As a continuation of our work for the Getty Research Institute’s African American Art History Initiative, Dr. Bridget Cooks and I conducted a series of oral history interviews with the conceptual artist Charles Gaines. This interview was the first of several exploring the lives and work of Los Angeles-based artists, and celebrates Gaines’s extraordinary artistic contributions.
Charles Gaines is an artist specializing in conceptual art, as well as a professor of art at California Institute of the Arts. Gaines was born in South Carolina in 1944, but grew up in Newark, New Jersey. He attended Arts High School in Newark, graduated from Jersey City State College in 1966, and earned an MFA from the School of Art and Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1967. Beginning in 1967, he taught at several colleges, including Mississippi Valley State College, Fresno State University, and California Institute of the Arts. Gaines has written several academic texts, including “Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism” in 1993 and “Reconsidering Metaphor/Metonymy: Art and the Suppression of Thought” in 2009. His influential artwork includes Manifesto Series, Numbers and Trees, and Sound Text; and he exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and 2015. Gaines is the recipient of several awards, including Guggenheim Fellowship in 2013 and REDCAT Award in 2018. Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.
Hearing about Charles Gaines’s upbringing was especially helpful in framing his approaches to art. For example, he spoke about his mother’s influence on his life–particularly her musical inclinations. Though Gaines concentrated his early artistic studies on the visual arts, he also had a passion for music, eventually becoming a professional drummer. This connection to musicality and music theory features prominently in his conceptual works like Snake River and Manifestos. Indeed, in his Manifestos Series, Gaines turned the text of political manifestos into musical compositions based on a system he devised. He recalled, “Unconsciously, I began thinking about music as a kind of mathematics and this connection with text and language; I began to see the connection to language and systems.”
Further, Gaines shared about his exploration of conceptual work in the 1970s, and his consequential transition from an abstract painter to a conceptual artist:
Well as I said, those big abstraction paintings turned into these process-oriented works, and so that work demonstrated an interest in a systematic approach. It was a part of my research. I was looking for an alternate way of making work that was not based upon the creative imagination, was not based upon subjective expression.
This transition period also coincided with an eighteen-month sabbatical from teaching at Fresno State University from 1974 to 1975, when Gaines, his wife, and infant son moved to New York to explore his professional art practice. He recalled of the conceptual artists he met there:
But I did at that time, during that time in New York, become much more familiar with conceptualists, with what the conceptualists were doing. At that time, it provided a context for me. It was just before I started working with numbers but I was working with systems already, and so I felt that it’s true that, of anybody, my work, the language of my work fits best with those conceptualists.
Another major theme in Gaines’s interviews was his many years teaching art at colleges across the country, including the challenges of teaching at what he deemed conservative institutions. Despite these challenges, Gaines always looked for ways to mentor his students by not only helping them improve the quality of their work, but also by sharing his own insights into how to navigate the art world. He explained:
The thing I would always give my students advice about is that you can’t control career. That’s something that you shouldn’t even be thinking about. You should only think about the work, and you should also think about exhibiting the work, which I think is different from a career. You need to show people the work, so you make the work and try to get people to see it. In that process, something might happen, you can’t make it happen. In almost every story about how careers get kicked off, it’s because you happen to be at a right place at the right time, and somebody who matters notices something, and then things sort of roll into place…Ultimately, it’s the work that’s going to get you the exposure.
In addition to his own works and teaching career, Gaines has also made many important contributions to the art world through his theoretical writing and curation of exhibitions. In 1993, he co-curated Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism with Catherine Lord at the University of California, Irvine in 1993. This show, and Gaines’s catalog piece, explored racism in the art world by displaying Black artists’ work alongside reviews from (largely white) art critics, and questioned how and why they misread this work. Of this important exhibition, Gaines explained:
Well, I chose artists who were actively producing in the art world, and known to people. In a couple of cases, I showed a couple of people who were at an early part of their career, like Renée Green, for example, just started her career. But there were other people like Lorna Simpson and Fred Wilson, Adrian Piper, were completely well-known. The fact that they’re well-known artists was important to me because it allowed me to underscore this point that I was making: that is that there’s not much writing on the work of artists, even if they’re well known. The writing that there is [is] marginalized around the idea of race. The writers who wrote about [them] often thought they were writing positively about the work. They didn’t think that the way they approached the work was, in fact, marginalizing.
