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As a scholar and researcher, Sharrissa Iqbal (MA, 2014) looks for meaning in the visual arts within California’s cultural context. From SFAI to UC Irvine’s PhD program, Iqbal gives insight into how artists like Helen Lundeberg and John McCracken use abstraction to express the West Coast lifestyle and landscape.

Briefly introduce yourself.

I graduated from SFAI in 2014 with an MA in the History and Theory of Contemporary Art. I am currently a PhD student in the Visual Studies program at the University of California, Irvine. I like to describe Visual Studies as a broader version of art history; it encompasses a wider array of objects of study while also accommodating unconventional approaches and interdisciplinary methodologies.

Tell us about your current research.

I continually find myself researching and writing about modern art in California, particularly the relationships between abstract artwork and its cultural context. One of my latest projects focuses on the ways in which California hard-edge painter Helen Lundeberg drew from contemporaneous representations of planets in both astronomy textbooks and popular cultural sources in order to create her cosmic-themed paintings from the 1930s through the 1970s.

You’ve transitioned from the MA program at SFAI to a PhD program. How did your foundation at SFAI influence your current trajectory and scholarly perspective?

My experience at SFAI significantly impacted both my research interests and my methodological approaches. I had the opportunity to work with tremendously influential scholars and artists who fundamentally shaped the way I approach art and visual culture, as well as the questions I am willing to ask. All of my professors at SFAI continually emphasized the value of both critical thinking and nontraditional approaches. I greatly admired Professor Nicole Archer’s willingness to push the boundaries of traditional art history by interrogating its often unspoken or normalized biases. Additionally, Professor Claire Daigle’s compelling seminars and generous mentorship encouraged me to take seriously my interest in abstract artwork.

Your research has focused on particular artists, such as John McCracken, in the study of California’s particular style of Minimalism. What interests you about this angle?

In my view, McCracken’s sculpture exemplifies the often overlooked diversity of artistic theories and practices encompassed within the broader category of Minimalist sculpture. Through my research, I quickly realized the extent to which McCracken’s work deviates in significant ways from canonical definitions of Minimalism while at the same time sharing a number of striking formal similarities. Like his East Coast counterparts, McCracken sought to highlight the viewer’s phenomenological response to three-dimensional geometric forms. However, quite unlike those Minimalists who emphasized the straightforward, literal characteristics of their work, McCracken drew upon simplified forms as a means of exploring what he saw as the more mysterious and even spiritual nature of shape and color. 

How does California Minimalism differ from the broader Minimalist movement.

California Minimalism emerged in the late 1960s amongst artists including McCracken, Larry Bell, Peter Alexander, Craig Kauffman, and DeWain Valentine. The high-gloss, pristine finishes, and alluring colors seen in these artists’ works were both inspired by the cultural landscape of Southern California and made possible by the industrial products available in Los Angeles. West Coast Minimalist artists embraced the sensorily stimulating effects brought upon by the interactions of light, color, and surface qualities in a way that defied the relative austerity of New York Minimalism.


In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of New York-based critics strongly denounced California Minimalists’ use of color and opulent surface effects. The color, finish, and materials that differentiated California Minimalist art so clearly caused many critics to see this kind of work as substandard and outside of the intellectual realm of New York Minimalism. Over fifty years since the height of such criticism, it’s apparent that McCracken’s work was no less theoretical or conceptual than the work of New York Minimalists. Rather, his work, along with that of many other West Coast artists, was less tied to the polemical issues in the art world at the time and more aligned with personal objectives and concerns.

What excites you about the cultural dialogue / art scene in California right now?

It’s always wonderful to keep up with the work of my previous classmates, friends, and colleagues from SFAI, many of whom contribute to the artistic communities in the Bay Area and Southern California in notable ways. Amongst the growing variety of museums and art spaces in San Francisco and Los Angeles, there are always opportunities to meet with artists and learn about new artworks and artistic projects. It’s certainly an inspiring environment.

What’s next for you in the future?

I’m looking forward to getting started on my dissertation research and writing, which will definitely keep me busy for a while! It’s very exciting to work towards becoming a professor; it motivates my academic pursuits. Someone once told me that careers in the arts require creativity not only in your projects, but also through finding innovative ways to make a living doing what you love. As long as my future career involves teaching in some way,  I’ll feel truly content.


Explore more of Sharrissa Iqbal’s research »


Learn more about SFAI’s MA Programs»

Image credits: 1) Courtesy of Sharrissa Iqbal; 2) Helen Lundeburg, Landscape, 1968; Accessed through  Hirshhorn; 3) Self-portrait; Courtesy of Sharrissa Iqbal; 4) John McCracken, A Stone Left Unturned at Yvon Lambert; Accessed through  Contemporary Art Daily; 5) John McCracken at Castello di Rivoli; Access through  Contemporary Art Daily; 6) Courtesy of Sharrissa Iqbal.

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