Essays

Looking Back at the Strange and Surly History of Bay Area Funk Art

It is disheartening to see this 50th anniversary of the seminal exhibition Funk pass by without so much as a nod from the art world.

View of the Funk show (1967) in the Powerhouse Gallery at U.C. Berkeley (image courtesy BAMPFA)

SAN FRANCISCO — It was sometime after 8:15 pm on April 28, 1967, in the Physical Sciences Lecture Hall at the University of California, Berkeley. In progress was a symposium about Funk, the latest art show exhibited in the school’s University Art Museum. The symposium seemed to promise a lively discussion among several of the artists with work in the show, while moderator duties were covered by Peter Selz, Funk’s curator and the executive director of the museum. Instead, the symposium delivered total chaos.

The conversation went off course as the panelists let slip their grievances with the way Selz had approached the show. Figurative painter Joan Brown felt that Funk failed to present funkiness in context. Avant-garde ceramist Peter Voulkos decried that funk was strictly delimited to a Bay Area oddity. Experimental assemblage-maker, filmmaker, and altogether creative outlaw Bruce Conner denied the premise of Funk altogether. For Conner, the art was too diverse to fit under an umbrella so small and outdated. Conner was probably the most vocal of the artists who believed that whatever art qualified as funky was out of style years before the opening of Funk. Painter and ceramist Jim Melchert went on record with, “[Good funk] attempts to resolve those two essences of mankind: one a striving toward perfectibility, the other a kind of gross realization that we’re all just animals.” Melchert drilled down further into this by wryly lamenting all the funky artists that Selz had left out— like William Shakespeare and Albrecht Dürer.

Funk Symposium, April 28, 1967; University of California, Berkeley (photo by Ron Chamberlain)

Things fell apart when the artists voiced their dissent more creatively. A shoe flew across the stage. Someone began an impromptu jam session. One of the artists poured a glass of water over their own head. Despite the histrionics, the panelists had a great point. The premise of Funk was flawed. “Notes on Funk,” the essay Selz authored for the show’s catalogue, offers clues regarding where this creative fissure might have occurred.

Funk April 28–May 29, 1967; Powerhouse Gallery, University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley (photo by Ron Chamberlain)

“Funk art,” Selz wrote, “so prevalent in the San Francisco-Bay Area, is largely a matter of attitude.” I agree with Selz that this notion is a fundamental component of funk. There are no goals or agendas, only a je ne sais quoi accepted on a pass/fail basis. Conversely, as of this writing, the Wikipedia page for Funk Art offers a digest of how the subject is all too often conveyed: as a movement with certain practitioners. Both of these terms imply a shared goal or motive. However, there was neither a credo nor manifesto behind funk that would inspire the pursuit of perfection. If anything, funk artists avoided being labeled funky. The only definition for funk with staying power seems to be, as phrased by Selz in “Notes,” “When asked to define Funk, artists generally answer: ‘When you see it, you know it.’”

Despite the diffuse nature of funk, Selz takes a page of his essay to explore the pedigree for the show’s eponymous attitude. Marcel Duchamp’s readymades as well as the works of Jean Arp, Joan Miró (especially “Object” from 1936), and Méret Oppenheim are each singled out as possible prototypes, or distinct examples of funk. Selz continues by citing recurrent themes in funky art, especially: private metaphor, self-deprecation, “erotic and scatological” motifs, ambiguous intent, and moral ambiguity. Selz emphasizes this last point by opening the catalogue with a quote from The Bald Soprano (1950) by the absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco:

Mrs. Martin: What’s the moral?

Fire Chief: That’s for you to find out.

Selz wanted to respect the spirit of the artwork by steering the show away from making “a definitive statement” about funk. Nicole Rudick quotes Selz in her essay in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition What Nerve! (2014) at the Rhode Island School of Design: “I was merely interested in pointing out something that was going on right now with a few examples … from the background that have to do with the developments as I see it [sic].” The point of Funk was to offer viewers the chance to judge the art at face value. Selz amassed nearly sixty objects (we now recognize funk as extending into any medium, but Selz focused his exhibition on sculptural objects) for the exhibition and implicitly gave each equal billing under the singular title of Funk. Some pieces were small, while others were gargantuan installations. Some were created by Beat writers in the mid-1950s while others were created by hippies in the mid-‘60s. Some of the objects were pale while others were as brightly decorated as a venomous creature. Some were figurative, some surreal, and some vaguely squishy. The diversity of works ensured that a single definition of funk was impossible. If everything in Funk was funky, then sure, why not throw in the works of Shakespeare and Dürer?