To learn more about Charles Gaines’s life and work, check out his oral history interview! Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.
In April 2019, Dr. Bridget Cooks and I had the privilege of conducting a series of oral history interviews with artist and educator David C. Driskell for the Getty Research Institute’s African American Art History Initiative. David and his wife, Thelma, welcomed us into their home, where we spent hours speaking with David about his singular life and extraordinary contributions to art and African American art history. It was a surreal experience to sit behind the camera and look around at beautiful works of art while David skillfully engaged us with stories from his life and work. In recounting his past, David employed accents and well-timed jokes that had us in stitches. It was a pleasure to watch a gifted storyteller at work.
One year later, I learned from Bridget that this kind, funny, and smart man had passed away from complications due to the coronavirus on April 1, 2020. In a year filled with so much loss and change, David’s passing still hit hard. With David’s passing, the world lost not only a bright personality, but also a brilliant mind who championed the field of African American art history. And despite the uncertainty of these early days of the pandemic, I am happy to say that the Oral History Center was able to expedite the finalization of David’s oral history transcript, which is now available to the public.
Now another April has arrived. At the Oral History Center our work remains remote, but people across the country have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, and there is hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight. It is past time to take stock and reflect on those we have lost and the stories that remain with us. For me, David Driskell’s interview is one such story with staying power.
David C. Driskell was an artist and professor of art. He was born in Georgia in 1931, but mainly grew up in North Carolina. Driskell graduated from Howard University with a degree in painting and art history in 1955, attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1953, and earned an MFA from Catholic University in 1962, as well as a study certificate in art history from Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie in 1964. Beginning in 1955, he taught at several colleges, including Talladega College; Howard University; Fisk University; and the University of Maryland, College Park. His influential artwork includes Young Pines Growing, Behold Thy Son, Of Thee I Weep, and Ghetto Wall #2. Driskell has curated important shows highlighting African American art history, including Two Centuries of Black American Art and Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800-1950. He also helped establish The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2001. Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.
Throughout his many years making art, David experimented with different media and subjects, often with the recurring theme of pine trees. Yet one of his most memorable pieces is Behold Thy Son from 1956, which is now at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. David painted this pietà – a subject in Christian art depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus – in response to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. For many observers, this image captured the zeitgeist of the early Civil Rights movement.
Listen as David speaks about making this important piece:
When Bridget asked how David felt about Behold Thy Son over sixty years after painting it, he replied, “I think it is dated and tied to a time and period, but the fight goes on. It’s also showing you that time hasn’t changed that much. [Eric Garner and] ‘I can’t breathe.’ ” Indeed, the subject of violence against Black bodies remains tragically evergreen.
And yet, in part because of this turmoil for African Americans at midcentury, David found renewed artistic inspiration in the serenity of nature – especially pine trees. Listen as he explains this shift in his work:
David was indeed a talented artist and important educator, as Bridget eulogized so well in her obituary on ArtForum last year. But our oral history interviews with him also highlighted the fact that he was a deeply religious man, one who connected his spirituality and creativity with his passion for gardening. During an interview session after church on Palm Sunday, David said of these links between nature and religion, “From dust and dirt thou came, and so dust to dirt thou goest. I’ve got to be part of that process.”
He further explained:
“So gardening is to me like painting, in a way. It’s a part of the process of this creative spirit that I feel so close to. Can’t wait to get [to the house in Maine] and I often go to the garden before I go to the studio…Gardening is a part of my life. It’s a part of that kind of spiritual regeneration that comes with the natural process. It isn’t for me so much the biblical reference.”
