The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

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NOV 2020 Issue

Orbits of Known and Unknown Objects: SFAI Histories / MATRIX 277

Jay DeFeo, untitled, ca. 1965; black and white Polaroid print collection of the Jay DeFeo Foundation. May not be reproduced in any form without permission of The Jay DeFeo Foundation. © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation / Artists Rights Society / ARS, New York. Courtesy SFAI.

On View
Orbits of Known and Unknown Objects: SFAI Histories / MATRIX 277

A virtue of Orbits of Known and Unknown Objects, an exhibition/archive dedicated to the 150-year history of the San Francisco Art Institute, is that there is no clear place to start. So, all things being equal, I clicked on the picture with the dog, directing me to Object 49. There, I was quickly initiated into the world of “The Meadow,” a versatile, if overlooked section of campus that has offered students a classroom, garden, dog park, sculpture graveyard, and, as I would later learn, a discreet place to get stoned before class. A personal essay by faculty member Genine Lentine accompanies Object 49, and her words, incidentally, offer an apt introduction to the intimate, and peripatetic exhibition: “There are neighbors I’ve gotten to know … Their daily walks allow for extended observations at times I’m not usually there. Two coyotes perched on the compost for its warmth on a cold night, for example, is a vision I think of often, but have never myself seen.”

From Object 49: The Meadows: Dogs. Courtesy SFAI.

Jointly organized by SFAI and the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), the exhibition constitutes an Arcades Project—that is, if Walter Benjamin had a septum piercing, and wandered the streets of San Francisco instead. Accessed online at, the presentation doesn’t so much unfold, as fold you in, telling a minor history of local traditions that runs parallel to the monolithic art historical narratives ordinarily applied to the same period. Even when you dig around for the hits—with George Kuchar’s influential film courses, Jay DeFeo’s polaroids, and anything related to Bruce Conner topping my list—the archive is primarily navigated via ghostly, slide-like images, which, no matter how neatly they are sorted under a specific tag, or offered as follow-up reading for a certain object, nonetheless tend to redirect your attention elsewhere, as when an image of an alien sculpture used by Kuchar roped me into an engrossing study of the school’s props department (including an anecdote about Kuchar eating hot dogs, and then using them as prop-penises in a film).

Both in form and content, the archive portrays how each generation metabolizes its predecessor’s approach and ideas. This narrative is made clear by a vogue for murals that erupted at the school following Diego Rivera’s residency in 1930, during which he painted The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931) in the school’s cathedral-like gallery. A slideshow for Object 27 recounts how that led numerous students to take up mural-making, painting them throughout the city. But that’s not all—murals, or the idealized style of social realism, appears in student work to the present, including a big black billboard by legendary alumnus and recent faculty member, Bob Linder. The slideshow additionally shows how this legacy had a broader historical impact as well: using toothpaste, an unnamed student added a hammer and sickle to a figure’s breast plate, which the Diego Rivera catalogue raisonné offers as proof of the artist’s left-leaning politics (it has since been removed).

From Object 60: The Prop Closet. Photo: Alex Peterson. Courtesy SFAI.
SFAI Students have never been intimidated by the majesty, dimension and magnitude of Diego's SFAI mural and enjoy using the mural for site specific pieces such as Bob Linder's opposite wall mural with a billboard-sized advertisement for the Art Academy. Courtesy SFAI.

But even this narrative is overtaken by my giddy, associative clicking, zigzagging from a ghost story to an historic paint splatter to a former Black Panther, who photographed the city’s early punk scene. I was also happy to learn that you can eat in the library, and that Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia apparently studied painting there (though that was by no means the subject of Object 11, which discusses the visionary artist and educator, Wally Hedrick).

Wally Hedrick, Napalm Sundae, 1965. Lithography on canvas, polyurethane, 43 1/2 × 93 1/2 inches. BAMPFA, purchase made possible by the Friends and Trustees Acquisition Endowment Fund, the Boyce Family Endowment Fund, a bequest of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, by exchange, the Schlesinger-Spiegel Fund, and a partial gift of Charles Linder.

Of course, such rhizomatic thinking runs the risk of depoliticizing the materials, but, as Object 58 demonstrates, the archive benefits from letting things resonate. Prints and Drawings 1977 was an exhibition at the San Francisco African American Historical & Cultural Society, organized by Dewey Crumpler (BFA, ‘72). In an interview, he describes the ideological debates around painting and figuration at the time, his training at SFAI betraying him when research into a muralist reveals a trove of historic abstraction from Black painters. That Crumpler’s artistic conflict remains relevant today is underscored by alumnus Shaun Leonardo, whose ongoing participatory performance I Can’t Breathe (2010–) led me to the interview. The same politics of self-determination are at the heart of Leonardo’s self-defense workshop, an “impromptu composition of defensive actions [which] thus creates a reflection and meditation on our community’s legacy of self-preservation, and continued desire/need/fight to protect and survive.”

Poster for a 1977 prints and drawings exhibition sponsored by the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society. Courtesy SFAI.

All this minutiae will surely give alumni new reason to believe they were part of something, but it also proves that, for some, there was life beyond the art world. Shortly after appearing in Crumpler’s show, Carol Ward Allen began her career in local politics. And though blood relation to America’s preeminent landscape designer, and early success as a mural painter, seemed to guarantee Frederick Olmsted an art career, he would heed the call of medicine, going on to invent an early version of the pacemaker. Perhaps he was motivated by what he learned at SFAI or the exposure he received as a muralist—who knows. Not everything in Orbits of Known and Unknown Objects translates outside of the presentation’s embodied vision—often purposely so. But at the same time, someone like Olmsted obtains a meaningful place in history here, even if it seems obscure. On the eve of SFAI’s potential foreclosure due to bankruptcy, the archive demonstrates how the art school is not merely a steward of art, but also of the social life that gives it meaning in the world. Long live SFAI. Long live the provinciality of the art world.


Sam Korman

is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

All Issues