PRINT Summer 1967

“Making It” With Funk

ABOUT TEN YEARS AGO the artists in the Bay Area began to use the word “funky” to indicate a kind of wry approval of some particularly unlikely work by another artist. Nobody thought very much about it. At least not until Peter Selz, with his unquenchable thirst for finding Monster Schools, arrived in the Bay Area and started looking around for what he could claim as his very own. He found the word and then tried to find the art that went with it (see questionnaire). As the recent show in Berkeley’s University Art Museum demonstrates, he missed by a mile.

It’s possible—but just barely—that a show of some of the things artists in the Bay Area have been calling “funky” could have been put together, but what it might have looked like would have had very little to do with what Dr. Selz has gathered. Some idea of it can be gleaned, perhaps, from the comments on the current show made by some of the artists who have been around the Bay Area for some time (Dr. Selz has not). Bruce Conner remarked that “Selz is trying to make funk appear as a new thing happening now rather than a ten year old event. Selz’s funk is fake. He is ignoring people who were funky, like Wally Hedrick, Jay De Feo, Art Grant, Bob Brannaman and Fred Martin. It’s like a new art con game.”

Bizarre costumes, impromptu parades and events, common subject matter (particularly stars, hearts, and comic-book thunderbolts), form a kind of backdrop to the art of the period (middle fifties to early sixties). Funky objects were made in direct proportion to the number of artists and students who felt the high seriousness of West Coast Abstract Expressionism was an expendable emotional position to be dealt with by parody, vulgarity and, perhaps most importantly, by a reintroduction of subject matter. Joan Brown tried to describe the kind of things artists would call funky: “Uppermost in the minds of people like Conner, myself and others around us was the idea of shocking ourselves with the objects we made. We made things that were a kind of revelation to each of us because of the baseness, cheapness, and crudity of the materials and techniques each of us employed in making the paintings, drawings or sculptures. It should be emphasized that being drawn to the ephemeral materials, as we all were, was important also because the final art object defied accepted tastes in an outrageous manner. The best funky things were those containing humorous elements that poked fun at sex, religion, pets, patriotism, art and politics. The older artists in the show who were active in the fifties, instead of griping among themselves about the show after the fact, should have told Selz in no uncertain terms that he include genuinely funky work . . .”

A good many of the artists in the show never had much to do with even the attitude that prompted artists to call some things “funky.” Bob Anderson said, “Peter Selz came to my studio, looked around, liked what he saw and asked me to be in the funk show. I don’t know about funk and I don’t know why I’m in the show.” For some reason, Kenneth Price is in the show, in spite of the statement, in Dr. Selz’s weird catalog essay, that “funk is at the opposite extreme of such manifestations as the ‘Fetish Finish’ sculpture which prevails in Southern California.”

The inclusion of an artist who would appear to be specifically ruled out by the show’s catalog essay is no more bizarre than the exclusion of most of those artists who are really what it’s all about. If one had to cite a single artist whose continuing presence is almost a definition of what funk, as a mode of behavior, an attitude, a style of life and art is, it would be Wally Hedrick, who is not in the show. When Hedrick was most impossibly bad, he was most funky. He earned the respect of the other artists in the Bay Area because he painted what others would not or could not paint. His art has touched areas moribund for thirty years: vicious anti-war satire combined with pornographic images; a junk Christmas tree that literally shocked the viewers who touched it; beer-can constructions; sly and not-so-sly gestures in paint that glue an onlooker to the spot with shame, embarrassment, shock. Excluding him is like excluding Juan Gris from a Cubist exhibition. A similar tale can be told for Jay De Feo, Art Grant, Tom Holland, Bruce Nauman or Fred Martin.

Fred Martin has remarked that “The funk art of ten years ago was directly influenced by the Abstract Expressionist handling of materials, just as the current stuff has the cleaned-up and detached handling characteristic of Pop art.” It is an interesting remark not only because Peter Selz is on record as one of Pop’s most implacable enemies but because artists like William Wiley, William Geis, Robert Hudson, Don Potts and Jerrold Ballaine do reflect in their current exacting craftsmanship and use of permanent materials a shift away from the transitory looseness of execution and indifference to permanence that often characterized what Bay Area artists called “funky.” What is offered in the current show is a kind of sub-style, ranging from Mel Henderson’s organically-derived environment, looking like a bunch of fire hoses trying to become a Primary Structure, to William Wiley’s One Abstract Expressionist Painting Rolled and Taped, whose title is explanation enough. As an overall grouping, the majority of the works provoke the bleak and melancholy observation that the show is a pastiche, incredible in its variety, of every painting and sculptural direction of the last twenty years.