As a further measure of the man, when we were wrapping up our final interview session, we asked David for his concluding thoughts, and he said, “Well, maybe the final say is none of this I could be doing without family.” He went on to praise his wife, Thelma, in particular for supporting his art career when it was just a dream.
To learn more about David C. Driskell’s extraordinary life and work, read his oral history transcript and watch his interview in full here, here, and here. Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.
In my years working as an oral historian, I’ve come to learn that the most important skill I have in my professional toolbelt is humility. Even after years of study and completing interview-specific research, I know that in any given oral history, I am never the expert in the room. In recording life histories with narrators, I always walk away with new information and fresh perspectives. Oral history folks call this “sharing authority,” but I also like to think about it as an opportunity for personal growth. And part of this growth requires jumping into new subjects and interview situations that challenge me.
One project that continues to challenge and delight me is the J. Paul Getty Trust Oral History Project. I have been working on this project since I joined the Oral History Center (OHC) in 2018, interviewing employees and trustees about the organization’s important contributions to the arts. Also in 2018, the partnership between the Getty Trust and the OHC expanded in order to document the history of prominent African American artists as part of the Getty Research Institute’s (GRI) African American Art History Initiative. Between the two subject areas, the Getty Trust Project represents most of the interviews I have conducted over the last year.
I love that the Getty Trust Project has prompted me to use my background in museums and art history, sometimes forcing me to literally dust off old textbooks. Even so, these interviews have taken me outside my personal art historical comfort zone of Renaissance Italy (I once took an entire course on the works of Michelangelo!), and introduced me to fields from medieval Flemish illuminated manuscripts to twentieth-century American video and performance art. This introduction to various art history specialities has required much study, but also humility in knowing when to defer to the expert.
In the case of the GRI’s African American Art History Initiative, I have had the pleasure to work with one such expert as a co-interviewer: art historian and University of California, Irvine professor Bridget R. Cooks. Cooks has been a delightful addition to the team and a wonderful resource about the artists we interview together. Her academic work in display and criticism added crucial framing to each artist’s story, and her interest in and respect for the people we interviewed shone through every oral history, creating positive experiences for all.
However, approaching these interviews with two interviewers has challenged me as an oral historian. Typically, it is the job of one interviewer to direct an oral history and help guide narrators through the discussion. I.e. Should I ask a follow-up question here or move on? How much time should we spend on this one topic? But working with two interviewers means I am not the sole person in control of the oral history, even when working off the same interview outline. At any given time, one interviewer might want to leave a topic, while another wants to ask more questions.
In order to alleviate some of this confusion, Cooks and I have had to not only build rapport with narrators, but also with each other. And after conducting several interviews together, we have worked out our own system of how to communicate during oral histories – non verbally or with sticky notes – and in how to collaborate in preparing interview outlines. For instance, before I approached a narrator for a pre-interview conversation, Cooks and I had conversations about why the individual was chosen to participate in the project, what themes we hoped to address in the oral history, and what resources I as the non-expert should consult. After completing the pre-interview with the narrator, I used that discussion to build out the interview outline, which I shared with Cooks. We used a Google Docs file to have a back-and-forth about interview structure, language to use, and even subjects to avoid or emphasize. As we decided Cooks should take the lead in these oral histories, this early collaboration was key to their success.
While working on the GRI’s African American Art History Initiative, I have also been challenged to better center the underrepresented voices in these oral histories. In a project that in part seeks to investigate race and power in the art world, this was especially important for me to get right. After all, I’m a white woman who works for an elite university – UC Berkeley – and such institutions have sometimes silenced the contributions of African Americans. In order to combat this historical power dynamic, I privileged extensive pre-interview conversations with narrators about what they wanted to discuss, including the potential to break from the way art historians, critics, or journalists have previously interpreted their lives or work. This is a meaningful practice for any oral history, but these interviews taught me to be acutely sensitive in helping individuals narrate their life stories in the ways that they prefer.
Navigating all these issues in interviews from both subject areas in the Getty Trust Project has challenged me to be a better and more flexible interviewer, and to appreciate the humility required along the way. I hope you enjoy learning from the interviews in this project as much as I have!
