Donald C. Karwelis
Oil on canvas
48" x 48"
Photo by Chris Bliss, courtesy of Laguna Art Museum, Gift of Donald Smith
"Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California, 1964-1971" on view this past winter at Laguna Art Museum, provided a rare window into the early days of the UC Irvine Art Department. This was a place of unbridled creativity, where instructors challenged the limits of the more formal East Coast art world--in their own work and their teaching methods--and students "were encouraged to push the boundaries of their art practice with performance, body art, video and film," according to Grace Kook-Anderson, Laguna Art Museum curator. And all this innovation took place 60 miles south of Los Angeles, in the still-undeveloped tract called "Irvine." Here, in this SoCal outpost, artist/teachers including Tony DeLap, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, John Mason and Ed Moses, mentored students, employed unusual teaching methods such as having them put crayons between their toes, collaborated on performance pieces, and even partied with them. John Coplans, an Artforum magazine founder, Pasadena Art Museum curator, and supporter of Pop art, oversaw the department and directed the school's art gallery. The gallery and other campus buildings, designed by William Pereira (who also designed the original campus for LACMA), provided additional inspiration with their modernist California architecture of free-form structures constructed from poured concrete.
Peter Frank explains in the exhibition catalog: "The individuals who created the art department were both remarkably tolerant and expansively contentious, resistant to no idea but prejudice itself, to no condition but parochialism, to no impulse but laziness. If the full-time and visiting faculty could shake things up through unorthodox teaching methods, they were doing their job." Kook-Anderson relates that artist Larry Bell, responding to a student request, taught one class unclothed. While this new-age educational approach mystified some students, others valued it, going on to pursue successful careers in the visual arts, several exhibiting worldwide.
The exhibition, held earlier this year at Laguna Art Museum, as part of the Pacific Standard Time initiative, included plentiful examples of UCI instructors' and students' diverse art styles, all created during the school's formative period.
The show's title was based on UCI art school dean Jill Beck's (1995-2003) use of "Best Kept Secret" to describe the newly created school as a place that nurtured adventurous and innovative students. These students included Chris Burden (now known as the creator of the iconic Urban Light sculpture at LACMA) who did several of his infamous conceptual performance pieces here: in his Through the Night Softly (1973), he crawled nearly naked over glass; in Five Day Locker Piece (1971), he was locked inside a locker for five days. Kook-Anderson explains, "The students were a product of the anti-war generation and Burden's pieces spoke to that." Barbara T. Smith shed her suburban housewife persona here, flowering into a performance artist with Ritual Meal (1969), a video of guests dressed in scrubs eating with surgical instruments, and Celebration of the Holy Squash (1971). Nancy Buchanan (a major presence in the LA art world) created Hairpiece (1971-72), a rug-like object made from human and poodle hair. Ronald Davis gravitated from minimalist canvases to fiberglass and polyester resins, building 12-sided "dodecagon" wall sculptures, today prized by collectors and institutions. His Round (1969) is a dramatic abstract work of varied pigments.
The range of innovation seen in these works was fitting; from 1964-1971, UCI "was a new university with a frontier mentality," as Kook-Anderson describes. Yet, UCI today reflects a half-century of change. Mindful of the school's legacy set forth by Coplans, Juli Carson, Art Department Associate Professor and Gallery Director, says, "We promote an inter-generational program that is diverse, crossing disciplines and ideologies. We keep one eye on our modernist past and the other eye on the most innovative, aesthetic and political debates of the present. Today, some of the best emerging artists coming through our program are going on to be represented in biennials and museums worldwide."