Every new movement—even if it’s not a new movement—must have its mystique, and Dr. Selz is too old a hand at the new movement game to fail to provide us with one. The basic material had been provided before Dr. Selz, most succinctly, perhaps, by Fred Martin (who should know better) in the December, 1966 issue of Art International. Discussing an artist-organized panel discussion at an exhibition called the Slant Step Show (also discussed by Knute Stiles in Artforum, December, 1966) Martin observes:

. . . Into the vacuum there came a harangue from a Los Angeles panelist on the subject of the lack of a “scene” in San Francisco because of the lack of sales . . . Everyone was launched once more into an absolute misinterpretation of the art situation here where the absence of sales would be unfortunate were it not the source of Slant Step Shows, of artists who work for the work and not for the market, and freedom from cant about “making it.” This last phrase is surely now the greatest angst of all among young men with long hair in New York lofts and Los Angeles bungalows . . . And so the impulse to art has become economic insecurity instead of the old metaphysical despair, and the goal “to make it,” has come to be synonymous with the “pile” of forty or fifty years ago: a pile of dollars, of power and of fame.

In San Francisco there are no dollars to be made this way, and so there is no “scene” for those who wish to make one. Here “to make it” still means to find one’s work, and one can “make it” with beauty and majesty, mystery and revelation, and never make the cover of a magazine or sell a masterpiece to a strutting ignoramus. The sport and joy of the Slant Step Show are only possible on a serious scale in a scene without sales—where artists care more for the act of art, its implications and works, than for the management of market roads to fame and fortune.

It’s hard to say for whom Fred Martin (who has two dealers) is speaking here, and for the most part I would have guessed that one of the first things that someone like Peter Selz, coming into the area, would try to do would be to disabuse the region of the notion that somehow the depressed art scene in the Bay Area 1) breeds purity and 2) renders what is being done in the major art centers of the world subject to the suspicion that it is all produced “for the market.” But this was not to be: Dr. Selz seems to have decided instead to make a “scene” out of “Funk” by way of the mystique that funk could only happen in a place that had no scene. The article on which he and Harold Paris collaborated (“The Land of Funk”) didn’t quite make the cover of Art in America, but got pretty good space inside. In it, Mr. Paris (who has sort of “made it” as a tenured Professor at the University of California, Berkeley) elaborates the essentials of Fred Martin’s ideas given above:

In Los Angeles art is consumed voraciously—a bargain-table commodity*. In San Francisco and the Bay Area artists live among a citizenry whose chief artistic concerns are opera and topless . . . The artist here is aware that no one really sees his work, and no one really supports his work. So in effect he says, “Funk.” But also he is free. There is less pressure to “make it.”

Finally, the mystique is sanctified by Dr. Selz directly in the catalog essay for the funk show:

The art scene in San Francisco with its peculiar general lack of support for the artist may have also sustained the growth of this highly personal art. Here the artist has not yet become a popular idol and, as in New York in the forties, there are only a handful of successful galleries, a paucity of collectors and meager sales; art has not become a status symbol.

One of the minor embarrassments of Dr. Selz’s position, of course, is that a great deal of the work in the funk show merges indistinguishably with what Lucy Lippard has called “eccentric abstraction,” and which happens to be flourishing in, of all places, that sinful den of sales and status symbols, New York. Indeed, in the exhibition which Miss Lippard organised for the Fischbach Gallery in September, 1966, both Don Potts and Bruce Nauman were included. Dr. Selz’s show—and, more important, the artists in the show—would have profited considerably from a similar fraternal invitation to artists like Gary Kuehn, Eva Hesse, Frank Viner, etc., but so sensible a move has several drawbacks. First, it would acknowledge Miss Lippard’s prior activity; second, it would draw the artists in the exhibition into a broader movement, thus exposing the funk label and the mystique that goes with it as the silly and meaningless things they are. One is much better off, after all, isolating the artists into one’s own “New Images of Modern San Francisco Funk Monsters.”

The major embarrassments involve Dr. Selz’s perpetuation of a cluster of ideas and attitudes which have not done the artists in San Francisco any good. There is a lot of talent in San Francisco, but little of it, as the funk show unfortunately makes clear, is working as well as it did even five years ago. Speeches about the purity of an isolated scene cop out of the essential job of narrowing, not widening the breach between San Francisco artists and artists elsewhere, and only provide further excuses for the sad fact that Toronto, Canada, has probably seen more of the world’s art than have the artists of San Francisco. The funk show, in short, does fulfill a definition of sorts, but not exactly, perhaps, the one that Dr. Selz had in mind:

1. A shrinking back, through fear.
2. To cause an offensive smell.

James Monte



*This was joyous news to the artists of the Ferus, Dwan and Rolf Nelson Galleries, all of which closed down within a month or so of the appearance of these words.