Peter Saul “Relax in the Electric Chair (Dirty Guy)” (1966) exhibited at the Funk show (image courtesy Israel Valencia and the di Rosa Preserve)

No one, Selz included, presumed that the show would make an impact beyond its run through May 1967. Selz said years later, “We never expected that [Funk] would become a part of art history.” After the show, knowledge of the aesthetics associated with it quickly spread across the country. Reviews of the exhibition appeared in Artforum, Time magazine, Chicago Daily News, New York Times, and outlets abroad. While some of these were unflattering (Artforum was scathing, which Selz pinned on the magazine’s permanent relocation from Los Angeles to snobby New York City), the march of funk from sea to shining sea continued.

The term “funk artist,” first entered the American lexicon as shorthand for anyone with work in Selz’s 1967 show. The most famous example is John Perreault’s 1967 article titled “Metaphysical Funk Monk,” about a William T. Wiley show in New York. Notoriety followed the designation as Funk artists later showed with increasingly prestigious institutions and gained representation in the Big Apple. Joan Brown, for example, was in the Whitney’s Young America 1960 exhibition prior to Funk, while ceramist and painter Robert Arneson and ceramist David Gilhooly showed there just a few years later. Over the years, the definition of funk expanded, until today, when any artist whose art is difficult to categorize is at risk for being labeled funky, or worse, inspired by the funk “movement.”

Mowry Baden, “Delivery Suite” (1965) 1.24 m x 1.95 m x 1.90 m (high) steel, fibered polyester resin, collection of Theresa Britschgi Seattle WA (© 2017 Mowry Baden)

To be clear, none of this historical account is meant to suggest that funk is bunk. A very real phenomenon of art that could be considered funky cropped up around the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid- to late-1950s. This art was made during a short period of time between the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, roughly aligning with the rise and collapse of Beat culture in the Bay Area. Artists went to New York to sell out, but they made the pilgrimage to San Francisco to create. Between World War II and the early 1960s, two or maybe three real galleries made up the corpus of the Bay Area art market. Despite this paucity of places to show their work, and a very small chance to earn a living off art alone, artists poured into the area seeking camaraderie and the freedom to pursue their vision. Artists felt the financial squeeze of trying to make a living in a small city without art buyers and a dearth of available day jobs. So, many sought refuge in the ivory tower. Teaching not only provided a steady income, a sense of community, and encouraged the free flow of ideas, but also offered artists the opportunity to use school facilities for their own projects after work. Most funky artists crossed paths while teaching or studying at the San Francisco Art Institute or the University of California, Davis.

Teaching was supplemented by the artists’ fascination with life outside the classroom — the streets, coffee houses, and houseboats or abandoned garages hosting single-serving exhibition spaces. In Selz’s words, funk looked “at things which traditionally were not meant to be looked at.” Without patrons or buyers to impress or woo, artists were open to risks. They experimented with challenging materials and unconventional ideas. They made art that was ugly rather than beautiful, rough rather than refined, and funny rather than respectful. The art was intimate, meant for very few eyes or no eyes at all. This is the essence of true, honest-to-god funk art.

Harold Paris, “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (1966) plastic and rubber, 4 x 5-1/2 in., (courtesy of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of the artist)

It is disheartening to see this fiftieth anniversary of Funk pass by without so much as a nod from the art world. No heavy tome about funk is set to roll off the presses, no symposium gather to discuss funky tropes, and nary one prominent museum open an exhibition to celebrate funk and explore the directions of its scholarship. Still, some modern and contemporary art museums have examples of funk or funk-adjacent art, and some of the best are in Northern California. If you are in the area, check out the excellent Recent Gifts exhibition at the brand new Manetti Shrem Museum in Davis (which is free) and book a viewing for the di Rosa Collection outside Napa Valley (not free, but still very good). Further examples are on view at the Cantor at Stanford University and hither and yon in San Francisco MOMA.

The lessons of funk are available to contemplate if we find the art and, as Selz suggested, make up our own minds.

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