September 2014 – During the 1960s, UC Davis was a place where some of the nation’s most adventuresome artists worked and taught, thriving in a protected hothouse of creativity.
This artistic flowering is in the spotlight again in the new exhibition “Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California” at the Oakland Museum of California. It examines how the university became a force in contemporary art in California and beyond with pioneering art department faculty members Robert Arneson, Wayne Thiebaud, William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest and Manuel Neri, and students Bruce Nauman, Deborah Butterfield, Peter Vandenberge and David Gilhooly.
“Davis was a crucible and cradle of so many important developments,” says Drew Johnson, the museum curator of photography and visual culture and one of the curators of the exhibition. “It offered a remarkable set of circumstances where the artists had tremendous freedom.”
The joint exhibition brings together works from its two organizers, the Oakland Museum of California and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art— their first collaboration, in fact.
“Fertile Ground” also examines the public art and mural projects in San Francisco during the 1930s; the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) during the post-World War II era; and a handmade aesthetic that emerged in San Francisco’s Mission District during the dot-com boom of the 1990s.
UC Davis artists will be represented by about 20 works, and the exhibition will include a few objects on loan from the Fine Arts Collection at UC Davis, such as Arneson cups.
A role sometimes overlooked
The art cultivated at the university was important to several movements, notably California Funk, but UC Davis’ contribution is sometimes overlooked, according to Rachel Teagle, director of the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, opening at UC Davis in 2017.
“With its distinctive exchange of radical forms and ideas situated at the intersection of performance, music and the visual arts, UC Davis was the intellectual progenitor and experimental catalyst of some of the most important art and artists to emerge from the West Coast,” Teagle says.
“And yet, this story remains little known. Fertile Ground is an exceptional occasion to tell the story of UC Davis’ transformative contributions to the history of art in the late 20th century.”
Many groundbreaking artists
UC Davis was home to a number of artists doing groundbreaking and internationally acclaimed art.
Arneson, an art professor at UC Davis from 1962 until his death in 1992, is famous for ceramic sculptures bursting with social commentary and humor. He was a pioneer in moving ceramics out of the craft world into a full-fledged, independent art form. Visitors to UC Davis can see examples of his work by checking out the Egghead sculptures scattered across the campus.
Perhaps UC Davis’ best known artist is Wayne Thiebaud. His lush paintings of cakes and pies, as well as landscapes and figures, have made him one of the most acclaimed American artists of the last 50 years. Acclaimed as an exceptional teacher, Thiebaud taught at UC Davis for 40 years.
The category-defying Wiley, who has created everything from paintings to films to books to the giant gong that currently resides outside the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, taught at UC Davis from 1962 to 1976.
Neri, regarded as one of America’s most important figurative sculptors, was a faculty member for 25 years.
And the late De Forest, a faculty member for 25 years, did colorful, often comical paintings jam-packed with people and animals.
All of these artists were brought to UC Davis by Richard L. Nelson, founding chair of the art department for whom the Nelson Gallery at UC Davis is named.
“People who know art, and especially those interested in ceramic sculpture, understand how important Davis was, but what happened there is not nearly as well known as it should be,” Johnson says. “We hope this exhibition will help open some eyes to this and other important movements.”