SFAI’s Unruly Past Goes Online in BAMPFA’s Latest ‘MATRIX’ Show

'Prop Closet Hero;' n.d.; SFAI Archives.  (Photo: Alex Peterson)

Throughout its 42 years of existence as a showcase for contemporary and experimental art, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s MATRIX series has regularly shapeshifted beyond white-wall gallery exhibitions. In 1994, MATRIX 161 included six Berkeley billboards of Felix Gonzales-Torres’ work. In 2015, the collaborative Will Brown opted for an outdoor installation, a piece of theater written by Kevin Killian and an artist book in UC Berkeley’s Morrison Library. A year later, Otobong Nkanga’s MATRIX 260 was a pair of performances, one inside the Tropical House in the UC Botanical Garden.

And now, for the first time, a MATRIX show takes the form of a website. It’s a format befitting this pandemic’s era of virtual experiences—one in which BAMPFA has no firm reopening date, especially now that rising coronavirus numbers have pushed Alameda County back into the “purple” tier.

Also different: The “artist” for MATRIX 277 is actually an institution—the imperiled San Francisco Art Institute, which turns 150 next year. MATRIX 277 began as a book project under the direction of SFAI librarians and archivists Becky Alexander and Jeff Gunderson and artist Nina Zurier. But with publication up in the air—along with much of SFAI’s future plans—BAMPFA curator Apsara DiQuinzio reached out to the team to transition the project into an online exhibition.

Flyer for 'The Unknown,' 1949. (Courtesy SFAI Archives)

Formally titled Orbits of Known and Unknown Objects: SFAI Histories / MATRIX 277, the show borrows its name from a 1949 exhibition organized at SFAI by faculty member Clay Spohn during a costume party called The Unknown. Spohn’s room of junk—one of the party’s “distractions”—is credited with kicking off California’s Dada/Funk/assemblage sculpture movement, genres that took the Bay Area by storm in the 1950s.

There are around 75 “little known and unknown objects” in MATRIX 277, 47 of which are organized into 10 thematic groupings (a.k.a. gallery “walls”). Unlike an in-person show, the web presentation offers multiple entry points, including sortings by theme or decade, but it’s impossible to truly see everything at once. Even in its most revealing view (under the heading “Index”), the items of MATRIX 277 remain opaque. Without clicking through, one would never know the image of the naked alien figurine leads to “Prop Closet,” a brief story about George Kuchar’s filmmaking classes and photographs of the odd detritus that helped dress up artists’ projects for decades.

But that’s part of the fun of the show: a slow and rewarding process of discovery. Go in looking for a specific thing and good luck to you. In my conversations with DiQuinzio, Gunderson and contributor Christopher Williams (an SFAI alum and co-chair of the Committee to Re-Imagine SFAI) they each recommended favorite objects I then struggled to find in the mix. A better approach, it turns out, is just to go with the flow, clicking through intriguing images, reading the short essays by various contributors, then continuing on to the “Secondary Connections” at the bottom of each object’s page.

A view of 'MATRIX 277,' the 'gallery wall' of Berkeley and SFAI connections.

Even behind the sleek exterior of a MacFadden & Thorpe-designed website, SFAI’s weirder, rougher edges poke through. A personal favorite is Hannah Rohrich’s 2015 video How Do You Get to the Meadow?, a series of interviews with other students about SFAI’s hidden spot of greenery, a garden maintained by faculty member Genine Lentine.

At the top of Gunderson’s recommendations list is his entry for “Bill Berkson’s Chalk,” an item donated to the library archive by the late poet, art critic and art historian, who taught poetry and art history at SFAI and organized the school’s Visiting Artists Lectures. Berkson’s worn box of white chalk (he brought his own, as SFAI classrooms were notoriously without) becomes an entry point into the history of non-studio instruction at the school, illustrated by photographs, faculty questionnaires and promotional pamphlets. In this meandering collection, we learn Mark Rothko taught summer courses at SFAI in 1947 and ’49. Gunderson’s caption reads: “In Rothko’s painting class everyone received a B; in his lecture class everyone got an A.”

Later in the entry, a quote from Bill Mayerson’s autobiography Escaping God’s Closet: The Revelations of a Queer Priest describes an early ’60s classroom scene filled with pot smoke and red wine. What Gunderson fails to include is the rest of Mayerson’s story, when, afraid of falling asleep during a droning final presentation, he ate six or seven student-made cookies. “The cookies, however, far from being an antidote to the pot, had been laced (as I later learned) with LSD,” he wrote, “and the more I munched the less grasp I had on what was happening around me.”

Oh, SFAI.

Imogen Cunningham, 'Coffee Gallery,' 1960. (© The Imogen Cunningham Trust)

Again and again, the stories within MATRIX 277 elicit feelings of nostalgia for the wild and free days of an art school that currently exists in a state of remote-learning-halted-admissions limbo. Some are old legends within SFAI’s halls, others part of the school’s less well-known history, especially when it comes to artists of color.

Williams’ entry point into that history was a flyer from a 1977 exhibition held at the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society and curated by Dewey Crumpler, now a much-beloved painting professor at SFAI. In a wide-ranging conversation translated into video, Crumpler describes how the exhibition came into being without glossing over the limitations and judgements placed on Black artists by the white art world and its institutions.

“In SFAI and other institutions, they really don’t teach a lot of Black art and history,” Williams says, including the school’s own role in that history. Crumpler’s 18-minute interview is a crash course in the Black art scene of the 1970s Bay Area—information Williams says he didn’t learn about in either his BFA or MFA years at the school.

Sponsored

MATRIX 277 will not deliver, in any sort of linear manner, a complete history of SFAI. (A book may still emerge from all of Alexander, Gunderson and Zurier’s research, which will likely follow more of a timeline structure.) “Orbits” is really the best descriptor for this web of information. Object entries morph from one subject to another, linking faculty and students, art movements and social movements, SFAI and BAMPFA.

Despite mixed messaging, dire financial straits and its current semi-operational status as an institution, SFAI is still—at least for tenured faculty, a skeleton staff and 30-some students—an art school. MATRIX 277 is not a posthumous retrospective, and DiQuinzio is emphatic on this point. “It is a kind of time capsule, but it it’s not a memorial of any kind,” she says. “We wanted it to be celebratory and intriguing and playful and not to come across in this sort of sad way.”

Any sadness to be gleaned from the show is more indicative of all things that bring us sadness these days: thinking back on the energy and activity that once filled now-empty spaces; watching repeated calls for justice that remain unmet; and a desire to experience a shared sense of optimism, preferably in close proximity to others. The fact that SFAI touches the lives, careers and stories of so many wrapped up in the web of MATRIX 277 is perhaps the most persuasive evidence of what it can be for future generations, should efforts to keep it going succeed. Fingers crossed.

Sponsored