Here some finalized Getty Trust interviews I have conducted over the last year:
Here are some other Getty Trust interviews I have conducted that you can to look forward to in the coming months:
Joyce Hill Stoner
Other non-Getty interviews I’ve conducted in the past year:
Mary Hughes- Bay Area Women in Politics
Zachary Wasserman- Law and Jurisprudence Individual Interviews
Howardena Pindell is a painter and mixed media artist, as well as a professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook. She earned a BFA from Boston University in 1965 and an MFA from Yale University in 1967. Pindell worked at the Museum of Modern Art from 1967 to 1979, where she held several positions, including exhibit assistant, curatorial assistant, and associate curator. She cofounded the A.I.R. Gallery in 1972. Pindell has taught in the Department of Art at State University of New York at Stony Brook since 1979.
Pindell’s interview is the first in a series of oral histories with prominent African American artists for the Getty Research Institute’s (GRI) African American Art History Initiative. These oral histories complement the GRI’s ongoing work to collect, preserve, and interpret the art and legacies of these artists.
Pindell was born in 1943 and grew up in segregated Philadelphia. Thanks to the support of her parents and her demonstrable talent, Pindell had a great deal of exposure to art early in life. She went on to study at Boston University and Yale University, then moved to New York in the 1960s. In New York Pindell began working at the Museum of Modern Art while also continuing to paint. She recalled, “…I was working five days a week, and I was used to having natural light, and I didn’t have natural light.” As natural light is so important to a painter, and her work schedule cut into daylight hours, Pindell started experimenting with mixed media in these years – a practice she has continued to expand.
Perhaps Pindell’s best-known work is Free, White and 21, a video performance piece from 1980 that is a commentary on her experiences with racism and sexism. Listen to Pindell recount the logistics of creating the piece.
Free, White and 21 also relates to many of Pindell’s ongoing challenges with racism in the women’s movement and the art world at large. Though she was a cofounder of A.I.R. Gallery in 1972 – the first artist-run gallery for women in the United States – as an African American woman, she often felt marginalized in discussions about how to expand opportunities for women artists.
Pindell also spoke at length about her work as a professor of art, and her approach to teaching. Having been academically trained, she worked with many different professors and knew what teaching styles she would and would not emulate. Further, she saw working with students as important to her practice as a working artist. Pindell explained, “I think teaching helps me a lot, just so it keeps me fresh, because I can help the younger students – and in some cases, older students – with their work with formal issues. That keeps me informed about how I should think about my work, as well.”
Pindell’s story highlights the challenges of being a working artist, the importance of teaching others, fighting racism and sexism in the art world and beyond, as well as the long-overdue recognition of African American artists.
To learn more about Howardena Pindell’s life and work, check out her oral history!
Two new books are available from History of Art Professor Sugata Ray.
Water Histories of South Asia: The Materiality of Liquescence
Edited by Sugata Ray, Venugopal Maddipati
From the Routledge website:
“This book surveys the intersections between water systems and the phenomenology of visual cultures in early modern, colonial and contemporary South Asia. Bringing together contributions by eminent artists, architects, curators and scholars who explore the connections between the environmental and the cultural, the volume situates water in an expansive relational domain. It covers disciplines as diverse as literary studies, environmental humanities, sustainable design, urban planning and media studies. The chapters explore the ways in which material cultures of water generate technological and aesthetic acts of envisioning geographies, and make an intervention within political, social and cultural discourses. A critical interjection in the sociologies of water in the subcontinent, the book brings art history into conversation with current debates on climate change by examining water’s artistic, architectural, engineering, religious, scientific and environmental facets from the 16th century to the present.
This is one of the first books on South Asia’s art, architecture and visual history to interweave the ecological with the aesthetic under the emerging field of eco art history. The volume will be of interest to scholars and general readers of art history, Islamic studies, South Asian studies, urban studies, architecture, geography, history and environmental studies. It will also appeal to activists, curators, art critics and those interested in water management.”
Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550-1850
By Sugata Ray
From the University of Washington Press website:
“In the enchanted world of Braj, the primary pilgrimage center in north India for worshippers of Krishna, each stone, river, and tree is considered sacred. In Climate Change and the Art of Devotion, Sugata Ray shows how this place-centered theology emerged in the wake of the Little Ice Age (ca. 1550–1850), an epoch marked by climatic catastrophes across the globe. Using the frame of geoaesthetics, he compares early modern conceptions of the environment and current assumptions about nature and culture.
A groundbreaking contribution to the emerging field of eco–art history, the book examines architecture, paintings, photography, and prints created in Braj alongside theological treatises and devotional poetry to foreground seepages between the natural ecosystem and cultural production. The paintings of deified rivers, temples that emulate fragrant groves, and talismanic bleeding rocks that Ray discusses will captivate readers interested in environmental humanities and South Asian art history.”
The Library has subscribed to three new databases of visual content available to all UC Berkeley patrons:
The invention of photography represented a turning point in nineteenth-century culture and visual experience. For the first time, there was a means to capture an accurate and true portrayal of the people, places, and events that would shape history. As a complement to studies of history, culture, media, and many other disciplines, Photography: The World Through the Lens provides the visual evidence to support and supplement written sources.
Photography: The World Through the Lens assembles collections of photographs, photograph albums, photographically illustrated books, and texts on the early history of photography found in libraries and archives across the globe. The nineteenth century was about changes in family and society, invention and scientific discovery, exploration and colonization, urban versus rural life, work, leisure and travel — all this is captured in photographs. Photography: The World Through the Lens delivers around 2 million photographs from Britain, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
askART provides access to artists’ profiles, images, literature references, biographies, auction records, art for sale and art wanted, essays on important art movements, and statistics on the markets. Millions of auction records and results (from 1987+). 300,000+ worldwide artists.
Through La Fábrica—the Madrid-based publishing house he also directs, journalist Alberto Arnaut aims to incite a cultural debate in Matador, or in his own words a “campo de batalla” (battlefield) for ideas in all genres. The work of painters, sculptors, photographers, novelists, poets, playwrights, essayists, philosophers, architects, filmmakers, actors, chefs, musicians, fashion designers, and more adorn the pages of the lavish folio-size issues. Published annually since 1995 beginning with the letter A, the publishers are committed to completing 28 issues in 2022 when they reach the letter Z.
It is difficult to describe what takes place in Matador until you put your hands on an issue. Other than the dimensions, no issue is alike and each takes on a distinct theme. The magazine is predominantly visual with an emphasis on creators from the Iberoamerican world such as artists Miguel Barceló, Luis Gordillo and Eduardo Chillida; photographers Francesc Català-Roca, Xavier Miserachs, Ramón Masats; and filmmakers Bigas Luna and Gonzalo Suárez. However, contributions from all the continents establish an international dialogue. The words of contemporary fiction writers such as Javier Marías, Juan Goytisolo, Elena Poniatowska, and Juan Villoro engage with the deceased such as Rafael Alberti, Clarice Lispector, José Saramago and others. The texts of French theoreticians Hélène Cixous and Paul Virilio and the Department of Spanish Portuguese’s own Alex-Saum Pascual can also be encountered in Matador.
This year, the Art History/Classic Library was able to acquire all issues to date (A-T) as a joint purchase with the Romance Languages Librarian and is now one of only three libraries in California with a full-run and subscription.
Mapping as Research: Trevor Paglen in conversation with Julia Bryan-Wilson
and book launch
Tuesday, April 24 at 5:00 pm
Osher Theater, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, UC Berkeley
To celebrate his first comprehensive artist monograph, Trevor Paglen (UC Berkeley Geography PhD and 2017 MacArthur “genius” fellow) will discuss his work with ARC Director Julia Bryan-Wilson. Paglen’s work relentlessly pursues what he calls the “unseeable and undocumentable” in contemporary society. Blending photography, installation, investigative journalism, and science, Paglen explores the clandestine activity of government and intelligence agencies, using high-grade equipment to document their movements and reveal their hidden inner workings. The new publication includes a survey text by Bryan-Wilson and presents over two decades of Paglen’s groundbreaking work, making visible the structures and technologies that impact our lives.
