night in Los Angeles)” records in solemn photographs his walk from the Hollywood Hills to the Pacific Ocean, a dusk-to-dawn compilation imprinted with handwritten lyrics from The Coasters’ ballad, “Searchin’.”
Decades after they were created, many of the works in "State of Mind" are still disturbing, fascinating and sometimes funny. The questions asked then are still being asked.
“State of Mind” also reveals the most enduring legacy of early California Conceptualism, which was a broader understanding of what art could be. The very definition of art, the role of the artist and that of institutions, which taught and displayed art were challenged.
In fact, the Berkeley Art Museum is currently displaying the work of two artists, Andy Warhol and Ray Johnson, who continued the dialogue beyond the 70's. While not considered California conceptual artists, they also challenged the status quo, even raising the question of “is it art?”
While SFMOMA has the reputation of presenting the most important modern art in the Bay Area, the nature of the Berkeley Art Museum’s exhibits proves that in many ways it is more adventurous and not afraid to walk on the lesser known, but equally important, dark side of the art world.