May the Lineages and Magic of SFAI Live On
–A reflection from writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit
It’s one of our oldest surviving cultural institutions, if you go back to its origins in the 1870s with the San Francisco Art Association, to which painters like Albert Bierstadt and photographers like Eadweard Muybridge—I know about it because in my 2003 book on the latter man I tracked some of that lineage. One thing that stands out is how someone found a stash of Muybridge photographs from the 1870s or 1880s and sold them to buy video equipment for the new performance/video department in the 1970s, a beautiful example of continuity and change and the old underwriting the new.
But more than the sheer continuity as something worth protecting, there’s something magic about the Art Institute, something that’s fostered genius, originality, weirdness, over and over. It is not just the faculty or the students or the magnificent setting since the Russian Hill location opened, but some mysterious alchemical combination of that and the permission California and San Francisco give. A permission not to break rules but to be outside the jurisdictions in which some rules apply and are enforced—it’s why at the height of Abstract Expressionism David Park and then the whole Bay Area Figurative movement could go back to representation.
The Art Institute stepped up to take care of Jay DeFeo’s legendary “The Rose” mandala-like one-ton painting when it became structurally unstable and it was encased in the wall of the first classroom I ever taught in 1989, until it was excavated and restored on-site and the Whitney Museum acquired it. It was an early outpost of photography as art when a lot of institutions of higher education had not yet recognized it as art, and of course, its early photo faculty were among the great names of modernism—Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Minor White. Of course, you came as a very young graduate and sent many generations out into the world with cameras, but your impact goes beyond that—you were a huge influence on me in my twenties, as I mentioned with gratitude in my recent memoir, Recollections of My Nonexistence. Bill Berkson, the longtime organizer of the lecture series and teacher of art history at SFAI, was one of the first people to support me as a very young writer.
One thing I learned from the artists of my first book—several of whom were involved with the SFAI one way or another—is that before you can make art you have to have a culture in which that art is possible, and that means an audience, a community, a conversation. SFAI led the way in the postwar years in making such a culture and continues to feed the distinctly west-coast culture that we made, with talks, exhibitions, art, and also with the students who spread across the world with something of the vision the school gave them.
I think of Wally Hedrick telling me about the baseball games between the Abstract-Expressionists and the Bay Area Figurative painters back in the 1950s, and of how the Studio 13 Jazz Band, which lasted from 1952 to last I checked 2020. Made up mostly of musicians with ties to the SFAI—and named after SFAI’s studio 13 of course—and included some of the Bay Area’s most legendary painters. The Chronicle reported in 2020, when the band played again, " Bischoff, who played Muggsy Spanier Chicago-style trumpet, got Park, a classically trained pianist, to loosen up and jam with him. They were joined on drums by Douglas McAgy, the school's visionary director who brought two giants of American painting out west to teach -- Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. Neither sat in with the band.” But Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead did.
I think that the greatness of the Art Institute can be measured in part, of course, by its alumni who have gone on to make names for themselves. But more than that the myriad graduates left with a vision of what it means to lead a creative life, to become producers of meaning rather than consumers of meaning, to be part of a cultural community, to think for themselves, to understand how we see the world is cultural and culture is something we make and change and make over, and artists play a role in this, and this affects justice, truth, rights, nature, law and all the rest of our lives. The administration seems to have been chaotic for most of the last 85 years or so, but the administration was never in charge of the magic.
And it has been magic. May it long continue.