Please note: Paglen will be signing books after the discussion.
Trevor Paglen is an artist whose work spans image-making, sculpture, investigative journalism, writing, engineering, and numerous other disciplines. Among his chief concerns are learning how to see the historical moment we live in and developing the means to imagine alternative futures. Trevor Paglen’s work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Whitney Museum of American Art; Berkeley Art Museum; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and the Nevada Museum of Art. He has launched an artwork into distant orbit around Earth in collaboration with Creative Time and MIT, contributed research and cinematography to the Academy Award-winning film Citizenfour, and created a radioactive public sculpture for the exclusion zone in Fukushima, Japan. He is the author of five books and numerous articles on subjects including experimental geography, state secrecy, military symbology, photography, and visuality. Paglen’s work has been profiled in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Economist and Art Forum. He is a 2017 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Award.
Paglen holds a B.A. from UC Berkeley, an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in Geography from UC Berkeley.
Julia Bryan-Wilson is Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include questions of artistic labor, feminism, queer theory, fabrication/production, performance, visual culture of the nuclear age, photography, and textile handicraft. She is the author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (U California Press, 2009), Art in the Making: Artists and their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing (with Glenn Adamson, Thames & Hudson, 2016), and Fray: Art and Textile Politics (U Chicago, 2017). She is the editor of Robert Morris: October Files (MIT, 2013), and she has co-edited two special issues of journals: “Visual Activism” for the Journal of Visual Culture (with Jennifer González and Dominic Willsdon) and “Time Zones: Durational Art and its Contexts” for Representations (with Shannon Jackson). With Andrea Andersson, Bryan-Wilson co-curated the exhibition Cecilia Vicuña: About to Happen, which travels to the Berkeley Art Museum in fall 2018. She is currently writing a book about Louise Nevelson.
Image: Trevor Paglen, Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010, C-Print, 48 × 60 in. (121.92 × 152.40 cm), Courtesy of the Artist, Metro Pictures New York, Altman Siegel San Francisco.
Thank you to everyone who attended our successful event on Tuesday, February 13th, showcasing many of the Library’s treasures from around campus:
Students, faculty, staff, and members of the public enjoyed seeing rare and special collection items from collections such as: the Bancroft Pictorial Collections; Artists’ books from the Environmental Design Library and the Bancroft Library; prints from the Graphic Arts Loan Collection at Morrison Library; media resources from the Media Resources Center; image collections from the Visual Resources Center in the History of Art Department and the College of Environment Design; and many more!
Art + Feminism + Race + Justice Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon
Drop in any time, stay as long as you like!
Tuesday, March 6, 12:00pm-5:00pm
Wikimedia’s gender trouble is well-documented. While the reasons for the gender gap are up for debate, the practical effect of this disparity is not: content is skewed by the lack of female participation. This represents an alarming absence in an important repository of shared knowledge. Let’s change that! Drop by the A+F Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon, learn how to edit Wikipedia and make a few changes of your own! This year, we’re partnering with the American Cultures program and expanding the scope to highlight the theme of race and justice. We are now calling it the Art+Feminism+Race+Justice Wikipedia Edit-a-thon.
People of all gender identities and expressions welcome.
Bring a laptop.
Drop in for half an hour or stay for the whole afternoon.
No editing experience necessary; we’ll provide training and assistance.
Optional: Training sessions at 12:30 & 2:30.
Get a headstart! Create an editing account ahead of time.
Refreshments will be provided.
RSVP (encouraged, but not required)
A Cal ID card is required to enter Moffitt. The Library attempts to offer programs in accessible, barrier-free settings. If you think you may require disability-related accommodations, please contact us.