At 90, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon Has No Time for the Art World (and Never Did)

Installation view of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon's 'Land(e)scape 2018' at BAMPFA. (Johnna Arnold)

Ask Barbara Stauffacher Solomon if she has any advice for artists looking to follow in her footsteps, and the diminutive 90-year-old doesn't mince words.

“Oh I think that’s a lot of shit,” she says. “Do your own thing!”

We’re sitting on a window ledge in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s entryway, looking across the room to Land(e)scape 2018, Stauffacher Solomon’s just-completed large-scale mural of bold, hard-edged stripes. Her feet don’t touch the ground.

This installation, physically undertaken by a small team of painters including her daughter, Nellie King Solomon, is a coming home of sorts—even though Stauffacher Solomon lives just across the Bay in San Francisco. Her father studied at Boalt Hall; when she was little her mother used to walk her around the UC Berkeley campus. After studying graphic design in Switzerland and popularizing a style of colorful environmental graphics known as “supergraphics” (perhaps most famously, the Sea Ranch housing development bears her work), Stauffacher Solomon herself studied at Cal.

Nellie King Solomon and her mother, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, during the Art Wall installation at BAMPFA.
Nellie King Solomon and her mother, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon during the Art Wall installation at BAMPFA. (Courtesy of BAMPFA)

“I was absolutely fed up with design,” she says of her decision to go back to school. “I was never going to draw a line again after working at Sea Ranch. And I had a husband who kept telling me I was stupid. So I went back and got a bunch of degrees.”

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(I’m Stauffacher Solomon’s last interview of the day, which might account for some of her candor—"They’re asking what the paintings mean," she complains—but I’m pretty sure she tells it like it is all the time.)

Her artistic career spans decades and disciplines (dance, painting, design, architecture, public art), but these days she’s a devoted book-maker. “I like to stay home and amuse myself by making books,” she says. Commissions like the BAMPFA Art Wall are an easy buck. “I can draw anything. I mean it’s boring, I only do it to make money.”

I don’t entirely believe her on this count. Because when we talk about Land(e)scape 2018 (punning and wordplay is another Stauffacher Solomon-ism), she points out how the vertical stripes respond to the window panes above, and how the diagonals echo those windows’ bracing bars.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon in 1955.
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon in 1955. (Courtesy of BAMPFA)

Stauffacher Solomon says she usually just visits a site and looks at the walls in order to plan her supergraphic designs. “I do what the walls tell me to do.” But BAMPFA needed preliminary sketches, so Stauffacher Solomon sent away to New York for the architects’ drawings of the entryway.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro delivered. “Nobody’d even asked for them before,” she says. “They were delighted somebody was looking at the architecture.”

And then there’s the colors. Black stripes run up and down the wall like three arrowheads, pointing the way into the museum’s galleries. Diagonal fluorescent red stripes shoot up towards the windows and continue onto space’s West wall, an area not generally used as part of the Art Wall installations.

BAMPFA Director Emeritus Jacquelynn Baas organized the commission, and Stauffacher Solomon takes great pleasure in delivering a little more than was expected. “I know she expected a nice, dignified red,” the artist chuckles. “If we hadn’t been such good friends, I think she would have said ‘You’re fired!’”

“The regular red looked like brown next to this,” she says. “Also, the times called for this!” The stripes and their colors come from warning signs and the backs of ambulances in Switzerland. This installation is a warning, she says, visible to anyone walking up Center Street.

Installation view of 'Land(e)scape 2018' at BAMPFA.
Installation view of 'Land(e)scape 2018' at BAMPFA. (Johnna Arnold)

In her use of supergraphics, Stauffacher Solomon is credited with blending the rigor of Swiss modernism with the color and style of her West Coast sensibility. The result is formal but fun, modern architecture reshaped by color and form.

As a new generation of designers, architects and artists learn about Stauffacher Solomon’s many contributions to their respective fields, she’s experiencing a bit of a resurgence in popularity.

A Stockholm-based project dedicated to highlighting the contributions of women to the art direction and design, Hall of Femmes published a monograph on her work last year. Her years of SFMOMA program guides were part of Typeface to Interface, the architecture and design department’s large-scale exhibition to mark the museum’s re-opening. A Sea Ranch show and an exhibition of her individual art are both in the making. And just this year, Adobe Create produced a 15-minute video about her life and work.

Stauffacher Solomon doesn’t seem particularly interested in her popularity. “I don’t know why,” she says. “I think they’re surprised I’m not dead.”

The covers of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon's 'WHY? WHY NOT?' and 'UTOPIA MYOPIA.'
The covers of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon's 'WHY? WHY NOT?' and 'UTOPIA MYOPIA.' (Courtesy of Owl Cave Books)

Now, her primary surface is an 8.5-by-11-inch page. Her books include the memoir WHY? WHY NOT? 80 Years of Art & Design in Pix & Prose, Juxtaposed (which she credits with teaching her to talk about herself) and the “academic adult comic book” UTOPIA MYOPIA: PLAYS ON A PAGE. To make these tomes, Stauffacher Solomon cuts and pastes text and images onto pieces of paper, then works with San Francisco-based Owl Cave Books to publish and distribute the finished volumes. They have two forthcoming titles: MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE and HAVE YOU READ ANY GOOD BOOTS LATELY?

“It’s very hard at a certain point to be serious,” she says. “I’ve become seriously silly. I think that’s all you can do about anything these days.”

For the diligent viewer, the cover of that last title might add another layer of meaning to Land(e)scape 2018. Stauffacher Solomon describes the collage: “Instead of the lines kicking up as red stripes, it’s the Rockettes kicking up.” It’s inspired by Taylorism, the theory of scientific management that streamlines workflows.

“I call it efficiency of choreography. If you get women to kick their legs up efficiently, it’s blah blah blah blah—you fill in the rest,” she says conspiratorially. Is it about humans becoming machines? I ask.

“No!” she corrects me. “It’s women becoming more easy to f-ck."

“Somebody might get it. And that part I think is very funny.”

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'Art Wall: Barbara Stauffacher Solomon' is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through March 3, 2019. A conversation between the artist and curator Jacquelynn Baas takes place Thursday, Aug. 16 at 12pm. Details here.

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