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.
For many of us in the library, last year’s Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon on March 4 was the final program we held in person before the pandemic lockdowns (we actually wondered at the time whether attendance would be down due to the spread of the virus, but we had a great crowd).
Happily for us, the edit-a-thon, which is an event that gathers people together to expand and improve on the amazing information resource Wikipedia, can easily transition to an online format! The National Network of Libraries of Medicine has been holding national online edit-a-thons for years, and there are many other wonderful offerings, themed and general, to take advantage of online (check out this set of events “Honoring Indigenous Writers” from the University of British Columbia).
So, this year, our edit-a-thon will be virtual. Please come edit with us on Wednesday, March 10, from 1:00-5:00 PM! (or any portion of that time that works for you) We’ll use Zoom as a way to hold our guest speaker session and workshops on how to edit, and we will even have breakout rooms for the various editing preferences and needs of attendees. More information and the schedule can be found here; the only thing you need to do is register using this form (in order to get the Zoom link), and show up online on the day! (It would also be great, if you want to actually edit, to set up your Wikipedia account in advance)
And, about the guest speaker aspect of the event—this year, we are thrilled to offer a two-hour Wikipedia workshop (from 1:00-3:00 PM) created and led by Dr. Alexandria Lockett, from Spelman University in Atlanta, GA. Dr. Lockett will discuss how both new and experienced editors can meaningfully contribute to underrepresented knowledge of Wikipedia through alternative research practices.
Questions? Feel free to email us at email@example.com, and we hope to “see” you on March 10!
Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose, said, “The cultivated person’s first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopedia.” But, in the case of Wikipedia, we actually get to write the encyclopedia! If you are interested in Wikipedia as a phenomenon and what happens behind the scenes, in learning to edit, and/or in improving the quality and diversity of content in this important resource, join us at the upcoming Art + Feminism + Race + Justice Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon.
Why is this so important, anyway? It’s because Wikimedia’s race and gender trouble is well-documented. While the reasons for the gap are up for debate, the practical effect of this disparity is not: content is skewed by the lack of participation by women and underrepresented groups. This adds up to an alarming absence in an important repository of shared knowledge, which many groups are starting to address.
Art+Feminism is a national campaign improving coverage of cis and transgender women, non-binary folks, feminism and the arts on Wikipedia, and at UC Berkeley we have teamed up with the American Cultures program’s Race+Justice edit-a-thon. Edit-a-thons are a powerful way to address Wikipedia’s gaps in content. The Library is also joined in sponsorship of the event by 150 Years of Women at Berkeley, and suggested editing needs will include topics related to Berkeley alumnae of note.
So, join us in 405 Moffitt Library on Wednesday, March 4 between 11:00am and 5:00pm for an all-day communal updating of Wikipedia entries. Drop in any time! We will provide tutorials for the beginner Wikipedian, reference materials, and refreshments. Check out the schedule at bit.ly/wiki-berkeley for timing of informative talks, instruction sessions, and more. Set up your Wikipedia editing account in advance, or we can help you on the day. Bring your laptop, power cord and ideas for entries that need updating or creation! For the editing-averse, we urge you to stop by to show your support. People of all races and gender identities are invited to participate.
See you there!
NOTE: A Cal ID card is required to enter Moffitt, so those without a Cal ID card need to RSVP to attend the event by March 3.
The Library attempts to offer programs in accessible, barrier-free settings. If you think you may require disability-related accommodations, please contact us.
Title of Exhibit: Illustrating México One Page at a Time: Print Art of José Guadalupe Posada
Time: 9 a.m.-10 p.m. (regular Moffitt hours on Saturdays)
Location: Moffitt Library gallery, 3rd floor
In the pantheon of artists who have represented Mexico for the past 150 years, José Guadalupe Posada stands out as a bright constellation. This exhibit, highlighting works by Posada and his artistic descendants, was curated by Liladhar Pendse, librarian for the Caribbean and Latin American Studies Collections, using Doe Library materials. See more at exhibits.lib.berkeley.edu/spotlight/art-of-posada.
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.
We are pleased to announce the release of two new oral histories in our continuing partnership with the Getty Trust to document the careers of extraordinary artists, scientists, preparators, scholars, and administrators that have guided and shaped the Getty over the past thirty years. Historians Todd Holmes and Paul Burnett spent four days alternating full-day interview sessions in an intense baptism into the world of conservation science, exploring the careers of two remarkable scientists from the 1960s through to the present: Jim Druzik and Neville Agnew.
Foxes and Hedgehogs: Jim Druzik and the Development of the Field of Conservation Science
Getty Conservation Institute Senior Scientist Jim Druzik had a baptism of his own rubbing shoulders with the geniuses of postwar modern art as they worked together on installations at the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art. Trained as a chemist, and with one foot ever in the scientific world, Jim very quickly applied the latest scientific research to the problems of conservation. He joined the Getty Institute of Conservation in 1985, and soon established himself as a world leader in conservation science, always concerning himself with how the physical and chemical composition of museum artifacts reacted with the physical and chemical composition of their environments. But much more than that, Druzik was a student of the larger social and economic context of the museum world, taking advantage of initiatives in pollution research, assessments of industrial chemicals, and energy conservation, to name just a few, to make the museum world a better, more accessible and sustainable place. Finally, Jim is very reflective about his roles as a scientist and an administrator. He understands that the world of science and the world of the museum are defined by the people who work in them and on them. Science is social, as the historians are fond of saying, and the keys to Jim’s success can be found as much in his enthusiasm for the people he works with as for the work he does with them.
Neville Agnew: Thirty Years of Cultural Heritage Site Conservation with the Getty Trust
South-African-born Neville Agnew is a more nomadic scientist. If Jim’s work brings laboratory tools to the museum environment, Neville’s brings lab techniques and tools far out into the field. Whether raising and preserving the guns of a long-lost naval vessel off the north coast of Australia, or studying the deterioration of the Great Sphinx in Egypt, or restoring ancient Buddhist cave paintings in southwestern China, Neville underscores the fact that international conservation work is not just bringing the tools of the laboratory to bear on ancient sites, but also a skillful diplomatic effort to build and maintain the partnerships—between project sponsors, international conservation research teams, national political leaders, and local communities—needed to conduct such work. He explores the tension between an ideal of conservation in controlled environments versus the compromises inherent in dealing with “immovable cultural property.” At a time when the willful destruction of cultural heritage is almost a daily news item, we are reminded of the importance and fragility of the work that both of these scientists have done to protect the world’s art and cultural heritage for future generations.
Paul Burnett and Todd Holmes, Historians/Interviewers, January 2017
In partnership with the Getty Trust, we are pleased to release a new oral history with the famed artist Ed Ruscha. Ruscha is an American artist who has specialized in painting, drawing, photography, and books. Born in 1937, Ruscha moved to Los Angeles to attend school at Chouinard Art Institute in 1956. In the early 1960s, he contributed to the birth of “pop art” and his work was featured in the famed 1962 exhibition “New Painting of Common Objects.” In the 1960s, he painted canvases that have since become iconic, including Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1961), Standard Station (1963), and Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire (1965?68). A signature of his work has been the use of words and phrases, such as in the paintings Optics (1967), Brave Men Run In My Family (1988), and many more. Ruscha also produced an influential series of books based on his photography of the built landscape of Los Angeles, and his continues to document vernacular Los Angeles through photography to this day. He was represented by the Leo Castelli Gallery beginning in the 1970s and then moved to the Gagosian Gallery, which continues to show the artist today. In this interview, Ruscha discusses his art education and influences and his introduction to the burgeoning art world of 1960s Los Angeles. He reflects on the transformation of art after the 1960s with the rise of conceptual and political art and his continuing interest in painting during that era. Finally, Ruscha discusses changes in the art world in the 1980s and 1990s, retrospective exhibitions of his art, the transformation of Los Angeles, and how artists might think about their legacy.
This week UC Berkeley proudly opens the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive building in downtown Berkeley. As our contribution to the celebrations, we are thrilled to release our interview with Edith Kramer, Emeritus Senior Film Curator and Director Pacific Film Archive.
Kramer has been associated with the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive since 1975 when she joined the staff as Assistant Film Curator. In June 2003, the University of California, Berkeley, awarded Ms. Kramer The Chancellor’s Distinguished Service Award. Ms. Kramer holds an M.A. in Art History from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Art History from the University of Michigan. She has taught film history at the University of Oregon, UC Davis, and the San Francisco Art Institute. Upon arriving in the Bay Area in 1967, she managed Canyon Cinema Cooperative and was instrumental in the founding of Canyon Cinematheque (now the San Francisco Cinematheque); and she served as Film Curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
In this interview, Kramer discusses the growth of film curation as a profession, the establishment and growth of the Pacific Film Archive, and the transformation of film curation as a result of changes in technology and distribution. Moreover, she details the films that were most influential to her and how she brought those films to audiences in Berkeley and beyond.